Why We Can't Celebrate the Edwards Split

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Paul Sancya / AP

John and Elizabeth Edwards on the campaign trail in Ames, Iowa, in January 2008

When Jenny Sanford dumped her overly weepy, cheating, lying husband Mark Sanford, governor of South Carolina, many people cheered. Some have urged Silda Spitzer and Elin Nordegren, other wives of big shots who were caught coloring outside the lines, to walk away. But when People confirmed on Wednesday that Elizabeth and John Edwards had separated and that it was at Elizabeth's behest, there was much less of that "You go girl!" whooping from the grandstand. John's political foes may be happy with his misfortunes, but for Elizabeth's fans — and she used to have many — the news is more dismaying.

While John Edwards is probably the least popular man in America right now, it's still hard to see the dissolution of this marriage as anything but a net loss for all parties. Nobody can fault Elizabeth for wanting to get out; news spread of the separation a week after John finally acknowledged the child he had fathered with Rielle Hunter, after two years of denial. But no two marriages are alike, and for various reasons many people were hoping this one might make it.

Having survived the death of a child, which studies indicate topples about 14% of marriages, the couple then endured a cancer diagnosis, also a major marital destabilizer; in one small study, researchers found that 21% of couples split after the wife got cancer. That's strike two. And finally, there was the whole having-a-baby-with-another-blonder-woman-while-your-wife-is-getting-chemo thing. This was a union that took some hard knocks. But it seemed to be pulling through. Like an old gunslinger down on ammo but fending off the lynch mob, the marriage had people rooting for its survival.

It's not just about history, either. It's about the future. Unlike Jenny Sanford, whose actions projected the image of a smart, liberated woman about to embark on a fantastic new life, Elizabeth Edwards is fighting Stage 4 cancer. We can imagine gorgeous, heartbroken, alimoneyed Elin Nordegren fending off flocks of suitors with a 9-iron. Elizabeth, on the other hand, will be a single mother with two children in grade school and a life-threatening illness. Downer.

Then there's her spouse. South Carolina's governor went all wobbly as he talked about trying to fall in love with his wife again, but North Carolina's former Senator always lavished his wife with praise and compliments. (This alone, by the way, should have tipped people off.) It seemed plausible that he had made a mistake of weapons-grade stupidity and was prepared to make amends for it. Particularly since he'd torpedoed his career and couldn't possibly sink any lower in the public's eyes. All this, and yet the marriage couldn't be saved?

The revelations in the new book Game Change, by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin (a TIME editor at large), have cast a dark shadow over the public image of both Elizabeth and John. And a forthcoming book, The Politician, by former Edwards aide Andrew Young, is said to be even more reputation-shattering. Is it that John is simply too much of a biohazard to be near right now? Or is Elizabeth just tired of all the tabloid revelations? People sources suggest that even three years after she discovered the affair, Elizabeth never quite found a way to trust John again and checked up on him constantly, a strain that proved too much for both of them. As the old marriage saying goes, The problem is not whom you lie with. It's whom you lie to.