Dear Family Advisor

I'm thinking of leaving my spouse, who has Parkinson's.

Last updated: Oct 13, 2008

My husband and I have been married for 42 years, but it hasn't been a loving relationship -- ever. He hasn't always been faithful or provided well for us, has always drunk too much, and he hasn't told me he loves me in decades. Now he has Parkinson's and he's in a wheelchair. He needs full-time care and is more demanding and colder to me than ever, and I don't have feelings for him any more. I'm almost ashamed to admit it, but I'm thinking of leaving him.

Our grown children might be shocked to hear this, but they know what kind of father he was, so maybe they wouldn't be. I guess I stayed with him because of them, but after they grew up, I should have left. My problem now is that I'm 65 years old and scared to start over. Where would I live? Where could I get a job? It just seems so complicated.

I'm on antidepressants and I'm close to 100 pounds overweight, and I know it's partly due to stress. All I can think about is that I don't know how long I'll live either -- and I'd like my last years on earth to be at least peaceful. Am I terrible to leave him when he's in bad shape?

I can't tell you whether to leave your husband or stay with him. I can tell you that either way, you can make real changes and have a life you feel good about.

I applaud you for taking a good hard look at your life. Marriage is complicated, and we stay for lots of reasons that are hard to explain. I can't help but think of that lovely poem, "If I Had My Life to Live Over, I'd Pick More Daisies," by Nadine Stair. None of us gets a chance to do it over, but we can begin at any time in our life to "pick more daisies."

Facing the hard realities of your life and marriage, and realizing that you have been so deeply hurt for so long that you don't have any feelings left, is very difficult. But it also must be freeing. Just to write it down took guts. It's a great first step for you.

Let's walk through both scenarios.

What if you leave? There's nothing inherently wrong with thinking about leaving a spouse with whom you have had, and still have, a very difficult relationship, even if he is now sick or disabled.

Look past the labels of "good wife" or "good person" -- beyond what you think other people will call you -- and concentrate on your own personal ethics. In the end, being a martyr to please other people won't help anyone.

Visualize what you would need to do to leave by the end of the month. Do you have a friend you could stay with? Do you need to call her? Will you look for full- or part-time work? Do you have any cash or investments -- or a car that's in your name? Would you stay in the same city you're in now or relocate?

In regard to your husband, would you need to arrange for full-time care? Does he have Medicare or health insurance? Can your children help out? Do you need to prepare a list of doctors, medications, and caregiving tasks for the person who will care for him when you go?

Now assess how all this makes you feel. Freer? Worried? I guarantee that it will make you feel scared -- change almost always does. But don't let that be the deciding factor. Being scared is a good thing. It means you're alive and trying new things. The easiest thing to do in this situation is nothing, to let things stay the same, but that's not what you want.

If you really want to leave, it's doable. In fact, just knowing that you can leave is empowering, and I suspect that's something you need: to feel that you're not trapped, that you have power over your own life. Getting out in the workforce is scary, but many older Americans still work or have reentered the workforce, so you're not alone.

On the other hand, be careful not to romanticize moving out. Many times we don't think of the realities of having to work nights and weekends, stand on our feet all day at a job, get training, make ends meet, feel lonely and isolated at starting over, or face our family and friends' reactions to our decision (although I bet that your family and friends won't be as surprised at your unhappiness as you expect). Don't let these things stop you, but do think about them.

Now let's look at the other path.

What if you stay? If you do, that doesn't mean things can't change. They can -- a lot.

First, you can level with your husband. Tell him that you no longer have loving feelings for him. If you're willing to continue to manage his care, let him know you need to separate yourself from him emotionally.

If you no longer want to share a bedroom, move down the hall (if you haven't done so already). If you want a separate checking account, get one. Let him know you'll be giving yourself a salary.

He might get angry about this, but what can he really do about it? Cut you off? Divorce you? You're thinking about leaving him anyway, so don't let his threats scare you. The worst outcome is that you have to leave, get a job, and build a new life.

Will he cut you out of his will? Leave you penniless? Perhaps, so be prepared, but if things between you are bad enough, money won't be your motivation to stay. And a lawyer can give you a sense of what you're entitled to. Being a faithful wife for 42 years will be taken into consideration in any legal settlement.

Or you could let your husband know that you'll stay but you'll be finding someone to provide daily care. This may eat into savings or retirement, but it may be worth the trade-off.

If you really can't afford this, find out what community resources are available to help out. There's no reason why you need to devote yourself to his care when he doesn't appreciate it. He can still be well cared for, but you don't have to do it all.

This may sound cold at first, but it really isn't. These are all reasonable things to expect in your situation. You don't have to say them in an ugly tone. It's simply a fact that you have every right to be treated with love and respect. Things need to change. You need peace and joy in your life. You can still make sure that he gets a good level of care without subjecting yourself to manipulation and humiliation.

Needless to say, couples therapy would be very helpful for both of you when setting down the new terms of your relationship and working through the transition.

Don't be surprised if his behavior changes when you stand up for yourself. It may force him to assess his life and the choices he's made, as you have done. Age and illness can also bring on a life evaluation. That may or may not change anything for you, but know that your newfound strength is bound to have some effect on him and your relationship.

Now, let's talk about you -- not just in the roles of wife or caregiver. You mentioned that you're in poor health, have gained weight, and are relying on antidepressants. It's time to address some of these issues -- in fact, for your health, it's imperative that you do!

There are things you can do right now. Start small. Draw a heart on your bathroom mirror at the exact height of your face and, each morning and night, put your face in the heart. Look into your own eyes. Smile.

It's going to be uncomfortable at first, and you'll have a million thoughts and regrets. Just plant your feet and keep smiling -- even if you find tears rolling down your face. Accept yourself just as you are. Weight and all. Sadness and all. Begin to build a more positive relationship with yourself by meeting "you" twice a day for a smile.

Then add in three deep breaths -- from your toes to the top of your ears. Do this in front of the mirror, every time you get in the car, and throughout the day. Nothing is better for us than a simple cleansing breath. It might sound "new agey," but it's not. It's natural. It centers us, gives our cells oxygen, and slows us down. It gives us a moment to think about what we're doing, to make tiny adjustments to our thoughts and actions.

Next, start getting out of the house! I know how small our caregiving world can become. We lose touch with friends, we forget to do the simple things we love, we let our looks and our health go -- and all this leads to hopelessness and depression.

Go for a walk, a drive, a day at a friend's house, an exercise or computer class -- anything that's a commitment for a certain time on a certain day. You've got to break your normal routine and stretch yourself a bit.

Talk to your doctor about the antidepressants, but it's probably best to continue taking them for now. You've got too much going on, too many decisions to make, to change this at the moment. In the future, you can reevaluate. (If you do decide to stop taking them, however, see your doctor, as this should be monitored.)

Begin to rebuild your life. Leaving -- or staying -- isn't enough. Only when you start to repair you own heart and invigorate your life with new direction, people, and purpose will you begin to feel whole again.

Whatever choice you make will have its challenges, but you can find peace and hope in either circumstance. It's up to you to make that happen.