Today’s news is rife with high profile affairs. We almost expect them of our movie and rock stars. Our presidents as far back as Thomas Jefferson were engaging in them. The most disappointing to me was Eisenhower’s with his chauffeur/secretary. As a 3rd grader relishing the “I like Ike” enthusiasm, it was disconcerting to learn he wasn’t perfect. Should I still “like Ike”? I grew up and learned about our less-than-perfect senators, congressmen, governors, mayors - and most recently, the top level of our military and country’s security.
The military sets standards regarding adultery, and many – myself included - would contend that our public officials should also be held to a high standard of conduct. Are these people simply enjoying the fruits of their very public or lofty positions - the advantages of their power or notoriety? Certainly one of the perks of their status is the ready supply of groupies and hangers-on. As we look at these high-profile people, the term “self-indulgent” comes to mind.
Low-profile affairs are common in the general population. Experts report that in the general population about 60% of men and 40-50% of women have affairs. More self-indulgence? Perhaps. Whether we condemn or condone this behavior, it’s interesting to explore what prompts the affairs and what the benefits and risks are that accompany them. Within these percentages lies a particularly noteworthy group I call “forgotten spousal caregivers”.
What is a “forgotten spousal caregiver”? The term “caregiver” brings to mind someone like Mary. She worked tirelessly for two years caring for her husband before he succumbed to cancer. Because of the relatively short, albeit painful time, people remained acutely aware of her caregiving struggles – deeply sympathetic and ready to provide assistance. However, as years and decades roll by for long-term caregivers, friends and relatives become tired of, lose interest in, take for granted, never know about or simply forget what these caregivers face - year after year after year. Having worked with and interviewed many caregivers, and having been an 11 ½-year caregiver myself, I know that long-term spousal caregivers are eventually “forgotten”. When that happens, they lose the support, emotional and otherwise, typically offered on the short term.
Meet Alicia, Marco, Elizabeth, Fred and Ben.
Tens of millions of caregivers live similar scenarios, experiencing what I call a “roller coaster ride from hell”. Generally a painful and thankless job, caregiving certainly does not attract groupies or power seekers. Yet, affairs are not atypical for this group.
Three types of affairs, common among this group, trend differently for men and women.
Which caregivers have affairs and with whom? More men divorce their sick wives than the reverse, so fewer of them are in for the long haul; and some caregivers were having affairs before their spouse became ill, so I exclude them from this group. Of those who stay married and have affairs, most say they never considered an affair before their infirm spouse changed drastically – either becoming spiteful or incapacitated. In fact, many of these caregivers surprise themselves by having affairs. Women commonly remark that they wish they had the energy to have one!
Some caregivers prefer affairs with other caregivers. Being with someone who understands, without having to say a word, is a godsend. They can freely discuss concerns and complaints without feeling guilty, and their lover understands when medical emergencies preclude together time. Other caregivers prefer to be with somebody totally unrelated to caregiving. When they take breaks from their duties, the last thing they want to think or talk about is caregiving.
When do affairs start? It seems that if a marriage was solid before the illness, and the ill person treats their spouse with respect, an affair may never happen. Or, it may be delayed many years depending on how incapacitated the spouse is and whether or not their condition is terminal. Not magic numbers, three to five years seems to be the start of permanently-changed marital dynamics. Most likely, there is more hooking-up at these early stages. But when spouses count their caregiving time in decades, their lives have changed so completely that they create a new survival identity for themselves. An affair may be central to that survival.
What do affairs provide?
What do affairs cost? (Find out on page 2.)
Whether to condemn or condone affairs, or to feel they are self-indulgent or critical to survival, are deeply personal considerations. Forgotten spousal caregivers may explore alternative forms of self care in The Caregiving Wife’s Handbook. Check back monthly for further articles containing valuable tips and tools on caregiving.