Creating and sustaining both emotional and physical intimacy (closeness and affection with another person) in any relationship can be difficult. For people living with a chronic disease such as rheumatoid arthritis (RA), it can be even more challenging.
In fact, a study of those living with RA revealed that more than half feel that their disease places limitations on intimacy and more than a third say that living with RA has strained their relationship with their partner.
Elaine R., an Administrative Assistant who has been living with RA since 2012, says, "Open communication in any marriage can be difficult, and RA adds another layer to this. For my husband and me, it can be tough to discuss some of the relationship challenges we face as a result of my RA, but we know how important it is to face them together. We’re open with each other about our needs, and it has made our marriage stronger."
For many people, browsing the self-help section of a book store, an internet search, or picking up a women’s magazine can help provide some suggestions for how to build or repair intimacy. However, for those with RA, help and advice is more limited, and there’s a real need for support for those with a chronic disease looking to address intimacy challenges.
"I’m lucky that I have a husband who understands how my RA can affect our relationship and is committed to working with me. I tell him when I’m hurting, and we communicate openly to make sure we’re on the same page," says Elaine. "I know that’s not the case for everyone, but for people with a chronic condition, it’s important to remember that you don’t have to settle. You can learn to better manage lifestyle challenges and have those hard conversations with your partner."
"Open communication in any marriage can be difficult, and RA adds another layer to this."
– Elaine R., Diagnosed with RA in 2012
Here are a few tips that may help address intimacy with RA:
- Focus on self-love. The old adage "you must love yourself first before someone else can love you" rings true. While it can be difficult to love yourself when it feels like you are fighting against your body, it is even more important to exercise healthy self-love behaviors when dealing with a chronic disease. Focus on things that you love about yourself, practice positive affirmations, and take the time to do things that make you feel good.
- Communicate with your partner. An open dialogue is a critical component to intimacy — both physically and emotionally. Communicating openly and honestly paves the way for a feeling of closeness that comes from shared expectations and understanding. It’s also important to know that intimacy doesn’t require physicality, and if there are times you can’t be physical due to RA symptoms such as fatigue or swollen joints — that’s okay as long as you are open and honest with your partner. Make sure the intimacy in your relationship is maintained by enjoying shared interests or hobbies – have pillow talks or compliment one another out of the blue!
- Work as a team. There are times in every relationship when each person faces his or her own challenges. You and your partner are in this together. You are each other’s advocates. Maintaining a healthy and successful relationship is all about balance and understanding that challenges come in all shapes and forms. Living with RA is no exception.
- Talk to a professional. If your RA symptoms are inhibiting your relationship, talk to a professional. The right professional probably has some good ideas of how to address the impact on intimacy. If you don’t feel comfortable talking to your rheumatologist, try speaking with someone who specializes in intimate relationships such as a relationship counselor or sex therapist.