Should You Have an Affair When Your Partner Is Dying?
The 'well-spouse affair' is more prevalent — and often more complex — than you may imagine
Your partner is ill. The kind of ill you don’t recover from. You feel the deep sorrow and grief and rage that come with losing the most important person in your life. But while coping with those emotions, you have to juggle caregiving responsibilities along with work deadlines and other family obligations. Yes, you manage to limp along during this long, slow slide to the end, but barely.
There’s no way to know just how many spousal caregivers become involved in "well-spouse affairs" — extramarital relationships that bloom during a partner’s debilitating or terminal illness. Most people are reluctant to admit they cheat, even when pollsters promise anonymity. So who’s going to fess up to pulling a John Edwards or a Newt Gingrich, tumbling in the sheets with someone else while his or her spouse is seriously ill or dying?
Even so, given how many married people stray — estimates range from 20 percent to 50 percent — it's a safe bet that the number is significant. After all, watching the person you love slowly deteriorate while your own role shifts from lover and equal partner to nurse and caretaker is a heavy burden. Even some devoted spouses may seek companionship — emotional, physical or some combination thereof — elsewhere.
“My gut tells me this is more widespread than people think,” says New York City psychotherapist Michael Batshaw, author of Before Saying I Do: The Essential Guide to a Successful Marriage (Turner, 2011). “Why do most people have affairs? Because that’s how they cope with stresses in their relationship. So if 50 percent of people don’t have good coping skills, and now you’ve got an off-the-charts stressor like a serious chronic or terminal illness, it’s logical that a fairly large group of spousal caregivers will have some kind of affair.”
Strictly speaking, of course, cheating is cheating. After all, traditional marriage vows say "in sickness and in health," not "in health or until I can’t take it anymore, in which case I’ll get my needs met elsewhere." And yet some relationship therapists maintain that, in certain situations, extramarital relationships can fall into the same category as other “put your own oxygen mask on first” strategies. Like respite care, joining a support group and finding time to exercise, the affair may counter the loneliness and isolation that leads to caregiver burnout. Take care of yourself first, the saying goes, and you’re in a better position to help someone else.
“Affairs like these can sustain the well-spouse so that he or she can care for their partner without feeling like a martyr,” Bocchierre says.
Although nooners at the local motel may seem a questionable way to cope with caregiver stress — and many "well spouses" never stray, no matter how long their partners have been incapacitated — relationship experts emphasize that this is not your typical “my spouse doesn’t understand me” kind of infidelity.
“This is a very special set of circumstances,” explains Batshaw, who has guided couples in his practice through similar situations. “People who would never have an affair might have one in this situation because what often pulls people back from the affair is the hope that things will change. But this is a situation where your needs are not going to get met. Period."
Of course, the ideal is the selfless, devoted, faithful wife or husband who sits by the bedside, tending to an ailing partner till death do them part. In reality, however, the needs for companionship, emotional support and sex don’t evaporate just because your spouse is no longer able to fulfill them. You might put those needs on the back burner in the initial phase of an illness, as you’re consumed by diagnostic tests, doctors consultations, insurance details and treatments. But, says Lisa Paz, a Miami-based marriage, family and sex therapist, “as the illness progresses and you settle into the new normal, your needs as a human being will resurface.”
Paz remembers one woman in her 50s who spoke up in a cancer caregiving support group that the therapist moderated. “She was so candid about her impatience. ... She would say, 'I just fantasize about a man with a hard penis being able to take me.' That would sound appalling outside of a support group, but when your daily routine has become wiping and feeding and changing hospital tubes, it’s very hard to find the sexuality and romance in that. And that’s part of the appeal of an affair — it’s an escape.”
To be sure, if you’ve gone without for a very long time, the physical release of orgasm can reduce stress. But for some well spouses, it’s the emotional connection that draws them into an affair. “It’s more about not being alone — about feeling overburdened and feeling the strength of somebody else who can lift you up and listen to you and connect to you and be strong when you are weak,” Batshaw says. “Sex is a very small piece of this in my experience.”
Whether you should come clean about wanting an extramarital relationship depends on what your marriage was like before the illness. With any affair, there's a risk of getting caught. Which would be worse: the betrayal your partner will feel if he or she discovers the affair, or the pain it will cause if you are totally frank about wanting to pursue one?
“If you have a very honest, open relationship with your partner, you should feel like you can tell them what you’re going through,” Batshaw says. “That you can’t take it anymore ... that you’re just not coping. And then the options you have are to remain as the caregiver, but get a divorce so you can have another relationship without cheating, or openly have an affair without the divorce. But you can’t pretend everything’s fine and then drop this bomb. You need to be sharing what you’re going through all along.”
Although well spouses often remain silent to avoid causing their partners additional pain, full disclosure works in some marriages. Bocchierre notes that, among the members of his association, one couple having a well-spouse affair moved in together along with their ill partners and pooled their caregiving resources. “Both of their spouses are bed-ridden and need care 24/7, so they help each other supply that care,” Bocchierre says. Of course, this arrangement is highly unusual — to put it mildly, not every bed-ridden spouse would be so undrstanding.
Still, Batshaw recalls a client in his practice who cared for her ill husband for eight years. “Their communication was so good throughout the illness that as soon as she started a friendship with a particular widower from her support group, she immediately told her husband," Batshaw says. "Her husband was very empathetic and grateful that she’d taken such good care of him. ... He gave her his blessing to pursue a relationship.”
An extramarital relationship may relieve some of the stress that comes with years of caregiving. But there’s a price: guilt. By its very nature, infidelity is fraught with guilt — and so, too, is caregiving. A well spouse may feel guilt about being healthy, or about feeling angry or resentful. If you are unfaithful while caring for an ailing spouse, “you’ve got a double whammy,” Paz says.
“In the support groups I’d always hear 'I felt guilty I wasn’t home with him when I went to a yoga class, got my nails done or had a fun night out with the girls,” Paz says. But the guilt is "100 times greater if you’re having an affair. There may be many benefits to this kind of extramarital relationship, but if you’re going to indulge, you have to really check in with yourself about whether you can manage whatever guilty feelings come up. Because you’re kidding yourself if you say, 'I’m not going to feel guilty because I’m entitled.' You’re going to feel guilty. But I think that’s OK.”