When it comes to dating and marriage, it's natural to think that cheating is off the table. You make a promise to someone and you're supposed to keep it as long as you're still together as a couple. But life isn't always so black and white. When a chronic illness enters the picture, a couple must adjust to the new reality of a relationship, one that may involve sacrifice and suffering for both partners. When you're no longer able to enjoy life in the same way or be intimate with your life partner, it can lead to depression, isolation, and resentment on the part of the caretaker.
So, is it ever OK to cheat and find love and intimacy outside the home, to maybe even better serve your ill partner when together? Here, one woman shares her story and experts weigh in on whether cheating can ever be acceptable.
"My husband does not know nor suspect. We do not live together since I can no longer take care of him by myself. Even if I told him I was going somewhere with 'friends,' he wouldn't remember. His concept of time is not always accurate. To tell him would only hurt him, and I would never do that. This is something I will always hide. It is just for me.
"I don't even consider it cheating since I am married to a complete stranger."
I do believe it is OK to 'cheat' in situations such as mine. I don't even consider it cheating since I am married to a complete stranger. I have grieved the loss of my husband and my marriage, but I have to go on and I'm still responsible for him. I make sure he is taken care of and visit him. However, me being depressed does no one any good.
I think it goes on much more than the general public suspects. Especially with Alzheimer's. My own doctor told me that I could save myself or save my husband, but not both. Despite that, I feel that having an affair may just save us both.
I was fortunate to find the man I did on Ashley Madison and have no regrets. We have been together now close to a year."
Why Some Turn to Cheating
Some people choose to cheat in these types of situations in order to move on with their lives and be the best person they can be to both themselves and the sick partner.
"Having a partner with a chronic illness can strain the relationship beyond the breaking point. For those who stay married or in the committed partnership, much of the attention is on the sick partner and not on the stress of the partner who becomes the permanent caretaker," Dr. Tammy Nelson, certified sex and couples therapist and the author of Getting the Sex You Want and The New Monogamy, explained to POPSUGAR.
This tendency is even more prevalent and the stress more debilitating when the disease impacts most facets of the partner's life and is both physically and emotionally draining. "Multiple sclerosis, for instance, or diabetes or cancer can be a long-term debilitating disease, and for the partner, can lead to a feeling of being trapped, regardless of how much they love their spouse," she said.
Married caregivers are more likely to get depressed and have feelings of helplessness when they have an ill spouse because they want to stay with the partner but feel guilty about their own frustration, Nelson said.
Partners who find themselves in sexless marriages because of illness can have very lonely lives, and cheating provides that physical intimacy that's needed. Plus, if there's a connection that develops, it provides raw emotion and love as well.
"The distance can create a lack of intimacy that can be hard to talk about. Some find the challenge to be too much. The healthy spouse can turn to an outside affair to take care of their sexual needs while having no interest in leaving their partner for someone else," Nelson explained. "This can satisfy their need for sex and closeness and take some of the guilt, albeit unknowingly, off of the ill spouse," she said. Then, when the partner is with the ill spouse, they're able to love them, be there for them, and be the best versions of themselves, which will only improve the well-being of the ill partner, too.
When Cheating Isn't the Answer
All that said, what about that whole "in sickness and in health" phrase traditionally included in marriage vows? Many will counter that committing to one person for the rest of your life means you stay faithful to them no matter what.
"When you are in committed relationship, it is often understood that you will support each other through anything, including health issues," New York-based psychotherapist Kimberly Hershenson, LMSW, told POPSUGAR. "Trust is also very important in a relationship. Cheating is a breach of trust which will only negatively impact the relationship. When someone is sick, they need additional support, not feeling like they are being abandoned, especially in a time of need. Not only could it make the relationship worse, but it can lead to the partner's illness getting worse due to stress."
Nelson agreed. "The anxiety and sadness that comes from a chronic illness can be compounded by one partner's outside affair [and] finding out about the cheating can increase the sick partner's depression and helplessness and could lead to more symptoms," she said.
As for the caregiver, an affair can also be detrimental to their emotional well-being. "There is such a thing as caregiver burnout. Its warning signs include loss of interest in activities and hobbies, feeling irritable and hopeless, being exhausted, not being able to sleep, or sleeping all the time. Having an affair on top of that can increase the stress, not reduce it," she said.
It really depends on the two people involved and how best to make it a positive outcome for both. And this begins with opening up an honest dialogue.
"There should be a conversation between the spouses, acknowledging the grief and sadness between them, a deep talk about what they have lost and what might be coming. The talk should include the possibility of taking an outside lover to compensate for what might be missing in the marriage," Nelson said. If this is OK for both of them, it might be a workable solution. Yet, if either partner feels it would be too painful, it might do permanent damage to the relationship at a time when patience and kindness are most important above all else.