How to Maintain a Healthy Marriage When an Aging Parent Moves In
In the summer of 2020, for the first time since the Great Depression, the majority of people ages 18 to 29 lived at home with their parents, pushed back into the nest by the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting financial fallout.
But a similar, albeit reverse, trend had begun brewing years before.
Multigenerational households have been the standard in many cultures for centuries. But in the United States, the prevalence of seniors cohabitating with adult children is a relatively new phenomenon.
According to recent census data, about 30 percent of American households are now multigenerational. And about 14 percent of adults living in another person's home are the parent of the household head—up from 7 percent in 1995.
This mode of living can doubtless be a beautiful thing, but it's not without challenges. Along with the toll caregiving can take on an individual, it can also be taxing for familial and romantic relationships.
"Caregiving for our elderly can take a heavy toll on many families," said Gilza Fort-Martínez, M.S., L.M.F.T., a couples and family therapist and CEO and founder of Resolution Counseling Center in Glenvar Heights, Florida. "A recent report published by AARP found that family caregivers provide $600 billion in unpaid care in the U.S. Our healthcare system is troubled and overloaded. In addition, extended family living is part of many cultural groups, often being an expectation rather than an option. Bringing an aging parent into a family unit can be challenging for couples as the demands for attention will increase."
In order to successfully navigate this journey, Fort-Martínez and other experts said it is essential to prepare your home and marriage for the shifting dynamic.
"Communication is vital for couples to prepare themselves and their relationship for a parent to move in," she added. "Physical space may be easier to create, [that is,] a spare room or a converted garage, but emotional space may be more challenging."
Preparing for the move
Michael T. Mongno, M.Sc., M.F.T., a psychotherapist at Present Centered Therapies in New York City, and Tom Norris, D.Min., a counselor, an author and a professor at Florida International University in Miami, each stressed the importance of recognizing the move will be a significant transition for all involved, requiring understanding and patience throughout.
"The couple needs to be sensitive to how difficult this probably is for the parent," Norris said. "They are giving up their independence by no longer living separately. They are probably dealing with loss, such as the loss of a spouse. They may be sad, angry, grieving, fearful."
Experts recommend scheduling a family meeting before moving day to address questions and concerns, and set expectations. This dialogue can help all parties understand one another's perspectives, reduce stress and diminish the risks of missteps and miscommunications.
"Open communication is key when it comes to having a parent move in," advised Martha Tara Lee, D.H.S., relationship counselor, clinical sexologist, author and founder of Eros Coaching in Singapore. "Couples should talk about their expectations, feelings and concerns before and during the process. This will help ensure that everyone is on the same page and that any potential issues are addressed before they become a problem."
Topics to discuss include private versus shared areas of the home, general house rules, the parent's role in the household (such as their chores), their financial contributions (if applicable), their care needs and schedules. If there are children in the house, this is a good time to discuss how the parent will be involved with childcare and child-rearing.
Norris recommended detailing expectations in a contract for everyone to agree and refer to if there's a problem.
"These are daily activities of living that can be explored and agreed upon," Fort-Martínez said. "Having an open line of communication and implementing systems that allow for a smooth transition is critical. Loving and firm boundaries will need to be in place."
Fort-Martínez and Norris noted it's important to address unresolved issues, such as past slights and emotional hurts, as these will likely surface again while cohabitating.
"Childhood hurt and trauma are often buried," Fort-Martínez said. "Any unresolved family tensions from the past, such as conflict with a parent due to high expectations or disappointments, will now be in the limelight. Addressing those issues—whether professionally through counseling or informally through friends, other family members or religious/spiritual connections—can ease the transition."
In the same vein, she recommended preempting potential conflicts before they arise.
"The partner with the biological relationship will tend to have the most emotional responses or reactions to situations," she added. "Create a preliminary plan for dealing with unresolved issues from the past and be open to revising and adjusting it as the living situation evolves."
Tips for after the move
Once everyone is happily moved in with the contract in place, what could go wrong? Well, of course, everything could go wrong. Here are some recommendations for ongoing strategies that can help keep issues to a minimum:
Hold (more) family meetings
Experts reiterated that consistent communication is crucial to maintaining harmony in any relationship, especially in a multigenerational household.
"The critical piece is acknowledging that there will be changes across various areas, from the household routine to the relationship dynamic to the actual physical space," Fort-Martínez said. "Acknowledging is the first step in managing. Acknowledge and then address situations as they come up. Procrastination will lead to pent-up feelings and possibly outbursts."
Mongno recommended holding weekly family meetings to enable everyone to express their feelings, needs and wants.
"Everything has changed now for everyone," he said, explaining that these meetings are an opportunity to check in and "tweak" anything that isn't working.
"You would start with saying some positive things about how the week has been, going around each person saying some positive things that you were happy about, that you did for someone, some moments that you were touched emotionally," he said. "And then you talk about what would be helpful to have everybody feeling a bit better. That's when you return to boundaries or ground rules that maybe weren't clear or followed and you need to reexpress them. At the end of this meeting, you want people to come away with hopefulness that this next week is going to be even better. That's really important."
Check in with your partner
Tuning in with your partner is equally essential.
"Communicate regularly to stay engaged with each other and better manage the unpredictability of caregiving," Fort-Martínez advised. "Random acts of kindness can also help couples stay connected and maintain the spark alive."
"One of the biggest things that make for any kind of a happy, healthy relationship—certainly a marriage—is emotional attunement," Mongno added.
Besides being conscious and considerate of your partner's mood when something seems "off," it's important to inquire, not assume. He stressed the importance of empathy and "authentic dialogue," or open, honest communication in which each person actively listens, validating the other's feelings in order to reach a mutually agreeable conclusion.
"Authentic dialogue [is] very, very important to stay connected," he said. "And when I say stay connected, I'm talking about a fluid, energetic experience where you feel where the other person is at, at any given moment. So, for instance, if you notice your partner's feeling a little frustrated, certainly you don't want to react to that. You want to have good compassion for whatever they're going through."
Mongno explained that if a parent is being particularly annoying, it's not wrong to commiserate with your partner. In fact, doing so in a constructive way can bring you closer together.
"It doesn't mean you're judging or you're against the parent," he said. "You're just saying, 'Wow, this is really hard.'"
Establish healthy boundaries
Experts emphasized the importance of creating and reinforcing boundaries. For example, Norris said privacy is one of the most common and significant issues. The parent is likely used to going wherever they please. In a shared household, it may be necessary for the couple to state their bedroom is off-limits and that everyone must knock and wait for a response before entering the bedroom or bathroom.
Unsolicited advice is another major challenge, Fort-Martínez and Norris said, and may be particularly problematic when children are involved and disagreements arise over child-rearing.
"The parent may be used to being in charge, so they may give unsolicited advice, interfere with parenting or frequently bring up potential areas of conflict, such as politics or religion," Norris explained. "Again, boundaries and respectful guidelines need to be established. The couple wants the parent to have a voice in the family, of course, but they need to discuss with the parent when it is appropriate to give advice, make a suggestion or discuss difficult topics. The most important guideline is that both parent and the couple respect each other's opinions and rights within the family."
"You and your partner should know what the other one is feeling and have a plan to handle difficult situations," Fort-Martínez said. "Make sure to address your concerns early and communicate your expectations to avoid tension and hurt feelings. Set emotional boundaries and be open and honest about what you find intrusive and what's acceptable and within your comfort zone."
Carve out 'couple times'
"Whether a couple lives alone, with children or with an aging parent, the couple-time needs are the same," Norris said.
He added that many married people stop "dating" each other, but marriage counselors recommend continuing the courtship well after the wedding day. This can be particularly essential when one-on-one time at home is scarce.
He and Fort-Martínez said "dates" can include anything from the traditional dinner and a movie to outings with friends, weekend getaways and couples-only or friend-group vacations.
In addition, Fort-Martínez recommended setting aside some time for intimate moments daily, such as a long walk together or extra snuggles in the morning.
"Creating the emotional time and space to continue to have intimacy will be important for long-term relationship satisfaction," she added.
…and solo time, too
It is important to ensure everyone—including your parent—has enough "me time," Fort-Martínez said. Although social connection is a pillar of mental health and overall well-being, research indicates spending quality time alone may be equally important, providing the opportunity to recenter and recharge.
"Honest and open conversations will be essential to manage stress and create plans to prioritize time as a couple and as individuals," she added. "Make sure to schedule time for each partner's hobbies equitably so each one gets to enjoy 'me time.'"
Plan for sex
Of course, sex is vital for most couples, but the logistics of living with a parent can damper the flames of passion. A spontaneous romp in the kitchen after a night out on the town is probably not in the cards when living with a parent. But that doesn't mean you have to be begrudgingly celibate.
"The date nights, getaways and vacations offer ample opportunities for intimate moments, which are part of the romantic spark that keeps partnerships fresh and growing," Norris said.
Experts noted it's possible to set aside time for intimacy when your parent is out of the house, for example, if they attend a weekly class, volunteer or visit friends.
If all this seems too regimented, Fort-Martínez recommended a change in perspective could be beneficial.
"Couples often complain about scheduling," she said. "However, I am a big believer in reframing a schedule as 'something to look forward to' instead of 'too planned.'"
Ask for help
Caring for an aging parent can be physically and emotionally draining, leading to tension, stress, resentment and burnout. To prevent this, experts recommend preemptively planning breaks from caregiving duties and asking for help from other family members, friends and professionals, such as home care aides.
"Be willing to ask for help, as this is crucial to managing long-term caregiving," Fort-Martínez said. "Get creative. Can your sibling come in during specific periods during the year to allow for your time away? Do other family members enjoy the company of your elder and want to visit? Don't be afraid to ask and be open to receiving."
Lee and other experts also recommended working with a couples therapist who can assist with navigating the transition and any issues that might come up in its wake.
For all the growing pains that might accompany an expanded household, experts said there are plenty of perks, from help with childcare to stronger family bonds. Intentionally finding and appreciating these bright spots as part of a daily gratitude practice may improve emotional well-being and help to facilitate a more positive environment.
"Extended family can bring layers of warmth, wisdom and knowledge about family history," Fort-Martínez said. "Having children grow up with their grandparents around can provide another circle of love and understanding. Incorporating the kids into caregiving can also provide important life skills. They will learn how to help, have compassion and be more willing to listen to others. Sharing household tasks can also serve as a beautiful example of how to divide responsibilities and work together as a family."
Experts said living with an older parent can also bring couples closer together, provided they communicate with and support one another and address challenges as a united front.
"This can really open up some depth for a couple," Mongno said. "This can really have a couple come together in ways they might not have imagined. It's also a way to remember that this parent gave birth to you, that we're all part of each other in a family. And sometimes this can be a lens to accentuate that positively and to remember that this is why we're together. This is our own little special community."