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 comments so far.

  1. avatar Jean B says:

    LW#2: Mom is breaking the law. She is holding property that is not hers and refusing to return it. She is angry and bitter, taking it out on anyone she can. That is not going to change. The fact that she is doing this to her own child, who is in no way involved in the maritial problems, is disturbing. I know it happens but it still makes me sick when I hear about it. LW needs to tell mom “either give me my stuff and my cat within 48 hours or I will see you in court.”

    My boyfriend’s 3 kids have gone through this for almost 10 years. Their mother dumps on them and treats them like dirt. Why does she do that to her own kids? Because they are HIS kids and because she can/could. The 2 oldest are now out of the house, the oldest doesn’t speak to her mother because of this attitude. It will never change. She is an angry, bitter, vindictive woman who wants everyone around her to be as miserable as she is. What she fails to realize is she is the one making herself miserable!

  2. avatar MsTex says:

    LW1:  His wife has been an invalid for many years.  Did this man have no loneliness or physical needs in the past?  Sure he ‘loves’ you.  Probably has ‘loved’ a few others first.   Before embarking on an emotional & physical devotion to this man, you would be well advised to have a private investigator to a background check.  I’ve seen too many “his wife doesn’t understand” relationships dissolve when the wife divorces/dies.  Suddenly the man finds that the other woman is less desirable, and he seriously marries someone else…someone who didn’t “cheat”, was never an “other woman”.   Someone more trustworthy.   Someone who would not betray her own personal professional ethics.  Or her marital vows.

  3. avatar Lori says:

    Re: LW1

    As a patient with MS, and someone who recently watched my mother care for my father as he died from lung cancer, I truly have to ask what the husband had in mind when he vowed, “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part.”

    I have a feeling LW1 only included enough details so that she would get the answer she wanted, probably because she already knew it was wrong.  But what is the extend of the wife’s disability?  Is it forgetting a word here or there, forgetting when something was supposed to occur?  That’s a completely normal part of MS and in no way impacts on the patient’s ability to have an emotional relationship.  Is the reason she’s in the nursing facility because she has difficulty moving her limbs, trouble bathing, or getting dressed?  Also a completely normal part of MS, but by no means turns her into a vegetable that only needs to be turned and watered.

    The better question for LW1 to be asking herself may be whether she wants to invest time in a relationship with a man who is so eager to “cut and run” when things get difficult.  Also, if he’s cheating on this wife, what is to stop him from cheating on you?

    But, if she still wants to pursue the relationship, why not be open with the wife about it?  Since you claim that neither you nor the husband want to hurt her, shouldn’t she have some say in the matter?

  4. avatar Debbie Ciaravino says:

    I’d like to point out the LW #1 is not the husband asking for permission, it is the mistress. How do we or the LW know that the husband has not already had an “ethical affair” (as Margo put it) before now? His wife has been in the nursing home for 7 years!
    Having said that, no advice columnist, or reader comments are going to be able to answer the question for you. It is a decision you have to make, what do you need to have a clear conscience. It sounds to me like you’re having an ethical dilemma and wanted someone to tell you it was ok, which Margo did. However, if you knew in your heart and soul that it was acceptable, then you wouldn’t have needed to ask the question. The very fact you had to ask is your answer.

    • avatar Jane Jordan says:

      Debbie –

      I could guarantee that if we did a little searching into this man’s private life, he’s already tried to get with his wife’s friends & any other nurse/tech in the nursing home. He’s on the prowl & pathetic letter writer #1 actually think she’s special too.

  5. avatar Briana Baran says:

    Re: L#1: I am perturbed by two things. The first is the assumption on so many readers’ part that the couple’s wedding vows were the standard, “…in sickness and in health…until death do us part…” sort, and that, furthermore, a set of standardized words said decades ago are the reason the man should not stray. The wife, whether completely physically incapacitated or not, most probably still has physical sensation and the need for human contact. I’ve known several adults with advanced MS, and all enjoyed the sensation of touch to at least some degree. It is a basic human need, for comfort, affection, and sexuality. Has the husband completely ceased to have any physical contact with his wife? And if so, why? Does it cause her discomfort, or even pain…or does it cause him discomfort…because her responses are not the same, or her appearance, or because she can no longer manage the same activities that she once did…and he cannot, or will not adapt? A nursing home setting does not necessarily preclude conjugal rights…especially if the the resident is in control of her mind and emotions.

    Vows don’t mean a thing…but being married to someone for decades should. She is a thinking, feeling human being, still vital, still capable of need and desire and want. Her body has betrayed her while she is still quite young. This is not someone who is demented and short term terminal at all. It seems that no one has thought, or dared, to ask her her opinion on this matter. I wonder why not?

    The second thing perturbing me is the husband’s claim that he “loves” the LW. As Sam Kinison said, you shouldn’t have sex with someone unless you love them…but that love can last for a very short time. So…he loves LW1. What about his wife? Does he love her too? If so, why hasn’t he asked her if he has her permission to have an affair with her one-time personal nurse (I agree with Miss Lee, there is something decidedly off about someone who may have bathed a woman, attended to her most intimate functions, tended to her frustration and suffering, and perhaps even been her confidante falling in love with the former patient’s husband and wanting to have a secret affair with him)? Does he love his wife? If he does, then why is he telling another woman he loves her, and planning a sexual and romantic/emotional affair with her? To keep from hurting his wife? I don’t quite believe this…somehow the whole scenario doesn’t quite gel.

    I do believe that LW1 doesn’t want to hurt the wife, and probably sees the affair as unethical. As a nurse, having sex with the husband of even a former patient who is physically incapacitated, but mentally sharp and aware…even if you’ve never found “love” before, even if he says he “loves” you…has got to weigh a bit heavily on the mind and heart. Essentially, LW1, you are not a selfish person, or you would not have written in to ask your question. I do think that, had the husband actually presented the wife with his dilemma honestly, and requested her permission to pursue another relationship on the side, so to speak, you might still be uncomfortable, but not so much. But I think you know he’s never going to ask her…because she is still entirely capable of desire, sensation, jealousy emotional pain…and the problem is quite possible with him, not her.

    He’ll never get her permission…even if she were altruistic and generous enough to give it, because he’ll never ask. I doubt his proposed love for you, and I suspect his continued love for her (why hasn’t he gotten a divorce? Social consciousness? Loss of respect from peers and family? Pre-nup or a strict will, or children who might be outraged? Inertia, or avariciousness? Who knows?). Save yourself some heartache by considering what just might happen if you become helpless someday. Remain friends, support her and him, and I suspect you might, after a time, begin to hear rumors of other…liaisons.

    If she were a long term custodial case with full dementia and physical incapacitation, I would not have an issue with a many-years lonely husband (or wife) seeking a relationship both sexual and affectionate to comfort and fulfill him. But that isn’t the case here, and you well know it. I don’t have moral issues…I am thinking of the humanity involved, and the suffering to be avoided.

  6. avatar youjane says:

    I’ve just got to say, there are a lot of very stupid people on here who have no idea what MS is.

    As another reader below pointed out so well, it’s very, very funny how every response in favor of Margo’s reply is based SOLELY on the satisfaction of the husband’s every craving, and I especially love how so many dicate that someone else should be selfless and not think of themselves. That is SO EASY to tell someone else to do, isn’t it? It’s great!

    Some of you are subliminally placing guilt on a woman stricken with MS for 30 years if she dare hesitate to say “Yes, please do go f*ck someone else honey. Why, I couldn’t say I love you if I didn’t want you to!” 

    For that, I truly don’t know what to say.

    • avatar Jane Jordan says:


      You pointed out a telling aspect of this. Basically, his wife has been likened to a sex toy. That’s all she is to these people. If she can’t satisfy her husband sexually, rather than remaining celibate, he should just have as many affairs as he wants. It’s so typical to read about nurses/techs falling for patients’ husbands. Can they find anybody else to screw these days?

  7. avatar Jane Jordan says:

    Why is it so difficult for someone to be celibate? You took a marriage vow after all. But no, you see with sick wives or soon after they die, the men move on 90% of the time. They never loved them to begin with, they just needed somebody to come inside & make their meals.

    • avatar butterfly55 says:

      It amazes me all the women on here who are so willing to be celibate, evidently have never had a good sex life.  So sad that they only felt like someone to “come inside”  when actually the act of sex is such an enjoyable thing if done correctly (and doesn’t require love).

      • avatar Jane Jordan says:

        LOL If you actually love your partner, you won’t cheat on them. Sorry that women like you can’t close their legs long enough to understand that. If a man can’t be celibate, he is using a woman like a sex toy. Certainly his wife can no longer serve his purpose for him.

  8. avatar Jane Jordan says:

    If you agree with this affair, basically you believe that any romantic relationship revolves around sex. And you believe that in particular women do not deserve to be loved if they are sick.

    • avatar chuck alien says:

      I think that we can all agree that

      1) She has had some negative experience regarding a very similar circumstance.

      2) Jane here is in dire need of some lovin’

      Besides that… of COURSE i believe women don’t deserve love if they are sick. it’s the only rational response to this situation.

      Luckily it only took the power of hyperbolic bitterness to help me see the light. Thanks, Jane!

      • avatar Jane Jordan says:

        Hey, you can’t blame me, I actually have morals & keep my commitments. I know it’s harder for you people who equate love with sex, but that’s my problem.

      • avatar Jane Jordan says:

        * not my problem

        PS: I’ve never had this happen to me, but I’ve seen hearts broken because men think they’re entitled to as much cumbuckets of women as they want. Their love never meant anything.

  9. avatar Jane Jordan says:

    BTW chuck, if I had an experience regarding a similar situation it seems like I would be the one to give insight into the emotional aspects of a spouse cheating on you while you’re not at your best. Why get married if you treat women like cum receptacles?

  10. avatar Diagoras says:

    Lepidopter Phoenyx,

    Although there’s nothing wrong with masturbation, it isn’t really a substitute for sex. Getting attention and affection from another person and having that feeling of being wanted or desired are also needs that can be fulfilled by sex but not by masturbation. Sex is a shared experience with another human. Now of course if you love your spouse you should be willing to go without temporarily for reasons such as sickness, etc. But for years, decades? I would not expect my husband to do that for me, esp. if my mind was going downhill as well.

  11. avatar Diagoras says:

    Forgot to add – but I agree with those who say the husband really ought to be honest with the wife.

  12. avatar percysowner says:

    To LW1. What bothers me the most is that at one time you were in a position of trust with this man’s wife. You aren’t a coworker that he met and fell in love with, you were a caretaker for his wife. She talked to you, may have confided in you. It would be very easy for her to interpret your actions as being predatory, because she will always wonder if you were simply milking her for a way into her husband’s heart or if she said something to make you want to go after him.

    That said, saying the husband should get a divorce if he can’t be faithful may be problematic. If they get a divorce, the wife loses any insurance benefits she is getting through her husband, this could result in her being moved into a facility that may not accommodate her needs. If she is on Medicare/Medicaid they have a lien on half of their house to cover her care. Her husband can remain in the house as long as he is alive and her husband, I don’t know what happens if they divorce, but he might be forced to pay the government for her half of the value of the house.

    My mother was diagnosed with MS when I was three and died when I was eleven. She was never hospitalized but I would be shattered if I ever discovered that my dad had cheated on her due to her illness.

    This is a complicated issue. Her husband may be able to have an ethical affair, but not with a person who formerly cared for his wife. Not with you.