5 Tips for Navigating Caregiver Spouse Intimacy

Caregiver Spouse Intimacy

Are you struggling to navigate caregiver spouse intimacy? When your partner is sick, developing and sustaining intimacy becomes challenging because it’s different from what you might be used to. However, it’s not impossible to keep the spark alive in your marriage. 

For one of my clients–we’ll call her Nancy–her husband had always been her emotional support. He was the one to calm her down whenever she was freaking out over something. This changed when he was diagnosed with cancer. When he came home from the hospital after surgery, she went into caregiver mode. She didn’t want to share any of her worries with him like she normally would because he was so weak and still recovering. So when she started to have some health concerns of her own, she felt isolated and alone. 

Even though her husband was sick and recovering, he was still her husband. The emotional distance she felt was because she had stopped opening up to him like she normally would. She said it was like she had placed a cancer filter between them. Even though she was trying to protect him, she ended up creating distance between them.

Fortunately, that wasn’t the end for Nancy and her husband. By working together, I helped her learn how to navigate caregiver spouse intimacy and find a new normal in her marriage where she felt supported like she used to. Keep reading to learn the strategies she used that you can implement into your relationship too! 

How Does Caregiving Affect Marriage?

The Gottman Institute defines intimacy as “a deep sense of knowing and being known that develops over time through shared vulnerabilities and deepening emotional connection.” Intimacy is strengthened when we show all of ourselves–the good and the bad–and when our partner does the same. 

Notice that intimacy does not come from how much time you spend together or how much you worry about your partner. It’s not about how much you love them or how long you’ve been together. It’s about opening up and being vulnerable with them. It’s about knowing them deeply and letting them know you. 

Caregiver spouse intimacy can be impacted when a disease or illness enters the picture. These are the typical challenges that couples face:

  • Changed dynamic: Before, you were partners; now, you are caregiver and patient. You each take on a new role and have to relate to each other from this new role. It can be difficult to switch between the role of caregiver and the role of spouse.
  • Added stress: Disease and illness create additional pressures on already busy lives. You may not be able to do the things you always did together as a couple. You may spend more time at doctor appointments and making decisions about treatment options. One partner may have to take over certain tasks from the other partner.
  • Different emotional responses: You each may be coping with the disease or condition in different ways. One person may withdraw or become angry, while the other may try to stay positive or want to talk more. One may turn to exercise and healthy habits, while the other just wants to eat comfort food and spend more time on the couch. 

If you and your partner have experienced any of these situations, or even some I haven’t mentioned, just know this is normal. However, it doesn’t mean it can’t get better–there are things you can do to help minimize the negative effects being a spousal caregiver has on your marriage.

5 Ways to Build and Sustain Caregiver Spouse Intimacy

When your spouse is sick, everything changes–including your intimacy. However, by remembering that vulnerability and openness are at the heart of intimacy, you can navigate this season while still keeping the love strong and spark alive in your marriage. 

1. Practice Being Truly Present for Your Partner

Your partner may be experiencing a lot of negative emotions right now. They may also be suffering through pain from surgery or treatment. It can be difficult to see your loved one struggle. If your response to their pain is to want to fix it for them, that is normal but often very unhelpful. When people are suffering in some way, the first thing they want is to be heard and acknowledged. However, when you rush into “fix it” mode or try to be positive and comforting, you skip over the part of just listening and acknowledging what they are feeling. 

The next time your partner is struggling, hold space for them. Try to stop what you are doing and be fully present. Listen without judgment. Instead of trying to be positive, point out where they are overreacting, or fix their problem, just listen. Acknowledge their feelings, even if you don’t agree with their perspective. Acknowledging their feelings helps them feel validated and will create closeness and connection between you. Get my free video on how to support your partner when they are in pain. 

2. Tell Your Partner How You Are Feeling 

Remember Nancy, my client who put up a cancer filter between herself and her husband? Well, after I explained that by trying to protect him, she was creating more distance between them, she decided she would, in fact, share her health concerns with her husband. She came back the following week to tell me how much better she felt. She told her husband what she was worried about, and he did what he always did: supported her! She didn’t feel so alone, and he felt like he could be useful again! 

Just because your partner may be struggling with their health doesn’t mean you should stop sharing your feelings with them. Many caregivers don’t want to burden their partners with more worries, so they pretend to be positive and try to keep all their own fears inside. However, this will just create more distance between you. Know that you can share what you are struggling with without making it your partner’s responsibility to solve it. You can be open about your worries without placing them on their shoulders. This is a key difference and is easier to do when you are getting support for yourself

I encourage you to open up to your partner and share your worries and fears. But at the same time, explain that you don’t need them to fix it or worry about you. You just want to connect and share. 

3. Intentionally Separate Your Roles of Spouse vs. Caregiver

Create space for both roles… don’t always be in “caregiver” mode. This can be a challenging one. There may be times when you are primarily a caregiver. But remember not to get stuck in the caregiving mindset. You might find it helpful to mentally put on different “hats” for different times of the day. You may even tell your partner what role you’re in so there are clear expectations.

Being a spouse doesn’t just mean how you interact with your partner. It also means that you have your own life to live as well. It means having some solitude or connecting with friends. By staying strongly connected to yourself on this journey, you will actually strengthen your relationship! 

4. Redefine What Intimacy Means and Looks Like in This Season

Be open to rethinking how you and your partner connect. Your physical intimacy may be impacted, but your emotional intimacy doesn’t need to be. Both of your needs may have changed with your changed circumstances. Perhaps before, you always went out together, but right now, watching a movie together or simply sitting next to each other while reading a book would feel really good and intimate for both of you. Talk to your partner about things you can do together and explore new ways to connect. 

5. It Only Takes One Person to Make a Change! 

Yes, intimacy is between two people. But the good news is that it only takes one person to change for it to affect the relationship. This means you don’t have to get your spouse on board in order to improve your relationship. When you start behaving differently, it will start to create a different dynamic. When you start opening up, being vulnerable, and sharing how you feel, you will create a safe place for your partner to do the same. 

Let’s Navigate Caregiver Spouse Intimacy Together

If navigating caregiver spouse intimacy feels too overwhelming for you to do alone, let’s get on a call and talk about it. As a coach for you when you’re caring for your partner, my goal is to help you navigate this new role and find ways to connect with your spouse on this journey. Schedule a free coaching session today, and we’ll find creative ways for you to build and sustain intimacy with your partner!

One thought on “5 Tips for Navigating Caregiver Spouse Intimacy

  1. Such comprehensive excellent insights into relationship issues & tools offered to navigate delicate dynamics caring for an ill loved one. Brava Coach Marika!

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