How do I deal with my wife's resentment over the time I spend with my elderly father?

6 answers | Last updated: Nov 22, 2016
A fellow caregiver asked...

My father lives alone, and since I'm the only relative he has in the area, I try to help him as much as I can. I drop in on him a few times a week, do all of his grocery shopping, and take him to medical appointments. He joins us for dinner every few weeks or so and spends holidays with us. To me, this seems reasonable, but my wife resents the intrusion on our family time, complains constantly, and gets angry. Yet it's not as if I'm neglecting our family or not doing my share. This disagreement is causing a rift in our marriage. What can I do?

Expert Answers

Jonathan Rosenfeld is a psychotherapist in private practice in San Francisco.

Your father is fortunate to have a son so committed to his well-being. Striking a balance between caring for aging parents and being there for your own family is never a simple matter. When we talk about the right way to care for ailing elders, there are no perfect answers, because what we're really talking about is value systems, which can vary greatly between individuals, families, and cultures.

Perhaps you grew up with your grandparents in your home, for example, so it seems like the least you can do for your father is to have him over regularly and help him with his errands. What's your wife's relationship with her parents like? The two of you may be operating from very different experiences, expectations, or values.

If you and your wife already have conflict in your marriage, then the argument over how much time you spend with your father probably represents a deeper fault line. Whatever the ultimate source of the problems between you, this would be an excellent time to go to couples counseling to try to resolve them.

If your marriage is generally harmonious and this conflict is an exception rather than the rule, then the two of you need to have some open-ended discussions to figure out what works for your family. You may need to understand your wife's point of view better in order to be effective in helping her see yours. It's possible, for example, that your wife feels overlooked by you, and having to share you with your father is simply the final straw. Or if your teenagers are approaching college age, she may be anticipating their impending departure, which could make it particularly difficult to tolerate any loss of precious family time. Let your wife talk openly to you about her feelings, and share your own with her. It will probably also help if you can carve out more private time for your marriage -- weekly dinners out, for example, or regular weekend getaways -- which will nurture your relationship and help you reconnect.

If your father is lonely and relies on you to fulfill all his social needs, you may want to encourage him to get involved in classes and other activities at his local senior center. If he's able, he might enjoy volunteering at the local school or soup kitchen or joining a reading group. Contact your local area agency on aging to find out more about activities for seniors in your area.

Community Answers

A fellow caregiver answered...

Hi I know exactly what you are going thru mine left me almost 2 months ago & I thank God & that also I wasn't married to him.I take care of my Mom since 4/2009 had to move her here from TN The way I see it mine wasn't worth having & my Mom is more important to me God will bless you for what you are doing & this is what we are suppose to be doing You are a good son & whatever comes with you (your dad) is just something that has happened & when you love unconditionally this should be a given ..remember for better or worse. I understand more than you can imagine. God Bless you for being a good son & just pray alot

Love my dad answered...

I give you the up most respect for being there for your father, it shows your upbringing. We can never repay our parents back for all that they have done for us when we were growing up. I don't know, if you wife was bless enough to be surrounded by love as you were with your family, but that is not your problem.

Your wife should be more supportive of you helping your father because you are setting an example for your children. We all are going to get old one day and I pray and hope that my children are there for me when I reach that golden age. Your father is truly blessed to have a son that cares enough to help him.

Do all that you can for your father while he is still living because you never know when God might call him home. I supported my father up until the day God called him home on April 4, 2010. I was at peace with myself because I was there for him when he needed me the most. Sometime you have to do what you have to do. God will bless you in the end.

I pray that God will touch your wife's heart to be more supportive and understanding and what you are doing for your father.

The caregiver's voice answered...

The only thing I can add to the advice already offered here is to be sure you are communicating with your wife.

As Jonathan said in his response, both of you may have different ideas of what it means to be involved with family.

When you decide to visit and help your father, do you tell your wife you plan to do so?

When you are at your father's home, do you call and let your wife know what's going on?

When my husband recently left the state to care for his father who needed a heart valve operation, he called me daily and sometimes more often to keep me apprised and even ask for my input. This helped me be aware and stay involved and get a sense of his thinking, instead of wondering: When is my husband going to return home and spend some time helping around here?

One other thought, if your finances are limited--esp. during these economic times, your wife might feel a bit shortchanged if you are buying your dad groceries only to leave more funds in his estate for non-helping siblings.

Again, as Jonathan noted above, value systems are diverse and this is why it's important to keep the lines of communication open with your wife.

A fellow caregiver answered...

My husband is an only child so 3 yrs ago we decided to all live together. Within 2 years, my husband and I were having serious marriage problems. I don't mind my husband doing for his mother like calling in her medications and taking off in the evening and picking them up; what I don't like is when I have a prescription to be filled and he tells me to "wait til tomorrow." For the first 2 years she has determined that she needs to ride in the front seat (her vehicle)but now we drive our vehicle which she assumed she was to ride in the front seat. To this day I despise riding in the back seat at any given time. She prefers that her son take her shopping, to the doctor, etc. on his days off; hence, this is when I can get levid. His days off are taken up by her and if I'm lucky, we might get to do something, but not often. I have openly expressed my concerns to him and we both try to work things out. His first out is to blow his temper at me and sometimes discussions about his mother, are out of the question because it is easier for him to shut me out or get angry at me. COMMUNICATION is key and it has nothing to do with discussing only about the nice things. This is a tough step...I remind my husband and myself that if we don't talk about things, our marriage will be finished. We have been married 17 yrs, together total of 21, I am 64, he is 56 and his mother is 79. All during these years she has had a problem accepting me as her daughter in law, but I am her son's wife. I was brought up in a dysfunctional home, but family values and roots run deep, her's/his are strictly calling family by initials or first names. I am a strong women but I too, have feelings, limits and all I want is respect. Neither one of us gets it from her. May God keep you all save in his hands.

Woodsidhe answered...

As a wife whose MIL lives with us...

It's hard. For years, you have your husband all to yourself. Neither family is involved in your lives. You don't have to deal with them if you don't want to.

Then, your mother in law moves in. Now you have someone else in your life who you never planned on. Now her needs take center stage. Sometimes you feel like you're intruding on a mother-son relationship. You listen to the private jokes and the stories of the past, and you begin to feel disconnected from the family dynamic. To have private time, you have to leave the house, but when Mom needs a lot of supervision, you can't do that anymore.

Now imagine Mom is clingy. She wants your husband's attention all the time. She refuses to get a social life outside of you and your husband.

As a wife, it's natural to feel hurt over what you have lost. It's normal to be angry. I feel like I have lost control over my own home some days. MIL is a difficult person on the best of days. DH is very defensive about her. He talks a good game when it comes to controlling her, but she backs down the moment she starts to get upset. He has this romantic image of his mother from when she was younger and he refuses to see past that.

I try my darnedest to support my husband. It's his Mom, and I understand the stress he is going through with her.