One of the most common manners in which couples and family members find themselves in a co-dependent relationship occurs when one family member or partner is called upon to care for another. This can be caused by an addiction, physical illness, or mental disease and disability. How do you manage to be the selfless caregiver to someone you love, when they are unable to give in return without finding our relationship falling into one with horrible consequences for you both?
Tina and Alan have been married for eight years; they married young and had their entire lives before them. Six months after they were married Alan was diagnosed with cancer. It was devastating for this young couple. Through it all Tina has maintained a level head and escaped what we would call co-dependency. In getting to know Tina I’ve found the strength she held onto started in her belief that together they could achieve anything. I believe this is true with most any couple who learns of a potentially life ending diagnosis. Your first thoughts are heroic, you can do this, and you can get through anything. The unfortunate thing is that this is when the caregiver most often starts to lose their own identity. Everyone in your life begins to see you both as an illness rather than the individuals that you are. People in your life start to focus on the trouble you are going through, how the disease is progressing and less on you and your needs. While the caregiving spouse finds that they are completely wrapped up in keeping their partners spirits up, planning for the care of their partner, and always putting on the brave face that their own needs often fall to the way side. Sleep, diet, and your own well-being slip away from the forefront and you quickly become exhausted, stressed, and a shell of your previous existence.
We’ve said many times that co-dependency is when one partner becomes so deeply wrapped up in their partners needs that they forget their own, this leads to a negative impact in their mental health and often in their physical well-being. It is not uncommon for a caregiver in these circumstances to look towards alcohol or even drugs in order to cope with the difficult times they are going through. This is often the result of a caregiver finding that point in care of their partner that they begin to burn out, they are alone with no support and they are starting to come to the realization that they may have to go through their life without their partner. Grief begins to set in, denial rages through them, anger over the tragedy in their life, and so many other emotions swirl around them.
The struggle continues because there is no one to care for them, the person they so often leaned on for strength is wasting away, and the world is not concerned with their well-being instead they want to know how the sick partner is faring, how is recovery, what is the prognosis, when will they be better? This is no help for the caregiver and they find themselves feeling more and more …empty.
From speaking with Tina and Alan while he was struggling with his battle I learned that Tina had found a local support group at their hospital that was designed to give caregivers a place to go to find the support for themselves. It is groups like this that will often help you to avoid falling into depression, ease your anxiety, and provide a safe place for you to be free of the burdens if caring for someone else. In addition Alan encouraged Tina to spend time each week just for her, going to get her nails done, getting a new haircut, playing tennis with a friend, and joining a book club were all things that she did just for her. These were times that Tina was able to put away the disease that had entered her life uninvited even for just a short amount of time.
This was a huge relief for Tina, and it allowed her to be able to maintain her own identity. In treating co-dependent couples who have not been as lucky as Tina and Alan, I’ve found that had many of these couples taken the time early in the diagnosis to plan for the care of both partners there would be much fewer caregiver/patient relationships struggling with co-dependence alongside illness. The following is a list of recommendations for preventing or overcoming co-dependence.
- Locate a local support group that will allow you to spend time with other caregivers. Much like a 12 step group meeting you’ll find a safe place to share your struggles, lean on each other for support and escape for the daily needs of an ill partner even for a few short hours a month.
- Find hobbies that allow you to be yourself. Join a book club, take up a cross training class at the gym, find yoga class; attend classes at a community college. Anything that will allow you to take your mind off the situation at home and just be yourself!
- Hire a professional caregiver. If you find that your partners illness is taking every moment of your time and you’re unable get out of the house find a local agency that can send a caregiver to stay with your partner while you get out of the house.
- Spend time with close friends. No matter that your friends will spend time asking about your partner and the illness in your life, if you are seeing them often this trend will reduce in time purely because you are seeing them on a regular basis. Don’t cut these ties, you’ll be glad to have them in the event that your partner does not recover.
- Be honest with yourself! This is perhaps the most important thing to consider, be honest with yourself regarding the care you are able to give. Is the burden more than you can handle? Are you losing yourself? Has the time come when you must face the reality that hospice care maybe the answer, or is it a time when putting your partner into a treatment facility may be best for both of you? Take time to look into this fully, seek professional help for both of you if necessary.
No matter the reason for co-dependence, there is help out there. Knowing that you are entering a time in your life when the conditions are prime for you to fall into harmful patterns and taking the steps needed to ensure that both you and your partner are able to walk through together in a healthy relationship will not only help your own mental state, but also theirs. Taking this weight off your shoulders and allowing you both to focus on each other, yourselves, and the fight to wellness.