Caring for an aging parent can be stressful beyond belief. In fact, full-time caregivers are at increased risk for depression, health problems and substance abuse. It only makes sense that the strain can also take a serious toll on caregivers’ relationships with their significant others.

While the things necessary for maintaining a strong marriage may be pretty obvious, it is easy for them to fall by the wayside when life gets too hectic. This is normal to an extent but neglecting a relationship over the long term can result in irreparable damage. Every couple could use a refresher from time to time, especially those who are also dealing with caring for aging parents. Below are some fundamental tips for nurturing your marriage while caregiving.

  1. Don’t procrastinate.
    Sometimes when you are stressed it can seem like there is never time to talk about your feelings, so you keep them bottled up inside. But when things go overlooked for too long, they tend to explode. Timing is important when tackling prickly subjects, but avoid putting off discussions.
    You might have too many doctor’s appointments to accompany your parent to this week, but next week the kids might get sick. Before you know it, “next week” never comes. If you struggle with finding the right time to have conversations, make a standing appointment for you and your significant other to check in with each other. It sounds silly, but it will help ensure you communicate regularly and avoid blow-ups.
  2. No topic is off limits.
    Married couples must be able to talk about everything. Trust each other. Talk about whatever is on your mind and allow your spouse do the same without judgement. All subjects are fair game—the good, the bad and the ugly.
  3. Remember to listen.
    When you’re having a conversation, make sure you aren’t the one doing all the talking, and avoid interrupting your spouse. Be sure to really listen to what they are saying. Sometimes, it’s helpful to repeat back what they say in your own words to ensure there is no confusion or misinterpretation.
  4. Don’t wallow in self-pity.
    No problem has ever been solved by feeling sorry for yourself or your situation. The old saying rings true: happiness comes from looking at the glass half full, rather than half empty. However, this is easy to say, but much harder to put into practice. It takes a conscious effort to think about what’s running through your head and turn that negative voice into a positive one. Constant negativity can sap the energy and lightheartedness out of any relationship. Mindfulness exercises, self-help books and therapy can help you practice gratitude and learn to skew your thoughts in a positive way rather than negative.
  5. Don’t cast blame.
    The blame game is very destructive. During tough times, there is a natural tendency to place blame on those closest to you, but the truth is, there is usually no one person to blame for the situation. When it comes to caregiving, someone has to take care of aging parents and the job fell to you. Rather than casting blame, find ways to work as a team with your spouse and others to improve your predicament.
  6. Practice teamwork.
    When you first fell in love, you felt it was the two of you against the world. You had each other’s back. Remember your vows to support each other through thick and thin, through tough times and uncertainty. This teamwork concept holds true now more than ever and applies to the rest of the family as well. If the kids are old enough to do chores, make sure they get done. Everyone should contribute and help pick up slack that occurs from time to time. Making a family work is difficult even in the best of times, and it becomes more challenging when caregiving is thrown into the mix. The more help you have, the easier it will be to ensure the household is running smoothly and the more likely you will be to have free time for other tasks.
  7. Give each other space.
    Everyone needs some alone time. Make time to be alone with your thoughts and refresh your spirit and allow your spouse to do the same. If you can’t take the time to leave the house, find your own solitary space within the home. “Man caves” have become popular for a reason. Use the office, the den, the back porch, your bath tub, even the basement and turn it into your own personal retreat. You must take care of yourself before you can take care of others, and this applies to your spousal relationship, your kids and your care recipient.
  8. Keep the flame alive.
    Make time for fun and romance together, and make it a top priority. Couples should be able to share the burden of tough times together, but it is equally important to spend some carefree time enjoying each other’s company. Carve out time for a date night, a long walk together, or just a few extra minutes of snuggling in bed in the morning. If your parent’s care needs make such an arrangement seem impossible, then bring in back-up. If friends or family can’t or won’t help, seek respite from professional caregivers, even if it’s just for two hours here and there. In-home care and adult day care services are both viable options. While it may be difficult to pay for respite, the money is well spent if it allows you to nurture your marriage.
  9. Keep up the simple things.
    Simple, loving gestures matter a great deal in a marriage. Try to do a small act of kindness or love every day. Cook your spouse’s favorite dinner, acknowledge them for something they’ve done, or compliment them to let them know how much you care. Yes, it takes some effort to establish the habit, but the payoff is worth it.
  10. Build a support network.
    You and your spouse do not have to tackle caregiving on your own. Solicit support from family and friends. Seek help from your neighbors. Consider hiring professional assistance. Don’t be shy about asking for help; you can’t do it alone.
  11. Stay healthy.
    Taking steps to preserve your mental and physical health is crucial for caregivers. Exercise as often as you can, eat healthy, keep your stress in check and don’t forget your annual doctor’s appointments. If you fall ill, who will take care of your parent?

Keep in mind that any disruption in a longstanding family pattern can be difficult for everyone to adjust to. It will take time to settle into the new normal and make changes to get it “right.” Patience and understanding are crucial for working through this difficult situation together. Just remember to make yourself, your spouse and your children a priority while caregiving. If you need help communicating and keeping these priorities straight, professional counseling, individually and/or as a couple, can be incredibly beneficial.