Dear Family Advisor

My husband's injury has left me lonely in a sexless, loveless marriage.

Last updated: Aug 24, 2010

My husband became disabled eight years ago with transverse myelitis and was partially paralyzed from the waist down. He has issues with his bladder and bowel, sex, mobility (legs and spine), and pain. I cared for him 24/7 for the first three years. For the past five years, he's had no interest in me at all. I have to think for both of us because most of the time he just isn't mentally with it, probably due to the medication. There's no intimacy.

I feel so lonely. I don't want to have an affair. But I've tried everything, and I don't want to spend the rest of my life like this. The guilt is what kills me. We've been married for 25 years and have four great children, now grown. Any suggestions on how I can move on with my life without hurting him?

What I'm going to say may sound bizarre, but have an affair -- with life! No one should go through life without love and affection. You're absolutely normal and healthy to be hurting and to have the feelings and thoughts you're experiencing. I know you miss sex, but sex is the tip of the iceberg (pun intended). You're longing for friendship, connection, physical activity, intimacy, meaningful work, challenges, and adventures.

It's perhaps not that your husband doesn't love you or doesn't want to connect with you sexually. He can't. Whether the reason for his withdrawal is physical, emotional, and/or neurological, I don't see any honor in continuing to give him 100-percent devoted care without receiving anything in return for the rest of his days.

Is he in a care facility? Can you afford one? He'll receive round-the-clock care, and you can check on him often but not have to deal with the daily logistics that come with home care. If this isn't an option, then do all you can to free as much time as you can for your own needs.

You mentioned an affair -- I wouldn't recommend chasing one down! There are too many "players" out there who would take advantage of your vulnerable state. Besides, that's not really what you're after. You're after a rich and interesting life full of new people and experiences. One guy isn't going to give you that.

I'm going to throw out some ideas to expand your horizons, and I hope you'll grab a couple. It's important to include some physical activities in the mix; this will help keep you healthy and alleviate depression. Get a part-time job or volunteer. Sign up for some senior classes at your local college, community center, or place of worship. Join the Y or a walking club. Try yoga or take ballroom dance lessons. Reconnect with old friends from work or college (go to a reunion or alumni event). Plan a group trip so that you have time to get to know people better. Schedule weekly activities with others -- lunch, movies, walks -- chat on the phone, or try online forums that expose you to variety of people. Live the old saying, "To gain a friend, be a friend."

Along with the fun stuff, giving back to others or finding some work outside the home will enrich your life. We can only fool ourselves for so long, and a life full of only entertainment isn't meaningful.

You may feel an unexpected wave of guilt about your new-found freedom at first. Be gentle with yourself. You'll make mistakes and either have to pull back or dive in more. In time you'll find your balance.

How will your children and friends take all this? They may be more understanding than you think. Some grown children perceive our lives more realistically than we realize or even want them to. Others are so involved with their own lives they don't really see us as whole people. And still others are highly opinionated as to what we should or shouldn't do. We can't do much to change their minds. Do what's best for you -- and be a good example to your children. Would you want them to live in a loveless marriage for decades on end?

If your children and others are open-minded and interested, let them know some of what's going on. Frankly but kindly, explain that you've given your husband years of love and dedication, that you'll continue to make sure he's cared for (and that he needs their care as well). But add that it's time for you to focus on your health and your life. State this as a fact. It isn't open for debate.

Your husband might react negatively or positively to these changes. He might be jealous, petty, or demanding, or he might realize he's taken you for granted. Will this change how you feel? Don't let his reactions keep you from doing what you know is good for you. If it feels like you just can't break free, talk to your doctor, a spiritual advisor, or therapist. You may need medication to battle depression or expert guidance to move out of the unhealthy emotional cycle your marriage and your husband's health issues have created.

You'll need to make firm commitments to yourself and hold yourself to them to keep moving forward. Will you meet someone special along the way? You might, but focus on building a healthy, active life first.