Americans are living longer. However, many are living with chronic and debilitating illnesses. Their marriages often become more of a patient-caregiver relationship than a spousal one. A serious illness or disability can take a considerable toll on a marriage. Divorce rates among couples where a spouse is suffering from a serious chronic illness have been estimated at up to 75 percent.
A serious illness or disability can change virtually everything about a spouse. They may not be the person they once were — physically or mentally. They often can’t reciprocate the care or maybe even the love they’re receiving from their spouse.
It’s not surprising that this takes an emotional toll on spousal caregivers. They’re more likely to suffer from depression. They may go into mourning for a spouse who hasn’t died yet. It’s sometimes called “anticipatory grief.”
Caregiver spouses may feel guilty for considering divorce. However, if they stay, they can become increasingly resentful of their husband or wife. There are ways that couples can work to salvage a marriage given this new imbalance they’re dealing with. For example:
- The ill spouse should work to do as much as they’re still able to. Even if they can’t physically help around the house, they can make it a point to thank their spouse and be attentive to their feelings.
- Spousal caregivers can sometimes accept the fact that they have to learn to love their husband or wife differently. As one woman whose husband hasn’t been the same since a brain tumor (which was removed), “I don’t love my husband the way I used to…[but] I’m trying to learn to love him differently.”
- It’s essential for spousal caregivers to seek support for themselves. Even if it’s just meeting friends for lunch regularly, this can help them get the conversation, camaraderie and intellectual stimulation they can no longer get at home.
Leaving an ill spouse doesn’t have to mean abandoning them. Some caregiver spouses separate from or divorce their husbands or wives, but still remain their primary caregiver or at least oversee their caregiving. This can allow them to seek new companions and build a life separate from their caregiving responsibilities.
If you’re considering divorcing a spouse whose care you’ve been responsible for, you aren’t alone. However, there may be considerations and challenges that other divorcing couples may not face. It’s essential to seek experienced legal guidance.