What to Do with an Emotionally
or Physically Disabled Spouse

Letter #2

Dear Dr. Harley,

My wife suffers from Multiple Sclerosis. She has had the disease for seventeen years and is confined to a wheelchair. As you know, Multiple Sclerosis is a progressive disease and can, and probably will get even worse. Having an affair has crossed my mind lately.

My question is, how does the healthy spouse cope with unmet needs when there is no hope for the disabled spouse to meet them?

A.K.

Dear A.K.

I've noticed that people are more likely to divorce a spouse that they think can meet their needs, but won't, than they are likely to divorce a spouse that can't meet their needs. Furthermore, they are more likely to have an affair when they think their spouse could have met their need, but didn't.

It's not just the unmet need that leads people to affairs and divorce: It's also the perception that their spouses could have done a better job if they had wanted to.

So when I counsel someone who is married to a disabled spouse, and is considering an affair or divorce, I am curious to know what that person thinks his or her spouse could have done for them when in a position to do it.

Are you resentful over problems you may have had earlier in your relationship? Perhaps your wife was not as interested in you sexually as you would have liked? Or she may have shown more interest in your children or her own career than in you.

Of course, there's not much she can do about it now, but your resentment may prevent you from being emotionally bonded to her in the last years of your marriage. Don't focus your attention on the past--there's nothing you can do to change the past. Focus attention on the present and future. Integrate her into each part of your life. In spite of her disability, she is still a person who can love you. She will try to make the most of the ability that she has if you let her.

Many couples spend the last years of their marriage with at least one spouse suffering from a disability related to age. Yet, the healthy ones rarely consider an affair or divorce. Instead, they spend their last years of marriage remembering the love their disabled spouses showed them when they were healthier.

Your wife will never be healthier than she is now. I encourage you not to compare her with other women, or the way she used to be or could have been, but to look at her potential as it is today. I firmly believe that she can meet some of your emotional needs if you let her. And you will certainly give meaning to the last years of her life, as well as your own life.