Ask Dr. Gramma Karen: Daughter-in-Law Is Upset with Father-in-Law’s Behavior

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My mother-in-law, Phoebe, has severe Alzheimer’s and has lived in a full-care residence for two years. She and my father-in-law, Sheldon, had a close and loving relationship, so it is particularly sad that she no longer recognizes him or any of us. We’re glad she is well cared for where she is.

My problem regards my father-in-law. A successful businessman, he is the president of a national professional organization. This organization recently had a conference in another city. A friend of a friend of mine attended the conference and reported back that Sheldon was carrying on in public with a woman known on the conference circuit for, let’s say, her availability. It seems Sheldon was the source of smirking and gossip.

He is a cheat and I am disgusted with him. Not only is he being disloyal to his wife, he is setting a bad example for his young grandchildren. I don’t even want him in our house. My husband says we should let it go and not say anything because Sheldon is dealing with a tough situation with Phoebe. What do you think?

Your husband is correct when he says his dad is dealing with a tough situation, and made even thornier by the rumor mill busy at work about his alleged relationship while at a conference. Sadly, and as attested to by many spouses of Alzheimer’s patients, there are no easy, one-size-fits-all answers regarding establishing new relationships when a spouse’s or partner’s disease is advanced and leaves the patient incapacitated. Individual, personal values and moral codes influence these decisions.

For example, what you might label and condemn as infidelity or adultery, others might take a softer position toward and characterize Sheldon as a man who understandably seeks companionship, affection, and perhaps physical intimacy. As summarized in a Wall Street Journal article:

“Caregivers often face a stark choice: Either start an extramarital relationship and risk estrangement from friends and family — not to mention their own guilt — or live without a real companion for many years. The trend is prompting religious leaders, counselors and others to rethink how they define adultery.” Case in point: religious broadcaster Pat Robertson publicly proclaimed that divorcing a spouse with Alzheimer’s is justifiable.

Before I offer my advice, I want to reference some resources that you may find instructive. The first is a compendium of over 150 New York Times articles that provides the latest research on Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. One article in particular, “Love in the Time of Dementia”, may help you be more sympathetic to the “new attachments” often undertaken by caretaker spouses. As the article points out, “Young love is about wanting to be happy. Old love is about wanting someone else to be happy.”

I point this out because in the course of my research, it was not unusual to come across examples of someone facing a progressive disease to discuss with his/her spouse or partner a hope that the well person would find happiness with someone else – including physical intimacy – when the disease robs him/her of the ability to be a loving and participative partner.

For example, in the comments section of another article, “When Illness Makes a Spouse a Stranger”, a caretaker spouse writes:

“In standard marriages, there seems to be a lot of selfishness going on: I own you, you can’t do this or that according to the church’s rules. People can be totally capable of taking care of a spouse whose mental faculties have disappeared and yet still have another romantic partner, friends, family, etc. who provides to them the support they so desperately need, while they are tending to their sick spouse . . . We all deserve happiness and I don’t think it’s selfish at all, so long as your sick partner’s needs are still being tended to.”

In another article, “Till Dementia Do Us Part”, several caretakers explain their decision to develop new romantic relationships. In the comments section, several caretakers who have new attachments make reference to the proverb that has its origin to the Cherokee tribe of Native Americans: “Don’t judge a man until you have walked a mile in his shoes.” These caretakers caution against judging others’ decisions when they have not been directly tested, i.e., “I would never . . .” Trite, but true: Never, say never. However, as pointed out in several comments, caretakers who do engage in new attachments do not easily make these decisions.

My purpose with the above examples is not to suggest you approve or condone your father-in-law’s public behavior with another woman. Rather, my intent is to share the experiences of others who have dealt with similar issues. Perhaps you can rid yourself of the anger you are directing toward your father-in-law and try to replace it with some compassion. From what you have said about him, your father-in-law is not an evil or bad man who is a threat to you, your children, or to anyone.

My advice: I suggest that either you or you and your husband together share with Sheldon what you heard: “Dad, you need to know that someone who was at the conference told us that you got yourself talked about in less-than-flattering ways because you were seen spending time with a particular woman, someone known to be ‘easy’ on the conference circuit.” No judgment, no opinions on what he should do or not do in the future. You merely report back to him what you heard.

If Sheldon wants to discuss it with you, your job is to listen, with an open heart, if possible. If he chooses not to say anything, you can bring closure to the discussion by saying, “We thought you would want to know.” Sheldon has choices to make. He will either: change his ways; become more discreet; disregard your message and continue doing what he did at the conference; some combination thereof.

You have put Sheldon on notice in a non-judgmental way, and that is all you need to do at this time. You can always make known your moral objections in the future, should it come to that, but you would do so knowing that moral righteousness can often irreparably damage relationships. My hope for you and your family is that this does not happen.

Ask Dr. Gramma Karen is published every other Tuesday.
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Helping Young Parents and Grandparents Deal with Thorny Issues

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