Dear Family Advisor

My sick wife is way too dependent on her mom for her care.

Last updated: Dec 04, 2009

My wife has Crohn's disease, and she's always sick or going to doctors. She talks to her mother at least five times a day"¦every day. If she needs something cleaned, moved, or fixed, she calls her parents first. She has her mom take her to the doctor. And she tells them everything we do.

I do as much as I can -- dishes, laundry, vacuuming, dog walking -- plus I'm working two jobs now, because my wife is on medical leave. I know Crohn's is a horrible disease, but people can live normal lives with it, so why can't she? Why is she so dependent on her parents? I want my own life with my wife; she's a wonderful person and my best friend, and I love her so much. Yet when I try to talk to her about this issue, she gets furious. What can I do?

Some people are more connected to their parents or siblings than most of us are -- and sometimes it doesn't allow them to bond with others. As long as you approach this situation from "Why doesn't she love me more than them?" the two of you won't move toward being real partners.

Start by sitting with her and having some quiet conversations. Try not to focus too much on what she is or isn't doing. Remind her lovingly that you're her husband, and that the two of you have to figure out life together. That also means that you have to help each other grow, even when what you say hurts a bit. In fact, that's part of what marriage and commitment is all about -- our partners teach us about ourselves.

Tell her that her Crohn's disease affects your life, too, and while it's a challenge, your lives need not come to a complete halt. Acknowledge that she may not feel like being active and having fun yet and that getting used to what she can and can't do will take time. Tell her you want to help her find solutions to the pain and the limitations of her health, and you'd like to think up little things to celebrate along the way. Suggest that it might even be a good idea for her to join a support group.

Keep the conversation about her parents separate. Don't throw it all at her at one time. First spend some time observing and listening. What do you think she gains from calling her parents and being with them so much? Do they make her feel safe? Do they expect this constant communication from her -- do they shame her if she doesn't call? Does she have siblings -- is she "the good child" or the only one left? Do her parents listen to her complain about her disease and coddle that side of her? Only by pondering these questions and observing her family's words and actions can you tap into what their connection is based on.

You also need to ask yourself, are you threatened by their closeness? You say she's your best friend; do you have other friends? Are you too needy? (Needy is creepy.) Does she feel like she can take you for granted? Do you have coping strategies of your own: prayer, walking, swimming, hobbies, a social group?

When you've mulled all this over and are ready to have that talk, start by telling her that you appreciate her family -- that their support and encouragement of her means a lot to you. Then "sandwich" it with, "But I want to be there for you."

Ask her gently what she's feeling when she calls or sees them so often. See if you can get her talking -- maybe she calls when she's feeling anxious, for example. She needs to hear it in her words, not yours. Ask if there are other forms of comfort that might make her feel safe, such as a journal, a walk, prayer, or yoga. See if she'll try one and help her set up a routine that encompasses this habit.

Your goal is not to get her to transfer her dependency to you -- that's not necessarily healthy, either. What you hope for her is a place of peace and trust that resides deep inside her, one that she gives herself.

Helping your spouse accept a chronic disease and dealing with emotional ties is a lot to tackle, but I believe that who we choose to spend our life with is no mistake. Our partners teach us about ourselves, and sometimes those lessons cause us to wince -- when we see where we're weak and vulnerable and where we need to grow.

That said, I can't promise your wife will ever learn to manage her disease or move past her dependency on her parents. You have to choose to live your own life in wellness and wholeness regardless of what she does. The more you live a full life, the more she'll see you're enjoying it and have a sense of quiet confidence she can respect and even emulate. She may have to "stew in her own juices" while you're making headway in order for her to realize that her current way of being isn't working, but just remember: Loving yourself is the best foundation for loving someone else.