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3 Tips to Help Preserve Intimacy in Spousal Caregiving

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When Charmian’s husband developed early-onset Alzheimer’s, she became his primary care partner. As time went on, she began to feel disconnected from him emotionally and even resentful about the way their marital relationship had changed.

“At a time when we should be traveling and enjoying our lives together, with the children grown up, now I have basically become a parent to a young child again,” she confided. “Over time, I think I have fallen out of love with my husband. It is sad and heartbreaking.”

The emotions of spousal caregiving can be difficult to accept and navigate, regardless of the disease process involved. Alzheimer’s disease may cause obvious changes to your spouse’s personality, while other conditions like Parkinson’s or cancer can cause a shift in the balance of the marital relationship and may lead to changing feelings towards each other.

Caring for a spouse might fundamentally alter the relationship between you and your mate, but it does not need to signal the end of intimacy in your marriage. Consider these three tips that may help you maintain your relationship and view the experience as a new life chapter with your partner.

  1. Redefine what intimacy means in your marriage

For many couples, the physical intimacy of marriage manifests in sexual relations, and a chronic illness can deprive you and your spouse of the ability (or desire) to make love. But even if you have to give up the act of sex, you should not have to lose the health benefits of physical intimacy—including reduced stress and lowered blood pressure—just because you now care for your spouse. By redefining what intimacy means, you can still maintain the closeness that a physical relationship brings.

Broaden your definition of physical intimacy to include any kind of loving or affectionate touching between you and your spouse. This approach can help you continue to foster physical intimacy with your spouse without actually making love. You might try:

  • Holding hands as often as possible
  • Stroking each other’s hair
  • Hugging frequently
  • Giving each other a shoulder or foot massage
  • Applying lotion to each other’s backs
  • Setting aside private time to get skin-to-skin with each other, especially if you can still cuddle in bed
  1. Identify new personality aspects to fall in love with

Maybe you loved the fact your wife always saw the sunny side of a situation, but now a stroke has turned her into a negative person. Or maybe you loved the way your husband always made you laugh, but now his personality has changed due to dementia and he experiences frequent angry outbursts.

You may need to take some time to mourn the loss of personality traits you loved in your spouse when you married, but don’t let that sense of loss prevent you from finding new traits to fall in love with. You can search for new things to admire about your spouse, such as her courage to perform physical therapy exercises every day or his newfound interest in watching movies with you.

At the same time, look inward to identify new aspects of your own personality to admire. Becoming a spousal care partner offers you the opportunity to engage in self-growth. Take pride in watching new aspects of your personality blossom as you provide loving care to your mate.

  1. Find new things to bond over

As Charmian found, some of your hopes and dreams for the future may evaporate if a chronic illness strikes your spouse. But if you can’t travel the world in retirement as you’d planned, then find new activities and experiences to share and bond over.

Choose activities your spouse can participate in despite his or her health. From taking up poker to assembling jigsaw puzzles to taking watercolor classes, you can develop many new hobbies to share together. These shared experiences can help you forge new relationship bonds and might form the basis of many happy memories in the future.

There’s no doubt being a spousal care partner can be challenging. But if you look for ways to keep the marital intimacy and bond alive, you may be able to find many positive things to take away from the experience

Last revised: February 6, 2018

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