Dear Family Advisor

My husband is making me choose between him and my dad.

Last updated:

March 02, 2011

My mother died last spring after being bedridden for years. Dad was her caregiver all that time, and now he's 85 years old and has Parkinson's. Mom made me promise not to leave him alone, but he lives 1,200 miles away.

Dad is still grieving hard. He's come to stay twice, for a couple of months each time, and I've convinced him to stay with me permanently. But my husband is now saying that if Dad comes, it should only be for two-week visits, or else we will separate or divorce. I haven't been able to speak to my husband about my grief or my father's. We always end up arguing, and I don't know what to do. He's been my husband for 30 years and is the love of my life, but I can't abandon my father.

A nursing home isn't the answer, and although my brother and sister refuse to care for our dad, I can't do that. To end a marriage because of an elderly parent is ridiculous, but it seems that this is what will happen.

I've been married for 31 years, and I made a promise to my mother to "never put her in one of those homes," so I can personally relate to some of what you're going through.

But here's the tough part: You probably already know that your husband's reaction to your dad moving in is irrational. The situation shouldn't lead to a divorce. In other words, something else is going on. This is the tip of an iceberg of deeper, more complex, ongoing issues your husband is having -- and issues within your marriage. This isn't easy to face, but try to see it as an opportunity to heal a festering wound. If it means couple's therapy, individual therapy, and even having some doozy discussions (yes, arguments), it's worth it. Thirty years of walking life's road together is an investment, and even if it ends (and I hope it doesn't), you both need to be honest about what's going on and come to a place of resolution. You won't be able to move on until you do.

Your husband's strong reaction leads me to think that he's operating on a faulty belief system. He believes that if your dad moves in, then "something" will happen. Only he can imagine what that "something" is. Perhaps he's jealous of your relationship with your dad, worried that caregiving will take up all your time and energy, that his and your freedom will be taken away. He may resent your siblings for dumping this all on you. But under all these and perhaps other beliefs are fears: resentment, abandonment, rejection, jealousy -- and these feelings may not have originated with you. They could have started in his childhood or simply be part of his basic personality. All of us tend to either be passive or aggressive, anxious or apathetic, mistrusting or trusting.

Now, about you and your dad. You have issues, too! I know your dad means a lot to you, and I admire that you're a loyal and loving person. But while your dad needs you, does he really have to live with you? Couldn't he live nearby? (And since you'll be the one in charge of his day-to-day care, then your siblings should pitch in monetarily.)

I'm asking you to consider all this because I have to tell you honestly that while you're hurt and angry at your husband right now, you may not feel that way forever. Your dad has had a good life with a long and hopefully happy marriage. You deserve the same.

I believe that most of us didn't marry the wrong person. Each relationship, even if it doesn't last till death do us part, has something to teach us. We married a person who would challenge us, bring out the best and worst in us. These unions aren't necessarily easy, and even after decades of marriage we still have much to learn. Be understanding. Listen. Your husband's reaction is most likely coming from a place of hurt and fear. Try to find out what's really underneath all this. Face it. You're strong.

I made similar promises to my parents. Now I know that you shouldn't make people promise something like that. You don't know where they'll be in life, or whether they -- or their relationships -- can sustain caregiving. It's unrealistic and it's not the way to show love and compassion.

Your dad's need for care will only increase, and if he lives for many more years, his care will eventually become too much for you to do alone. It's just a matter of time. That sounds severe, I know, but I also know the realities. You want to feel good about who you are as a person -- but, after years of caregiving, you may also want to find yourself living out the rest of your own life with a partner. Only you know how you feel about that. If your husband is the good man you indicate him to be, your marriage is worth saving, and it's worth a few compromises -- even tough ones.