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Caregiving and Marriage

Caregiving and Marriage

Caregiving and relationship expert, Barry J. Jacobs, has a new book that focuses on marriage for people a couple of decades into their matrimonial journey. “Love and Meaning After 50” was written with Jacobs’ wife, Julia Meyer, who is also a psychologist.

We interview Jacobs on how this topic might relate to caregiving and especially for those who are feeling their marriage impacted by their role as a family caregiver.

HWCG: How does caregiving impact a marriage? Specifically, when one spouse becomes a family caregiver for a loved one, can it be detrimental to the marriage?

BJJ: Caregiving usually unbalances relationships. Well spouses often have to step up and do more to take over household and other duties that their ill spouses can no longer handle. They can feel frustrated and resentful because of that. Meanwhile, the ill spouses are hurting emotionally because of their reduced capabilities and increased dependence on the well spouses. They can become depressed, believing they are a burden. Or they can become resentful that the well spouses are now ordering them about and treating them like children. All of this undermines the relationship quality. Rather than pulling together to meet the challenges of dealing with a common foe—namely, the illness or disability—spouses can turn on one another. In the worse-case scenarios, I’ve seen well spouses leave their relationships. I’ve also seen resentful ill spouses do the same.

HWCG: What inspired you and your wife to write this book together now?

BJJ: As we entered our fifties and our children grew up and moved away from home, we realized we had to make adjustments in our relationship so that we were no longer so child-centered. We saw our friends going through similar changes. In our clinical practices, we each worked with couples who had been married for 30 years or more and then decided to break up. This was consistent with the national trend that has seen a doubling of divorce among couples over 50 in the last 20 years and a tripling of divorces in that time period for couples over 65. Opting out of a lukewarm or bad marriage isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it could be a big improvement for one or both spouses. But divorce at any age has many consequences—financial, emotional, and relational. We decided to write “AARP Love and Meaning After 50” to help couples strengthen their relationships and avoid those consequences or work toward amicable divorces with as little damage done as possible.

HWCG: What are the top 3 challenges for couples over 50 in their relationship?

BJJ: First and foremost is the challenge of taking a hard look at a long-term relationship that may have become static and stale over time. Secondly, couples have to be willing to renegotiate that relationship to refresh it for the next phase of life. Third—and this is true for couples at any age—they have to be able to listen to one another’s disappointments, resentments and peeves without reacting emotionally. That’s what it takes to form a new understanding of each other’s needs and make adjustments so that you’re both happier.

HWCG: Are there any parallels between the importance of communication in caregiving and in marriage?

BJJ: Communication is key in all social interactions. We aren’t mind readers, though we sometimes think we are. We can’t assume we know all that is going on inside the other person, even if we have been together with them for decades. By creating emotionally safe spaces in our lives for sharing honestly, listening patiently, and responding authentically, we become better caregivers and spouses. Our book has conversation guides and specific questions and exercises to help make those heartful exchanges possible.

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