“My Soulmate’s Wife is Dying. Can He And I Finally Be Together?”

Thirty years ago I fell into a love that wasn’t meant to be – “Paul” was married – and it was a wrenching separation for both of us. We parted ways and both went on to raise our own families on separate sides of the country because it just had to be done. My kids are off to college now and my husband and I are separating. Wendy, I know you’ve been harsh on these situations before, but please know that hearts are broken and tears shed every day because people don’t necessarily meet the right person at the right time.

That long-ago love and I are recently back in contact. He tells me that his wife was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s three years ago and, despite his hopes for a enjoyable retirement, he has accepted that his life is pretty much over – he’s 64. He’s a good person and I’m sure that he will be there for her. I know that he has hopes and dreams that are disappearing because of this.

My heart breaks for him and we’ve both acknowledged that our same connection is still there after all these years – I’m 58. What I know about Alzheimer’s is mostly off the the internet. I didn’t realize it was considered “terminal” but I know it can go on for many years all the same. I can be a sounding board and support for him and I know he’ll need that. I’ve encouraged him to start even now gathering a circle of caregivers other than himself so that he’s not alone in this and has breaks for himself.

Wendy, at the risk of sounding horribly crass, do you and your readers think there will ever be a time for “us”? — Waiting For Us

Maybe, but that time isn’t now. Paul took a vow when he married his wife to be there for her through sickness and in health, and those vows are being tested, just as they were when he fell in love with you and he chose to re-commit to his wife. Is it fair that his retirement dreams have been squashed because of his wife’s terminal illness? No, but life isn’t fair. Shitty things happen all the time. People get terminal illnesses, people fall in love with the right people at the wrong time, babies are born in war-torn nations and unable to find refuge anywhere safe. Life isn’t fair.

I believe you’re a good person who respects the sanctity of marriage, or at least the commitment and responsibility Paul has to his wife. I don’t think you would intentionally want to cause either one of them pain. You have to know that being involved with Paul at this time, even as a “sounding board” or as the “support” you know he’ll need, is inappropriate and could cause pain. Hopefully, Paul has friends and family members to fill the support roles he needs. Your feelings for him and your motivation for being in touch compromises the kind of support you can lend him, and his feelings for you would divert the care and attention he should reserve for his wife. He has a job right now and that’s taking care of his wife of more than thirty years. Is he entitled to breaks — hours or days when he can prioritize his own personal enjoyment? Yes, but connecting with another woman while his wife is dying shouldn’t be included in that unless he and his wife have an agreement that that’s ok. I’m thinking they probably don’t. And when there isn’t an agreement in place for a spouse to pursue an emotional and/or physical connection with a person he or she is emotionally and physically attracted to, and he pursues one anyway, there’s a word for that.

I can imagine how frustrating it must be to feel you met your soulmate and couldn’t have him because someone else met him first. But I have much more empathy for the woman who may also feel that she met her soulmate, invested decades into her relationship with him, built a life with him, survived who knows how many hurdles (including her partner falling in love with another woman), and also had hopes and dreams for her retirement years only to have that time stolen from her by a horrific disease that has or will rob her of much of her dignity and much of what makes her who she is. You say what you know about Alzheimer’s is “mostly off the the internet,” and maybe that gives you enough cognitive distance to keep this woman abstract in your mind. She can remain this person you don’t really know who has this disease you don’t really understand, and as long as she’s just this other woman occupying a space in the life you wish you could have had, it’s easier to withhold empathy. It’s also easier to convince yourself that Paul would have preferred you in the space his wife occupies, and thinking that — and maybe even being told that — gives you permission to look for a window into that space, to begin wedging yourself into it, so that if it becomes fully available, you’ll already be there, and if it never becomes fully available, you’ll at least have a hint of what it feels like.

That window is not open to you. That space is not available. Even if Paul holds a spot for you in his heart, there is not a space for you in his life as long as he has a wife living and breathing whom he’s responsible for caring for. It’s not fair that you didn’t meet him first. It’s not fair that his wife has ever had to share any of Paul’s heart with you. It’s not fair that she doesn’t get the golden years she dreamed of, and it’s not fair that Paul’s retirement is devoted to caring for a terminally ill wife. Life isn’t fair. But we make the best of the cards we’re dealt, remaining empathetic to the cards others are dealt (particularly when they seem like worse hands than ours), and look for spaces where we might fit without forcing ourselves into spaces where we don’t.

Will there ever be a time for you and Paul? Maybe. But that time isn’t now. This time isn’t yours. And you need to respect that Paul has work to do that your presence would interfere with. Since you are newly separated after a decades-long marriage, instead of jumping into a relationship with lots of baggage and some history, why not enjoy mingling a bit, meeting new people, and seeing what it feels like to be on your own again. If space becomes available for you in Paul’s life eventually, you will have had the time and experiences to make make more sound decisions, knowing what some other possibilities for you might exist. And who knows — you may find someone who’s not only the right person, but the right time, too.


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If you have a relationship/dating question I can help answer, you can send me your letters at wendy@dearwendy.com.


  1. RedRoverRedRover says:

    Wendy is absolutely right. Leave this man alone. Do you not think he has enough on his plate right now? The last thing he needs is to be stressing over whether he’s cheating on his wife and whether it’s ok to be cheating. He already decided, way back when, that he’s not a cheater. Now it will be even harder for him to resist, as his wife’s mental state deteriorates and he “loses” her. Don’t put him in that position. If you cared about him at all, you wouldn’t even consider it.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Snap out of it. You messed around with a married man, and he CHOSE to stay with his wife. He could have chosen at any point to be with you. Instead, he spent 30 years building a life with his wife after his stupid fling with another woman. You two aren’t ill-fated lovers stuck in some Shakespearean tragedy. People divorce. People end marriages, if they WANT to. You were a mistake 30 years ago.

    Terminal illness is a terrible thing, and this man will have trying times ahead. With the love and support of his friends and family, he will get through it. Without you. Just like he has for decades.

    1. Avatar photo Skyblossom says:

      I was thinking the same thing. At no point did he choose the LW. I think the soulmate thing was far more on her side than his.

  3. Avatar photo Skyblossom says:

    I think it’s also important to realize that you’ve had 30 years to make Paul into the perfect fantasy. When things weren’t going well in real life you could imagine how it would all have been better if you were with Paul instead of your husband. I think if you got together with Paul you’d become disappointed because he is just as human as your ex. So human he cheated or nearly cheated on his wife with you and so human he might be willing to cheat on her now with you.

    Ask yourself what happens if you end up with Alzheimer’s in a few years or what if Paul does? You are reaching the age when terminal illnesses become more and more common and other health problems pop up that are chronic and even if not terminal can be debilitating.

    1. artsygirl says:

      Also, who doesn’t change in 30 years? Even if Paul was your soul-mate 30 years ago hardly means he is your soulmate now. You have both had a lifetime of experiences which likely shaped you.

  4. Avatar photo Cleopatra Jones says:

    LW, let’s be real here. You’re not trying to provide him with support during a difficult time, you are trying to secure your position as first in line for when he becomes a widower.
    Your intentions are all wrong for this situation, and it’s going to back fire on you. What happens if he decides he doesn’t want another relationship after his wife? What if he decides that he wants to be with someone else? Then you are going to end up bitter and angry that y’all didn’t end up together.
    Even if you don’t recognize it now, you are setting yourself up to emotionally blackmail him at some future date. You are going to hold your ‘support to him during a difficult time’ as your leverage to force him into a relationship. Don’t do it, it won’t end well for you.

  5. You don’t have any idea who Paul really is. You haven’t been in contact for 3 decades! A lot can happen to a person in that amount of time. You already know from being with your husband for 30+ years that the daily wear of a relationship isn’t easy. It wouldn’t have been easy with Paul, either. You have idealized this forbidden, exciting, “long-lost love” to the point where you are circling like a vulture, waiting for his wife to die. Is that the kind of person you want to be? EVEN IF you and Paul have a Perfect Love, it’s still the wrong time. Let him care for and grieve his wife. Let his KIDS grieve their mom without her understudy lurking backstage. (Because that’s REALLY not going to end well for you, if his kids find out you’re pursuing their father while their mom is terminally ill. It’s not a good look.)

  6. Wendy, you admit to the LW several times that life sin’t fair, I think trying to convince her that she might have to accept that she might not get what she wants. But what if life is fair? What if he married his wife because she was the one he chose, lived all these years because she was the one he chose, never divorced her to be with the LW because that was his choice? That would all be fair, wouldn’t it? Maybe you get your chance and sometimes it doesn’t work out, but isn’t that fair? If I think of my last girlfriend before my wife, I could probably be kind and say we still have a connection. She will always be a person i loved, so that little corner of my heart never changed, even when we broke up. But i did not choose to spend my life with her. Almost 30 years has passed in which i have run into her maybe 5 or 6 times. One evening we were at the same party, while the other times were just quick hiyas. I have not further pursued her, because I chose someone else, but I still loved her once. I have several female friends with whom i have semi-regular lunches – they are far more a part of my life, and I care for them too, but just as friends. I really wonder if the LW is overestimating this “connection.” That person I used to see but haven’t had much to do with in 30 years? I sure hope she is not harbouring any illusions that I have lingering “soulmate” thoughts about her. At this point, she is a distant memory with no conflicting emotions at all.

  7. Wendy, that was such a mature and compassionate response. You were far more compassionate and thoughtful than I would have been in this situation.

    LW & her “soul mate” are my parents’ age. Obviously this man has grown children. If my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and my father’s “long lost love” had designs on him while my mother was getting progressively sick with a horrible disease that would ultimately end with her death…I would be absolutely livid.

    Wendy is absolutely right, LW, this is not the time for you. It will not be the time for you for a very long time, if ever. Have some empathy, stop being so selfish, and realize this is Not. About. You. Your marriage may have dissolved but this man’s hasn’t, and his duty and loyalty is to his family and his wife with whom he has spent 30+ years. Seriously, grow up. It’s horrifying to me that a woman of your age and supposed maturity would even be thinking this way.

  8. rocketgirl says:

    I am going to respond to this as the daughter of a women who lived her last years with Alzheimer’s. She died earlier then expected because, although she was physically healthy, she broke her hip. That was actually fortunate because people with Alzheimer’s can actually live for a very long time. Some patients retain some memories, many do not. My mother did not know who I was the last 3 years of her life. And she did not know who my father was the 1 1/2. It was – well, there are no words for how difficult it was. My father was locked in grief, sadness and loneliness the last years of his life. If he had met someone or knew someone to spend time with, to share some joy with, I would have been thrilled for him. Care for my mother would not have stopped, his love for would not have gone away but he would have had more moments of joy and love. I am not saying this woman should try to start something with this man, just trying to give another perspective.

    1. SpaceySteph says:

      I think you make a good and compassionate point. He spent a couple years after my grandmother died being a complete wreck and ate dinner at my parents house ~5 nights a week because he couldn’t bear to go home and cook for one.We’re very happy my grandfather found a nice lady widow to spend his remaining years with.
      I don’t think the LW’s situation is exactly the same, though. For one, it sounds like they live on opposite sides of the country so she’s talking about either moving or extensive travel. And also the “soulmate” thing is a bit of a red flag for me, that she’s going to try to force a much more intimate relationship rather than let it develop organically.

      1. SpaceySteph says:

        Where’s an edit button when you need one?That was a mess.

      2. rocketgirl says:

        The “soulmate” thing is a red flag and agreed don’t think this situation is the same at all. So glad your grandfather found someone!

    2. Avatar photo Dear Wendy says:

      I see what you’re saying, but in this case, it should be Paul pursuing the LW — and, really, only he felt he had his wife’s blessing — rather than the LW pursuing Paul. This raises an interesting topic of discussion: those of you who are in committed, longterm relationships: have your discussed with your partners what your wishes are should either of you become incapacitated? (Side note: Drew and I just signed our wills two hours ago, so these kinds of issues have been on the forefront of my mind the last couple of weeks). I have told Drew that I would very much want him to find companionship/love again if he were to outlive me. If I were like Paul’s wife and Drew were my caregiver, I would want his attention to be on me and our family, and not on some other woman. Of course, I would want him to have joy in his life, but I’m not convinced the company of another woman is the only way to find that. I think this is complicated though, and maybe the love of another woman would give him the strength he’d need to continue caring for me lovingly. I don’t know. But I sure as shit would want some woman, like, cruising him if I were terminally ill! That’s pretty low-down.

      1. M and I have had a longstanding agreement that if one of us dies suddenly, the other can opt for one of the following: 1) Immediate gory suicide with note expressing eternal undying love slash broken heart; or, 2) Pining, wasting away and dying of broken heart within one calendar year. The deceased partner is obliged to haunt the other to ensure compliance.

      2. Diablo, I love it! I’ve made clear that I must go before the fiance. And he made clear that he will depart shortly after.

        We haven’t talked about serious illness and the pursuit of companionship. We have talked about wishes if one of us were to be unfortunate enough to have a terminal, debilitating illness/disease strike. My wish is to not have a slow, agonizing death where I lose my faculties. Just end it! I also don’t want someone to go to extreme life saving measures.

        We’ll probably write up a will sometime after we get married in the fall. He’s a planner.

      3. rocketgirl says:

        Very true! It is an important discussion to have with your partner. While I am single at the present, based on what my family has gone through – I have really thought about my wishes. Unlike the woman whose husband left her to deal with cancer(wtaf!) , Alzheimer’s and some other forms of dementia are a little different. I don’t know – I think it is a discussion to have with a partner. If I had alzheimer’s I would expect the man in my life to care for me but, at some point, I would hope he would find companionship(though to be honest, living with Alzheimer’s past a point is not in my plan)

      4. Ugh, I really need to get on a will. My husband has one because army but I haven’t done anything. I mean, I don’t really have anything anyway and he’s aware of all my wants concerning care and organ donation but it’s still a good thing to have. If I did go suddenly I would want him to be happy again for sure, but I definitely wouldn’t want him chasing skirt while I languish in a hospital somewhere.

  9. Sue Wilson says:

    Who contacted who?

    Did he contact you? It kinda seems like it. If so, LW, I would consider that your dude found out some life-changing information, and decided to reconnect with something that was, tbqf, relatively simple. I can’t tell you what his feelings are for you, but just as Wendy said your motivations would complicate a supportive role here, consider that he has motivations too that don’t necessarily have anything to do with just catching up.

    Don’t be the person he can blame when he feels guilty for not spending more time with his wife if the disease gets severe enough where it isn’t her anymore.

  10. AuntyMacasar says:

    Alzheimer’s is different than, say, cancer. If Paul’s wife had cancer, I would absolutely co-sign Wendy’s advice. But watching a loved one literally vanish before one’s eyes is one of the more terrible experiences we mortals have to bear. If I had Alzheimer’s and my partner was caring for me, and my memories and personality had vanished, I would no longer be myself. I would hope that my partner could find friendship, love and comfort with another woman while caring for me. It would mitigate his pain during an experience I would not wish on my worst enemy. I would hope that a woman as sensitive as the LW seems to be would come into his life. I would not consider this a breaking of vows.

    1. Northern Star says:

      Sensitive women don’t screw married men.

      I would not be OK with my husband picking up with his old mistress. The hurt it must have undoubtedly caused the wife while she was still aware and AFFECTED by his cheating would make pursuing a relationship with the mistress again feel like a betrayal.

      It would be different with someone he didn’t screw before the wife’s decline.

    2. RedRoverRedRover says:

      That would be great if you were this guy’s wife. I don’t think your attitude is necessarily a common one though. I don’t think I’d want my husand reconnecting with an old flame while I’m alone in a home somewhere. And I certainly don’t think it would make it easier on our shared children to see their dad brushing their dying mother off while he starts a new life. Unless she actually tells him that she’s ok with it, he should honour the vows he made, and take care of her when she needs him the most.

  11. Alzheimer’s is pretty bad on the family that is waiting for the death (really deliverance at the end) of a loved one. From what I’ve experienced of it, it will be all consuming (while she’s at home) and expensive (when she’s placed) . Odds are that he will be beat by the end of it.

    A good chunk if his retirement will be honoring his vows to his wife, like she would have done for him at it been reversed. While it’s no fun, he’s far from alone http://www.alz.org/care/overview.asp And that’s just one disease, there are plenty more chronic disease that will put a crimp on retirement.

    The ideal image we have of care free retirement we have is mostly a lie. Many (most?) will have chronic illness in the later years that will curtail the never ending vacation.

    FWIW Alzheimer’s represents about 25% of the cases of dementia, there are plenty, less frequent causes out there, some even worst.

    Oh, and another cheery note, it looks like research is actually making progress towards a real treatement. The bad new, it`s at least 10 years out.

    Note: Rockergirl might be onto something. Once is wife is gone he will be staring at years of nothingness. If there is an opportunity for LW, it would be then. (and of course it could all fall apart when the rubber hits the road… leaving LW none the better.)

  12. Avatar photo Dear Wendy says:

    From the LW:

    You can probably imagine that I’m feeling rather bruised by the responses today. I’m wishing I had signed it differently because it lent that “circling vulture” air to my letter which is really not true. Neither of us are pursuing anything and don’t expect to, despite our strong feelings. A couple of the readers implied that his feelings are something I’m wishing or hoping for – I’m not – they are already there and have always been there. This is not a one sided thing. I’ve talked to him about the things I am excited about in my future, none of which include him. We’ll go on about our lives.

    I think I sent the letter because I wanted more personal feedback stories like Rocketgirls’ so that I had a better frame of reference about what he is looking at…. and I thank Rocketgirl for that.

    1. Northern Star says:

      Sorry, LW, but you ARE circling like a vulture. You are asking us when “your time” is going to come.

      Your time comes when his wife dies or he divorces her. If that seems unfair, that’s too bad. A halfway decent man wouldn’t disrespect his wife by taking up with his mistress again while she’s dying—even though even though “hearts broke, tears were shed, blah, blah, blah, romance novel bullcrap, blah, blah, blah.”

      If he does pursue you, rather than focusing on taking care of his wife, have the dignity and decency to turn him down.

    2. RedRoverRedRover says:

      All this update does is make him look awful. So 30 years ago he wanted you, but decided to be “noble” I guess and stay with the wife. For 30 years he presumably lied to her about his strong feelings for you and tricked her into staying with a man who actually wanted to be with someone else. Now that she’s failing and things are getting hard and he doesn’t get to have the retirement he wanted, NOW is when he decides that his strong feelings have to be requited. Not 30 years ago when he could have left and his wife could have built another life for herself. No, he has to do it now when their life together is no fun anymore.

      Well, he sounds like a prince. I guess go for it.

    3. Avatar photo Cleopatra Jones says:

      So you wanted us to validate you by saying that it’s OK for y’all to indulge in an affair because his wife has Alzheimer’s?

      Um, absolutely not! This man needs to be focused taking care of his wife, not lining up his next conquest.

  13. I think you are a little old to be playing at star crossed lovers. The truth is he never felt enough for you to uproot his life, and really, neither did you. What does that tell you about him? He’s the kind of person that will take the path of least resistance, and right now, leaving his sick wife to move across country is definitely not that. Even without the wife in the picture that is a lot to ask someone who had a life built somewhere. I bet there will always be something to keep you two apart, because you both like the fantasy, not the reality of trying to make a relationship work.

  14. dinoceros says:

    I share the same opinion as most other people here. Your timing is a little weird for this question. Your letter doesn’t indicate that his guy is pursuing you or interested in romance right now with you or anyone right now. It also sounds like it’s early in the wife’s illness (since you indicate that he needs to prepare for future caregiving issues), which would mean she’s probably fairly lucid. It sounds like upon googling her disease and finding out its terminal, you had a lightbulb moment where you realized that he might be a widower sometime. No one can tell you what’s going to happen in the future, so I guess I’m wondering your purpose for writing in. Are you planning to pursue him? Like I don’t understand the point of asking about whether you could get together in the future now rather than just waiting and seeing what happens.

    If you are basing your actions on this idea, don’t. A lot of things have to align for you two to get together. Sure, some people date or marry after their partner dies. But you don’t know how her illness will progress, how long she (or anyone) will live, if he is into you, if he’ll be ready to date again, if you’ll be single then (hopefully you won’t just wait around for her to die), etc. Don’t insert yourself into his life under the guise of being a friend when you just want to date him. If he is single again one day and becomes interested in you, then you’ll have your answer.

    1. dinoceros says:

      I didn’t see the update at first. So you’re saying you basically just wrote in to hear stories of other people getting together with someone whose spouse is ill? It happens sometimes and other times it doesn’t. If he is apparently declaring his love for another woman while being married, then maybe he won’t feel as bad about moving on as more committed husbands would. It sounds like you’re basing your future happiness on how quickly her disease progresses, which feels a little icky.

  15. The LW reminds me of the woman who wrote in about the dying teacher she had an affair with when in high school and thought he was her one true love. That woman lived with that delusion all her life.

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