Is there conflict being a caregiver and a wife (mother, sister, brother, etc.)?

Blog post written by Mary Brintnall-Peterson, Ph.D., MBP Consulting, LLC, Professor Emeritus, University of Wisconsin-Extension

Yes, indeed I have experienced conflict between being a wife and a caregiver! First off, I had to accept the fact that I am not only a wife but also a caregiver. Both of these roles make up who I am and my identity. My role as a wife and my role as a caregiver have rules dictating how I behave. The caregiver role is different than the wife role and sometimes my rules for each are in conflict. Here’s an example—my husband was put on a specific diet which he doesn’t follow.  He complains about the new diet because he can’t eat some of his favorite foods. As a caregiver I know he should follow the diet because if he doesn’t he could be ill again, but as his wife I want to give him his favorite foods.

So, which role do I pick? Do I function as a caregiver and monitor his eating, making sure his favorite foods aren’t in the house, etc. or do I let him eat what he wants especially since his favorite foods are important to him. I’m sure you have your own examples of when your wife and caregiver role are in conflict with each other. So what causes this conflict between being a wife and a caregiver? The answer is—the rules we have for each role guides our decisions and actions.

I have different rules for being a wife and for my caregiver role. When my rules are in conflict I experience stress. When I am stressed, I try to figure out what rules are guiding my thoughts and actions. To understand my rules a nurse (who recognized how stressed out I was) drew a circle, with three circles inside of it, and explained where my rules come from.

Rules of Caregiver ConflictThe outside circle represents rules from society. For example, you wear clothing when you are in public, you drive on the right side of the road, and stealing is against the law. These rules are usually understood and followed by everyone. The next circle is all the communities you are a part of. These include but are not limited to your faith community, fraternal organizations, ethnic communities and your heritage.

The military is a community many of you are in or have been in. As you know the military has its own ways, rules or expectations for enlisted individuals, officers, and family members. One military rule I often hear is the wife or significant other takes care of the “home front” when the service member is away.  Another military rule is the military community takes care of its own people, especially in time of crisis.  I’m sure you can identify other “rules” within the military community which can be helpful or not.

The next circle is our family. Within every family there are rules such as we don’t talk about money, sex or share what happens in our family with others. In many families women are the nurturers and show emotion while the men are responsible for manly things and don’t show or share their emotions. The last circle is your current situation such as your health, finances, help/assistance, medical condition of your husband, living arrangement, etc. As you can imagine when your situation changes it influences your rules as a wife and caregiver. These four circles provide insights into where your rules come from and why we react the way we do in certain situations. It also explains why everyone reacts to situations differently.

Whenever I have a conflict between being a caregiver and a wife I attempt to do the following:

  • Figure out what rules are guiding my thoughts and feelings.
  • Determine if the rules are from my caregiver role or wife role.
  • Decide if the rules are helpful or not.
    • If the rule is not helpful, throw it out or change it.
    • If the rule is helpful, keep it or tweak it.

It is not necessarily easy or natural to do this, but I try. By figuring out which rules are creating conflict between being a wife or a caregiver, I gain an understanding of why I experience stress.


This MFLN-Military Caregiving concentration blog post was published on September 15, 2015.

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