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Wife worries that parent care will be the final straw for her marriage

In today's "Minding Our Elders" column, Carol says the fragility of the reader's marriage makes their situation more worrisome.

Carol Bradley Bursack updated column sig for online 10-21-19.jpg
Carold Bradley Bursack, "Minding Our Elders" columnist.
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Dear Carol: My marriage has always been rocky to the point of near separation but so far, we’ve always patched things up. Our parents are in their late 70s and our current friction happens when I help either of the elder couples even in a small way. My husband gets angry with me and says they should “figure it out on their own.”

I’m close to my parents, but he’s never been close to his and doesn’t want to get closer. I feel we should help because of their ages, but I can already see that doing this will threaten my marriage. Am I being a “patsy,” as my husband says, or is he being cold and unreasonable? I’m just trying to be a decent person. — MJ.

Dear MJ: I’m sorry that it’s such a struggle for you to do what most people would consider the right thing. Though you are far from alone when it comes to marital friction caused by parent care, the fragility of your marriage makes your situation more worrisome.

Your foresight into this complicated situation is commendable. It’s not uncommon for people to live in denial and then feel blindsided by the fact that aging parents will need some assistance. They could need someone to step in to help manage finances and health but even more likely, they will need some assistance around the house or help with hiring such assistance.

I’ve seen some admirable spouses who have not just supported their partners in providing high levels of parent care but who actively participate in much of the care. More often, though, I’ve seen reasonably secure marriages struggle when extensive parent care becomes a drain on family life and even finances. Fragile marriages like yours are almost guaranteed to have conflicts.


You mentioned that you and your husband nearly separated but “patched things up,” yet you didn’t say how you went about doing so. I’m wondering if you had joint marriage counseling during that time. If you did, I’d suggest that you return to that counselor or if that wasn’t a great match, find a different one.

If you didn’t get counseling then, I’d encourage you to firmly tell your husband that third-party help is a necessary step toward keeping your marriage on track so it’s going to happen. Maybe your husband’s background didn’t prepare him for caring for older adults or maybe there was abuse in his past that you don’t know about. Counseling is a way to provide a safe environment where you can each tell your side of this situation and possibly find a compromise.

Continue with your proactive mindset. If your husband refuses to go to counseling with you, go on your own. This will help you determine your own life priorities and plan a path toward the future that feels right to you in all ways, not just parent care.

Again, I congratulate you on your clear-eyed thinking. I wish you the very best as you tackle this difficult family dilemma.

Carol Bradley Bursack is a veteran caregiver and an established columnist. She is also a blogger, and the author of “Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories.” Bradley Bursack hosts a website supporting caregivers and elders at She can be reached through the contact form on her website.

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