Sick spouse: Is it OK to take a lover if your husband can’t meet your needs?

Help! My Husband’s Illness Killed Our Romance. Should I Take a Lover?

Help! My Husband’s Illness Killed Our Romance. Should I Take a Lover?

Advice on manners and morals.
Jan. 26 2012 7:00 AM

Compassion Without Passion

My husband’s brain injury ended our romance. Should I take a lover?

Emily Yoffe.
Emily Yoffe

Photograph by Teresa Castracane.

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Dear Prudence,
I am in my early 50s, and almost a decade ago my husband suffered a traumatic brain hemorrhage, which left him with the mental capacity of a perpetual 11-year-old. I am the center of his universe, and not in a good way. I work part time, and when I go out he’s afraid I'm leaving him. We haven’t had a husband-and-wife relationship since his injury. We are more like mother and child. I miss kissing, touching, and sex. Counseling wasn’t helpful; I was advised to get out more. My children are in their mid-20s, and if I left my husband he would become their problem, which isn’t fair. Is it wrong for me to find a man for adult companionship and sex? I don't think I can do this for another 20-plus years.

—Lonely

Dear Lonely,
I'm sorry you are in such a terrible situation. Finding yourself the caretaker for a brain-damaged spouse is one of the toughest things that can befall a married person. Please read this story from the Washington Post, written by my friend Susan Baer about a situation similar to yours. Robert Melton was a talented reporter and editor at the Washington Post (and a colleague of my husband’s) when in 2003, at age 46, he had a heart attack that caused a severe, permanent brain injury from oxygen deprivation. His wife, Page, was in her 30s and was left with two small daughters and a husband who was like a child. Eventually she placed Robert in assisted living. She and the girls visited frequently, and Page thought this was her life. But a few years later at a reunion, she reconnected with a former classmate, and eventually they fell in love. She divorced Robert and remarried. But there’s a stunning and moving twist. Robert’s family was at the wedding to support Page, and when her new husband, Allan, spoke his vows he said that he would always help care for Robert. Robert moved across the country with them, where he is in another assisted living facility. The two men have breakfast weekly, and Robert is often at the house visiting his daughters.

You have provided care to a brain-damaged husband for 10 years, and I think that like Page, you can honor your vows to him while making a new life. Find out what resources are available to you—the Family Caregiver Alliance is one place to start. Neither you nor your husband benefits from the current situation, and he likely would find comfort and stimulation in assisted living. That would allow you to work full-time, which means you could financially support him better. It is possible to provide compassionate care to a mentally incapacitated spouse without sacrificing your own chance for happiness and adult connection. Feel proud about what you’ve done for him, and move forward to make both of your lives better.

—Prudie

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Dear Prudence,
My husband and I are happily married with two children. Over the years, my husband's sister and her husband have struggled with infertility. They finally asked if I would act as a surrogate. My husband and I did not take this lightly, but we decided to help them. Last year I gave birth to a lovely daughter. I lost the weight easily after my first two pregnancies but have been struggling after this one and am embarrassed about my slow progress. My sister-in-law has started making insensitive remarks about my body that would be rude in any circumstances but cut more deeply given that I gained this weight while pregnant with her daughter. At Thanksgiving, she said I’d need to work out extra hard to make up for what was on my plate. At a family birthday, she suggested I get only a small slice of cake. What, if anything, should I say to my sister-in-law when she makes these hurtful remarks? If she asked me to be a surrogate again, I’d refuse because of her attitude. But would that be selfish?

—Her Baby Made Me Fat

Dear Baby,
I have another magazine story that might give you some insights into what is going on. Alex Kuczynski described in the New York Times Magazine her infertility and decision to hire a surrogate, who bore her son. She expresses both the guilt and relief she felt at seeing someone else become a “lumpen pregnant woman” while Kuczynski drank bourbon and went to yoga class. But knowing that she couldn’t bear her own child also made her feel like a “dried-up crone with a uterus full of twigs.” Probably when your sister-in-law sees your post-pregnancy body it reminds her of your fecundity and her failure. But ultimately the reason for her behavior is irrelevant. She is an obnoxious ingrate. You made an enormous sacrifice to give her a precious gift. Whatever is roiling her psychologically, she should be enough of an adult to act with grace and infinite thankfulness toward you. In response to her jibes, you might be tempted to say, “You’re so lucky you’ve never had to try to take off pregnancy weight!” But not jousting with her is the better way to go. The next time she offends, pull her aside and say: “You may not be aware of this, but you make many cutting remarks about my weight. I don’t want to hear another. Thanks.” And if she has the nerve to ask you to carry another child for her, it will not be selfish for you to give her a simple, direct answer: “No”

—Prudie

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Dear Prudence,
I work at a large company and head a smallish department. Most of us have been here for many years and we have a great working relationship. It’s actually more like family; we socialize at each other's homes and have vacationed together. The problem is a new staff member I recently hired. When interviewing "Rick" five months ago, I thought he was eminently qualified and that he would blend in well with the warm social structure of our office. While Rick does his job well, he is slowly but surely destroying our little utopia. He is arrogant, abrasive, two-faced, conniving, gossipy, and a manipulator. Since he’s arrived, the staff has broken off into factions, and there is palpable tension in the air. I want this guy gone. I have informally discussed this with a friend from human resources who says there's nothing I can do since Rick hasn't "technically" done anything wrong. How can I handle this problem, remain relatively professional, and hopefully bring joy back into our workplace?

—Bothered Boss Lady

Dear Boss,
Forget the informal conversations with a human resource friend and do everything you can now to save your department. As you are discovering, one snake can destroy your office Eden, and quickly. This Wall Street Journal story about office jerks makes the compelling case for their outsize power. One study found that a single bad apple can bring down a group’s performance by around 40 percent. Social psychologist Roy Baumeister is quoted as saying that the jerk triggers negativity in others and that has a more profound effect on group dynamics than constructive employees. Before your office becomes a case study for business school scholars, take action. You probably want to have a discussion with one of your supervisors about how best to rectify this hiring mistake. Then have a formal meeting with HR to go over your obligations and options. Many businesses operate under the doctrine of "at-will" employment. This gives employers great leeway for getting rid of workers as long as it doesn’t violate certain statutes about discrimination, retaliation, etc. You may need to give Rick some warnings about how his behavior does not fit in with your company’s culture and that he’s on notice. But he sounds incorrigible, and you need a plan for removing him before your department falls apart and the bosses start wondering about you.

—Prudie

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Dear Prudence,
My husband, son, and I are going on vacation with my in-laws. It should be a good time, and I am looking forward to it. There is one sticking point: I would like to cook all meals separately so that each family feeds their own members. My husband thinks his mother will be upset by this. They are good people, but I don't like what they eat, nor would they like what I cook. I also don't want my son eating some of the things that they eat, like hot dogs and hamburgers. I’m sure that no one in my husband’s family would touch my shrimp and garlic pasta. Is my suggestion reasonable, or am I going to be the bad guy?

—Upset Stomach Already

Dear Upset,
It does sound like a good time. It will be fun for everyone when you scream: “Ethan, put down that hamburger. Haven’t you heard of Escherichia coli O157:H7!” Since most family vacations are of short duration and don’t turn into a season of Lost, the best thing you can do is climb off your nutritional soapbox and relax. If you get unhappy when there’s no vegetable or salad at a meal, offer to make some and adjust the portions when you see how much the others eat. This crowd may not like shrimp and garlic pasta, but maybe they’d eat shrimp cocktail, or pasta with homemade spaghetti sauce. Forbidding your son from occasionally enjoying the intoxicating food his cousins are eating won’t make him honor your food choices more, but it will make him look forward to the day when he can eat what he wants.

—Prudie

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