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How to Keep Your Relationship Strong Despite a Chronic Condition

Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on October 02, 2020

Having a chronic disease affects every aspect of your life, including your relationship. It’s as if there’s a third party in your relationship: an unwelcome guest that you can’t break up with.

Treatments for problems like rheumatoid arthritis (RA) or multiple sclerosis can improve your life. But these conditions still can cause pain, fatigue, disability, and other problems.

Long-lasting conditions can upend a couple’s day-to-day life and affect what happens in the bedroom, too. Health problems can change and even strain the strongest relationships. But yours can bend and not break with honest communication and teamwork.

Acknowledge feelings. If you just found out about your condition, you need to share your feelings with your loved one. It’s OK to feel grief or strong emotions and wonder what your future holds. Your partner probably shares those concerns. It’s important for you to speak your truth and let your loved one do the same.

Be honest. Your partner is not a mind reader, and neither are you. Share your feelings and ask them to do the same. If you’re grumpy or down-in-the-dumps, it’s better to tell your partner how you feel and why. Couples can become distant if they don’t know what’s behind the other person’s attitudes or actions.

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Keep romance alive. Sex and intimacy are vital parts of every relationship. In one study of people with RA, more than half said their arthritis put a damper on their sex life. Chronic disease itself or the medications you take can cause sexual problems. The physical act of sex can hurt, or body image problems can zap desire. But there are ways to put the pleasure back in the bedroom.

  • Talk to your partner about trying new positions that could make you more comfortable.
  • Use pillows to take the pressure off your joints.
  • If you have RA, you may be too stiff for morning sex and too tired at night, so consider other times of the day, when you can.

Your sex life may become less active because of your condition. Try these ways to stay emotionally connected:

  • Take a shower or bath together.
  • Hold hands or cuddle when watching TV.
  • Find ways to laugh -- it can be the best medicine.

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Tell your doctor if your sex life suffers because of your condition. They might recommend a change in medicine or make other suggestions.

If you live with your partner, split up the chores. Your health may mean you can’t do everything you used to do. But dinner still needs to be made, laundry washed, and the dishwasher unloaded. More work usually falls on the well partner. That can cause stress and strain on your relationship. Here are ways to make things easier on both of you:

  • Make a list and pick the chores that are easier for you. Perhaps you can’t vacuum the house, but you can fold the laundry and set the table.
  • Use technology. Order groceries online for either home delivery or curbside pickup. If you’re not paying bills online, now may be the time to start.
  • Ask for help. Reach out to friends or family. Perhaps they can pick up kids from soccer or ballet practice, so you and your partner have time to rest and recharge. Ask older children to clear the table after dinner, unload the dishwasher, or take out the garbage.
  • Hire help. If you can afford to, hire a cleaning person. Pay someone to take care of the lawn.

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Get physical together.Exercise can improve many chronic conditions. If you have RA, for example, low-impact, “joint-friendly” activities are really helpful. Ask your partner to bike, walk, or swim with you. It can lessen pain, lighten your mood, and improve overall health in both of you. Try to do some activity on most days, but don’t push yourself when symptoms flare.

Try to keep your routines. Your simple traditions may be more important now because the other parts of your lives have changed. There are probably many things you can still do despite your condition. Share your morning coffee, walk the dog, keep your date nights -- even if it’s now just pizza and streaming a movie on a Friday night.

Stay socially strong. Spend time with friends. Good ones can help you vent to someone other than your partner. They can help you forget about your problems for a little while, too. If you use a cane or wheelchair, pick a spot you can get into easily.

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Mind your mental health.Depression is common in people with a chronic health problem. This stresses your close relationship even more. Sometimes, health insurance doesn’t cover therapy. Colleges, universities, and federal health centers offer low- or no-cost counseling. Another option is a support group. If you can’t physically get out, search for online groups that meet your needs.

Urge your partner to care for their own needs so they don’t get burned out. Ask them to keep their doctors’ appointments, take time for exercise, and do the hobbies or activities they enjoy.

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

Arthritis Foundation: “Keep Marriage Strong When You Have Arthritis,” “RA and Intimacy.”

Well Spouse Association: “New Active Coping Strategies for Caregivers.”

World Journal of Orthopedics: “Impact of Rheumatoid Arthritis on Sexual Function.”

American Family Physician: “Chronic Illness and Sexual Functioning.”

Multiple Sclerosis Trust: “Relationships and MS.”

BMC Public Health: “Living with a Spouse with Chronic Illness -- the Challenge of Balancing Demands and Resources.”

CDC: “Physical Activity and Arthritis.”

Johns Hopkins Medicine: “Supporting a Spouse Through a Health Challenge.”

CreakyJoints.org: “How Inflammatory Arthritis Can Really Affect Marriage and Relationships, According to 8 Couples Coping with It.”

National Institute of Mental Health: “Chronic Illness & Mental Health.”

Anxiety and Depression Association: “7 Ways to Seek Therapy Without Breaking the Bank,” “Low-Cost Treatment.”

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