Dear Prudence

Help! An Illness Has Completely Changed My Husband. Can I Leave Him?

In We’re Prudence, Prudence asks readers for their thoughts on a question that has her stumped. The answer is available only for Slate Plus members.

The person seen from the back, wearing a backpack, and looking at a road ahead of them.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

Every Thursday on Twitter @jdesmondharris, Dear Prudence asks readers for their thoughts on a question that has her stumped. She’ll post her final thoughts on the matter on Fridays. Here’s this week’s dilemma and answer:

Dear Prudence,

My husband “Ken” and I got married when we were 27. We’d been dating for three years and built a life around the activities we loved doing—hiking, cycling, cross-country skiing, and many other active pursuits.

Four years into our marriage, Ken was diagnosed with a chronic, incurable condition which flares up with no warning and is only somewhat controllable. He will deal with this for the rest of his life. The illness has made Ken into a different person. He can barely walk or lie in bed comfortably, much less go for a hike or engage in any of the activities that brought us so much joy in the past. Though the illness has no biological impact on his brain, Ken’s mental health has (understandably) completely fallen apart. He is depressed, angry, and verbally abusive to me. We are no longer in love. I am a caregiver at best and a verbal punching bag at worst.

I would like to leave Ken. I’ve brought this up with a few close friends and family members, nearly 100 percent of whom have had the same horrified, aghast reaction. They mention our wedding vows (“in sickness and in health”) and Ken’s increasing physical caregiving needs. Conceptually, I see where they’re coming from, but I don’t want to spend the rest of my life being a verbal punching bag for someone who seems like he hates me.

Would I be a monster for leaving Ken? Is there any way to do this in a manner that causes the least amount of pain possible for him? I do still care about him and don’t want to be cruel.

— Am I a Monster

Dear Am I,

A couple of things I’m sure about: What your friends think about your relationship never matters more than what you feel. You can end a relationship that’s making you unhappy at any time—even if the person did absolutely nothing wrong. And nobody is better off being with someone who doesn’t want to be there.

So the easy answer to your letter is: This guy is verbally abusing you. You didn’t agree to that. He broke your vows first. You absolutely don’t have to accept it. And it’s not cruel to leave.

That was the overwhelming response that from readers who responded to your question, and the one that resonated with me the most.

You never ever have to stay married to someone who abuses you ever, for any reason. Anyone who tells her otherwise is enabling her abuser. Marriages can—and do!—evolve as interests and lives must change. But there is no room for that growth in an abusive marriage — @lolacoaster

You’re always allowed to put yourself first and leave a situation that no longer benefits or fulfills you. You’re always allowed to leave an abusive person. People will have opinions that you’ll want to defend yourself against. What people think of you is none of your business. — @CarolineMoss

What’s sad is how many friends have tried to convince her to suffer because of vows – which SHOULD NOT take precedent over self-preservation. Also being ill is not an excuse to shit-talk your spouse and abuse is abuse no matter how you try to justify it. — @amayajsmith

There’s nothing about enduring abuse in the wedding vows. — @battymamzelle

Speaking as someone who developed chronic life-altering health problems a couple of years after marrying, there is no condition that justifies being unkind to one’s partner. My condition changed my husband’s life too - I would not expect him to stay if I treated him badly. — @JerriNewman

But since I put it out there for feedback, I’ll also surface another theme that I saw in the responses, in particular from disabled and chronically ill people. I want to be careful sharing it because I don’t think we have enough information from you to support this narrative with confidence—but if it resonates, think about it, and if it doesn’t, disregard it.

Some people wondered whether you might be fed up with the lifestyle changes that have come with being married to someone with Ken’s condition and wondered if you were labeling his understandably bad moods as “abuse” in an effort to make yourself feel better about leaving.  There were questions about whether this could fit a pattern whereby disabled and sick people’s loved ones get tired of them and distance themselves, using any excuse they can find.

My friends dropped me as soon as my disability was discovered to be permanent instead of a temporary injury. I got to hear through the grapevine them telling this same “we grew apart” lie. I would repeatedly explain my new limits, trying to schedule hangouts in my “good week” …post-pain treatments, only to be told I wasn’t “fun anymore” because I couldn’t be as spontaneous. They’d say I reminded them “too early” or “too late” to get on their schedule, yet I’d see them making alternate plans on social media that could’ve easily been with me instead. She says they built their life together around being active, but now her husband can’t really do those things anymore. That says it all to me … I’m not making excuses if he is indeed abusive. Disabled people absolutely can be abusers too, but we’re far more likely to be victims in any given bad situation. Her reasoning in this letter just echoes so many of the lies I heard about myself that I’m like, “Hmm.” — @molliekatie

If this is the case—and again, it’s a big if—it might be worth your while to invest in counseling to navigate the way your life has changed, the way Ken’s moods have changed, and how it’s affected you. If he’s simply been short or impatient with you as a result of his depression, maybe he can change, especially if he understands how much he’s hurting you and what’s at stake and if he gets the support he needs.

It’s interesting that the abuse gets three sentences while the alterations to their married lifestyle gets seven. I think LW might not be clear on her own priorities here. Individual counseling for all involved would be a great starting line. — @K_persists

Both OP and her husband are grieving the loss of the life they thought they would have together. I think couples counseling could be helpful, as well as individual therapy. It sounds like Ken is having trouble adjusting to living with his illness, and is taking his anger and frustration out on you, which is not at all OK. You are both processing pain and trauma, which is not a good place to make life-changing decisions. — @trishobrien

He needs therapy with someone well trained in chronic pain and trauma. The problem is, she sees the person he is right now as who he will be forever. Aside from the abuse, which has to stop now, this is a person who’s in a painful transition time who needs help. She’s seeing this as a binary, she can stay with a person she doesn’t like anymore, or she can leave and start a new relationship. Instead, she should see his mental health problems as *health problems* (bc they are) and support him getting the treatment he needs for those. — @iproposethis

I would have a conversation about how I’m feeling, being on the receiving end of verbal abuse. I would make an ultimatum – he must go to therapy (couples/and one: one) and work on his behavior or I’m out. give a fair chance to change, but if he’s unwilling/unchanging, leave. — @SamLindauer

Even if you still decide to leave the relationship, you might feel more confident and secure about the decision (if it comes to that) if you know that you’ve given the relationship an opportunity to improve.

But again: You said the word abuse, and to me that’s the end of the discussion. If you meant it—and I think we should assume you did—you should get out and not let anyone change your mind.

Classic Prudie

I am in my early 50s, and almost a decade ago my husband suffered a traumatic brain hemorrhage, which left him with the mental capacity of a perpetual 11-year-old. I am the center of his universe, and not in a good way. I work part time, and when I go out he’s afraid I’m leaving him. We haven’t had a husband-and-wife relationship since his injury. We are more like mother and child. I miss kissing, touching, and sex. Counseling wasn’t helpful; I was advised to get out more. My children are in their mid-20s, and if I left my husband he would become their problem, which isn’t fair. Is it wrong for me to find a man for adult companionship and sex? I don’t think I can do this for another 20-plus years.