Infidelity: Can the Stress of a Serious Illness Cause You to Cheat on your Spouse?

Can sickness make you want to cheat on your spouse? That’s the question being asked after former presidential candidate John Edwards admitted he cheated on his wife, Elizabeth, while she was in remission from breast cancer.

The cancer has since returned and become inoperable, something that friends of Elizabeth Edwards have said made her reconsider how long she intended to be angry at her husband, who admitted his infidelity shortly after it happened in 2006. Edwards confessed to an affair with Rielle Hunter, a producer who was paid more than $100,000 for filming webisodes for his unsuccessful campaign.

While she hadn’t read all the details of the Edwards affair, Laura Wasserman, a divorce attorney for celebrities Britney Spears and Angelina Jolie, said she could understand a sick spouse making a deal with their partner about finding other ways to sexually satisfy themselves, given the illness. It was just that scenario that Sex in the City character Samantha offered her partner when she was battling breast cancer on the TV show. That doesn’t appear to the be issue with John Edwards and his wife, however.

Hargrave McElroy, told People magazine that her friend, “Elizabeth Edwards, did not condone the affair but decided to stay with her husband after discovering her breast cancer had returned and was terminal. She couldn’t say, ‘Well, maybe we’ll work through this for years, or maybe we should separate for two years,'” McElroy told the magazine. “[The cancer] forced her to choose whether to move forward.”

The problem, according to divorce expert Tina B. Tessina, Ph.D., of Long Beach, California, is that “In sickness and in health means, ‘I’ll be with you whether you’re healthy or not.’ Easy to say, not so easy to do.”

Tessina and other divorce experts say Elizabeth Edwards’ battle with cancer certainly took a toll on the couple’s marriage. “Nothing makes anyone cheat, except his or her own volition. However, if a spouse is going through a long, drawn-out illness, or Alzheimer’s, or mental illness, the idea of cheating becomes more attractive,” Tessina said.

Brenda Della Casa, relationship expert and author of Cinderella Was a Liar, said, “Partners should talk to each other about what the marriage vow ‘in sickness and in health’ means before they walk down the aisle, to ensure you are both on the same page and have the same boundaries.”

“There is no set list of what situations will trigger a person’s choice to betray their partner, but there are situations that can make a person more vulnerable… Those vary from person-to-person. The key is to know yourself well enough to understand your weak points and avoid situations that will encourage destructive behavior,” Della Casa said.

“We tend to forget that our partner is human. We are all going to be overwhelmed, bored and confused at times. There will be times when we want to run away from our lives and as much as we hate to admit it to ourselves and one another, there will be times when we are attracted to other people. If you allow your partner to be open and honest about who they are and how they feel as well as speak authentically about who you are and how you feel, there’s a better chance of working through issues before they manifest themselves into something bigger and more destructive,” she said.

Still, experts said spouse’s illness is not an excuse for having an affair. “History is prolog and we’re creatures of habit. Who we are and how we have reacted in the past will likely affect how we respond in the present. Yes, illness of a partner can create stress, depression, disappointment, distance. But sickness doesn’t make you cheat,” said Phyllis Goldberg and Rosemary Lichtman, Ph.D.s and founders of, a website that helps women through transitions such as divorce.

Said Tessina, “In the case of Edwards, I think there was a lethal combination grief, fear, and ego that contributed to his downfall. Men generally have fewer resources for working through feelings, and often lean on a woman. If the wife’s illness is the cause of the feelings, he may lean on another woman, and the connection can become sexual. Or, he was just messing around.”


1. Talk to your partner.

When one partner becomes ill, “It’s also essential to communicate with your partner, something too many couples avoid doing because they are resentful, worry they will be shamed by their partner or afraid to cause tension in the relationship. There needs to be room for both parties to live and breathe and feel safe to express how they are feeling,” Della Casa said.

“The partner of a sick person may want to be supportive and loving but feel helpless or try and avoid the sickness all together… They take on the ‘Ignore it and maybe it will go away’ stance, which is not only selfish and hurtful to the partner who needs you and feels abandoned and rejected but totally destructive to the relationship. That said, it is essential the sick partner make room for their spouse to share what they are going through… There needs to be a place for him or her to share the scary, human emotions that are likely to come along with having your spouse’s life threatened,” Della Casa said.

2. Find a constructive release.

“Nothing makes someone cheat but overwhelming situations tend to encourage people to seek some kind of refuge. Sometimes this is destructive such as drinking too much after a hard week at work, taking drugs to escape a bad situation, cheating on your partner, et cetera.,” Della Casa said.

Goldberg and Lichtman agreed: “Those who are self-centered and pleasure-principal oriented will more likely look for a quick fix for feelings of vulnerability rather than working through the emotional issues with their partner. This is more difficult if there were already problems in the marriage that the sickness then compounds. Yet, developing adaptive strategies to self-soothe can serve you in the inevitable crises you’ll face over a lifetime.”

Among Della Casa’s suggestions: Take up running or another form of exercise or write in a journal.

3. Get professional support.

Therapy and support groups can help. “You do need support if your spouse is seriously ill. You can’t always talk to your spouse about your anger, frustration, and helplessness in the face of the spouse’s illness,” Tessina said. “We in America are phobic about illness and death, which makes it more stressful. Unless you have professional help to deal with your fears and stress, you can easily make bad choices.”

Tessina cautions, “Leaning on another person of the other gender, unless it’s a brother or sister, can be perilous.” Best to seek professional assistance rather than open oneself up to potential infidelity.