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Is It Ever OK to Cheat on Your Very Sick Spouse?

Actually, it’s complicated.

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illustration of caregiver holding hands with lover and other hand looking after sick husband
Kiersten Essenpreis
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During the two years that I was my late husband’s caregiver, I would be lying if I said the thought of seeking romantic comfort outside my marriage never crossed my mind. I was drowning in a sea of caregiving misery and starved for physical and emotional affection. But, just like former President Jimmy Carter, I never acted upon the lust in my heart.

Why didn’t I? On a very practical level, I lacked the time and energy to even contemplate carrying out another relationship, let alone finding someone with whom to carry on. I worked full-time, had two teenagers at home and was responsible for keeping all the trains in our lives running on time.

My “alone time” consisted of stopping at red lights. My life overwhelmed me. More complications were the last thing in the world I needed.

This is not to say I was happy or emotionally whole. Long before my husband took his final breath, I had ceased being his wife and partner and had morphed into being his full-time medical case manager and hands-on caregiver. I performed necessary medical and caregiving tasks that I was untrained and unprepared for and still to this day cause nightmares. Even when my marriage bore no resemblance to what I had signed up for decades earlier, I felt paralyzed to act. So, that’s why I never had a physical affair.

In my fantasies? That’s a different animal.

The truth is, as writer Aaron Ben-Zeév explained in a 2019 Psychology Today article, spousal caregivers have just three choices when it comes to having their own needs met — and all three are miserable:

1. We can desert our sick spouse by leaving or divorcing them.

2. We can deny our own needs for romantic and emotional comfort.

3. We can have our needs met by someone other than our spouse.

While there’s no wrong answer here, there isn’t actually a right one either. All three paths lead to a painful decision, unless you are someone who sees spousal caregiving as a loving gift and not the burden of duties that I found it to be. I found nothing — nothing — rewarding about it whatsoever. I made the best and only choice for myself, which is all any of us can do. But no, I am certainly not shocked to learn that many marriages do fall apart when one spouse needs caregiving. Spousal caregiving changes everything, including the balance and partnership of a marriage.

And for the record, nobody is officially counting how many caregivers walk through Door Number 3 — having their needs met by someone other than their spouse. Few who do this are willing to talk about it. The public judgment that pummels them can be intense.

“You’re seen as abandoning your sick and dying spouse in their time of greatest vulnerability and need,” one caregiver told me. “People are blind to the needs of the healthy spouse and don’t see them as someone who also needs help.”

Having your own needs ignored apparently sits just fine with the Judgment Gods, she added.

Somewhat interestingly, spousal caregivers of dementia patients seem to get a pass when it comes to public judgment of extramarital relationships, Laurel Wittman, president of the Well Spouse Association, told me. She said that much has been written about whether it should even be considered adultery to have a relationship outside your marriage if your spouse no longer recognizes you.

Dementia may even make finding new lovers a two-way street. In 2007, retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor was reported to be pleased that her husband had begun a romantic relationship with a fellow Alzheimer’s patient at the same assisted living facility.

Although the evidence is anecdotal, Wittman said, it is not uncommon for the healthy spouses of dementia patients to meet in family support groups and begin relationships together.

“It’s a human instinct that when caregivers are discussing very personal and intimate topics, it creates close friendships and a sense of real connection, sometimes quickly,” she added.

And she had this to say to those who haven’t walked in those shoes: “People who have outside relationships are not people who are seeking easy outs,” she emphasized. “These are generally people who have reached the end of their rope and are desperate for companionship.”

Rebecca Graulich, who previously worked in the caregiver-support field, may have hit on a solution. She and her husband of 35 years, David, developed a “Compassion Contract” that they've both signed. It stipulates that should she develop dementia and no longer be able to meet his needs, she wants her husband to feel free to find someone else who will. She wants this, as the contract notes, because she loves him.

David, a lawyer, signed an identical contract, giving Rebecca his permission to seek comfort in another's company should he develop dementia and “no longer be able to meet her physical and emotional needs.” She describes the contract as “a love insurance policy that you create when you are healthy.”

From her experience, adult children and longtime friends are often the first to pass judgment.

"But the person with dementia is not the same person you married and agreed to spend your life with," Graulich said.

So far, both remain healthy and have not invoked their contract.

Your thoughts? Let us know in the comments below.

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