A client recently asked me this, and it’s my Question of the Week:
What do I do when I seem to care more about my spouse’s health than he does?
My husband has been struggling with health issues for a few years now. He’s diabetic, overweight, has heart issues, drinks to excess, has high blood pressure, is inconsistent with taking his medications, and all in all seems depressed to me.
I talk with him all the time, trying to encourage him to change his lifestyle, socialize, follow up with his doctors, get therapy, take walks with me, etc….with no success. He just isn’t motivated. His interests are limited to going to work, puttering in the yard, and having beers every night after dinner. And when he’s doing those things, he does seem genuinely happy and content.
Meanwhile I feel frustrated, angry, and resentful that he’s not willing to change. It doesn’t matter how much I beg, nag, encourage or ignore – nothing changes. I’m afraid to give up, because I think that would mean I don’t care, or I don’t love him. But I am reaching the end of my patience and compassion. What do I do from here?
~ A loyal follower and frustrated wife
…and here’s My Response:
It is so very challenging and upsetting when the people you love the most, who are otherwise capable, seem disinterested or neglectful about their own health. It can seem as though the only option is for you to take on the burden of responsibility for their care, and that becomes a very painful and frustrating situation.
That’s why the first thing to explore is whether you shouldering all that responsibility is, in fact, your only option. It’s my hope that if you take the steps I suggest below the situation could evolve into another, better option.
It’s important to clarify how depressed your husband is. Having all the medical conditions you outline could certainly contribute to feeling depressed. It’s possible that his lack of motivation, or seeming complacency, really is due to depression. It also may help to know that the activities you describe your husband engaging in “contentedly” can also be used to suppress those feelings temporarily.
Having medical conditions, some of which can be life-threatening, can bring up feelings of powerlessness, anxiety, fear, uncertainty and – absolutely, overall – depression.
Next I would explore your husband’s reactions to his various medical conditions. If he’s reluctant to discuss that topic with you, attend his next doctor’s appointment with him and bring up your concerns with the doctor. Note both the doctor’s words and level of concern about your husband’s various issues. This can create an opening for further conversations and options, including potentially seeking professional guidance to help your husband handle everything he is facing in his life.
Most importantly for your own peace of mind, resolve to take a step back and start practicing compassionate detachment as described below. It’s a way of shifting your relationship to the situation, in which you allow your husband to deal with his issues and be responsible for his choices and decisions, and you still express your love and concerns, while staying detached from the outcome.
Note that “detached” doesn’t mean “you don’t care,” and it doesn’t mean you don’t point out problems or concerns with his choices and decisions when appropriate. It means that you acknowledge that he is responsible and that you cannot rescue him (and we breathe!).
How to Practice Compassionate Detachment
- Communicate to your husband your feelings about his health and wellbeing, without judgments, using “I” statements: “I feel scared / sad / upset / angry / frustrated, etc.”
- Ask your husband what HIS feelings are about his health and wellbeing.
- Ask your husband what HIS desired outcome is with regard to his health and wellbeing. When someone feels defeated, and he may, it may be hard for him to even think anything will help. It might be a good time to use my complimentary Caregiver’s Step-By-Step Guide to Take Back Your Life together, to give your husband an opportunity to find one step he can take to make a difference in his life. This is also a good tool for exploring possible consequences of each choice and action.
- Remember, it is up to him. As frustrated as you feel that you could not persuade him to change his behavior, practice accepting the new viewpoint that as long as he is mentally competent he is responsible for his actions. Acceptance is the key to detachment – and yes, it does take practice, patience and perseverance.
- Now apply your compassion to yourself: Given this new distribution of responsibility, what is YOUR desired outcome? What do you need to do for your own health and wellbeing? This may mean seeking expert advice and resources for yourself, so you can learn to take as good care of yourself as you do of him!
Reach out, and know that you do not have to do this alone…and we breathe….