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Family Conflict: Your Marriage Can Suffer When You're a Caregiver

Spouses need to know you can carve out 'together' time, that the strain won't last forever

Family psychologist in glasses sitting in armchair and listening to quarrel of couple while asking young lady to stop conflict, emotional couple gesturing hands and blaming each other for their problems

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En español | While you're caring for an older family member, your spouse may come to feel that your marriage is taking a backseat to the other loved one's needs.

After all, caregiving can take time and attention away from your spouse and disrupt your schedule as a couple or family. Sometimes the financial burden of taking care of an older loved one can have an impact on your marriage, too.

"There have to be adjustments made in the marriage,” says Dolores Gallagher-Thompson, a visiting professor at the Betty Irene Moore School of Nursing at the University of California, Davis. “It's a time of transition for the marriage. Your spouse needs to understand that he (or she) needs to share you more — and support your efforts."

Two of every 5 caregivers in the United States are male, according to Breaking Stereotypes, a 2017 report by the AARP Public Policy Institute on male caregivers. Fifty-six percent of those caregivers were married, about the same rate as for caregivers as a whole.

Having a general conversation with your spouse about the situation, reassuring him or her that these changes won't last forever, does help.

"The goal is to get your spouse on the same page, to help him or her see why this is necessary at this time in life,” says Nancy Schlossberg, professor emerita of counseling psychology at the University of Maryland and author of Too Young to Be Old.

In the meantime, it's likely to help if you can:

1. Discuss your expectations

It's inevitable that some shift in roles will occur, so “have an expectation exchange where you talk about what's going to change and how you're going to handle it,” Schlossberg says.

Whenever possible, both of you should try to align expectations about how you'll allocate your time, set boundaries with the care recipient and find ways for the two of you to socialize or have couple time. When you can't, negotiate and try to compromise.

"If you can keep the lines of communication open, that's the most important thing,” Schlossberg says.

2. Carve out togetherness time

"Aim for a date night or a weekend afternoon together each week,” says Eve Markowitz Preston, a psychologist in private practice in New York City who serves mostly older adults and often makes home visits..

Use that time to fully focus on each other or do something you've always enjoyed together, whether it's playing a sport — tennis, anyone? — or going to a movie or the theater.

If your older loved one lives with you, finding time and privacy for intimacy with your partner can be tough. In these instances, try enlisting another family member or a home health aide to take your loved one out for an afternoon or stay for a weekend so you and your spouse can get some private time.

3. Enlist your spouse's help

With your attention, energy and time spread thinly, it may help if your spouse could take on more responsibilities in your home, perhaps cleaning the house, doing the grocery shopping, preparing meals or running errands for you.

If your spouse can't do it, consider hiring someone to help with these tasks. Either way, this will help prevent you from feeling overwhelmed and resentful.

4. Take each other's emotional pulse regularly

Caregiving isn't a sprint; it's often a marathon, or at least a 10K, so keep the lines of communication with your spouse open along the way.

"Touch base with each other on a regular basis and talk with your spouse about how he or she is feeling about this,” Preston says. This way you may be able to make adjustments that will ease your spouse's frustrations — perhaps by arranging for adult day care so you can get a break or getting caregiving coverage so you can take a trip together as a couple.

In the meantime, your spouse will at least feel like you've heard and validated those feelings of frustration, which can help prevent or ease tension between you.

Stacey Colino is an independent, award-winning writer specializing in health, psychology and family issues. Her work has appeared in dozens of national magazines as well as websites and books. 

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