Marriage and Relationships: How Caregiving Couples Can Make It Work

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Even the strongest relationships can be pushed to the brink when one or both members of a couple are caring for an elderly relative. Stress, lack of privacy, financial pressure, and simple exhaustion are common complaints of caregivers, as the results of's recent caregiver survey make clear. Still, some couples find ways not only to cope with the challenges but to use the experience to strengthen their bonds.

What can caregivers do to protect and enhance their relationships? consulted with experts, who point out that there are no magic bullets or easy answers. However, there are steps you can take to keep your marriage strong throughout the caregiving experience:

Make communication a priority.

Too often spouses fail to reach out to one another and talk about the many problems and conflicting feelings that arise in caregiving situations, say Drs. Charles and Elizabeth Schmitz , authors of the award-winning book Golden Anniversaries: The Seven Secrets of Successful Marriage .

  • No matter how busy or difficult it gets, says's Family Advisor, Carol O'Dell , it's essential to talk frequently with your partner , or misunderstandings and resentments are bound to fester. "We often have pictures in our own head about how things are going," says O'Dell, "but we don't always express them, and our partner may have very different expectations. That's when it's time to talk it through."
  • Therapist Bobbi Emel urges caregiving couples to meet regularly to talk about practical matters, express their feelings -- and simply to vent. "It's important, for example, to have an understanding that it's OK to express your frustrations or convey how exhausting your week was," she says.

Emel, who works with caregivers in her practice in Palo Alto, California, points out that men in particular have a tendency to want to fix things, but sometimes the caregiver just needs to gripe -- and the other partner should do his or her best to listen. "Once both partners have had a chance to vent," says Emel, "try to get into a problem-solving mode. For example, if you need more time with your partner, suggest something concrete: 'Once a month I need you to take a weekend off from caring for your mother, so we can get away.'"

Get outside support

Experts agree that it's important to seek support -- both practical and emotional -- to ease the burden on your partner. O'Dell's elderly mother lived with her, her husband, and their three children during the last years of her life. "Don't let caregiving become the bone of contention in your marriage," she says, "and if you do have problems, seek help before it's too late."

What you can do:

  • Ask siblings and other family members to take over the caregiving for your relative for a weekend, so you and your partner can get away.
  • If a sibling lives far away and can't provide much daily assistance, find out if she can provide some financial help.
  • Join a caregiver support group so you'll have regular support and fellowship from others in the same situation. If you can't find a support group in your area, Emel suggests, start your own at a local senior center or care facility.

Keep romance alive.

Make a concerted effort to keep the flame of your love affair alive with each other every day, the Schmits advis e.

  • No matter how busy you are with caregiving and other responsibilities, experts stress the importance of creating a sanctuary for your marriage. This means having dates and weekends away whenever you can.
  • It also means using small, daily moments for you and your partner to get back in touch . "We'd go for a bike ride around the block, or we'd take a shower together," O'Dell recalls. "Before my mother got really sick, I put a coffee pot in our bedroom so my husband and I could have morning coffee together, because once I opened that bedroom door and my mother knew I was awake, it was all over."
  • It's also important to take the time to pamper your partner . Everyone deserves and appreciates a little pampering -- whether you're the caregiver or the partner of a caregiver -- and small, caring gestures can be incredibly powerful. O'Dell recalls the time her husband washed her hair: "To have someone do something for you that you do for others -- it was wonderful. For five minutes, I could let down my shoulders and relax."

Find ways to celebrate -- and recognize the silver linings

Caregiving experts agree that your attitude has a powerful influence on the quality of the caregiving experience and its impact on your marriage. "It's important, no matter how busy you are, not to lose the fun in life, the celebration," says O'Dell.

  • Honor each others' birthdays and holidays. This doesn't mean you need to make elaborate preparations. If you're pressed for time, pick up a cake at the grocery store and cook an easy dinner. And don't wait for the official holidays to celebrate. "If you're having a terrible day, see if you can turn it around," says O'Dell. "Sure, you're exhausted, but you can still grab candles, bubble bath, and a box of chocolates at the grocery store and make a night of it."
  • Create satisfying rituals. O'Dell is a firm believer in little rituals that brighten the tough and often tedious landscape of caregiving. "My husband and I have had a long standing 'date' on Sundays -- with the couch, a quilt, the newspaper, some pastries, a pot of coffee, and the CBS Sunday Morning show," she says. "This has been our tradition for years, and as long as we have this very sacred time, the rest of our crazy week seems doable."
  • Shar e an activity that your elderly relative enjoys. If your relative is very ill, she may not be able to do much -- but she still may enjoy taking a drive, watching a favorite movie together, or enjoying a special treat. O'Dell's mother, who had Alzheimer's, loved Dairy Queen, for example, so the family would frequently drive to one nearby and eat ice cream together in the car.
  • Look for the 'gifts'. Therapist Emel points out that as demanding as it is, caring for elderly relatives also carries important rewards. "I don't want to paint too rosy a picture, because caregiving is really, really hard," she says. "But I always encourage people to look for the gifts in any situation. Caregiving can be a gift if it helps you and your spouse work on and improve your communication skills and ultimately strengthen you marriage."

Make sure you have backup plans.

In some instances, caregiving's toll on the relationship may simply be too high. "There may come a time when your spouse comes to you and says, 'I can't do this anymore,'" O'Dell explains. "If that's the case, you have to respect your partner's feelings."

Your spouse may not verbalize distress, says O'Dell. "He or she may come home later and later every night, or overeat, or drink too much. You need to pay attention, and you need to take it seriously."

That's why experts say it's essential that couples to go into the caregiving situation with their eyes wide open and have a few backup plans in place -- possible alternative living arrangements for the senior, for example -- in case things don't work out.

  • Explore alternatives by researching senior facilities in your area , and take the time to visit one or two that sound appropriate.
  • Find out if any of your siblings or other relatives would be able and willing to accommodate the senior , either for short stays or as a permanent alternative.
  • Make it clear to your siblings that while you're willing to care for your aging relative, you're not willing to sacrifice your marriage to do so. This means that you may need their support for both day-to-day care and to help you make alternative arrangements if it doesn't work out.

In some cases, a change in the caregiving arrangements may ease the situation -- but, says O'Dell, the bottom line is that your marriage comes first. "In the end," she states, "I don't recommend that people place caregiving above their marriage."

Has caregiving affected your relationship with your spouse or significant other ? Tell us about it below.

Connie Matthiessen

Constance (Connie) Matthiessen, senior editor, has worked as a healthcare and environmental journalist at the Center for Investigative Reporting and has written for WebMD, Consumer Health Interactive, the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, BabyCenter. See full bio

11 months, said...

My husband works 80 hours a week, then spends the weekends with his aging mother. I also work full-time and care for his mother too. When it comes to caring for or even visiting my parents, he never has time and I go alone.

over 1 year, said...

My husband is one of 4 siblings but the ONLY one taking care of his father. This has been going on for years. We were separated for almost 17 months but literally days before we would have had a divorce hearing, we called it off. My husband lives in his father's house (just blocks away from where I live) and is the only one of his siblings to give day to day care and company to his father. My father in law is a difficult man who is capable of doing most things for himself but is used to having my husband there as his companion and housemate. This situation existed before we separated (and was not a factor in the separation). My husband feels "stuck"...he would like to be in the same home with me but feels that he cant leave his dad alone...I am fully aware of the stress that this situation is having on my husband and I am prepared to wait as long as needed to be in the same home with him. In the do we stay strong as a couple? What can I do to show support ? How do we make a marriage work when we are living apart due to an aging parent?

almost 2 years, said...

I don't feel like a couple anymore. I feel like a joint caregiver. I'm miserable.

almost 4 years, said...

Hello I have Been with my partner 3 years we just got married this April and he has always taken care of his father,his father has emphysema my husband is the only child so we don't have that support. Well I am home all day I share the duties of taking care of his father. His father milks his illness but yet won't see a Dr. Or do anything to ease the burden on us he is always listening to our conversations and putting in his 2sence off bits and pieces he hears, he will not eat unless we make him food, it's his house so I cannot make it my own... we want our own home to start our lives but my father in law puts a guilt trip on my husband all the time so my husband tells me lets just wait I think his father is at the end stage of his illness but unless he sees a Dr we don't know uggggggg I cry all the time I just want me and my husband to start our lives together with out this burden. If we go out for awhile and come home past dinner time his father will not fix food for himself and just sit in his chair watching tv like when we left he refuses to bathe it's sickening we told him he needs to take better care of his hygiene his excuse is no other close fit him that why he don't shower their are no other clothes so I went as far as buying him new boxers jeans and t-shirts so he could start bathing he still is not bathing.. I bought him a chair with a cushion even for the shower to make it easier... 2 months still nothing this man has nasty habits he refuses to change I am so frustrated and feel so bad for my husband what can we do... We could not even take our honeymoon we could not leave his father alone so long he acts so helpless I think it's a combo if laziness ontop of his illness he takes such advantage of my husband I am resenting my father inlaw.. I get wicked thoughts I should not have towards him

over 5 years, said...

i am looking for help to take some of the presu that is helping with my needs. also looking for pt to come to my house to help get back to the poinnt that i can do things on own

over 5 years, said...

you reminded me that we need to get away together, to have time together as a couple. thanks

over 6 years, said...

Taking care of my mother in law has put such a strain on our marriage. I am his mothers primary care taker &I he is a full time medic.. He has turned to constant txtin, I feel like hos cell phone is the other woman.. we have 2 kids 11 & 13. I feel bad because all the field trips &I one in one time I just can't do with them because I have her full time

almost 7 years, said...

Re Caregiving by one spouse of the other. This is the most stressful of all kinds of family caregiving. Why? Because the intimacy relationship is different from all other family or friendship relations. Paula Spencer has a very good 5-point summary here: Also, check out the Well Spouseâ„¢ Association website and Forum, here: The group offers peer emotional support to husbands, wives or partners of people with any chronic illness and/or disability.

almost 7 years, said...

I know that my husband and I are going thru a difficult time right now. We are not on the point of divorce but I am seeing a therapist for the first time in my life. I never thought I would but I now realize that I am not happy living with my mother in law. I could not have told you that 4 years ago when we were looking at all moving in together and being one big happy family. My husband thinks counseling is pointless but I am looking forward to it. It will be refreshing to have someone else to talk to. I feel that my husband and I are constantly going over and over my mother in law's shortcomings and we are getting tired. Since she is not on death's door nor thinking of packing her bags, I realize I have to do something or stay unhappy.

over 7 years, said...

My husband and I care for his mother together. She lives with us, he works out side the home and I am her primary caregiver. When he gets home from work we share the work load. We cook dinner together and one of us will wash dishes and the other feeds her. On weekends he cooks breakfast and I get her up and ready for the day. He makes my job easier just by participating in the care for his mother. It is a 24/7 job but it doesn't seem like work at all. I am blessed to have him and we make it a point to plan for weekend get aways at least about every six months, once in a while when we realy feel we need it, we get away for a week. We do every thing together, never apart. There is no strain on our marriage, We are going on our 7th year anniversary November 1st and we have been carring for his mother 4yrs now this October 15th. We made a choice not to let carring for his mother put a wedge in our marriage, this is a calling from God and a blessing. So sacrafice is what it takes, and we are only just turnning 40. So we will have the rest of our lives together, but for now It's about his mother. My son who just turned 18 this past July, has moved out on his own. He was a great help, He never complaind of any time taken from him, and he always offered to help in any way he could. He knew what sacrifices he had to make when he was 14yrs old and being the only child we could not do any of the family outings he would have liked to do. Over all we followed what God wanted us to do and in return He blessed our home. }!{

over 7 years, said...

What if the patient is ONE of the couple?

over 7 years, said...

This story really hit home with me. My husband and I are so totally stressed. It has built a wall around our marriage. We are so stressed all the time.We take out our problems on each other. I hate it.

over 7 years, said...

It would e helpful if more articles were addressed to the situation where one spoise is taking care of the other !

over 7 years, said...

puts it into perspective.

almost 8 years, said...

about 8 years, said...

I guess this information is useful to those not in my specific situation, but what about caregiving between spouses? Elderly spouses are the first to deal with elder care and there doesn't seem to be much help or suggestions for their benefit.