Game plan: Managing how arthritis affects your relationships

If you’re living with chronic pain, feeling supported by family and friends is directly linked to experiencing less intense pain and pain-related disability, less depression and anxiety, and overall better quality of life. That’s powerful stuff. What’s the secret? Relationships are often key to helping you with active coping (relaxation, physical activity, stress management), rather than passive coping (avoiding social situations, little physical activity).

Still, relationships often shift and transform when an arthritis diagnosis comes into the picture. “I’ve had many patients express to me they’re feeling they’re letting people down around them—whether it's colleagues, their spouse, their kids, other significant people in their lives— because they just can’t function at the capacity they were before,” says Dr. Michael Starr, a rheumatologist in Montreal. “Patients can feel very upset that they don’t feel the way they used to feel. How others interact with them [may] change; that really hurts them. Patients may want to hide how they’re really feeling. It’s a challenging thing.”

When it comes to relationships, talking, listening and actions are the big three, and it’s usually no different when arthritis is part of the mix. Some ideas to keep in mind:

If you have arthritis…

  • Ask your partner to imagine how you’re feeling. Next, imagine how your partner is feeling. Talk about it. Is it accurate? Any surprises? Then, talk about what you’ll need to take this journey together. Try not to make assumptions, and really listen.
  • Ask your partner to come to a doctor’s appointment. This helps you both get firsthand information.
  • Work on support systems. It’s great to have support together, but you also need to be able to give and receive support on your own as well so you can vent and regroup.
  • Research your questions. You can go at this separately—and likely should—because you’ll have different concerns. Share your research with each other, and talk about what your partner was concerned about and what you’re concerned about.

If you love someone with arthritis….

(This applies to friends and family, as well as romantic partners)

  • Plan for flexible fun. Sure, maybe your plans get put on hold because it’s a tough day…but it could also be an activity for a couple hours rather than a full day.
  • Be encouraging. If your loved one is doing better since he started swimming again, gently point that out.
  • Lend a hand. This could mean assisting with chores, providing a ride or keeping your friend or family member company at a medical appointment. However, don’t simply take over—your loved one needs independence and activity too.
  • Just listen. An action plan or commentary isn’t always needed.
  • If you’re a caregiver, take care of yourself too, with good exercise and nutrition, time out with friends or possibly a support group too, depending on your situation.
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