Caregiving: Sex? Romance? Do Caregivers Have the Energy?

In 2010, on the day my husband Michael was hospitalized for the fourth time in four months, I got an email from an old boyfriend. Talk about irony. Talk about timing. Talk about temptation.

The email was out of the blue, after over a decade of silence, and not from any old boyfriend either; this was the old boyfriend with whom I’d had a passionate relationship that began after my first marriage, resumed after my second, and ended only after I met and fell in love with Michael –- an old boyfriend who’d been hard to resist, in other words. The email was merely a “Hello, how are you,” but it nearly made me pass out with excitement.

I read it for the first time after I got home from the hospital that night. I was sitting at the computer, checking my inbox, and there it was on my screen. It might as well have been written in Scarlet Letter red ink.

I was so taken aback that I read it again to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating. Had this man (we’ll call him Tom) really gotten in touch with me after so many years?

Yep. There he was, back in my life, if only in a cyberspacey way, and I didn’t know what to make of it.

For months I’d been feeling like a drudge, a drone, a hag, a crone, a person without a passionate bone in her body, much less an actual libido. I was a burned-out caregiver with neither the time nor the interest in anything other than coping with my husband’s medical disasters.

And yet, I was vulnerable. A hot guy from my past was saying hello and I found the whole thing thrilling. I focused on the email and whether I should answer it, how I should answer it, what would result if I answered it, would I be cheating on Michael if I answered it. Oh, the drama.

I ran straight to my makeup case and put on lipstick, even though I was alone in the house and even though it was ten o’clock at night and even though I was aware that I was being an idiot. And then I regarded my reflection in the bathroom mirror to see if I still had anything going for me in the looks department. I was ten years older since this guy had last seen me. Was I still desirable? Did I have any juice left? Did I even want to have any juice left?

I went back to the hospital to see Michael the next day. And because I was feeling guilty that I was obsessing about a man other than him, I said in the most blasé way, “I got an email from Tom last night. Remember him?”

“Not really,” he said while pressing the button that made the head of his bed go up and down, producing a buzz as annoying as a dental drill.

“A guy I used to go out with,” I said over the din. He continued to play with the bed. “I should probably answer. It wouldn’t be nice to ignore him, right?”

“Sure, whatever,” said Michael, thereby giving me permission to write back to my old boyfriend.

At home that night, I sat down at the computer and composed about 3,000 versions of “Hey, Tom. Great to hear from you.” I wanted to sound chirpy, upbeat, youthful, happy – as if my life had turned out so perfectly as to preclude any interest in him other than a friendship from afar. I settled on something like “Hey, Tom! What a surprise! Hope all’s well!” Lots of exclamation points for sure. I hit “send” and noticed that my palms were clammy and my heart was racing. I was like some hormonal teenager.

About an hour later, another email landed in my inbox, indicating how glad Tom was that I had responded. Then I wrote back. Then he wrote back. And so on.

Our correspondence continued for a few days, and it was exhilarating and exhausting. Neither of us mentioned spouses or encumbrances of any kind. The subject was us – how sorry we were that we’d lost touch and how we really should get together sometime.

I hated myself for keeping the communication going even as I felt justified in doing it. It was glorious to have a man pay attention to me, not as the dependable caregiver, but as a woman. I had no intention of seeing Tom again, much less running away with him, but the flirting was addictive. It made me feel like a dried-up plant that had finally been watered.

I should add that it wasn’t as if I had fallen out of love with my husband or that we weren’t still attracted to each other. It was just that he has a chronic illness and doesn’t feel well enough to have sex on a regular basis, so we have to pick our moments. Flirting with Tom was merely a reminder that I wasn’t dead, that my needs weren’t dead. Wasn’t that a valid reason to keep doing it?

Not after his next email, which said: “We really should get together, Jane. When?”

Game over. There could be no “when.” If I’d really wanted to be with Tom, I’d had ample opportunities over the years. What’s more, it was the fantasy of Tom that had aroused me, not the flesh-and-blood person.

Being married to a man with an illness presents many challenges, and keeping romance and sex alive is among them. I’m lucky that Michael still thinks I’m a “dish” and whistles when I take off my clothes, but what about men and women who no longer get that satisfaction from their partner? Is infidelity a legitimate option for caregivers?

Psychotherapist Tina B. Tessina doesn’t make any moral judgments: “If it’s not hurting anybody and it’s helping you, it’s not necessarily a terrible thing. It might even make it possible to be more tender and loving with your partner. That’s why it’s not uncommon for caregivers to meet other caregivers in support groups and have an affair. They have that bond, that shared experience, and they can be kind to each other about it. But you have to make peace with yourself about it. You can’t go into it feeling like the world’s worst person. The bottom line is we’re human beings. We have needs.”