Shattered Image

October 03 2017 | by

DEAR DR. POPCAK: I am the husband of a doctor, now suffering from dementia. Some 30 years ago I committed infidelity. It was my moment of weakness. I struggled with it, repented, prayed to God and finally, after a penitential path, felt cleaned and forgiven.

I have since led a celibate lifestyle because intimacy was hurtful to my wife. When in May this year my wife learned about this infidelity all hell broke loose.

She hates me and spills out guttural language against me as if she were possessed by the devil. She refuses any forgiveness, even against the advice of her aged care specialist, councilors, our parish priest and other spiritual advisers. It appears that the disclosure has worsened her dementia problem.

Despite this, I continue to love and support my wife unconditionally, and will do everything I can to get her well again. What advice do you have for me, Dr. Popcak?


The affair is in your distant past, but it appears that your wife only found out about it the past May. Even if your wife wasn’t struggling with a disorder that not only affected her cognitive ability but also her capacity to control her emotional reactions, this would be a terrible blow. When a spouse discovers infidelity, it doesn’t matter how long ago that actual affair was. To her, it feels as if it is happening now. Additionally, since she was unaware of your affair, she assumed certain things about you that now, to her, may not have been true. Namely, that you were trustworthy, that you are honest, and that she could count on you. The revelation of the affair reveals not just something you did a long time ago, but, to her mind, exposes a side of you that she did not know existed. It would not be uncommon for a woman in your wife’s position to feel that she has been living in a lie with a stranger for at least the last 30 years if not for the entirety of your married life.

Needless to say this would be devastating to any woman, but the fact that your wife is now struggling with dementia means that she also does not have the capacity to process and regulate her emotional reactions like she would if she was well. People with dementia often have difficulties with impulse control, anxiety, and inappropriate displays of emotion.

You need to understand the seriousness of the harm you have done to your wife not just by your affair, but the timing of your delayed revelation. No, she is not responding appropriately. No, she should not persist in saying vile things to you. But chances are, she is simply not capable of responding any other way especially in light of her diminished capacity. Your narrative seems to be that of “poor, long-suffering, devoted spouse to demon-possessed, unforgiving wife.” You need to understand that you have, in fact, spent the last 30 years betraying her. First by cheating on her, then by keeping the affair a secret and depriving her of the opportunity to work through the marital issues that provoked the affair, and then by revealing – when she is at the most vulnerable point in her life – that the man she thought she knew inside and out may not be person she thought he was. You say that you have done penance for your affair, but true penance is never just done until we can feel better about ourselves. True penance always involves healing the damage we have done to the people we have hurt. In fact, Confession only absolves you of the spiritual consequences of your sin – your offense against God. You are still required to do what you can to make up for the actual pain you have caused people by your actions. Continue to provide the care she will allow you to give her, and do your best to be loving, understanding, bear her outbursts patiently. You may try to gently ask her forgiveness, but I would not count on her being able to extend it because of her poor emotional control. I do believe that you are sorry and that you did not anticipate the harm either your past or present behavior would cause, nevertheless, working through this is going to require you to understand that patiently accepting her dementia-fueled rage is a small price to pay for lying to her (by omission) every day for the last 30 years of your marriage. That said, the progress of this illness is that the most recent memories are lost first. I would not be surprised if, sooner or later, you saw her move into a different phase of the illness where she no longer is able to remember the pain she is currently in. I pray that you will be able to find some peace then. Until then, be faithful. Be loving. Show her that you have the courage to be the man she believed you were all this time.

Updated on October 03 2017