Dear Intimacy Doctor — When Is It OK To Cheat?

Dear Intimacy Doctor:

My beloved wife had a debilitating stroke a decade ago. It left her more like a child that needs to be cared for, and that is what I do. But I’m awfully lonely and I miss the physical companionship of sex like a physical pain. Is cheating on her really cheating at this point? What should I do?


Dear Sweet Man,

We are taught in therapy school that everything we say or do should be evaluated by the intent behind our actions as mental health professionals. So when I say if you were in the room with me, I would totally hug your neck right now.  I say that knowing that it is all about me, and has nothing to do with whether or not you need a hug.

I firmly believe there is a small group of people navigating this orb who are just a little bit better humans than the rest of us. And I am pretty damn sure you are one of those people. You probably just snorted to yourself and thought “I just asked for permission to cheat on my wife.” Well, shit, Sweet Man. Giving a fuck enough to try to figure out what the right thing to do in an awful situation is the mark of being one of those better human beings. Nobody said being one of the good guys came easy. But I guarantee you most people aren’t trying nearly this hard.

I’m gonna tell you a little bit of my story now, hear me out.

I lost my husband to cancer a few years ago. He was, understandably, furious to find out in the prime of his life (with young children and wife insisting on getting her damn PhD) to be dying of cancer. As we are wont to do in relationships, we blame the person who is gonna bear our wrath. So he spent the last couple of years of his life hating my ass. I was the one NOT dying, so screw me.

Or rather? NOT screw me. He definitely had physical limitations as to the sexual activity he could engage in, but all that could have been worked around. Hell, I help couples through those issues all the time. But he was too busy raging against the dying of the light to desire sexual intimacy.

So I had a choice to make. I could have had a little side action during that experience. Likely very few people would have blamed me bit.  A couple friends who knew our situation even suggested it. I definitely could have cheated without him being aware. And to be honest? I don’t know that he would have much cared if he did know. If anything, he might have enjoyed fueling the fire of his unjust death experience.

I grappled with that, the way you are now. And I eventually made the decision to essentially take a chastity vow while his illness ran his course.

And all my reasons were entirely selfish ones. I know me. And I knew I would likely regret it after he was gone. That my grief would be complicated and disenfranchised enough as it was, and I didn’t want to add extra layers to that. My counselor and I had enough to talk about each week, yanno?

Your decision is decidedly different, Sweet Man. I knew I had an end game to my experience. Down to a pretty accurate timeframe from his oncologist. I knew I could weather this experience and that I could grieve when I lost my husband completely and choose to date again when the time was right. You didn’t say much about your beloved’s condition, but it seemed pretty clear that  she is not nearly mentally the same as she was. But because she has still been with you for a decade now she is physically pretty stable. You may be caring for her for a while to come. She may outlive us all.

My late husband also had his mental facilities roundly intact up until the very end. His decision was entirely of his free will. You have another complicating factor there. You still obviously love your wife very much, but it becomes a different sort of love when you are a caretaker like that, doesn’t it? I remember as Ned’s disease progressed, thinking less and less of him as my partner, and more as a family member in my care. I can only imagine what that is like when the stuff that most demonstrates who we are, our intelligence and personality, is also gone.

I’ve known others in your situation who had a spouse who still demonstrated interest in sex. You didn’t mention if this was the case or not with your spouse. But whether it is or isn’t, everyone has told me that it doesn’t feel the same. Can someone in that situation even really give consent? Certainly if this is the case, you aren’t doing anything legally wrong by having sex with your consenting spouse. But I’ve had others tell me it feels like they are taking advantage of an individual who doesn’t really know what they are consenting to.

There is no easy answers in any of this, is there?

And that’s my main point, I guess. The decision is entirely yours, and it likely will be (like mine was) a purely selfish one in the end. With all the possibilities here, what is going to work best for you?  I think, as with my situation, few people would begrudge you the action you are contemplating. You know what? I wouldn’t. And I’ll probably get hate mail for admitting that.

So no easy answers, dammit. But here are the things you need to think about before you decide:

  • Are you going to feel guilty and shitty if you do this? OK, I know the answer is yes but will it be a tolerable level of guilty and shitty or will it make your situation worse in the long run? Whether your moral compass is spiritual, secular, or an amalgam of the two, what would this action do to your sense of how the world is supposed to work?
  • Do you have friends and family members that will lose their minds if they find out and give you hell about it? People find out. And it’s always the last people you want in the know. Is that something you can navigate if (when) it happens?
  • What kind of secondary relationship do you want? Just sex or a real secondary relationship? If you want “just sex” what will you do if that changes and you want more with someone? What will be your plan to navigate that?
  • Can you be honest with potential partners about your situation?
  • Is this something your spouse is capable of being aware of? If so, how will you handle that? Even not, how will you navigate you being gone at times? How will the pragmatics of her care be affected?
  • Are you getting all the support and care that YOU need in your life? Do you have a counselor? A support group for other spouses in similar situations? If not, would that make a difference in what you decide? Fulfillment means a LOT of different things.
  • If your very best friend was in the same situation what would you tell them?

Yeah, that’s a lot of questions. But you know what? We tend to wander through our days and then slip and fall into pile of sex and not know how it happened. Because of all the shame, stigma, and secrecy about sex we don’t have these conversations with ourselves and others. And this is so one of the times where the conversation needs to happen. With a good counselor, a non-judgmental friend, even just with yourself.

And seriously about the hug.


Dr. Faith


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