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