Psychological Stress Linked to Love – Hate Relationships of Caregivers

Caregiver burden guilt

By Pamela D. Wilson MS, BS/BA, CSA NCG

Psychological stress is related to love-hate caregiving relationships. A feeling of mixed emotions often exists with those providing care to others. There are times when caregivers feel tired of being a caregiver. 

Caregivers look back at their lives and wonder how they arrived at the current situation.  The responsibilities of caregiving are not what we expected and may not be an ideal situation. Thinking time is beneficial for caregivers to identify why caregivers may be feeling agitated, frustrated, or angry.

Sometimes caregivers wish they could just run away. Research indicates that caregivers with mixed emotions about caregiving experience a higher degree of psychological stress and that the foundation for these feelings is the quality of the relationship with the person receiving the care. 1

Early Parent and Child Relationships

What if we look to back years to childhood and the relationship with our parents?  Memories are positive, negative or mixed.

We loved or hated our parents. I remember times when I was an angry child telling my mother I hated her when she withheld something I wanted. God bless mothers for putting up with temperamental children. As caregivers, we return this favor when our parents are older and experience similar behaviors.

Fortunately this early love-hate relationship, at least for me, did not have a negative effect on the care I provided for my mother in later years. I have many positive, loving memories. Looking back I won the parent lottery by having two loving and caring parents.

Mixed Caregiving Feelings

Relationships of CaregiversHowever, for caregivers finding themselves in adulthood, memories of parental relationships return. There are feelings of a close relationship with aging parents, and bond or mixed feelings.

One day the relationship is positive and the next day the relationship is negative.Caregivers wonder why is caregiving so exhausting when we love our parents?

The reality may also be that we have no relationship at all with our parents because we’ve been out of the home for so long and have not really kept in touch on a regular basis. Returning to be a caregiver and having to re-establish a relationship with a parent that we feel we don’t know can be challenging.

Caregiving Guilt

Guilt exists is caregiving because of the psychological stress of family relationships. There were times in the past when we wanted to be accepted and loved by parents.  There were times when our parents did exactly the opposite. This love-hate relationship effects caregiving situations when we are called to care for aging parents. Many adult children are unable to forget painful memories and hurt that occurred during childhood.

While we may feel guilty that we do not have a better relationship with our parents, the reality is that we may feel a sense of duty but not a sense of love. This is more common when abusive relationships occurred. Maybe a parent was diagnosed with mental illness or had a substance abuse problem. When this occurs children seek to distance themselves from parental relationships for reasons of self-preservation.

Lack of Caregiver Appreciation

While we may be doing all we can to support a parent we feel that our efforts are not appreciated. Aging parents are ungrateful.  Research indicates that these mixed emotions are associated with depressive symptoms and poorer mental well-being for caregivers. Lack of appreciation supports the psychological stress related to caregiving and love-hate relationships.

I see difficult child caregiver and parent relationships; children who feel like they are banging their heads up against a wall trying to help parents who resist all efforts of support. Parents with long term close relationships with their children feel more supported and will accept recommendations more easily.

Caregiving Relationship Quality

Adult children should also realize that refusals may be an aging parent attempting to preserve as much independence as possible. This is positive when there are no safety risks. While caregivers want to help aging parents, making a parent more dependent will only result in adult children spending more, rather than less time in caregiving tasks.

Wouldn’t it be great if we all had the foresight to see years down the road the issues that will arise when we age?  I wonder if this would impact the quality of our relationships years earlier.  We’ve all seen the t-shirts that say “be nice to your children – they’ll pick out your nursing home”.  This may seem humorous but in many situations, it is the truth.

Caregiving Challenges in Marital Relationships

The same can be said of marital relationships. Mixed feelings result in the same degree of emotional distress especially when one spouse becomes ill and the other becomes the caregiver. In spousal situations where one spouse becomes totally dependent on the other high levels of caregiving stress and burnout occur. Feeling tied to the home and to caregiving results in psychological stress and love-hate relationship feelings.

There are times when spouses, sons, and daughters feel more like a caregiver than a family member. Caregivers easily become lost in caregiving tasks. Setting boundaries and expectations are ways to manage love-hate relationship feelings. Caregivers traditionally give so much of themselves that setting boundaries after caregiving has gone out of control is difficult.

Setting Caregiving Boundaries

Setting caregiving boundaries helps manage the psychological stress of caregiving that results in love-hate relationships. Boundaries are guidelines to discuss with spouses and aging parents.

These guidelines could be, “mom or dad, I will visit on Saturday and complete as many tasks as possible, the rest of the week is for my family and my job.” For a spouse, a boundary could be, “You are fully capable of placing your dirty clothes in the laundry basket.”

While these boundaries may seem odd, it is the little things that become irritating. Aging parents calling after a visit to request something that they forgot. Trying to keep the house clean and finding dirty clothes on the floor. Similar to normal life the idea of “leaving the toilet seat up,” can be seen as insensitive to another person in the household.

Tasks Versus Relationships

Caregiving tasks are part of caregiving. They are unavoidable. Helping with personal care, grocery shopping, picking up prescriptions and other projects can become routine. Yet it is these routine tasks, like scrubbing the toilet, that makes caregivers feel more like a caregiver than a wife, husband, son, or daughter.

We caregive because we have a relationship with a family member. We want to love them but we may hate what caregiving does to us. How do we re-establish relationships that make us feel more like a husband, wife, son, or daughter?

Antidotes to Resolving Love-Hate Caregiving Relationships

Both caregivers and care receivers admit that caregiving is difficult. How do we make it better?

One solution to reverse hating what caregiving does to us is to create mandatory “family time”. This is a discussion to have with an aging parent, spouse,  or family member. It goes like this, “Mom, dad – I feel more like a caregiver than your son or daughter. Here is what I need to feel emotionally connected to you and to continue to be your caregiver.”

Asking for What You Need as a Caregiver

Then explain what you want to happen, letting your aging parent or spouse know that this is there way to participate more fully in the caregiving relationship, rather than the relationship remaining lop-sided. The “family time” maybe once a day when the caregiver and care receiver express appreciation for something that happened that day. This could be a daily or occasional phone call or the opener for a phone call before a list of requests is made. Appreciation is a significant mood booster.

Another idea is to create family time around parent-child activities. When you were a child did you sit in the kitchen while mom prepared dinner? Invite your mother into the kitchen while you make dinner? When you were a child did you and your father watch sports on television? Schedule a sports afternoon or evening where there are no caregiving tasks involved.

Reminiscing is another positive family activity. Sit with a loved one and look at family photos. Reminisce about childhood activities and memories. Record the conversations so that you can listen to them on days when there is more hate than love in the caregiving relationship. Having these recordings to listen to after a loved one passes away may bring comfort.

Caregiving Stress is Real

While caregivers feel hesitant or embarrassed to talk about caregiving stress and burnout, these experiences are real. It is important to talk about caregiving feelings within the family and within caregiving support groups. Caregiving support offers many benefits for caregivers and care receivers.

Before the psychological stress of caregiving results in a love-hate caregiving relationship, find a support group where you can join with others experiencing similar situations.


(1) Fingerman, K.L. et. al. Ambivalent Relationship Qualities Between Adults and Their Parents: Implications for the Well-Being of Both Parties. Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences 2008, Vol. 63B, No. 6, 362-371.

© 2012, 2013, 2019  Pamela D. Wilson, All Rights Reserved

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