Is it adultery if my spouse doesn't know who I am anymore?

November 29, 2017 by Gillian Leithman, The Conversation
Those caring for spouses with dementia are often isolated, lonely and emotionally overwhelmed. Credit: Shutterstock

In Zoomer magazine's September 2017 issue, there was an enlightening article written by Rev. Dr. Sheila Macgregor addressing contemporary issues that have emerged as a result of what's become known as the longevity revolution.

Advancements in health care and technology have resulted in longer lifespans. Milestone events now include encore careers, second and even third marriages, and birthday celebrations for 100-year-olds. In fact, in 2016, there were more than 8,000 100-year-olds alive in Canada, according to the most recent Census data.

While there is much to be celebrated, it's also a good time to pause and re-examine old traditions in light of new realities. That was part of Rev. Macgregor's powerful message. Macgregor draws upon the work of Rabbi Richard Address, the director of Jewish Sacred Aging, a forum that enables the Jewish community to discuss modern-day issues relating to the aging Baby Boomer generation.

For instance, Address asks, is it still adultery if you enter into a new relationship when your spouse doesn't know who you are anymore?

That's an important question in an age in which 564,000 Canadians are living with dementia. Worldwide, that number approximates 47 million people. But the figures don't include family members who are directly affected by the disease.

Rabbi Address's question necessitates that we examine the day-to-day realities of those caring for with dementia and Alzheimer's.

Spouses care for most people with dementia

Research from the United States indicates that approximately 70 per cent of people suffering from Alzheimer's are cared for by their spouses. And while many report benefits associated with the experience, such as greater meaning and purpose in life, and a closer bond and attachment with the cared for individual, this population also faces negative psycho-social consequences that include loneliness and isolation.

And as Dr. John Cacioppo, one of the world's most eminent authorities on the topic, explains, humans do not fare well when they live solitary lives. In fact, loneliness can kill you.

The demands and responsibilities imposed by the caregiver role leave little time, if any at all, for social interaction. And the constant care and concern for one's beloved can occupy prime real estate in the mind of the caregiver.

The negative cognitive and physical consequences are plentiful and include illness, injury, depression, anxiety, financial difficulties and disruptions in employment. Moreover, as cognitive and physical abilities diminish, the demands on the caregiver increase.

Imagine for a moment that while a caregiver is attending to the needs of her loved one during a hospital visit, doctor's office, or pharmacy run, she meets another person who is experiencing similar challenges.

The two start to develop a relationship. When time permits, they share brief phone calls, text messages and an occasional meal. Their friendship provides refuge in a chaotic, isolating and lonely world. Their encounters, no matter how short, are reminiscent of a time when her husband recognized her, conversations were reciprocal and they enjoyed leisurely pursuits and pastimes together.

Mitigate loneliness

Extramarital affairs that begin during a partner's debilitating illness or terminal disease are referred to as "well spouse affairs."

Relational expert Dr. Michael Batshaw believes that such affairs can mitigate the loneliness and isolation associated with caregiving, and thus prevent caregiver burnout.

Batshaw explains that people who normally would not engage in infidelity may do so while a caregiver, because often what prevents us from being unfaithful is the hope that our relationship will change and improve. Under these circumstances, however, the caregivers know their relationships will never get better, and realize that their needs can no longer be fulfilled by their spouse.

But such affairs are not without their costs.

Infidelity by its very nature is replete with guilt, as is caregiving. Taking time off to exercise or see friends often ignites feelings of guilt for being away from a loved one. Add infidelity to the mix, and you're likely to spend much of your time engaged in hellish emotional turmoil.

Although you want to be the devoted and faithful spouse, motivated by obligation, love or societal norms, you are also physically and emotionally exhausted, feeling lonely and isolated and want out.

Would a spouse really want his beloved to live such an existence? And what exactly does "until death do us part" mean? Is it when we physically take our last breath, or when we no longer exist as we have for decades in our marriages, recognize our partners or actively participate in our relationships?

These questions are incredibly personal and, for some, deeply religious. However, it's incumbent upon us to move beyond the ethical considerations of the issue and focus on the human struggles associated with the realities of living longer lives.

I suspect that's why Rabbi Address recommends that couples discuss this issue long before debilitating diseases strike. Such conversations are difficult, but they may in fact be the final act of love and kindness that you can bestow upon your loved one.

Explore further: New study finds caregivers of spouses with dementia enjoy life less

Related Stories

New study finds caregivers of spouses with dementia enjoy life less

August 12, 2008
Spouses of husbands and wives with dementia pay an emotional toll as they care for their ailing spouse. This has prompted a call for new interventions and strategies to assist caregivers in coping with the demands of this ...

Stress, reward & surprises among those who take care of loved ones with dementia

October 25, 2017
They don't get pay, recognition, or much of a break. They spend hours a day helping someone who may not even recognize them anymore.

Study finds the burdens of spousal caregiving alleviated by appreciation

August 28, 2017
The fact that spouses often become caregivers for their ailing partners is quite common in American life - and few roles are more stressful.

Care for caregivers

November 28, 2017
(HealthDay)—Many of us will care for a parent at some point in our lives. If you're shopping or cooking for Mom or taking Dad to doctor visits, you're already a caregiver.

Loneliness could kill you

November 13, 2017
Independence is glorified in North American culture as a symbol of strength. As a society, we value individual achievement and extol self-reliance.

Study and new tool proves 'all is not lost' to dementia

May 11, 2017
In marriage, good communication is key to a fulfilling and enduring relationship. For people with dementia, communicating needs, emotions and interacting with others becomes increasingly difficult as communication deteriorates ...

Recommended for you

Many cases of dementia may arise from non-inherited DNA 'spelling mistakes'

October 15, 2018
Only a small proportion of cases of dementia are thought to be inherited—the cause of the vast majority is unknown. Now, in a study published today in the journal Nature Communications, a team of scientists led by researchers ...

Study suggests biological basis for depression, anxiety, sleep disturbances in older adults

October 15, 2018
UC San Francisco researchers, in collaboration with the unique Brazilian Biobank for Aging Studies (BBAS) at the University of São Paulo, have shown that the earliest stages of the brain degeneration associated with Alzheimer's ...

Scientists create new map of brain region linked to Alzheimer's disease

October 8, 2018
Curing some of the most vexing diseases first requires navigating the world's most complex structure—the human brain. So, USC scientists have created the most detailed atlas yet of the brain's memory bank.

Previously unknown genetic aberrations found to be associated with Alzheimer's progression

October 8, 2018
In a large-scale analysis of RNA from postmortem human brain tissue, researchers at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and Columbia University have identified specific RNA splicing events associated with Alzheimer's ...

Periodontal disease bacteria may kick-start Alzheimer's

October 4, 2018
Long-term exposure to periodontal disease bacteria causes inflammation and degeneration of brain neurons in mice that is similar to the effects of Alzheimer's disease in humans, according to a new study from researchers at ...

AI could predict cognitive decline leading to Alzheimer's disease in the next five years

October 4, 2018
A team of scientists has successfully trained a new artificial intelligence (AI) algorithm to make accurate predictions regarding cognitive decline leading to Alzheimer's disease.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.