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Dear Wendy
Dear Wendy

“My Terminally Ill Spouse Refuses to Stop Cheating”

My spouse of 23 years was diagnosed with terminal cancer last August. In September, after starting chemo, she told me a coworker would shave her head. I said I wanted to do it, and she offered that, because he was bald, he would be best. She brought home an electric razor a few days later. When I saw it, I told her that this was a signal event and I could easily shave her head. I wanted every moment with her. She offered odd excuses. It got my antennae up. He shaved her head.

I did something I had never done before: I went through her phone. I found she had been having a torrid affair with the head shaver. Over time I learned, using computer forensic skills, that the affair had lasted for 3+ years and had included trips to Vegas and elsewhere. Two of her girlfriends often provided cover. There were receipts for hotel visits 1-2x a month, lewd venmo messages, pictures, texts, secret credit cards, etc. It wasn’t just that she was good and had help; I had trusted her.

While she was forced to admit the affair, it took repeatedly presenting evidence for her to stop lying about much of what I described above. She did volunteer that all the sex was without protection. It also became clear that she had been trying to get me to agree to buy a house near this man prior to my discovery — and has tried repeatedly since. I feel so betrayed.

To say I was floored is an understatement — it came out of left field. I thought we were doing well. We spent time together, are raising two teenagers together, share in household tasks (I do 99% now), and, I thought, loved each other very much. She says that she has been unhappy—AND that she is newly polyamorous.

Ok, now for the twists. I haven’t left. As I mentioned, she has terminal cancer. It may be in months or years, but she is dying. I vowed to care for her in sickness and health, and I honor that vow. I want my kids to understand such commitment, but I also made clear to them that this affair is not okay and that I would otherwise leave. I have been on the couch since September, caring for her without complaint. She tells everyone I am doing a great job of it. But, she is angry that I won’t sleep in the bed.

Twist number two: She refuses to stop the affair, even now. When she isn’t debilitated by chemotherapy, she sees him. I did move out for a time, coming back each day to care for her and the kids, but she attempted suicide soon after, and I came back to protect the kids and to help her. I can’t stand the idea of taking them from her or leaving them alone with her in such precariousness.

The kids and I are in therapy, btw; that base is covered. But, I am incredibly stuck. I alternate between bereft and crestfallen. Ideas? — Bereft and Crestfallen

Anyone who has spent any time looking at the internet over the past decade or so has seen videos or memes posted of people shaving the heads of their cancer-stricken loved ones and then bringing the razors to their own heads, shaving off their own hair in solidarity with their loved ones. Each is an image that is bound to tug at the heartstrings, guaranteed to elicit a reaction. Wrapped up in that single image of sacrifice, in that sole act of solidarity, are the big feelings that differentiate humans from so many other living beings on the planet. There’s love, loss, sorrow, grief, gratitude, resilience, and hope. It’s a beautiful act to witness and, I would think, a really powerful moment to embrace. “You’re not alone,” the act is meant to express. “I will walk this path with you,” “My love and commitment will help get you through this.” At its core, it’s a giving act, but in the bigger picture, the act, like nearly every other seeming sacrifice in life, is not a purely altruistic one. There’s a request in that act, too: “Love me back,” “Don’t leave me,” “Help me find meaning in all of this” (the “this” being as general as life itself or as specific as the experience of watching a loved one suffer). I see your enduring commitment to your wife, even in the face of so much betrayal, as a similar request – a similar kind of search for meaning in all of this. What if the answer lies, not with your wife or with your relationship with her, but in how you now pick up the pieces and move through the grief of losing what you once had.

You are grieving. You are in a stage of life that is not dissimilar to someone who has lost a loved one to death. You have been betrayed not just by being left, but by being left by choice. Losing a spouse to death might even be preferable except that you will likely experience that loss too and the unbearable implications it has for your children. I can understand the desire to change your wife’s mind – to make her choose differently, to choose you. If you could love her enough, commit hard enough, prove your devotion enough, she might come back and then – well, you’d still likely lose her to death, but you could more easily find meaning in that kind of loss. To lose someone you’ve already lost isn’t the same. But you have lost her. She’s not coming back. And your job now – the place where you find meaning in all this – is to not lose yourself, too. Or, at least, to find yourself now.

I can’t tell you how to find yourself again, but I know it begins with fully letting go of what no longer is reaching back for you, what’s no longer within your grasp. You’ll have to figure out yourself what the details of that look like, but it almost certainly involves the things you cannot stand imagining. It will mean reconfiguring how your family functions, what it looks like. It will mean embracing an act of sacrifice as an expression of love, loss, sorrow, grief, gratitude, resilience, and, yes, hope. You didn’t sacrifice your wife; that option wasn’t yours. But you can sacrifice the image you’ve had in your mind of what loving her looks like. You can sacrifice the idea you’ve carried of what commitments matter the most as measured by and to whom they’re made. What if the commitment to your own well-being is the most important? What steps do you now take to honor that?

***************Follow along on Facebook,  and Instagram. If you have a relationship/dating question I can help answer, you can send me your letters at wendy(AT)dearwendy.com.

25 comments… add one
  • FYI April 26, 2021, 9:19 am

    * Get an STI panel done, ASAP.
    * Go through all the credit card and bank statements so you can find how much marital money she has diverted to this affair. Make copies of everything.
    * Document her continued affair, and keep records of all the evidence you have gathered to this point.
    * Whatever you do, don’t move out of that house.
    * Bring all of these results to a divorce lawyer and file for divorce.

    None of that prevents you from caring for a sick person, if that’s what you want to do. But you have to protect your children legally, financially and medically; the marriage is over. A good divorce lawyer will guide you on how to keep your assets. YOU are the one who will continue to raise those children, so you have to give them as much stability as possible. Your wife is no longer your friend or partner; you have to think in terms of maximum well-being for you and your kids ONLY.

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    Bittergaymark April 26, 2021, 9:21 am

    I think you need to let this all nobility go. Oh, okay, so your wife is so in love with Mr Bald Soulmate? Okay, fine. Well, then him take care of her. This martyr complex thing you’ve got going on is only destroying you.

    You can’t make somebody love you back. It’s time to face that. NEWSFLASH: Your wife may slowly be dying. But your marriage is long, long dead.

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    • LisforLeslie April 26, 2021, 11:22 am

      I agree – why is he getting all of her good energy and you’re left with nothing but betrayal. Get your butt into counseling. Mourn the death of your marriage, mourn the death of your wife.

      I think that if your kids are old enough to know the truth, then they should know before she dies so they can discuss it with her. They’ll have questions and only she can provide answers. While normally I’d not recommend this approach, if she’s going to die – then she should clean up the mess she made before she does.

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        Bittergaymark April 27, 2021, 10:38 am

        You know… If the wife had any remorse whatsoever — I’d have different advice. But she seems so utterly unmoved by her deliberate actions and how they’ve affected her husband… yeah, it’s hard to be very sympathetic to her.

        Affairs happen. I get that.

        But her prevailing attitude here is all so “Fuck you! While I Fuck Him!” Especially the notion that — No, it’s NOT enough he stand by her dutifully taking care of her all through her terminal illness while understandably sleeping on the couch. Oh no, she want more. She wants to play happy family while still continuing her affair… Frankly, yeah. It’s all just too much.

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      • LisforLeslie April 27, 2021, 11:03 am

        Exactly, I know marriages that have been broken because of infidelity. The circumstances were never discussed outright with the kids. The kids often figure it out on their own when then start putting the pieces together. If they want they can ask their parents their perspectives. In this case, the LW should be as transparent especially if he decides to leave/divorce (and I assume be the primary parent to the children and support visitation). And the kids need an opportunity to ask questions and get answers because when she dies – her answers die with her. Lastly, in circumstances like this, the dead parent is turned into the last angel to walk this earth, and it’s quite earth shattering to find out the truth years later. It feels like everyone lied to you.

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    • ron April 27, 2021, 11:55 am

      The wife was coasting along in her infidelity until she decided to rub her husbands and family’s face in it. How else to explain her insistence on her lover, whom husband/family didn’t know about at the time, rather than her husband be the guy who must shave her head. That was an extreme and extremely theatrical betrayal. This announces this guy is more than sex, he’s #1 entirely in her affections and husband and his feelings are a complete afterthought. She made her statement, now she objects to husband sleeping on the couch, while he cares for her and keeps the family going? Nope! Time to MOA and divorce. She says she was unhappy in marriage? Apparently she didn’t discuss unhappiness with husband, nor discuss changes to marriage to make her happier, nor couples therapy. Just 3 years of cheating. She has made her choice. Let her bald lover care for her. It won’t help you to watch her die up close and personal. Let the other guy have that.

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      • LisforLeslie April 27, 2021, 1:20 pm

        Unfortunately the LW is going to have to help his kids through this, so the more he can gather resources and the more he can put himself in the “I’m not abandoning my wife, she chose to be with this other person, so I’m standing back and letting her be with him because that’s what she wants.” the better he’ll be treated by everyone she leaves behind.

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    CurlyQue April 26, 2021, 10:29 am

    I agree with FYI and BGM, get an STI panel, and divorce this woman and have her move in with her long term affair panel. Yes, she is terminally ill but she’s also of sound mind to make her own decisions…and she has. She’s chosen this other man over you and the family unit you created together. I am so sorry. I hope you look into therapy to deal with the grief of your marriage and the complex feelings that are occurring.

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  • Kali April 26, 2021, 11:59 am

    I agree with commenters above and have one little tidbit to add: I have terminal ovarian cancer. When I was diagnosed, I was told I likely had months not years to live. The odds of me living another five years were 12%. It is now 7 1/2 years later and I’m still here. Still doing chemo but still here.

    Don’t make the mistake of waiting in cancer to take care of this for you. Be the driving force and decision maker in your life – and your children’s – and move forward with plans for a life without this woman. She’s already left you. Acknowledge that fact and build the best post-marriage life you can for you and your children.

    And thank you for being such a loving partner. It’s just a shame she didn’t deserve you.

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      Phoebe April 26, 2021, 4:01 pm

      This was truly powerful and amazing advice. I hope the LW takes it to heart, and takes care of himself and his kids.

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  • Karebear1813 April 26, 2021, 12:26 pm

    You know, this was such a depressing read! Your wife is literally knocking on deaths door and the only thing she appears to care about is the Mr. Bald Soulmate. She doesn’t get to tell you how your marriage is and will be. I agree, you should seek legal counseling and file for divorce. You should protect as much of you assets as you can. Honestly, she probably wont put up much of a fight anyways. Let Mr. Bald Soulmate tend to her; let them play house like real adults instead of sneaking around like raging hormonal teenagers with no real responsibilities. She needs to be the one to move out and own her affair like a mature sound person. Good for you for being in therapy and getting your children in therapy. You commitment to your wife, even after the fact, shows what good character you have but don’t let her take advantage of you.

    I highly doubt you will be judged in bad light for wanting to divorce your cheating spouse.

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  • ArtsyGirl April 26, 2021, 5:52 pm

    I don’t have much to add, but just wanted to say that my heart goes out to you OP. You don’t deserve the treatment that you are receiving from your wife. She has been having a long term affair, is emotionally abusing you by saying that she will kill herself if you leave, and is using her diagnosis as a way to get what she wants consequence free. Please do get a divorce, you are not beholden to care for her.

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  • Miss MJ April 27, 2021, 9:30 am

    This is so sad. I’m sorry, LW. I’m sorry your wife is dying. I’m sorry she’s not the person you thought she was. And I’m sorry your marriage is over.

    And, your marriage is over. I commend you for your devotion to “in sickness and health” and “for better or worse,” but here’s the thing: both spouses have to be committed to a marriage to make it work. Your wife is not committed to your marriage. And so, your marriage won’t work. There is nothing you can do to change that.

    Frankly, your wife is a coward. If she wants her other man, then she should leave her marriage and take the risk that her lovah will support her as she lays dying. And if he does not, well, then she made her choice and has to face the end of her life alone. What she shouldn’t be doing is trying to have her cake and eat it, too, by giving him the best of the time she had left and you the worst. I’m sure it is horrible having a terminal diagnosis and facing the end of her life. However, being in a horrible circumstance does not entitle her to be a horrible person. And, not gonna mince words, what your wife is doing to you is a horrible thing to do to anyone, much less your spouse of 23 years and two children.

    Be there for your kids as they navigate this difficult time. I don’t know how sick your wife is, nor do I know what arrangements she will make in your absence to help care for herself, but don’t let it become your kids’ job. But your wife made her choice and it isn’t your marriage or you, so make the choice to remove yourself from this awful situation. This burden is not yours to carry any longer.

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  • Kate April 27, 2021, 2:01 pm

    Everyone that’s saying to just leave and file for divorce… She attempted suicide. Calling her bluff on that is high-risk. Say she has a successful attempt, is the LW going to just be like, oh well, she had it coming to her? No, he’s going to suffer horrible guilt. And who knows what the kids will or won’t understand about the situation.

    Something is seriously off here. Idk if it’s one of those cases where someone goes totally off the rails mentally in middle age (it happens), or what, but this is messed up. The wife seems abusive on some level. Like in a sick way she wants to control and mentally torture her spouse. He says he’s in counseling; I’d be really curious what a mental health professional has to say about this, and about how to get out of this safely, if that’s even what he wants. This is not a “just leave” situation.

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    • Kate April 27, 2021, 2:07 pm

      Like frankly she sounds dangerous. She’s so brazen in her behavior, and so unbelievably expecting he’ll just stick around and take it, it speaks to some kind of mental illness OR decades of a really sick and twisted relationship dynamic that the LW isn’t going into, or both. Someone who acts like this could do serious damage if they don’t get their way.

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        Bittergaymark April 27, 2021, 2:41 pm

        You can’t let somebody manipulate you with suicide threats or attempts. The way she is acting — is a classic text book abusive controlling move.

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      • Kate April 27, 2021, 2:50 pm

        Right, he needs to work through this with a professional. This isn’t a normal situation. He needs someone who’s going to understand what’s going on here and how to anticipate what this person might do and how to navigate her manipulative tactics.

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      • ktfran April 27, 2021, 3:29 pm

        I agree with Kate. I might think differently if they didn’t have children. I can’t imagine what would happen if he leaves, she does something drastic and fallout from the children w/ that.

        I’m not saying he should stick it out. He needs more help figuring this out than what anyone here can give. And I don’t think it’s as simple as move out and divorce her.

        I liked Wendy’s response a lot.

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    • FYI April 27, 2021, 6:42 pm

      He shouldn’t leave his kids in that house with her, but he should talk to an STI clinic, his bank, and a lawyer — in that order.

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  • Goe Jeneric June 24, 2022, 6:46 am

    It’s recommended for you to confront her with conversations and other details. Even though she is ill, but that does not mean she can do this to you. And do not show sympathy because she is under treatment. Being trustworthy is a priority to be in relationship. I would suggest using egspy to remotely snoop her chats.

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  • Bereft and Crestfallen August 30, 2022, 1:13 pm

    Every comment on the original advice request, starting with Wendy’s was welcome, and not incorrect, even though the advice varied. No one was wrong.

    My wife died in March, and her behavior never got better. I did as Wendy suggested (advice remarkably close to that of my therapist) and let go of thinking of my spouse as my partner. It was difficult. We were together 31 years, married for 23, almost 24. I cared for her until she died.

    Over time I discovered many more bad acts, none worth discussing now that she has passed. Had I understood the cruelty better an/or sooner, cruelty that was often times intentional and sometimes not, but always lurking– I would have left well before diagnosis. She hated me. She actually failed to delete a text that said she would leave me, but she needed my money and care. But, as is the case, I lied to myself, and only pulled the veil away when I discovered the scale of duplicity and disdain she held toward me. I now doubt that she was ever faithful. Ever. She was both careful, and I was clueless.

    The kids knew almost immediately she was having an affair–with their k-8 gym teacher btw. One kid learned of it when she overheard us arguing about it.The other saw her mom texting about the affair and confronted her. This was early in the diagnosis. What I tell everyone with whom I discuss this tragedy with is, all the mess I went through was tolerable. What she did to the kids, which was to place them lower on the totem pole than even me throughout the ordeal, was unforgivable. My eldest confronted her at least 3x with me present over the 19 months of the illness (stage IV pancreatic cancer), begging her mom to spend time with her and her sister, imploring her to put them in front of her lover and friends. (We learned later that the friends were really transportation to or cover for seeing him.) She wouldn’t. She didn’t. Unless recovering from chemotherapy and unable to leave, she spent no time with them. It was a big change from the doting mother she had been up until they were preteens, but not much of a change since she started having the affair. I essentially had been raising them on my own for 5 years–yes I learned the affair was at least 5 years not the three I believed when I wrote the original message. Once they didn’t worship her as the all-knowing mother, she abruptly stopped hanging out with them. My youngest literally never had any one-on-one time with my wife over the last 5 years of her life, except when she would practice for the driving exam or when being taken to the dentist or doctor.
    So, I blame my own myopia for not understanding these drastic changes, or denying them to myself until I could no longer do so.

    I spent every minute I could (and still do) all of my parenting years with the kids and they are doing okay. I am ruefully aware of my failures, and have protected my kids as best I could.

    I stayed. She was awful to us until the end. On Christmas Even when she could barely walk, and high on oxy, she insisted on driving to see a friend. I was out doing last minute shopping. When she died, I read through her phone and learned she chose to spend that day with her lover rather than the kids. She chose to put people’s lives at risk, rather than listen to me. (I had tried to get the doctors to tell her not to drive, they wouldn’t. They waited until she was on even more drugs and then offered, after I expressed grave concern again, that she would be able to drive if someone was willing to ride with her around the block and thought she was ok. I reached out to all her friends, even the flying monkeys who helped her cheat, and said, “Don’t do it,” and no one did.) She died about 6-7 weeks after she stopped driving.

    The hardest part, besides losing her, was speaking at the memorial, where a crowd of hundreds came to lionize her. I focused on her professional life, and said almost nary a word about her being a mother or partner. She was amazing in the work she did. She helped thousands live better lives over her 28 year career. Her public persona did not match her private persona. Only her family, my family, my kids and I knew this.

    Coming to grips with the fact that I was living in an emotionally abusive relationship for a few decades, well, that’s another post for another day. None is so blind as he who will not see.

    When I first read the responses to the original post, I was deep in it. It was all a bit too raw. But the answers given here by the Dear Wendy readers were remarkably thoughtful, and helpful. I just wish I could have appreciated them as much as I do today, having reread them now.

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    • Ange August 30, 2022, 3:50 pm

      I’m so sorry for your loss of both a partner and the person you thought she was. I hope your family is able to find healing now and you can find peace as a unit in the future.

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      Dear Wendy September 1, 2022, 6:57 am

      So sorry for you loss and all the trauma you endured. Hope you are able to find some peace and healing as you process your experience.

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      Phoebe September 1, 2022, 7:54 am

      I’m so, so sorry for everything that you’ve been through. And I hope you’ll grow to realize that you weren’t to blame for not seeing it, you were too deeply involved. Kind of like not noticing all of a sudden that your kids are five feet tall, only a thousand times more of a brick to the head.

      Your kids will always know that you were there for them and will continue to be throughout this process, and that’s worth everything. Take care of each other.

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    • Broken Betrayal November 27, 2022, 3:51 pm

      Wow. I Googled this topic to discover if I was the only one this happened to in the world…and we almost share the same experience. I am sorry your children have this to carry with them.

      I found out of my partner’s affair 8 months before his Re diagnosis. Forgave him and took him back. Cancer comes back and after 7 weeks of chemo/radiation whilst I cared for him and put my life on hold to care enough to help save him…doesn’t he leave his computer open where I watched in live time their banter on Instagram…telling her how much he loved her and that he only sees me as his nurse and that I was a crappy caregiver. He apparently explained to her that I never took him back after I left him. She is a mother, wife and grandmother….additiinal kicker…a professional social worker!!!!

      Left him. Took him back. Cancer metastized. Cared for him palliative at home finally hospice at home. He passed away just 3 months ago. Soon after I realised he did not log out of his social media accounts on our shared computer…just days before his death he explained to her I was just his nurse and he always wanted to marry her.

      The only difference between you and I and our experience is that he was very good at explaining how much he loved me and how much he wanted to marry me and wish that we had met a lot sooner than the seven years prior. he wants explain to me that their online relationship was almost like a fairytale to him and to her. Explaining that he felt obligated to say those things because that’s what she wanted to hear. Much older and married… it’s taking me everything not to ask her why she never left her husband to take care of my partner?

      Just heartbroken.

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