Is It OK for Caregivers of Sick Partners to Have Affairs?

Captive caregivers and emotional ambivalence

Posted Mar 12, 2019

HannaMonika/Shutterstock
Source: HannaMonika/Shutterstock

Caregivers who love their ailing spouse, but cannot attend to their own romantic needs, can feel captive. Should they get, as other inmates do, brief vacations due to good behavior?

The caregiver’s emotional ambivalence

     “When you're a caregiver, you need to realize that you've got to take care of yourself.” —Naomi Judd

Holding multiple perspectives at the same time can produce ambivalence, especially when conflicting features are involved. In my book, The Arc of Love: How Our Romantic Lives Change Over Time (2019), I argue that this ability is an important survival skill in dealing with our complex reality, as it allows us to pursue certain values and to compromise on others, while maintaining a belief in the worth of them all.

In a common example of emotional ambivalence, a widow attending the wedding of her daughter feels joy, but also sadness that her late husband, the father of the bride, is not present. Her mixed emotions can last throughout the wedding and even after it. This is not an irrational experience. Each (partial) perspective is appropriate, while no single perspective expresses an overriding standpoint.

The ambivalence of a woman who is married to a very sick spouse and has never had an affair is even more acute. Consider the following poignant words, written by such a woman:

     “I want to fall in love again, over and over within a relationship or relationships that are free to master sensual awareness over traditional guardrails. I don’t wish to be free from my caregiver role, because he seriously needs my presence as we struggle through this. I still love him. I still care deeply about what quality of life is left for him. But I also desire to be free to spread my romantic but broken wings and soar on the winds of erotic pleasures with a partner that can help heal me through his touch, his voice, his tenderness, his passion, his courage, his strength.”

There is nothing wrong with these seemingly opposing wishes. This woman wants to fulfill basic human needs she cannot fulfill within her marriage.

Captive caregivers

     "Marriage is like a cage; one sees the birds outside desperate to get in, and those inside equally desperate to get out." —Michel de Montaigne

     "I can't mate in captivity." —Gloria Steinem on why she had never married (later, she did get married)

Marriage has often been likened to a prison. A major type of relational commitment, marriage indeed limits one’s romantic freedom. The problem of captive caregivers, however, differs from problems in normal marriages. In the former, it is not that one partner cannot fully satisfy all the needs of the other, but that they can barely fulfill any of the other’s needs—and particularly not romantic ones.

Caregivers can deal with these painful circumstances in three main ways: (a) deserting (or divorcing) the sick spouse, (b) denying oneself romantic satisfaction, and (c) using romantic outsourcing. All three options are agonizing.

The first choice is emotionally and morally horrifying, as it involves abandoning at his greatest moment of need a helpless person who may have been a loving spouse. The profound commitment of the caregiver is based, among other things, on the appalling nature of deserting one’s infirm spouse, who has no one else to rely on in the twilight of his life.  

The second option, which denies the caregiver her romantic satisfaction, is unfair—and even cruel—to the healthy spouse. This spouse sacrifices much of her current life for the sick spouse; it is unjust to demand from her to sacrifice her romantic needs as well.

The third possibility entails romantic outsourcing, which uses a third party to fulfill some romantic needs that cannot be fulfilled within the marriage. This option seems the most sensible one, though it is fraught with emotional upheavals. From an objective perspective, captive caregivers appear to deserve, more than most other married people, enjoying romantic outsourcing. From a subjective viewpoint, however, many people would criticize these caregivers more than they would criticize other married people who take a walk on the wild side. Such criticism can be expressed in comments like: “Are you not ashamed of betraying your dying spouse?” Similarly, a widow dating a married man will be subject to greater criticism than a divorced or single woman—after all, she should know better what it is to lose a spouse. It seems that, like Julius Caesar’s wife, widows and captive caregivers are expected to be “above suspicion.”

What do captive caregivers want?

     “I’m hoping to meet a man I can’t walk away from, but will never take home.” —A captive caregiver

Caregivers do not want to walk away from their prison, deserting their ailing spouse. However, they do want to get, as other inmates do, some breaks, in view of their human needs and exemplary behavior within the prison walls. As Norine Dworking-McDaniel nicely puts it, “in certain situations, extramarital relationships can fall into the same category as other ‘put your own oxygen mask on first’ strategies.” Some caregivers want just occasional sexual affairs; as one caregiver bluntly puts it: “'I just fantasize about a man with a hard penis being able to take me” (Dworking-McDaniel, 2012). Many captive caregivers, however, seek not merely a sexual outsourcing, but a romantic one as well. This is expressed in the above insightful reflections of the woman who wants to find a genuine lover with whom she would like to be all the time, but one whom she will never take home.

Another problematic aspect of outsourcing a lover during the declining health of a spouse is that of the lover. As the lover knows the current status of the caregiver, he too may question his own integrity, possibly feeling he’s taking advantage of another man’s awful situation. Similarly, some people would not have an affair with a married person because of the hurt that this could inflict upon the spouse of this person. In the caregiver’s situation, the recoiling is even more profound, as her own hesitations are deeper. The quick transformation from the freeing circumstances of love-making to those of the bounded, painful reality can be too fast for many people, causing intense emotional turmoil.

As one married woman, who was in such awkward circumstances said:

     “Making love should be a ‘freeing’ experience but when the lights are turned back on the reality of it, all is burdened with guilt versus pleasure. And that is the greatest challenge of the psychic, to desire healthy intimacy while your loved one’s health is in rapid decline and turmoil. Who can make heavenly love and look into another man’s eyes while your lifelong partner calls out your name from his bedside seeking emotional security?”

The move from a sense of heavenly love to one of painful hell is indeed shocking. Nonetheless, it may serve to help the caregiver cope with her excruciating plight.

What to tell the spouse?

     “Honesty has ruined more marriages than infidelity.” —Charles McCabe

      “My spouse said that if I (sexually) go elsewhere, he does not want to know about it.” —A married woman

Many caregivers say that their romantic outsourcing enables them to continue caring for and supporting their ailing spouse: It generates positive energy that lifts the atmosphere at the house, thereby favorably affecting the ill spouse as well.

Whether or not to tell the sick spouse about the affair is a sensitive question. The common, and easier, choice is remaining silent about it, letting him or her enjoying the bliss of ignorance. This behavior, however, may be regarded by both partners as cheating—albeit benign cheating—and thus give rise to negative emotions.

Another possibility is discussing the issue with the ill spouse in the hope of getting his consent. In this case, the third person may even help take care of the ill spouse. This scenario can be problematic for two reasons: It is hard to know in advance whether the consent will be given, and even if it is, the ill partner may still have strong negative emotions about the issue.

Concluding remarks

     “To care for those who once cared for us is one of the highest honors.” —Tia Walker

There is no one right way of coping with the dilemma of captive caregivers. There are different benign ways of doing so, and there are ways that are certainly more harmful than others. Ignoring the dilemma is unfair to the caregivers; coping with the complex situation may require some revision in our romantic norms—mainly, in the direction of relaxing some of them. Of course, other options are possible as well.

References

Ben-Ze’ev, A. (2019). The arc of love: How our romantic lives change over time. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Ben-Ze’ev, A. (2019). The arc of love: How our romantic lives change over time. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Dworking-McDaniel, N. (27.3.2012).  Should You Have an Affair When Your Partner Is Dying? NextAvenue.