When Your Spouse is Now Your Patient

Reviewed by  
Self CareFamily Dynamics

Top Takeaways 

  1. If possible, communicate openly with your spouse about your emotions, and the changes in your relationship as a result of the need for caregiving. 
  2. Do not neglect the intimate aspect of your relationship with your spouse. 
  3. Set boundaries and prioritize self-care to allow your role as a caregiver to be sustainable. 
  4. Be open to changes in your typical routine and favorite pastimes. 
  5. Take time to address the difficult emotions you may be feeling through journaling, meditation, therapy, joining a support group, or other coping methods.  

Introduction

According to a 2015 study by AARP and the National Alliance for Caregiving, approximately 1 in 10 caregivers care for a spouse. Changes in your spouse's medical condition and the shift into a caregiver role for them will require changes and adjustment in your relationship. 

In this article, we'll discuss some of the changes that you should expect as you step into a caregiver role for your spouse and strategies to adjust to these changes well. 

 

Adjusting to Changes in Your Relationship

Of course, becoming a caregiver for your spouse will lead to changes in the dynamic of your relationship. Unfamiliar emotions are introduced as they battle illness: your spouse may struggle with losing their independence, and you may experience your own negative emotions around the responsibility of caregiving. 

The complicated reality is that marriages can, and do, end as a result of one spouse becoming a caregiver for the other. Here are some strategies to help you adjust to this new reality in your marriage while working to maintain a healthy relationship. 

 

Communicate often 

If your spouse can communicate, discuss your feelings and your experience with the changes openly. They may be feeling embarrassment or frustration over their inability to care for themselves, or grief over their loss of independence.

  • Do not hold in negative emotions. If your spouse is not ready or is unable to talk about how each of you are feeling, consider journaling or talking with a trusted friend to release negative emotions so that they won’t drive a wedge between you and your spouse. 
  • Other options include attending therapy or joining a caregiving support group. 
  • If you both are ready and able to communicate about how you are feeling, but tend to avoid difficult conversations, put it on your calendar. Set a date and time for a conversation and hold yourselves accountable to this meeting. 

 

Set Boundaries

Caregiving requires a period adjustment for the spousal caregiver, and you may not be ready for everything that comes along with your new role. Allow yourself to ease into caregiving by setting boundaries to preserve your physical and mental health. 

Remind yourself that by taking care of yourself by setting boundaries, you will be better able to serve your spouse well as a caregiver. Here are some examples of boundaries that you might consider setting for yourself: 

  • Allow yourself to say ‘no,’ especially when you are feeling overwhelmed. 
  • Allow yourself to set limits around caregiving tasks that you do not feel comfortable with. 
  • If possible, designate a room in your home for yourself to get away and spend alone time when needed. 
  • If a disagreement occurs with your spouse, allow yourself to take a step back from the situation to prevent hurt feelings or saying something that you’ll later regret. This could include talking a walk, or simply counting to 10 before you respond. 

 

Continue to Prioritize Intimacy

When one spouse becomes a caregiver for the other, there are many aspects of the relationship that will change. However, emotional and physical intimacy should remain an important part of your relationship. 

This is an area of caregiving that is unique to caring for your spouse. Even if their illness or disability prevents them from being physically intimate, it is essential to communicate openly about this so that each person's needs are met. Have patience with each other as you both adjust to the changes in this area of your marriage. 

 

Set a New Routine 

Becoming a caregiver for your spouse will most likely require significant adjustments to your schedule and routine to meet their needs. Additionally, caregiving for a spouse blurs the lines between life and work, leading many spousal caregivers to neglect their downtime and self-care. 

Block out time for self-care

Self-care is essential when you are in a demanding caregiving role. Taking care of yourself allows your caregiving routine and responsibilities to be more sustainable and can prevent problems in your relationship, or negative feelings toward your spouse. 

Prioritizing self-care can also help you ensure that you are staying healthy and not missing red flags in your health. Here are some examples:

  • Take time to exercise during a lunch break.
  • Go to bed at a specific time to ensure that you get enough sleep.
  • Designate one night of the week to get out of the house and spend time with friends. 
  • Take time to prepare healthy meals for you and your spouse. 
  • Keep doing pastimes that you enjoy, like reading, crafting or watching your favorite TV show. 

 

Allow Your Favorite Pastimes and Activities to Change 

Maybe you used to eat with friends often, travel, or go on frequent date night outings together. If these things are too difficult or cause a strain on the relationship, you do not have to force them to continue. 

  • If needed, allow yourself to grieve over the way your relationship used to be, but do not feel guilty about letting these things go. 
  • Instead, find new ways to spend time together. As your spouse's abilities change, seek out new activities and pastimes that you can do together. This can even help you and your spouse learn new things about each other and encourage growth in your relationship. 
  • Remember to have fun, smile, laugh, and play, even amid a challenging situation. 

 

Processing Difficult Emotions

As with any family caregiving role, it is common to experience difficult emotions. This can include grief, loneliness, worry, anxiety, and more. Allow yourself to acknowledge your emotions, rather than suppressing them. Here are some ways that you can consider handling difficult emotions:

 

  • Start journaling to allow yourself to express your difficult emotions. 
  • Visit a counselor or therapist, especially if your feelings are overwhelming and leading to feelings of depression. 
  • Be present with your spouse while also cherishing the fond memories you’ve had together.
  • Allow time for socialization. Go out with friends or spend time with other family members. Socialization can make you feel more normal and improve your overall mental health. 
  • Join a caregiver support group. Taking time to meet with other caregivers will allow you to talk with others who can relate to your situation and offer comfort and advice. 
  • Breathing and meditation. This can bring you peace and allow you to center yourself even when life gets stressful. If you begin to experience panic, practice breathing exercises like taking slow breaths while counting to 10. 

 

If caregiving for your spouse becomes overwhelming, seeking help may be necessary. Consider asking for help from family and friends, or seeking professional caregiving help to lighten the burden of your caregiving responsibilities.

Robert Fisher

Robert Fisher has a background in Nursing and Healthcare management, with specialities in health and wellness, fitness and nutrition.