NAVIGATING SICKNESS AND HEALTH

(Men's Health) Of the roughly 44 million unpaid caregivers in the U.S., 40 percent are men. And when it's your partner that you're caring for, you're not just dealing with an illness. You're dealing with a changed relationship. To help steady your course:

Give the rock a rest
"Male caregivers, in general, have the tendency to play tough guy and not allow themselves to experience any feelings," says Barry Jacobs, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist who's a national spokesperson on family caregiving for the American Heart Association. That breeds a conspiracy of silence that shuts out your partner and doesn't give honest conversations the stuff healthy relationships are built on, a chance. "Illness doesn't kill a relationship; lack of intimacy does. It's hard to feel warm and fuzzy about a warrior," he says. Which also explains why people's sex lives evaporate.

Team Up
You've got to find a way to bring up what you're feeling, even if it's negative. One way to start is to define the illness as a couple or family issue "us against the disease," says C. Grace Whiting, CEO of the National Alliance for Caregiving, a research and advocacy group. Then together you can acknowledge what has been lost and the sadness around that.

Consider "The must be hard" to be an answer
"This is a generalization, but men tend to want to fix things," Whiting says. "Women often just want someone to listen to them." So "I'm sorry you're going through that; tell me more about it" is a perfectly reasonable response when your partner starts talking about what's wrong.

Build a new fire
Limping along and trying to pretend nothing has changed becomes an exhausting chore of fanning the embers of what used to be. Instead, find ways to construct your new reality; look for new things you can do together that are different but still meaningful. They can be daily rituals or special events, but shouldn't be about the illness or caregiving you already have enough of those.

Collaborate
"Out of all best intentions, the well partner often takes on more than they should, making the ill spouse feel disempowered and diminished," Jacobs says. "That affects the level of affection between you." The relationship may never again be as egalitarian as it was, but it's important to feel like there's effort on both sides. Figure out how each of you will contribute. Not going well? Talk to people who've been there: Try the Well Spouse Association https://wellspouse.org/ or Hidden Heroes, designed for military caregivers https://hiddenheroes.org/

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