The Emotional Divorce
By Dr. Marvin Fredman, Psychologist

Over the last eight years, I have recommended to the spouses of Alzheimer's victims that they work towards achieving an emotional divorce from the husbands and wives that are suffering from this terrible disease. Whenever I bring up this issue during speeches to caregivers, there appears to be genuine interest that is generated. I wanted to take the opportunity to discuss the concept of emotional divorce in writing because it is so important to those concerned.

Everyone is familiar with a physical divorce, but many people have never heard of an emotional divorce. An emotional divorce occurs when a person successfully breaks the emotional bond with another person that was created when these two people formed a romantic attachment, with each other. When two meet and form a romantic attachment, both people have emotional needs which are satisfied by the other person. The more "in love" we feel, we become dependent upon that person who is satisfying our emotional needs, because we feel so much better when there is someone in our life who is providing the love, attention, help, etc. that we crave. We value that person strongly and expect that the person will continue to satisfy our emotional needs. As long as both people feel satisfied with each other, marital harmony exists. However, if one spouse begins to discontinue providing for the other, then tension and strife build.

We are familiar with the course of AD, and we know that the patients deteriorate over many years. As the mental deterioration proceeds, the AD victim becomes less and less able to meet the emotional needs of his or her partner. Making matters worse is the fact that the patients become a continual burden on the spouse- which now causes even more strain on the emotional relationship between these two people. Typically, both the patient and the caregiver become depressed and frustrated with respect to their relationship because they can no longer relate emotionally as they once were able to do. A normal reaction is for both persons to withdraw emotionally from one another, which leaves both feeling isolated and rejected.

It is necessary for each caregiver to become less and less emotionally dependent upon his/her spouse with AD, and to become more able to let go of the expectations that his/her spouse is going to provide for emotional needs. Who then is going to provide for the emotional needs of the caregiver? Certainly not the patient. What is a caregiver to do? Find other people--such as those found in support groups--to provide the emotional support that once was provided by the patient. Even more important, the caregiver needs to become a more emotionally independent person with emotional needs that can be self-satisfied. Achieving a greater degree of emotional independence will benefit the caregiver and, indirectly, the spouse who has AD.

Achieving an emotional divorce is a difficult process that requires a committed individual who is willing to work hard. For many people, professional assistance is needed to help get through the process. Professionals have the objectivity, as well as the necessary training and experience that friends and family members tend to lack. Working towards an emotional divorce is necessary for all caregivers so that they may remain loving, patient and maximally helpful to their spouses.

(c) copyright 1997

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