Research reveals hidden toll of arthritis on relationships

Couple walking away from the camera, down a country lane in the winter.
  • Chronic lack of understanding and trivialisation of arthritis is causing millions* of relationships to break down
  • Two in five (41%) people with arthritis admit their sex life has deteriorated
  • Quarter of relationships can be improved with open and honest conversations
  • Charity Versus Arthritis calls for people to stop the silence and better understand the condition

A chronic lack of understanding of arthritis, combined with the physical and emotional impact of the condition, is ruining relationships for millions of people across the country, new research from the charity Versus Arthritis reveals.

The condition affects 10 million people of all ages in the UK, half of whom live in pain every day, yet it’s often dismissed as ‘just a bit of pain’ or something which only affects older people.

The Defying Arthritis at Every Age report found almost a third (31%) of people with arthritis say their condition has led their relationship to become strained and nearly one in five (17%) say it caused an entire relationship breakdown.

The figures show how young people are disproportionately affected, with over two thirds (70%) of people aged 16-34 with arthritis having experienced a strained relationship, while more than half (53%) say their relationship broke down.

The report also uncovered the condition’s impact on millions of people’s sex lives. Arthritis makes simple movements such as standing, holding and even hugging difficult, often making it hard to be spontaneous or physically intimate. Those living with it say the pain and fatigue of their condition has reduced their self-confidence, sex drive, and their ability to be physically intimate:

  • Self-confidence: More than a third (38%) of people with arthritis experience low self-confidence because of their condition, affecting their ability to be intimate
  • Intimacy: Two in five (43%) say they worry about being physically intimate because of their arthritis, while over a third (36%) actively avoid it
  • Sex life: As a result, two in five (41%) say their sex life has deteriorated because of their condition, while a third (33%) admit a lack of sex has put a strain on their relationship

While the physical pain and fluctuating nature of the condition are key factors, the report identified the chronic lack of public understanding and dismissal of the condition as significant contributors to the situation.

It found that the widespread trivialisation of arthritis, and the common misconception that it is ‘an old person’s disease’, is preventing people from opening up about their condition. Two in five (43%) people with arthritis hide their pain from loved ones, while a quarter (27%) admit they feel embarrassed or ashamed of their condition. Half (49%) even say they feel like a burden to their partners.

This lack of communication is impacting the emotional side of relationships. A third (30%) admit their condition has led them to become distant from a partner or loved one. This grows to two thirds (69%) among young adults.
Encouragingly, those who do speak about their condition say it’s had a positive impact on their relationship. One in four (24%) said their relationship improved with open and honest conversations. The report also highlights the importance of conversation in breaking down these emotional barriers with two in five (38%) people with arthritis saying they felt relieved once they opened up about their condition to their partner.

Alison, 51 from London, has osteoarthritis and speaks of the impact it’s had on her relationships:

“When I was diagnosed with arthritis, my partner at the time didn’t understand what I was going through, he was completely ignorant to it. I think that contributed to the breakdown of our relationship and after that I worried about dating because I thought nobody would want me. Now I’m in a relationship with someone I can talk to about my arthritis. It’s still difficult - intimacy between us at times can be frustrating and painful - but he is really supportive and understands that sometimes there are limitations to what I can do”.

Stewart Long, Director of Involvement and Services at Versus Arthritis, said:

“Arthritis causes millions of people of all ages to live in pain every day, and chances are you know someone living with it. But it’s simply not spoken about. This silence means people don’t feel able to open up about how they are feeling, physically and emotionally, even to the people closest to them. As a result, it’s ruining relationships and preventing people from meeting new partners. It shouldn’t be like this.

“We’re calling on everyone to have a conversation about the impact of arthritis, so it’s no longer just accepted or ignored. Whether you are in a long-term relationship, navigating the dating scene, or supporting your family and friends, we can all push back against arthritis and make sure no one faces it alone.”

Rachel Davies, counsellor at relationship support charity, Relate, added:

"Long term health conditions such as arthritis can dramatically change relationship dynamics between couples - one day you may be independent and active, but the next day you might be in real pain and need help to do the simplest of things. This can disrupt the roles people have built for themselves and also stop them from doing things they enjoy together. We see that this can impact people’s self-confidence, and often has a serious knock-on effect on their mental health. Doing something as simple as having a conversation can make a real difference.”

“Don’t let arthritis define your relationship – it’s important that you also talk about other things and do things together even if those things are less strenuous. When you talk to your partner you can work together on solutions, this may be stopping doing something, adapting something you enjoy doing so it’s still possible or having good day / bad day activities. Talking about it also helps you feel less alone with the emotions you may be experiencing.”

Catherine, 33, from Essex, has spoken about the importance of talking about her condition with her husband and how this has had a positive impact on their relationship:

“Arthritis can certainly affect the relationship with your partner. 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 makes you feel self-conscious. 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.”

The charity is calling on people to declare themselves Versus Arthritis so that arthritis is no longer dismissed or ignored. Join them and add your voice

For help and information Versus Arthritis offers a free and confidential helpline service, runs local support groups across the country and has practical information and advice on its website.