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How your relationships can change when you become a carer

Becoming a carer is often a very big change, so it is inevitable that it will have an impact on your relationships. Not only will your relationship with the person you are caring for be affected, but also your relationships with the other people in your life too. Some of these changes will be positive, whereas others will be a bit more challenging for all of you.

We discuss some of the most common changes below, and also provide some advice for how to navigate these changes smoothly so that your relationships stay as strong as ever.

How your relationship with the person you care for might change

Of all the relationships in your life, the one that will change most dramatically is likely to be your relationship with the person you care for. This is not surprising. Alongside your previous role as their husband, wife, son, daughter, nephew, niece, grandchild or friend, you now have to add ‘and carer’ as well. This can be a big adjustment for both of you.

There are many different ways that this relationship could change. You may experience none, some, or all of these changes:

Becoming a carer for someone can increase the tension in your relationship with them.

This might partly be because you are more frustrated, annoyed or angry with them. You might be angry that they need care, or blame them for the situation. You might be resentful that you have to give up so much of your own life and identity for them. You might be annoyed that they don’t seem more grateful for the sacrifices you are making. You might feel grief for the plans you had made together that may now have to change. You might be frustrated that they aren’t doing more for themselves and feel like they are being lazy or difficult for not doing their fair share. You might feel that this just isn’t what you signed up for.

There are also lots of new things that you might now worry about including your friend or relative’s condition, the financial implications of them needing care, and what the future holds. On top of this, you might feel exhausted from not sleeping properly and achy and sore from the physical demands of your caring role, only making you feel even grumpier.

It isn’t just how you feel that has changed either. The person you are caring for has likely experienced big changes in how they feel too. They may well feel embarrassed or ashamed that you have to care for them. They may be upset at losing their independence. They might feel guilty that you are having to give up so much of your time to look after them. They might interpret you caring for them as being patronising, overprotective or controlling.

All of this can lead to an increase in bickering, shouting or arguing with the person you care for.

Sometimes your relationship is also affected by behavioural changes in the person you care for, caused by their illness or condition. Some conditions could affect their ability to communicate and express themselves. Sometimes their memory could be impaired, meaning they may forget who you are or what your shared history is. Sometimes their personality might change, with some conditions causing people to become increasingly delusional, paranoid or depressed.

These can directly affect your relationship if it makes the person you care for more difficult to deal with on a day-to-day basis. But it can also have a wider impact if you are watching someone you love change drastically, sometimes to the point where you don’t feel like you really know them anymore.

It may be that the person you care for had previously always cared for you instead, so this is a big role reversal for you both. This can dramatically alter the power dynamic in the relationship and can compound the emotional struggles you both face in adjusting to your new situation. It can be hard for them to get used to not being the person in control anymore. But it can also be hard for you having to look after someone who you may feel should still be looking after you.

If the person you are caring for is your partner, you can find your sex life being affected.

This change could partly be because of their condition. Some illnesses or disabilities can make sex more difficult. You may worry about hurting or injuring one another. Your partner’s body image and self-esteem could be affected by their condition which might make them feel embarrassed, self-conscious or ashamed. Or perhaps their treatment has impacted on their libido, reducing their desire to have sex.

Their condition could also affect the wider intimacy in your relationship. Sometimes things like sitting next to each other on the sofa, sharing a bed or being able to give each other a kiss or a cuddle can become more difficult due to their condition.

Or you could experience changes in sex and intimacy simply because you have started caring for them. It can be hard to switch between being their carer and being their sexual partner. Seeing them less as your equal and more as someone childlike who needs looking after can affect your attraction to them. In addition, some types of care such as washing them or assisting them to use the toilet can also impact your sexual desire. Even just the stress, emotional strain and exhaustion either one or both of you might now be feeling can easily be enough to make you not feel ‘in the mood’.

Not all the changes to your relationship will be negative. In some cases, caring for someone could actually strengthen your relationship with them.

If the person you are caring for feels grateful to you for their care, and you feel good about yourself for doing it, then it could make you both feel more positively towards one another.

Or if the person you are caring for is diagnosed with a serious condition or has had a bad accident, for example, it can put some of the small grievances you may previously have had into perspective and allow you to concentrate on what matters instead.

It can also give you a chance to spend a lot more time together than you were previously able to, which some carers report has made them feel closer and more deeply connected than before. Some even come to see it is a privilege to have the chance to bond with the person they care for so intensely and to create a new special tie with them.

How your relationships with everyone else might change

It is not just your relationship with the person you are caring for that can change. Your other relationships can also be affected when you become a carer.

Perhaps your other friends and family are frustrated that you have less time to spend with them. Perhaps you feel you have nothing left to give when they turn to you for emotional or practical support. Perhaps you have to keep cancelling plans at the last minute when something happens with the person you care for. Or perhaps caring for someone else leaves you tired and stressed, which makes you more easily upset, annoyed or frustrated with other people. Particularly if they are not carers themselves, they may not understand why these changes are happening or how demanding it is to look after someone else.

Alternatively, becoming a carer could be good for your relationships with others. This is particularly the case if they are also involved in providing the care too. Perhaps you now have the opportunity to spend more time with them than you did previously. Perhaps you have been able to strengthen your relationship by working together on a shared project. Perhaps it is good to know that there is someone else going through the same situation as you who you can talk to.

What can you do to manage some of these changes?

In general, it is good to bear in mind that relationship changes are normal and you are certainly not alone. Almost half of carers report facing difficulties in their relationships because of their new responsibilities. And in fact all relationships have their ups and downs, even without the extra trials brought by your caring role.

That doesn’t mean though that there aren’t still things you can do to try and manage some of these changes and improve how well you get on with the people in your life. We discuss a selection of the things you could try below.

If you find yourself getting angry with the person you care for and you can feel an argument brewing, it can be worth trying to diffuse the situation at that point. If it is safe to leave them by themselves, try taking five minutes alone to breathe deeply and calm down.

When you are calm again, often the best solution for any problem in your relationship is to talk about it with one another. Many issues are caused by miscommunication so a lot of problems can be solved by simply talking more openly and honestly. Tell the person you care for how you are feeling. And try to listen calmly when they tell you what it is like for them too. Can you identify together some ways to improve the situation, solve any issues that have been developing and make sure that the needs of both of you are being met? Perhaps you can also remind yourselves of the positive parts of your relationship and think of ways to strengthen these.

If you are not able or don’t feel comfortable speaking to the person you care for directly, or if you have tried but it hasn’t helped, then it may be worth speaking to someone else you trust. This could be a friend or family member who isn’t involved in the situation. It could be another carer who may have experienced similar issues themselves. Or it could be a counsellor or therapist who is trained to listen.

One way to minimise the impact of your roles being reversed is to treat the person you are caring for as though nothing has changed. Try not to think of them as someone you care for, but instead think of them as still just your parent, grandparent, partner etc. Remember to see the person, not the condition. And although you are looking after them in many ways like you would a child, it is fundamental to still treat them like an adult.

If your partner has a condition that might affect their ability to be intimate, although it may be embarrassing, it is important to speak to someone on their medical team about its impact. You could ask if your partner’s libido may be affected by either their condition or its treatment, as well as what you can and can’t do without risk of injury.

Once you know the full details and the boundaries that need to be set, you can together come up with adjustments that allow you to maintain some sexual intimacy. If you keep an open mind and are willing to try new things it might even end up being fun! But be patient, try not to rush things and don’t be put off if it is a little awkward at first. It is going to take a while for both of you to find your way but you will get used to it.

If your partner’s self-esteem has been affected meaning that they feel embarrassed, self-conscious or ashamed, it is important to reassure them that you still find them sexually attractive, despite their condition and your new roles. If you think personal care is affecting your attraction to them, it might be worth finding someone else to take that over for you.

And remember that intimacy doesn’t all have to come from sex. An act as simple as touching their arm when you pass by can help you to still feel close and show that you care.

Talk to the other people in your life about how you are all feeling and discuss ways you can make sure everyone is happy. You might want to explain to them that some changes are just inevitable now you are a carer and that you simply have to prioritise the person you are caring for at the moment. It might also help to explain how difficult your caring role can be, and how much you need everyone else in your life to support you with it.

If some of your other friends and family are feeling neglected, you may want to regularly set aside some time to spend with them. To make sure this is quality time spent well, you could do an activity together that you both love. If you feel like you simply do not have any spare time to do this, then you might have too much on your plate. It could be worth taking a break from caring in order to spend time with the other important people in your life. Have a look at our guide 'Taking breaks as a carer' for more information.

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Whether you're a carer in need of support or you're a professional concerned about somebody, you can refer through our local services.

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Visit our online support section where we have provided advice and guidance on a range of relevant topics to help you in your caring role.

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