We often think of self-management as just involving ‘self but it also typically involves loved ones around us. The connections that we make offer vital support to anyone living with a long-term condition, not just in practical terms (such as help with household chores), but also emotionally. 

In fact, research has shown that family and friends can play a pivotal role in helping people deal with a chronic illness, particularly in terms of alleviating stress levels. There’s something hugely supportive about feeling that someone simply ‘has our back. Those people try to make our lives easier when we face the fatigue, pain and other challenges associated with a chronic condition. But, in order to draw on this crucial support, we have to get used to asking for and accepting help. Not only that, but we also need to strive for a balance of needs, so that everyone is able to draw from their own, personal ‘well’ of energy. 

On a Journey Together 

All long-term relationships, particularly romantic ones, are both sources of comfort and connection but, at times, also potential sources of stress, depending on where we are on our journey. Living together, with all that brings (financial worries, childcare, the care of elderly parents, job stress and much, much more) is challenging enough as it is. Add a chronic condition, such as arthritis, into the mix and you enter a whole new level of complexity 

There are significant changes to roles and responsibilities to face, in addition to misunderstanding about the toll that pain and fatigue can take, as well as frustration experienced by a partner who feels like they are ‘doing it all’. Try to accept that, as part of this journey together, there may be difficult emotions along the way, such as anger, anxiety or low mood, but they are all normal. Bottling up these feelings doesn’t help anyone. Being honest and expressing your emotions in a calm way can do a lot to help feel understood.  

6 simple ways to help strengthen your connection  

To help navigate the potential pitfalls, we’ve put together some advice from top psychologists about how to get the most out of a relationship when one person is facing a chronic illness. These are worth investing in, particularly when you consider the fact that research shows that positive outcomes are more likely for individuals facing chronic conditions if they are provided with the right support and strong, healthy and connected relationships.  

1. Be as honest as possible 

Educate your partner about your symptoms, limitations, and times when your condition may be in a flare. We often try to protect our families and loved ones, but hiding the severity of your condition or your needs can seriously backfire. Explaining your reality is crucial, such as the fact that you need extra rest and can’t live up to their expectations for the weekend ahead, for instance, is important. Not being afraid to disappoint the person is key if you are to adequately practise self-care. Similarly, if youre the partner supporting the person dealing with arthritis, hiding the fact that you are struggling to cope with all the extra demands being placed on you may only lead to resentment. Aim to communicate directly and as openly as possible. Describe what its like for you, what your hopes, dreams and fears are, and what additional support you may all need to make things work better in your family dynamic.  

2. Do include the children 

Often parents think it’s best to shield the children as much as possible, but children are more attuned to their environment than we give them credit for. They also appreciate being communicated to honestly. The last thing that anyone wants is for children to view themselves as the cause of any extra tension in the house. Of course, what you tell your children must be adapted so that it is age appropriate. Let your children know that it’s okay to ask questions. You may be surprised that being more open actually helps to relieve some of the anxiety that your children may be feeling. 

3. Be specific about (both) your needs 

Be as clear as possible about how people can help, such as with practical chores like cooking a meal or helping with laundry. Drawing up a list of chores for the family can be a very practical approach – try this website for free downloadable chore sheets. When communicating, use clear and direct language, and express your feelings and needs using “I” statements like "I feel," or "I need." An example is, “I need you to be home in time as I need to go do my Pilates class” - it’s about prioritising that need, without guilt, because you know that class is an important part of your self-management plan. Make sure to choose an appropriate time for this conversation, when you are both calm and not distracted by other demands. Be ready to listen to your partner's response and engage in a two-way conversation. 

4. Practice self-care and empathy 

As the famous phrase goes, ‘You can’t pour from an empty cup’, meaning that, in order to take care of others, we must firstly take care of ourselves. This applies to everyone. Self-care doesn’t have to be time-consuming or expensive. It can be as simple as sitting down to peel and slice and orange, or have a quiet cup of tea by yourself. It can mean pouring yourself a bath with some Epsom salts to help relax, spending time outdoors, or booking tickets to a concert so that you have something to look forward to. Whether you are the person with the condition, or the one who is trying to make their life that bit easier, try to imagine what it’s like for the other person. Engage in small acts of kindness, such as a cup of tea in bed, or a small note in the morning to express your love. 

5. Carve out time for yourselves 

It’s all too easy to get just caught up in the daily grind and treadmill of work or family and that never ending ‘to do’ list. However, taking some time away, either as a couple or with some friends or family, to help replenish your reserves is so beneficial. Try to get to that exercise class, book that massage or play that game of golf. There can be lots of reasons why not to take that time but, once you do, you’ll be asking yourself ‘Why don’t I do this more often?’ In terms of time together as a couple, too often people wait for a ‘big event’. But it doesn’t need to be an expensive weekend away or pricey meal out; it could be as simple as a long walk together or a drive to a seaside town where you go for lunch or just enjoy an ice-cream. It’s in those moments of downtime that we can find meaning and connection. Time away from the hustle and bustle can also offer us valuable perspective on our lives together and what’s important. 

6. Don’t forget intimacy 

It’s not surprising that a sexual relationship can change when one partner is diagnosed with a chronic condition. Yet we know that intimacy is a key component of a healthy relationship, so it’s still worth prioritising. Having sex produces higher levels of immune-fighting antibodies and may even help heart health. Sexual stimulation, and particularly orgasm, also triggers your body to release useful pain-relieving hormones. But, when faced with chronic fatigue or pain, sex is understandably something that can slip down the agenda. Some ways to get out of a rut include experimenting with different positions or trying massage to loosen joints up And remember that intimacy doesn’t always have to mean sex – try holding hands, kissing one another when you leave for the day, offering your partner a massage, scheduling ‘date night, sending a loving text, or buying each other a thoughtful gift. Listen to our ‘Inflammation Nation’ podcast on arthritis, relationships and sexual health for a fascinating insight into this topic with Iris Zink, author of Sex Interrupted, a book about intimacy and sexual health while living with chronic illness and disability. 

More tips 

  • If you are the partner or friend of someone who has been diagnosed with arthritis, try to learn more about their condition. Visit the booklets section of our website where you can download condition-specific, highly informative booklets that cover everything from symptoms and diagnosis to treatment and self-management. 

  • Be inspired by others who use positive strategies to help manage their condition – read our patient stories here.  

  • Sign up for one of our courses Living Well with Arthritis or Behind the Pain are courses that offer vital life skills for learning to cope with a diagnosis of arthritis, including putting into place strategies, mindsets and skills that will enable you to live the life that you want to live.  

  • If you are someone who is living with arthritis and you are struggling right now, please don’t hesitate to reach out to talk to one of us through the Arthritis Ireland helpline. All our volunteers are trained and have experience of living with arthritis themselves, so they can offer a sympathetic ear, whilst also helping to empower you to take the steps you need to start to feel better and more connected with others. Our helpline (0818 252 846) is open Monday-Friday 10am-4pm.