A few years ago, in my book, Marriage, for Equals, I profiled the marriages of over 600 women who had a 6% divorce rate (much lower than the 50% divorce rate across American society). In the context of this project, I explored the ways we set up and navigate our marriages.
Across America today, there is a group of spouses of veterans who have become the designated “caregiver” for their partner. The term “caregiver” immediately suggests that one party is responsible for the care of the other. Also, by definition, relationships in which one partner is a designated caregiver will have some additional challenges to be overcome. How might this impact the way that two people relate in a marriage?
Is there a way that a marriage for equals can be preserved? Can a marriage actually become stronger when there is a designated caregiver? I can definitely say yes based on years of clinical experience running a clinic for veterans and their partners. Here are three reasons why.
- “Autopilot” settings are traded for manual control of the marriage.
The caregiver dynamic often forces dramatic changes in roles. If expectations are not openly discussed on an ongoing basis there can be a negative impact on marital satisfaction. However, in the best of circumstances, couples develop a much deeper level of communication than they had previously.
Sometimes we don’t know who we can trust until we go to battle as a team. In caregiver relationships there is a shared set of challenges to be overcome together. The process of working through these challenges together can make a couple into a much stronger team than they ever were before. Couples become battle tested as they successfully navigate challenges. They can learn to support each other in more meaningful ways and can develop a new level of intimacy.
- The ability to see that your partner really has your back.
Many of us vow to commit to our partners no matter what may come as life unfolds. Those who become caregivers show their partners every single day that this was not an empty vow. Over time, this kind of process can propel couples into becoming each other’s soulmate. Based on my previous work, to “become your partner’s soulmate” is to become someone who is irreplaceable, fully and unconditionally loved, and deeply respected. These are the couples were enter the final phase of marriage, what I call “tested romanticism,” who have the most satisfying marriages of all.
As a final thought, if the goal is to maintain a marriage of equals, both partners must be caregivers at some time. Partners still need to find ways to take care of each other reciprocally. Many couples live through decades of marriage without discussing how they express and want to receive support. In relationships that have had a forced role changes, couples have to periodically check in about whether and how they are feeling supported. Like diamonds, they are formed under pressure, and over time, this process can create a partnership that is progressively cut and polished into a brilliant diamond with many uniquely beautiful facets.
Caregiving can present some extra challenges. Providing support for veterans and their partners is a unique aspect of CVN’s array of services that may help couples fill their potential to become battle buddies.
Shauna Springer, Ph.D., is the Senior Director of TAPS Red Team within the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors. She is the author of Marriage, for Equals and created a new line of services for veterans and their partners within the VA during the 8 years she served as a front line provider. Known to many veterans as “Doc Springer,” she has helped hundreds of warriors reconnect with their tribe, strengthen their most important relationships, and build lives that are driven by their deepest values.