Love and Marriage (and Caregiving):'s 2009 Survey

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In honor of Valentine's Day -- and all those couples in the caregiving trenches -- decided to find out how caregiving affects a caregiver’s relationship with a spouse or partner. While we knew that this was a charged issue, we weren't expecting such an extraordinary response.

It turns out that of the 300-plus respondents to the survey, caregivers have strong feelings -- both positive and negative -- about the challenges of balancing the demands of their caregiving role alongside the intimate relationship they have with a spouse or partner. They also weighed in on the toll that caring for an older adult can take on everything from family finances to sexual relations to leisure time.

On the negative side, some respondents say that caregiving pressures had alienated them from their partner, while others said it caused, or at least contributed to, their separation or divorce. But we were reassured to learn that, despite caregiving's pressures and demands, many of you have figured out how to find a balance. Many caregivers expressed deep gratitude and a measure of awe for their spouse's support and understanding; some even said that sharing the experience of caring for older relatives ultimately strengthened their relationship.

Key findings from's Marriage Survey:

1. 80 percent of respondents said that caregiving put a strain on their relationship or marriage

As one caregiver summed it up, "Even a strong marriage, like mine, suffers from the imbalance in household and child responsibilities because one of us is caring for a parent. Decreased time together, lack of opportunity for consistent communication, resentment of the needy parent, shift in the use of financial resources, increased fatigue and stress all increase the strain on a marriage."

At the same time, the balance of the respondents said that caregiving has caused no strain on their marriage; some even found that it brought them closer. As one woman confided, "My husband knows that my mother won't be here forever and tells me to do what I feel like I have to do, and I love him dearly for this."

2. Three factors in particular put caregivers at the highest risk for marital strain

They are:

  • Holding down a job on top of caregiving duties
  • Providing financial assistance to an aging relative
  • Caring for an aging relative in the home

Many of those surveyed are members of the "sandwich generation," managing kids and work as well as caregiving duties. As one harried caregiver explained, "My husband and children always have to work around the current emergency that arises with my mother. It makes you tired physically and mentally to care for someone who's sick all the time, and it drains your energy in all aspects of your life."

For other caregivers, however, a partner's help provides solace and inspiration: "My spouse has been very supportive of me and my caregiving of my parent. He's my rock," a reader told us.

3. 89 percent of respondents said caregiving caused them to spend more time apart from their spouse

What's more, 48 percent said it was causing them to "drift apart," diminishing their feelings of attachment to their partner. One caregiver wistfully told us, "My husband and I were alone for more than eight years, and now we have my dad. Our pleasant routine is gone. We no longer have a date night and we can never do anything spontaneously. We don't seem to have much private time to just talk, and we both feel the strain on our relationship."

In other cases, however, a partner was able to grow and adapt. As one caregiver explained, "At the beginning of this journey, my husband was resentful of the time I spent caring for my dad. He's a more compassionate person now, and I believe this journey has actually strengthened our marriage."

4. 46 percent of readers said that caregiving had a negative impact on their romantic relationship with their significant other

34 percent said it had a negative impact on their sexual relationship. Many respondents complained of the toll on their own physical and/or mental health. Said one, "I feel like a rat on a wheel most of the time, and I can't get off the wheel."

But other respondents told us that a spouse's support helped them cope: "I've come to appreciate my partner for his assistance in not only dealing with my mom with Alzheimer's but also for being an equal caregiver in my aunt's final days here at home. He has been a wonderful, caring person who rose to the occasion in a fairly new relationship. I feel truly blessed to have him at my side during this difficult journey."

5. 25 percent of respondents reported that caring for an ill or aging relative played a significant role in their divorce or separation

One caregiver wrote, "My husband and I never used to fight. Now we're taking care of my husband's grandparents. We're still married -- but I'm planning on leaving. No breaks and no stress relief really hurt me and have broken my spirit."

At the same time, 56 percent of respondents said that caregiving played no part in their separation and divorce, and some actually credited it with strengthening their marriage: "Caring for my husband's mother, as pancreatic cancer took her from us, brought us closer together -- a deeply shared experience. We did it together out of love for one another and for her," a reader told us.

Clearly, the ways in which couples respond to the challenges of caregiving are as unique as the marriages themselves -- but our findings made us wonder why some marriages do better under the strain of caregiving than others. Are there things couples can do to protect their relationships? To find out what experts suggest for strengthening a relationship, see Marriage and Relationships: How Caregiving Couples Can Make It Work, which contains advice from several contributors, including Family Advisor Carol O'Dell and Drs. Charles and Elizabeth Schmitz, authors of the award-winning book Golden Anniversaries: The Seven Secrets of Successful Marriage.

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

3 months, said...

My wife and I have been married for 37 years. We had my Mother here with us for 10 years as we cared for her. The last three years until now, we have her 83 year old sister her with the beginning of alzheimers. The sister is a hoarder and has constantly brought yardsale items into our house. Her house is maxed out with the same. She will not get out from my wife's shadow. She wants to go anytime my wife leaves the house. She hates to eat, both at home and away, so our going out to dinner is always prefaced by the same old song and dance of I'm not hungry. Then if she goes the meal is shadowed by her not eating. She is so quiet I feel like she's an evil spirt in our home as she sits and stares into no where with the Tv on but stuck on the channel with an advertisment on and no other movement. She watch tv, but can't tell you what's on, or whats happening. She thinks she's funny when she makes all of these crude remarks even vulgar sometimes in front of us, and our close friends and family. We try to include he if we go off, but the trip is almost spooky as she never opens her mouth. My wife and I have grown apart. She always defends her sister and constantly compares her to when we took care of my Mother. They were as different as day and night. Mama had no alzheimers. This sister never changes her clothes, just sits on the sofa 12-14 hours a day. I have removed myself from the family room into my computer room where I get lost in my computer to cope. I hate going into the family room. Always HALLMARK, WHEEL OF FORTUNE, AND JEOPARDY. When they are over it's lights out most of the time and there I am sitting in my computer room to all hours of the night. She has a 52 year old son who does nothing, I repeat, NOTHING for her. Never comes to see her. Maybe calss 1 or 2 times a month if she's lucky. No responsibility for his Mom at all. 0. I ran him off my property once because he was calling to send her to an asylum of some sorts. All he's doing is waiting for her to die and collect his inheritance. I am so tired of giving in to losing my space in my own home, my time with my wife, (no love life at all) basically never going out for enjoyment. I go to drive them to thrift stores over and over and over again. My home, my pick up, my garage is packed with this sister's items she buys then just packs away here at our home. Oh, the arguments my wife and I have. Unbelievable. I can't even comment on how crowded it is now when I needt to get to some area in my own home. Heaven forbid I ask her to call her sister's son to come get this crap. She doesn't want to bother him.

7 months, said...

I caught my husband cheating on me thankfully my friend gave me a reliable contact, he works with discretion and delivers, he does all sort of hacks, access to social networks, icloud, and many more. Viber chats hack, Facebook messages and yahoo messengers remotely, call phone GPs location tracking, spy on whatsapp messages i would prefer to let his service speak for itself , his service are cheap you can contact him if you have similar issue and tell him i referred you to him

8 months, said...

I am at my last straw. My father in law had lived with us for 4 months and now the past 2 months he is in a beautiful assisted living facility in our community which my husband and I are paying for at this time till all of my father in laws affairs are in order. This situation is stressing me beyond belief. My husband had shared that once his dad was at the assisted living it would be better but now it is worst. My husband insists to go every day to his day. This would be so bad but his father has always been one of the most selfish, egotistic, arrogant ,and the list goes on men I know. I have tried to understand where my husband is coming from but can't even figure it out. Up to 6 months ago our life was wonderful, then this old man comes into our lives and I am about to walk out and not turn back.

over 2 years, said...

I'm the caregiver for my wife's father. She gets into disagreement with him doesn't know how to react or trash to him without making him upset. I'm glad we don't have children... It's making me think of divorcing her

about 3 years, said...

My husband's mother lives with us and has for over 5 years since her stroke. He will never send her to her brothers house in order for us to have time away with each other and our children. I'm lost. Stressed. And fed up. He tells me I'm mean and evil because I just want one day a month. I'm ready to leave.

over 3 years, said...

For this reason, Is believe in assisted dying.

about 5 years, said...

And yes, what devestatedbtw just wrote is a common thing to happen in the well and ill spouse situation, when chronic illness and/or disability happens. I'm referring to a kind of parent-child relationship. There are so many variables, in how each felt before the illness came on, in the ways that the illness can affect the ill person, and the well person feel about each other and about their place in the marriage. Certainly it's worth exploring this with an understanding third person, such as a marriage counselor, therapist, clergy person, etc. And as I said below, the WSA can help the well spouse accept and deal with their own feelings better... while a disease org. membership for the ill person can help them share and understand their own feelings with others in similar situations. Good luck!

about 5 years, said...

I was only 39 when I had a major stroke, and I'm 52 now, I've fought hard to work my way back to as normal as i can be. Doing other things would ONLY HELP ME... My husband Won't let go of the reins! He's changed the bank access an won't let me know how much money we have an IT"S just not a Marriage anymore, it's like a Parent/Child relationship and I don't know HOW TO STOP IT... I've Confronted IT.. didn't work... ready to just walk away... :(

about 5 years, said...

I had a pretty severe stroke 13 yrs ago and my husband had to completely take over! Now I'm walking, talking, skills have improved so much, just such an emprovement in everyway I've fought so hard to get myself back, and I'm 90% there!!! My husband has placed our Marriage at a Parent/Child relationship because of this disability and just TOLD me that's why... It's RUINING our marriage!!! The only time i'm treated as an adult in the marriage is in the bedroom, and i just WON'T do that anymore UNTIL we are as I feel true Partners in our Marriage again??

over 5 years, said...

JPMG: Please tell your wife about the Well Spouse® Association, -- it is place for well spousal caregivers to talk about their feelings about caregiving and their relationship with their ill spouse -- in ways that will not threaten the ill spouse, and which will help the well spouse to better accept their own situation....

over 5 years, said...

How can convince my wife to stay with me. I was disabled 6 years ago partially from a work accident and partially from the fact that the accident brought an illness our of remission- with a vengence. Prior to my accident I worked 3 jobs, did most things around the house from cleaning and cooking to yard work. I did everything I could to give my wife everything she wanted. Now I have a fixed income from disability and can do only a fraction of what I used to. Physical strength and medication have made intimacy nearly impossible. I have been on long term steriod use which removed my sex drive and made me less than desirable to live with at times. My wife does not understand that the desire to be with her sexually is truly in my hear- I just have find a way to make it happen . She has told me repeatedly lately that she feels lonely, unloved and unwanted. She told me last night that she feels like we only have a "caretaker/caregiver" relationship and are just good freinds. I now have discovered that she has started contact with another man, under the pretenses of work related, that she had wanted to date before we met. I know that she misses and desires the intimacy and romance we had before. It rips me apart to know I can't find a way to make her happy. Without an answer and fast, I know in my heart she will wander. It sounds stupid, but I lover her enough to let her go- if that is what will maker her happy. In the nearly 9 years we have been together, making her happy has been my sole goal in life. If I can't do that, do I step aside and let her find someone who can ?

almost 6 years, said...

As I said, three years ago... I have a special point of view: As a member and former president of the Well Spouseâ„¢ Association, I would like to point out that not all problems for caregivers in a marriage involve one or both partners caring for an elderly relative. There also couples where one partner is sick themselves, and the well partner must care for their ill spouse... And I'm not just talking about elderly couples (over 65). With advances in cancer treatment increasing numbers of young and middle-aged couples are finding themselves in this often very long-term situation... The WSA is a non-profit 501(c)(3) org that helps spousal caregivers... I'd be grateful if we could spread awareness of it, as a specific source of support for people in that life situation!

over 6 years, said...

care-givers efforts are niticed even by those not related to them.

over 7 years, said...

Yes, there are lots of women and men that are not seniors quite yet that are struggling to care for their spouses at home. I have a special fondness for women that married veterans with PTSD or other mental issues from service for our country. The VA is finally offering help for veterans that qualify, but what about the spouses? What kind of help is available for couples without spending hard earned cash for private therapy?

almost 8 years, said...

my father in law died of a short battle of cancer 7 months ago, my mother is law has a downes symdrom daughter age 33 who is living at home with her whom of which is not completely disadvantaged, my mother in law is in good health and is physically able to help and get around herself. Though she is sued to having my father in law or my husband do alot for her. So in the past months since the death, she has been laying things on my husband, like shes losing her job, his sister is not sleeping well, detailed work that doesnt need to be done on her house,and I feel like we have enough going on at home, our son was recently diagnosed with ADHD and behavior probs, and my little one may have it as well, plus my husdand is having trouble at work,not feeling as important as other workers in the office and he worries about being able to pay the bills. I do work m pt at school, pt child care, pt self cleaning business, is there anything I can do to make my husband understand that he doesnt or should feel stressed and have to take care of two familys that struggle. me and my husb relationship has been great, but i want to know how i can relieve some pressure, hes nevr been taught how to care and love for anyone, never hugs me or kisses me, i have to ask for it, any insite would be wonderful