Changing Marital Structure

by Mara Karpel

Dear Dr. Karpel:

My husband and I have been married for almost 55 years.  Since my husband’s mild stroke about 5 years ago, I’ve had to take over all of the decision-making regarding the larger decisions and financial issues. He’s still very with-it and gets around better than me, but he has trouble concentrating and his memory isn’t good.  It seemed like he very quickly and easily gave up these responsibilities.  Maybe he felt he couldn’t handle them.  We’re still very active and do a lot of things together.  We’re having fun together in our retirement years.  But it’s been difficult for me to deal with this change in our roles and his sudden dependence on me.  It’s felt like a burden to me.  I have some health issues and I’m exhausted and starting to feel burnt-out.  More than anything, what bothers me is seeing the difference in this man that I married.  He used to be independent and I admired that he always did things his own way.  Now, he’s unsure of himself and needs reassurance all the time.  I know I’m not dealing well.  How can I deal with it better?

Missing My Husband’s Independence

Dear Missing:

You’re not alone.  I’ll bet you can find a support group in your area specifically for people dealing with this issue.  Support groups can be quite powerful for emotional support, as well as learning from other people.

Next, it’s really important that you notice and appreciate the positive things in your situation, even if, overall, you’re not happy with it.  You mentioned some extremely positive things:  It sounds like you and your husband have a good marriage after 55 years; the 2 of you are still active and have fun together (That’s fantastic!!  Congratulations!); your husband is still physically able to get around and he’s still “with-it” (Another thing to appreciate, especially since he’s had a stroke!).  If you focus all of your attention on the things that you feel badly about, such as your husband’s not being as independent as he used to be, that will become a bigger issue, at least in your own mind, and you’ll feel badly.  On the other hand, if you focus on the positive factors of the situation, THOSE will grow, you’ll start to feel good, you can begin to find solutions to the problems, and the problems will be less overwhelming.  I’m not suggesting that you sweep the problems under the rug.  I am suggesting that you not give the problems all of your attention, forgetting to appreciate some very important good things that are occurring.

Now for the problems and possible solutions.  Because of your husband’s stroke, the roles have changed in your marriage.  You’re now the one to make most of the decisions.  Prior to this, perhaps he made these decisions or the two of you shared them.  This is making you feel both burdened and sad that your husband isn’t who he used to be.

First, since your husband is still able to think clearly, maybe you can give him more responsibility, if he’s willing to take it.  Try it out with some of the less confusing decisions and see how that goes.

Secondly, you need to be sure that you’re taking care of yourself and your own health in order to prevent feeling burnt-out and getting sick.. Are you taking time to go to your doctor and following through on recommended treatments?  Make sure to eat right, get enough sleep get some exercise.  It’s wonderful that you and your husband are still enjoying activities together.  You might try also doing some things that you enjoy on your own.  Try something creative, get together with some of your friends, or take a class on a topic you’d enjoy.

Thirdly, in terms of getting all the things done that you need to get done, try setting aside a little bit of time every day, maybe an hour, to chip away at it, so it doesn’t build up and feel overwhelming.  Seek help from someone you trust with regard to finances, such as a financial advisor, so that you can receive support in making important financial decisions.

Lastly, accepting changes in your partner, or yourself, and the resulting changes in your marital roles isn’t easy.  A support group or psychological counseling might be helpful in making these adjustments.  It’s important to understand that things are ALWAYS changing in life and the only thing that doesn’t change is change.  Our roles with all of our loved ones shift and change throughout our whole life-cycle — our roles with our partners, our parents, our children, even our friends, change as we, ourselves, are changing.  If you can accept this reality as a fact and then look at the positive aspects of these new roles, then you can feel better about them and feel more comfortable in your new role.  In other words, you can choose to resist or to love “what is”….you can choose to fight or to go with the flow.  I will tell you this: solutions come much easier when you’re going with the flow.  Keeping in mind what I said at the start of this, writing a list of the positive aspects of all of your new roles in your different relationships can help you start to feel better about how things are right now….even downright good about it.

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