Marriage isn’t all that easy to begin with, but when you add the duties of caregiving to the mix, even the healthiest of relationships can become strained. When you two said “I do” and agreed to stand by each other in sickness and health, you probably weren’t thinking that this vow applied to parents, too. Nevertheless, here you are, weathering the trials and tribulations together unconditionally.
Caregiving can cause wear and tear on a marriage, especially when its a live-in situation. Marital strains, conflicts, tensions, and disagreements can stem from finances, less time together, stress, frustration, fatigue, and resentment. It’s hard to get along when you’re emotionally and physically exhausted from trying to balance everyone’s needs.
Becoming a family caregiver means re-organizing your priorities. If you drop everything to take care of a parent, other relationships can suffer. AgingCare.com advises that this is “normal to an extent, but neglecting a relationship over the long term can result in irreparable damage.” As 3rd Act Magazine points out, the “non-caregiving spouse may feel as if they have become less important to their partner or that they are often the recipient of their spouse’s frustrations and anger” while the “caregiving partner may be frustrated by what they perceive as a lack of understanding or support.”
Maintaining your marriage while providing the best care possible for your loved one and not losing your sanity in the process is like juggling on a highwire with a stack of plates on your head, but it is possible. The solution to protecting and nurturing your marriage while caregiving lies in patience, understanding, emotional support, and a commitment to working together. This new role going to take time for the whole family to get used to, and it will probably require more strength than you know you have. But with these tips for balancing marriage and caregiving, you’ll come out with a stronger, more intimate relationship than ever.
Remember your spouse is your number one priority
Presumably, you’ll be spending the rest of your life with your spouse, long after your parents are gone. When your relationship is under stress, its important for both parties to make marriage a priority. If you’re having trouble keeping your priorities straight, the Mayo Clinic suggests getting professional counseling, individually and/or as a couple.
Honest communication is the key to any healthy relationship. Staying connected helps prevent misunderstandings. Talk with your spouse about how this new role is affecting your relationship and how they can support you. Actively listen to their concerns (without interruption) by paraphrasing what they said back to them to avoid confusion or misinterpretation. Can’t find the time for conversation? AgingCare.com suggests making “a standing appointment for you and your significant other to check in with each other.”
Focus on positives
Our brains naturally seek out the negative, so it’s easy to focus on the negative aspects of caregiving, and marriage/your spouse for that matter. The brain’s Reticular Activating System (RAS) filters out unnecessary information from all the data we’re inundated with daily. As Medium puts it, “The RAS is the reason you learn a new word and then start hearing it everywhere…In the same way, the RAS seeks information that validates your beliefs.”
So if you focus on the negative, the brain seeks out negative qualities to re-enforce or confirm that information. Fortunately, you can retrain your RAS and improve any relationship by choosing the exact messages you send from your conscious mind. List all of the positive aspects of caregiving, the person who you care for, and your spouse and marriage. Review the list every morning to make your built-in confirmation bias work for you.
Teamwork makes the dream work
You don’t get far in any relationship–business, romantic, or otherwise–without realizing that teamwork is an essential ingredient to success. Just like child-rearing, family caregiving takes a village. Ideally, you’ve got more people on your team than just your spouse. You may be the foundation, but your caregiving network should include other family members. Even your kids can help pick up some slack (assuming they exist and are old enough). As AgingCare.com observes, “Families don’t always run like a well-oiled machine…especially when a loved one’s health is in jeopardy and emotions are running high.” That’s why it’s so important for every family member to pitch in and work together to find solutions to issues as they arise.
Carve out time for yourself
In order to avoid burnout, you must prioritize your physical and mental health. We hear you laughing. “Me” time may have been non-existent even before you took on the role of caregiver, but it’s more important now than ever to take that time for yourself. Considering your own needs isn’t selfish, it’s essential for your health and resilience. As the Mayo Clinic puts it, “When your needs are taken care of, the person you’re caring for will also benefit.” Do you want to be a hangry partner, or give them the best, rested, and well-fed version of you?
Adjust your expectations
Great expectations not only set you up for disappointment, but they also set you up for guilt, bitterness, frustration, and resentment. Set reasonable and realistic expectations for both yourself and your spouse. Remember that they’re doing their best, just like you. Be kind–don’t beat yourself up. When fatigue, anxiety, or aggravation sets in, let yourself feel it. Take a nap, scream into a pillow, write it down in a journal–whatever it takes to let that feeling be felt–then let it go and move on.
What happens when you give up everything for someone else? You lose it all. Setting healthy boundaries is your responsibility as a caregiver, but it takes two to tango. Make sure your spouse is on board. A united front helps reinforce the limits you have set.
Foster “we” time
Fun and romance are often the first things to fly out the window in a marriage, especially under the added stress of family caregiving. Three’s a crowd. Make sure you get some one-on-one, unchaperoned time together to reconnect. Otherwise, your partner will inevitably start to feel neglected. If caregiving is a 24/7 gig, look into adult day care or in-home respite care. Both cost money, but think of it as an investment in your (priceless) marriage.
Compete to be the best spouse
In her book Get Your Sh*t Together: How to Stop Worrying About What You Should Do So You Can Finish What You Need to Do and Start Doing What You Want to Do, author Sarah Knight recommends competing with your spouse to see “who can be nicer, more helpful, or more loving on any given day.” Everyone wins in this kind of healthy competition! What simple, loving gesture would make your spouse feel cherished?
Your partner is your live-in sounding board, but constantly venting your frustrations to them isn’t fair. Connect with others in similar situations online or in-person. According to Next Avenue, support groups can provide “social and emotional support and practical information and advice” as well as a “safe and confidential place…to vent frustrations, share ideas and learn new caregiving strategies.” Additionally, local government agencies, faith-based organizations, or employers’ programs may provide support programs and services such as counseling and respite.
Say “thank you”
Oftentimes you as the caregiver do not receive a “thank you,” so why would your partner? Make sure your spouse knows how much you appreciate their support by expressing your gratitude.