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Family Caregiving and Your Marriage

By Lisa Riggi, Parentgiving contributor

Marriage is tough enough. Add in a family member who needs care, and it’s the beginning of the perfect storm. When the married couple work and/or have children, well— you might have a tsunami brewing. And taking care of your relationship before the rushing, overwhelming water hits is vital!

Many of us have to work at our marriage on a daily basis. We make the decision to love our spouse through the ups and downs and twists and turns. As a person who doesn’t enjoy roller coasters, this can make some days very difficult depending on what is being thrown at us.


Dry Direct - Discreet Delivery of Incontinence ProductsWhat if you are asked— or rather, what if it becomes apparent that a family member needs to be cared for? They no longer can live on their own. They need assistance with medication and meals. How do we decide the best way to address these concerns (and others) as a couple? And, is our marriage strong enough to communicate our true feelings? Our needs? Our worries? Our fears? Can we listen objectively to our spouse and their feelings? Their needs? Their worries and fears?

The caregiving responsibility for a family member’s welfare is significant, especially as they transition into life’s final stages.

But the marriage relationship is also significant and must be tended to as a priority or the result could have lasting consequences.

Often it may feel that you’re putting one person ahead of the other, but it doesn’t have to be this way. What bridges the gap between the two is communication. The art of speaking and listening becomes crucial when making any major life decision and particularly when it affects several people’s lives. The second vital tool is preparation — prepare before the storm.

Here are some tips for effective communication that you can use before and during times when you face a family caregiving situation, or when your marriage is in need of a clearer communication channel:

Five Speaking & Listening Tips for Effective Communication

  1. Before responding, think of H.E.A.L.:
    • H—Is what I will say be helpful or hurtful?;
    • E—Express your feelings in a gentle way and use the five senses (sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch) or share a mutual memory;
    • A—If you don’t understand, ask a question and keep asking until YOUR partner believes you understand;
    • L—Listen… and listen more. Say “tell me more” if you need more information.
  2. Writing your feelings in a letter may be more beneficial than a verbal conversation. If you write a letter, use sentences that start with “I.” For example, “I believe that moving your mother in with us will strain our relationship.” Avoid using the words “we” and “you” as you can only express YOUR feelings. Always read the letter twice. Once for knowledge and once with your heart.
  3. Go to a neutral location like a coffee shop. Sit across from each other. Prevent distractions by sitting on comfy chairs/couches, avoid watching TV or checking email/Facebook. Turn off all distractions. Hold hands.
  4. Start your conversation with this exercise: Name three qualities of your spouse that you admire.
  5. Share a memory of the family member that you’re discussing, especially if your spouse doesn’t know them very well.

Remember, we received two ears and one mouth. If you don’t know what to say, then keep listening! If you’re new to caregiving and aren’t sure where to start, check out our Parentgiving Checklists which cover some of the most common caregiver concerns.

About Lisa

Lisa, a Certified Caregiving Consultant and Certified Caregiving Educator, helps others keep their marriage on track when a caregiving situation enters the family. She cares for her mom, who lives with her family, as well as her son, who has Type 1 diabetes, and her daughter, who has Fibromyalgia. Lisa moderates a chat on CareGiving.com on the last Friday of every month at 4 p.m. ET (3 p.m. CT, 1 p.m. PT) for those who care for a family member with diabetes.