How can I support my partner with their arthritis?

Catherine's partner brushing Catherine's hair in their bedroom.

We know that the common misconceptions about arthritis, along with the physical and emotional impact of the condition, can affect people’s relationships. And dampen their desire to date or be intimate with their partner.

We know it’s hard, but honesty truly is the best policy. And having those often-tough conversations with your partner, about how their arthritis is making them feel, can help you to build a stronger, healthier and loving relationship.

Catherine and Debbie, who both live with arthritis, and Karl, whose partner has lived with arthritis for most of her life, tell us how communication and learning to adapt is key when supporting your partner with arthritis.

“It’s difficult to find the right words to describe the pain. And it can be even harder for the other person to understand.”

Debbie Griffin, 32, was diagnosed with juvenile idiopathic arthritis at the age of two. During her early teens, she struggled to move, even a few feet, without being in pain and had to have a knee replacement at age 13. And later, a hip replacement at 17.

Debbie now manages the pain with medication but on bad days, she can barely step out of the house.

She has been married to her husband James for almost a year, after being together for 9 years: “James was the first person I opened up to about my arthritis. It was such a relief when he wanted to know more about how it affected by day to day life.

“I used to feel very conscious of my body and the scars I had from my hip and knee replacements. I would feel uncomfortable getting undressed in front of him, so I would go to the bathroom. Once we spoke about it, I became a lot more comfortable.

 “It’s difficult to find the right words to describe the pain. And it can be harder for the other person to understand. By talking about it and telling each other what the issues are, you can find a way around them and learn to keep your relationship strong and healthy.”

“Although there are some days where I don’t want him to be anywhere near me because of the pain, I know that my arthritis has bought us closer together. We make time for each other and talk about it.”

Catherine, 38, who has osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia, has been married to her husband Paul for 13 years.

She says, “Arthritis can certainly affect the relationship with your partner. But we are friends, that’s why it’s lasted.

“I’ve found it difficult to be spontaneous because of the pain and cancelling dates night can be disappointing for both myself and Paul. That’s why communication and making time for each other has helped us to keep our relationship strong and loving.

 “When someone goes from being your lover to your carer, it can put a dampener on things and even though he says he loves me, I still feel self-conscious. If we go to a restaurant and I forget my cutlery, it makes me feel inadequate when Paul has to cut up my food.

“Paul is so understanding, and it helps that I can tell him when I’m having a bad day and don’t want to be touched.

“Without communication, the other person can feel rejected. That’s why we make time to talk about how we’re both feeling and what adjustments we need to make when it comes to being intimate.”

“I’ve learnt to adapt when she’s having a flair up and her mood changes. Sometimes you have to hold back from being intimate and give them the space they need.”

Karl, 31, has been with his partner Katie for a year. 

Katie, now 28, was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis aged 16 and was told by doctors that, eventually, she would end up in a wheelchair.

Karl says, “We try to live a normal life as possible, but it does stop Katie from going for walks or watching my children play rugby.

“Katie can be quite stubborn, and she won’t let me help her. She often says, “If I let you help me, I’m allowing this horrid disease to win.” She will distance herself from me when she’s in a lot of pain and doesn’t like to talk about it, as she’s aware I have no idea what her pain is like.

“Katie hates what the medication has done to her body and it has made her a lot more body conscious. When I first met Katie, she was so outgoing and a real life of the party, but as time has gone on and her condition has got worse, Katie's confidence has gone.

“I’ve learnt to adapt when she’s having a flair up and her mood changes. Sometimes you have to hold back from being intimate and give them the space they need.”

Talk to us too

If you’re in a relationship or dating someone with arthritis, our information on relationships and arthritis may help.

Our helpline can also help you find information about local support and services which may help. You can contact them on 0800 5200 520.