Can a Marriage Survive Caregiving for an In-Law?

Q. When my husband, Paul, first met my parents, they didn’t hit it off. He can be stubborn sometimes, and mom is difficult, and she never thought that he was good enough for me. After Thanksgiving dinner, when we announced we were engaged, my mother threw him out of her home, and my mother and I didn’t talk for nearly a year. She and my dad refused to pay for my wedding, so we eloped.

Ten years later, my father passed away. Paul and I have children of our own, and my mother has softened a bit. She isn’t exactly warm to Paul, but for the sake of seeing her grandchildren, they are cordial to one another.

Six months ago, my mother had a stroke and she needed my help. I am her only child, and all other family lives far away. To Paul’s dismay, I told her she could come live with us. Now, Paul claims that she is driving him crazy, and it’s either her or him. Do you have any guidance for people in this type of situation? Thanks for any help!

A. Even the strongest relationships are put to the test when one or both partners are caregivers for an in-law in the home. In most situations, issues such as financial pressures, resentment, distance, exhaustion, and lack of privacy can overwhelm a relationship. In your situation, the fact that your mother and your husband don’t get along obviously makes things dramatically more difficult.

Some spouses are completely supportive of an in-law being cared for in their home by their husband or wife, while other spouses may feel neglected. If the spouse never liked the elder, and now the elder needs a lot of care, the spouse becomes even more resentful. The stress in the marriage can be intolerable for both sides. A survey found that for 80% of respondents, caregiving put a strain on their marriage or other partner relationship. So, as you can see, the sad reality is that many marriages can and do break under these extremely stressful circumstances.

What You Can Do to Improve Your Relationship?

Recognizing your needs as a couple and making your romantic relationship a priority is critical to your health and happiness. To protect and strengthen your relationship while caregiving, aim to:

Talk Openly: Opening up to one another can help you better understand each others’ feelings and behavior, prevent misunderstandings and resentment, and hopefully bring you closer. Your spouse may also be more willing to help manage responsibilities and offer emotional support when he understands where you’re coming from.

It may not be easy for you and your spouse to talk about how caregiving for your mother and how your husband’s difficult relationship with her is affecting your marriage. These are touchy subjects. One way to help get the conversation started might be to see a marriage therapist who is also familiar with family unrest and caregiver concerns. You can also consider joining a caregiver support group together. A caregiving support group can help you get new perspectives and talk to other people experiencing similar challenges. It can also be enormously helpful to have other people to lean on for support. Look for a group that meets in your area, or connect with one online.

It is also a good idea to talk openly with your mother. Tell her how much it would mean to you if she and your husband tried to be nicer to one another and get along, and how your marriage is being affected.

Spend time together: Don’t let the difficulties of caregiving and the issues with your husband and your mother take the joy out of your marriage. Make time to reconnect and have fun. If date nights and weekends away aren’t possible, find connection in the small, everyday moments. Even running errands as a team can offer time together in an otherwise packed schedule. Make little romantic gestures like a walk around the block while the sun is setting, a candlelit (takeout) dinner, or hidden love notes. Little actions can go a long way!

If you are able to get away, technology such as the Lively Urgent Response device can keep your relative connected to help in case of an emergency, so you can have peace of mind that they can get assistance even if you’re not there.

Space is good too: Offer your partner some space. He’ll likely want to get away for some alone time since he is experiencing such stressful times with your mother in the house. Don’t take it personally and encourage each other to get out of the house, do things you love, or take up new hobbies.

Get support: Don’t be afraid to ask for backup. Look to family, friends, community resources, and respite care to help you take time for your relationship. Check into the possibility of hiring an in-home caregiver for a few hours so you and your spouse can go to a dinner and a movie.

By prioritizing your relationship through teamwork, understanding and patience, you can hopefully not only cope with the challenges of caregiving but create a bond that may be better than ever.

Make family roles clear: Both your mother and your spouse have equally important places in your life, although generally one’s spouse has the stronger allegiance. However, there are times and circumstances when one of them has to take center stage—particularly in cases of a mother’s illness. It is up to you to evaluate who should get top billing, and communicate to the other why he or she has to take the backseat at the moment.

Other Alternatives

Most people would prefer to age in their home or in the home of a loved one, but they often can’t do so for the long-term. Or, the living situation might no longer work for your family or your loved one. This may be the case in your situation, if you are unable to get your marriage back on track. If your elderly parent is showing signs that he or she needs more assistance, or if aging in place is no longer the best option for one reason or another, it is time to consider other alternatives.

Whether the outcome is assisted living or nursing home care, it is essential to plan ahead, since assisted living costs $6,000 to $9,000 per month and nursing homes cost $10,000 to $14,000 a month in the Northern Virginia / Metro DC area. If you are going through this situation, please contact us to make an appointment for an initial consultation to discuss long-term care planning. If you know someone else who is going through this situation, please forward this information to them.

Fairfax Elder Law Attorney: 703-691-1888
Fredericksburg Elder Law Attorney: 540-479-1435
Rockville Elder Law Attorney: 301-519-8041
DC Elder Law Attorney: 202-587-2797

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About Evan H Farr, CELA, CAP

Evan H. Farr is a 4-time Best-Selling author in the field of Elder Law and Estate Planning. In addition to being one of approximately 500 Certified Elder Law Attorneys in the Country, Evan is one of approximately 100 members of the Council of Advanced Practitioners of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and is a Charter Member of the Academy of Special Needs Planners.