Dear Margo: When An Affair Can Be Ethical

I’ve fallen in love with a man whose wife has been in a nursing home for seven years. Is it wrong for us to act on our feelings? Margo Howard’s advice

When an Affair Can Be Ethical

Dear Margo: Is an affair always wrong? I am close to a man whose wife has been in a nursing home for seven years. She has had MS for 30 years (diagnosed at 25 years old) and is physically dependent for everything. Mentally, she can carry on a conversation but is very forgetful. I was her nurse for five years, but I have not taken care of her for the past two.

In those two years, I have become close with her husband. Recently, he told me he loves me, and I feel the same — for the first time in my life. I am single, and we are middle-aged people who have both been alone for many years. I don’t think he would ever divorce her, and I don’t want him to. Neither of us wants to hurt her. Are we wrong to have these feelings and to act on them, especially since I was his wife’s nurse? –RN in Love

Dear R: I do not think the way you met your love colors the situation … and, in fact, the way you met is not all that uncommon. I do not regard your relationship as an affair, in the accepted sense, but rather, a love affair. This man’s wife is sick enough to require institutional care and can in no way be a wife. There are some spouses, granted, who could not entertain the idea of a romance while a legal spouse was still alive, but I know of many more people who have done it your way. And I see nothing wrong with it. Happiness is hard enough to find. I suggest you accept yours with an open heart. –Margo, guiltlessly

Collateral Damage

Dear Margo: I moved from my parents’ house to my grandma’s due to my parents going through foreclosure. Before I moved, I entered into a verbal agreement regarding the majority of my stuff (bedroom furniture, papers, jewelry, etc.), in which I’d pay a set amount of money to help cover the storage fees and the care of my cat until I could bring my cat and my things to my grandma’s place.

Everything seemed fine until my parents separated and began divorce proceedings less than a week after I moved out. Things got hostile between the two, and in one of their battles, my mother ordered my father to move his stuff into storage. Then I received a panicky e-mail from my father letting me know that my stuff had vanished from the storage unit. I naturally jumped to the conclusion that my things were stolen.

After sending terrified texts to my mother asking where my things were, I finally got a reply from Mom stating only, “It’s safe.” She refused to elaborate. I went ballistic. I called her and demanded to know where my things were, only to have her tell me, “I can’t trust you. You’ll blab the location to your father, and I don’t trust him.” I told her I wanted an apology; she refused. We hung up, and I cried for hours, something completely out of character for me. I have not spoken to her since. Am I right for cutting off contact with her? –Yearning for Contact

Dear Yearn: Get back in touch. You clearly felt both loss and exclusion. I would try to convince her that she can, indeed, trust you — and also, you will need access to your things. Treat this episode as a blip on the radar, and re-establish the former connection with your mother. Chalk it up to the stress of her divorce. She is most likely calmer now. –Margo, restoratively

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Dear Margo is written by Margo Howard, Ann Landers’ daughter. All letters must be sent via e-mail to Due to a high volume of e-mail, not all letters will be answered.


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92 Responses so far.

  1. avatar Chris Glass` says:

    On Letter 1 – This letter strikes a nerve with me because I am married to a man with a neuromuscular disease. There are many things he can’t do but I’d never have an affair because I feel that it would betray and harm him mentally and emotionally. I can understand why the husband might have become close to the nurse as she cared for his wife. People sometimes transfer unfulfilled desires to a caring person close at hand. This man is still married and by her own admission not about to divorce his wife.

    A woman with MS is not a vegetable she is a woman with hopes dreams and aspirations of her own that will never be fulfilled because of her disease. The fact that she is forgetful in conversation could be because she is stuck in the nursing home with a decided lack of outside stimulation. It is no reason to justify an affair. She will sense the changes in her husband and feel worse because she isn’t the one to be able to fulfill his needs. It could destroy her will to live.

    It is obvious the wife is short term. Allow this couple their last time together before inserting yourself into their lives. If this man does love you and he probably is lonely he will turn to you when things have settled down.

    • avatar myopinion says:

      Very well said Chris.  My thoughts were that the wife has no control over her symptoms and lives each day wishing she were well enough to be a wife in every way.  When we marry we make vows to each other – whether the words “in sickness and in health until death do us part” are said or not, the intention of marriage is to fulfill that.  Perhaps a person has to themselves have an illness that prevents them from doing everything they want to, or like yourself have someone they care deeply about be afflicted this way to fully understand why we think an affair is harmful and wrong.  The emotional betrayal is bigger/stronger because of the illness – and the nurse knows this.  If she thought it was ok she wouldn’t need someone else to give her permission.

      • avatar Kriss says:

        Actually, there is no guarantee that the wife is short term.  MS is kind of quirky that way.

        My grandmother’s sister was diagnosed w/ MS when she was 42.  She lived with it for 45 years, the last 25 she was completely bedridden.  Her husband died the year before she did.

        • avatar olivepoetry says:

          A friend’s mother recently died from MS. She had a fairly rare type of MS that was rapid onset (she was completely bedridden within 6 months) and left her in a nursing home for 30 years before she died of pneumonia. So, we can’t know this disease will porogress quickly, especially if she has been ill for so long already. There is no reason at all that the letter writer and the ill woman’s husband should enjoy each others company, especially since it appears the letter writer has a compassionate attitude about the whole situation.

    • avatar butterfly55 says:

      Obviously she is not “short term”, she has had it for 30 years!  And she has been in a nursing home for 7 years.  She could be around for another 20.  This is not a situation of sit and wait, he has been doing that for a long time.  He needs some companionship and deserves it.  Read the entire letter before making their love and yours be the same.

      • avatar Lucy Baty says:

        if a woman was in the man’s place and her husband was in a nursing home, Margo, would you still answer the same? It seems to me the women are frowned on, if the reverse it true as not sticking to the marriage vows.. Usually the man misses sex and being taken care of.. just playing devil’s advocate here..

        • avatar Jane Jordan says:

          It’s the truth, Lucy. Women would not be supported in this, because they are told they do not deserve sex. They are considered selfish whores if they want to be with someone else, but a man can dump his wife as soon as she gets sick & many people agree, because they just see women as sex toys.

    • avatar stateoflove_N_Trust says:

      Or maybe the wife will feel unburdened by guilt that what she cannot provide for her husband is being provided for him.  Sure, your scenario of the wife’s feelings are plausible, but I would suggest that many spouses who suffer long-term debilitating illnesses also feel extremely guilty for the burden that they place upon their spouses.  Their mental health is often affected negatively by this extra guilt that they carry. 

      Husband is in the best position to gauge his wife’s reaction to this. 

  2. avatar Jim Martin says:

    I agree with Margo. I was going to elaborate, but there really is no need to. She gave the right advice. It may not sit well with those who have very strict attitudes toward marriage, but if the writer or the man she loves had been of that sort she would not have written either. For these three people, under these circumstances, what Margo advised is the best solution.

    • avatar Nancy Pea says:

      dear jim, if LW#1 is so forth right about it, then she and the husband should ask permission of the wife before they proceed. don’t say that she is to forgetful to understand it. i’m just surprised she is in the home. most ppl who love each other would have nurses at home, so she could still be in her own place and be happy. the biggest question here is would the wife want that for her husband. when i was a young girl i remember going with my mother over to ppl’s houses to do bible study. at this one couples house my step mother would talk to this husband and wife. the wife was paralyzed from i think the chest or waste down. they were both older. but you could see the love they still had. i remembered he did everything for her (i think they were retired). they had separate bedrooms (she had a special hospital bed) but they loved each other so much that it didn’t matter what could and could not be done between them (i remember listening to my step mother and grammy talk about it thinking i wasn’t paying attention.
      maybe he was having affairs to keep himself healthy and happy. but i don’t really think so. being truly in love means it doesn’t matter what happens to the other person in the relationship (unless they are in a coma and it’s irreversible then it’s pull the plug and go marry somebody else) you still love them and made a commitment to them. look at christopher reeves and his wife. he probably wanted her to leave and i’m sure he wanted to die just having to live that way. but she stuck it out to the end. you didn’t hear of her running out and having an affair.
      if LW#1’s wife found out about the affair i’m sure she would be heart broken and unhappy. especially it coming from someone so close to her. i’m living with an autoimmune disease myself and there were times when i couldn’t do anything because of the pain the illness brought on. but my husband (at the time i was diagnosed. we have since broke up for OTHER reasons that had nothing to do with my illness) NEVER stopped touching me, holding me and spending time with me. we discussed what might happen and even though i offered consent of an affair to see what he would say, he turned it down flat. he married me and that was that. i would feel the same. hell, buy a blow up woman or some sex toy. but don’t run off and have an affair. some ppl just don’t realize (and in my youth i was one of them) but sex isn’t everything and the act isn’t love. if you truly love the one you are with you cannot look at another, especially if they are sick. so i have to disagree with both you and margo.

      • avatar january 28711 says:

        Please don’t make judgements about why this woman is in a nursing home.  You have no idea what their circumstances are, or whether, in fact she would be happier at home.  The fact is, she IS in a nursing home, and her husband IS alone.  And, despite what another commenter has said, LW1 is already in their lives, and has been, in one capacity or another, for some time.  Nobody here sounds callous or uncaring.  I don’t know what I would do in their situation, but I can’t help feeling that the husband may well need some joy in his life.

        • avatar Pdr de says:

          Thank you – you took the words out of my mouth! I assume the husband is working very hard to keep her in a nursing home because he can’t take care of all her needs at home and keep a roof over both their heads. It’s easy to sit in judgment.

          My husband was disabled with congestive heart disease and kidney disease for over a decade. He dialyzed at home four times a day and was weak and unable to help me in any way at home. Even if I’d wanted it, I couldn’t have had an affair – I was a zombie from sheer exhaustion. Nursing him, rushing him to the hospital for emergencies (took up every vacation day for those 11 years), doing everything alone so my young daughter (who was 12 when he became ill) could live as “normal” a life as possible (she couldn’t even have friends over and I was so busy wearing far too many hats so that she didn’t get her fair share of my attention). Doing all the cooking, cleaning, shopping and errands and all the yard work (we had an acre of land). My daughter had severe allergies to dust and pollen; she couldn’t help me and I didn’t want her to. She was a straight A student but as we lived in the country, she had to be driven to the homes of friends in order to have a social life. Of course I willingly did that but it made her feel isolated – having the phone in her room (this was before cell phones, texting and computers) helped her connect with her friends. As soon as she was old enough, she had the use of our second car.

          I had a secretarial service at home and later when my husband was able to manage being alone for 8 hours, worked at part-time jobs and then a full-time as an administrative secretary for 33 professionals at a job close to our home. The list of responsibilities goes on in on. Oh yes, there is the fact we lost $45,000 in income when he got sick and our share of the medical bills was huge in spite of my insurance. Then there was the fact we were paying for our daughter’s tuition and room and board at college. Fun? What’s that? Drudgery and exhaustion were much more familiar.

          People are extremely judgmental and in many cases, empathy seems to have flown out the window. Every situation is different but I can tell you from experience that being a caregiver, whether the partner is home like my husband was or having a loved one in a nursing home, is extremely demanding, exhausting and challenging. The biggest problem I had was the aching loneliness. He’s been gone 19 years and 3 days and I’ve lived alone since he died. I have not been nearly as lonely in all these years as I was when he was alive. No one called, no one came over to visit or to see if they could help, no one asked how we were doing. I had a breakdown several months before he died and couldn’t go to the hospital as the doctors wanted because I had to take care of him; by then I’d taken a medical leave of absence from my job with no pay, of course. Antidepressants and twice weekly sessions with a psychologist got me through it but I was hanging on by my fingernails. All I can say is don’t pass judgment! Not everyone has the same strengths or coping skills.

          Margo’s compassionate response is right on! It’s a tragic situation all around but some warmth and happiness can and has been found. They are both very mindful and caring about his wife’s situation and there’s no reason to think they won’t continue to be so.

      • avatar Carrie A says:

        That’s incredibly rude to make judgements about the man because his wife is in a nursing home. Do you have any idea how much more it costs for home care? When my grandmother could no longer care for herself at the age of 93 my mom looked into many options. Of course my grandmother would have preferred to stay in her home but it was just not feasible when we looked at the costs. Does that mean we loved her any less? Absolutely not. Either my mom or I were there to see her every day after work and on weekends. It was the best we could do and to imply that meant we didn’t love her enough is extremely ignorant.

      • avatar Jean B says:

        Home nursing is very expensive and probably is outside his means. Hospice is free but unless her doctor says she has less than 6 months to live, she doesn’t qualify. His insurance probably pays for most or all of the nursing home since she does require full time care. It is not fair but that’s how it works.

        I’m perfectly healthy and know what it is to be cheated on. It actually hurt me worse than losing my father, who I was very close to, but he was sick a long time and it was a relief that he was no longer in pain. I fully understand the feelings of those who say “he is married, leave him alone” and such. But you also have to look at the circumstances. Would you want your loved one to suffer along with you? I don’t. I have it in writing, if I need machines to live they had better pull the plug. I don’t want them going through that, and I don’t want to lie there lingering. I don’t know what I would do if I had MS or anything like it.

        Assisted suicide should be legal at the federal level. We show more compassion for our animals who are suffering than we do humans. When my cat had an in-operable brain tumor, was blacking out all the time, and obviously in pain I had her put to sleep. There was nothing that could be done to save her and there was no need for her to suffer so horribly. That was over 23 years ago and I still miss her, but I couldn’t let her suffer at the expense of my selfishness.

        Frankly, I’m surprised the wife didn’t suggest he find a companion. I don’t know for sure if I could do that, but I like to think that I wouldn’t be that selfish and would suggest it.

    • avatar Chris Glass` says:

      If this patient had been male and attended by a male nurse more people would have thought it a breach of ethics for him to solicit the wife. This is no different because the nurse and wife are female. Obviously she still works in the nursing home to see the husband and be able to comfort him. If the wife was in a coma or had been non-responsive for years this would be a different situation.

      Nursing homes can be hot beds of gossip. When I visit my father-in-law who is in a Veteran’s home I hear things that are not my business. My father-in-law tells the other residents where we go out to eat, what we ordered and any family news he thinks might spark their interest. When I say that word of this of this affair will reach the wife I know what I’m talking about. Chances are she’s already heard of the friendship.

    • avatar Jane Jordan says:

      How typical that a man agrees with the affair. Women are just cum buckets to you, right?

  3. avatar elaine s says:

    Regarding LW#2, what about the cat?  That is the most important part of the post.  Margo, you missed this.

  4. avatar Baby Snooks says:

    Margo an affair is an affair. And affairs are “hormonal” otherwise, well, why not just be friends? 
    And the backstreet is the backstreet.  I’ve been on the backstreet.  Never works in the end. I suppose they could just “carry on” openly but then that’s usually also a disaster in the end.

    I have no regrets in my life. However, if I had to do it  over again, I would have “declined” four times. Wasn’t fair to me. Wasn’t fair to anyone.  It never is.  Painful for all eventually. And pain is not happiness.  This nurse needs to give herself a shot of reality. Before it’s too late.

    • avatar Baby Snooks says:

      One night the phone rang. The wife. An emergency. I didn’t know she knew. But she did. The problem was he wasn’t with me. She and I both had the light bulb go off at the same time. “If he’s not with me and he’s not with you, who’s he with?”  We both dumped him.

      If he will cheat on her, he will cheat on you.  Plain old common sense.  =

      • avatar Jane Jordan says:

        Why do women like you spread your legs for married men? Is it an ego thing?

    • avatar Count Snarkula says:

      I’ve been on the backstreet too. You are right. It never ends well. And when it ends, no amount of showering makes you feel clean again.

      • avatar Baby Snooks says:

        I never had any illusions which is why I never had any regrets but I also ended the relationships before the resentments reared their ugly little heads. Which they always do.
        Still there were the wonderful weekends. But they are not for everyone. I knew that is all they were. Most do not. And fall into the trap of believing the other person will leave their husband/wife and they will live happily ever after.
        The fifth time I said no before it began.  I had illusions. But then he wasn’t married. Then decided to get married. For money. I ended up going back to someone else I had kept the door open with. The door to the alley I suppose. Who was married. But then, well, as you put it I felt in need of a shower. So I ended it. Before either of us actually needed one.

        • avatar Count Snarkula says:

          I was young and stupid with my trip in the alley. Naive may be a better word. I thought he was divorced. He told me so. One day the very much married wife found out (do not ask me how) and called me. She wasn’t mad. She wasn’t mean. She was CRUSHED. She wanted to know what I had that she didn’t. I resisted the urge to say “a penis”. Thank God for grace under fire. It was just horrible. She had to turn to me to find out why her marriage wasn’t good. She was…nice. I carried around the guilt of that for years until I grew wiser and realized it was pointless.

          • avatar Baby Snooks says:

            Guilt is for the guilty.  He lied to you, to himself, and to her. And yet I doubt he felt guilty about it it all. So why would you? You didn’t lie to anyone.

          • avatar Count Snarkula says:

            Sweet, Wonderful, Wise Baby Snooks:

            I was in my late 20s and he was the first man I considered that I might be able to have a relationship with. You are right, I lied to nobody, But coming from where I was at the time I felt horrible sympathy for the wife. When I finally realized what I am, I was told by many long time “friends” that I would never experience the relationship I wanted as a gay man. Monogamy back in that day was thought not to exist in the gay male community. And that just sort of proved their point. Also, my conversation with the wife was so heartbreaking. Yes, I am the Count of Snark, but really, she touched my heart and I wished with all of my heart that I had not done what I did with her husband. At least I could reassure her that with me at least, she had no fears of an STD or HIV. But, that was a long time ago, The Count will be turning “Frankly Forty” this year, when he will, in actuality be factually fifty. We learn, I hope, as we age. XOXO

          • avatar Jane Jordan says:

            Oh, so because you f-cked another woman’s husband, invalidating her relationship behind her back, that’ sjust fine? Because you didn’t lie? You’re a pathetic whore.

  5. avatar Cindy Marek says:

    L #1: Can the letter writer look her patient in the eye after she’s “consumated” the love affair? Maybe she can. Frankly this man vowed “until DEATH us do part.” This nurse should put herself in her patient’s shoes: If she were in that awful situation (which the patient definitely doesn’t want to be), would she want her husband to remain faithful to her regardless…or would she “understand” and be okay with her nurse having an affair with her husband? Ask yourself lady — rationally. Don’t justify. Simply ask yourself.

    L #2: Yikes. I hope all is calmer now. I think Margo’s completely right on this one.

    • avatar Gerri Lynn says:

      The nurse in question has not been the wife’s nurse for over two years.

      The other thing is to not assume that the vows included until death do us part. When my husband and I got married, we didn’t include that as a part of our vows. (Neither was monogamy, but that’s a different issue.)

  6. avatar Lila says:

    The nurse also needs to remember that an affair will impact more than the three in the triangle. The letter does not say if there are any adult children, but if so, they will have feelings on the matter as well. It’s one thing to move on after a spouse passes, but another to carry on an affair while the spouse is alive, and justify it by the fact that (s)he is sick.

    • avatar A R says:

      I agree with Lila, and those grown kids could easily find out about this while mom is still alive. Imagine their potential anger at their dad and the LW.

      Too, if this LW is still working at that nursing home, she could potentially lose her job over something like that if it came to light. Many companies have a policy of not dating clients or of other conflict of interest type of behaviors. The husband is still a client of the place, even if his wife is the one receiving services.

      I vote that they keep the relationship platonic until they are both single.

  7. avatar Lym BO says:

    As a medical professional, I have the chime in on LW1. Yes, it is wrong. Yes, it is morally & professionally unacceptable. Yes, it is an affair and no, you are not exonerated because she is ill. IF the wife has the capacity to be hurt by the relationship and hasn’t encouraged him to seek friendship, love &/or sex from someone else then it is an affair.
    AS many others said, marriage is until death do us part. It’s fine to be friends if wife is good with that. Imagine yourself in her shoes. For me, I’m not sure I would care if my husband had sex with some random tramp, but if he had any kind of emotional tie that would devastate me.