Dear Therapist: Is It Wrong to Divorce My Sick Wife?

Before her health took a turn for the worse, we had both agreed that we should end our 14-year marriage.

A man walks away from his wife while she sits on a heart
Bianca Bagnarelli
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Dear Therapist,

Let me start by saying I’m not leaving my wife because of her illness. On the contrary, I’ve probably stayed way longer—we’ve been married nearly 14 years—than I should have because of it.

We both could make a case for why we should have never gotten married. We broke up and got back together several times prior to marrying. I even married someone else (the marriage lasted approximately one year, and I could write a separate letter about that one!), and I was engaged to someone else before our paths crossed again and we married.

Two years later, after the birth of our only daughter together (I have an older child with another woman), my wife was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy (enlargement of the heart), which doctors believe happened during her pregnancy. It caused some valve damage that she needed surgery to repair, and she later had additional surgery to implant a pacemaker.

Her health stabilized, but the issues we had prior to getting married worsened. I told myself going into 2019 that I would ask for a divorce for the sake of both our happiness. But toward the end of 2018, her heart issues started to get worse. So when I asked for a divorce, she accused me of leaving because she's sick. Fortunately, I had a bulleted list of all the things that were not getting better—and she didn’t disagree with the plethora of issues I laid out.

We mutually agreed that we should get a divorce, but a week or so later her health took a turn for the worse. Now her cardiologist says that she may have to have another heart surgery or even a transplant. As much as I’m concerned for her, I have been through thick and thin with her through prior surgeries and sometimes long bouts of her not being at 100 percent, and I know I can no longer stay. I will pick up the slack where I need to for my daughter, and my wife has a great support system with immediate family, but I don't want to come off as a jerk.

Am I wrong to leave her under the circumstances?

Keller, Texas

Dear Reginald,

Often when people come to therapy, I’m listening not just to their story, but to their flexibility with their story. Is this version of the story the only version—the so-called accurate one? Or might the person’s way of telling the story be protective, a way of not having to look at something shameful or anxiety-provoking, of not having to look at oneself clearly? Being flexible with one’s story is where growth begins, where the possibility of a better way to live one’s life is revealed. I can’t tell you whether you’re wrong to leave your wife, but I can help you understand your decision better by examining the story you’re telling yourself.

Here’s another way to tell your story. You have a long history of struggling in relationships. You were in a troubled relationship with the woman who years later became your wife, leading to a series of breakups. Between these breakups, you married someone else, and after just one year, got divorced. Given that you could write me a separate letter about that one-year marriage, it sounds as if it was a volatile one that ended quite badly. Then you were engaged to someone else, but that relationship, too, imploded. Finally, you reencountered your ex-girlfriend, and despite your earlier problems together—problems significant enough to lead to multiple breakups in the past—you began dating again and then married, fully aware, as you say now, that the relationship had a “plethora of issues.” Still, you had a child with this woman, and after 14 years of dealing with the original problems that existed before the marriage, along with the serious health crisis precipitated by her pregnancy with your child, you’ve had enough and must leave. Of course, she has a support system, so it will be okay.

Now, if you were hearing this story as an outsider, would you shake your head and say, “Oh, this poor, long-suffering man! Look at all the hardship he’s been through—all these women have wreaked havoc on his well-being, and I hope he can save himself and go find true love once and for all”? Or might you say, “Oh, this man sounds so confused. He’s clearly suffering, but he also seems to struggle with maintaining a stable, intimate relationship. I’m worried for his future well-being—no matter what he decides to do”?

How you answer this question will shed light on your degree of flexibility with your story. The tendency here is to get defensive—Wait, you don’t understand. Let me tell you what these women are like. Let me tell you what I’ve put up with!—and though it’s hard to do, I’d encourage you to step out of that narrative for just a few minutes to consider a slight edit to your story. Yes, you may well have put up with a lot, but it’s possible that something else is going on here too.

For starters, you say that you don’t want to come off as a jerk, but consider: This probably isn’t the first time a woman you were partnered with thought that you acted like a jerk. Instead of indirectly asking me whether you’re being a jerk, ask yourself, Why do I find myself in situations where I have to ask that question in the first place?

The part of your story that seems to stand out for its accuracy is that you aren’t leaving your wife because of her illness—at least, not completely. Given your history and the way you told your story, my guess is that you’ve found it hard to stay in any relationship, illness or not, and that you’ll continue to do so if you don’t figure out why relationships are so challenging for you.

So where does this rewrite leave you? In a better place, ready to begin to fill in the gaps in the story, such as: Why did the protagonist marry somebody with whom he was already having difficulties? What role did he play in his earlier marriage and engagement both not working out? When he became more acutely aware of the problems in his current marriage and the effect they were having on his well-being, how did he handle that? Did he talk with his wife about what was going on, perhaps suggesting that they see a therapist to try to work things through together as a couple—or did he choose instead to wait 14 years and then present her with a bulleted list on his way out the door?

The answers to these questions can teach you how to improve your relationship (married or not) with your wife—which will be important as you co-parent together under especially trying circumstances—and any future relationship you end up in. These answers will help you shift from seeing the story solely within the confines of a first-person perspective (I’m not happy; I’ve put up with a lot) to being able to see it as a more balanced, third-person narrator (This mother is undergoing something life-altering, and has been for more than a decade, and probably hasn’t gotten much help for the trauma that resulted from her pregnancy. This daughter’s life has been affected by having a sick mother and parents who don’t get along. This husband and father has some personal issues to work out so that he can have healthier relationships). As you rework your story, you’ll develop more empathy for the other characters in the narrative, and be able to see the plot from their points of view as well.

None of this means you’re right or wrong for leaving the relationship, but it will better equip you to be the father and partner you want to be going forward—for your own sake and the sake of those around you.

Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.