American media is famous for flaunting pictures of skinny, well-groomed models in high heels as something or someone young women should aspire to look like. When you’re a sick girl, it’s tough to feel sexy in those ways. It’s hard enough to make it to the gym sometimes let alone button your blouse, blow dry your hair or put on makeup in the mornings. And heels? Forget about it. There are days when I can barely walk in flats.
Most newly diagnosed Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) patients happen to be young women. And let’s face it; it’s tough to be a young woman in today’s world. Juggling dating with a new career, school, family, etc. isn’t easy. No matter who you are, where you’re from or what kind of baggage you bring with you, relationships come with their fair share of ups and downs. Throw a chronic disease like Rheumatoid Arthritis into the mix and relationships (let alone every day life) can become even more difficult for all parties involved.
Throughout all of my research on RA, I have yet to come across much information about how RA affects those involved in romantic relationships. This topic begs a million questions like “how do I explain this disease to the new guy I’m dating? I don’t want to worry him or freak him out. I don’t want him to think I’m weak or fragile, even if I am.” And once you get past all of that and discover yourself in a fulfilling, healthy relationship with a partner who fully supports you and your disease, what effects does the disease have on your relationship in the long-term?
In 2003, Hill, Bird and Thorpe conducted a study published in the Oxford Journal called, “Effects of Rheumatoid Arthritis on sexual activity and relationships“.
Highlights from the Study
- 35% of respondents said their disease strained their relationship with their partner
- 56% said their arthritis placed limitations on their sex life due to pain and fatigue
I recently had the opportunity to sit down with relationship expert Dr. Gail Saltz to get her opinion on how rheumies should communicate within committed relationships. Dr. Saltz is a Psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, weekly MSNBC.com columnist, best-selling author and Today Show TV commentator; AKA, she knows what she’s talking about. She reiterated throughout our discussion that successful relationships require a lot of time, energy and hard work, despite whether or not one of the people involved has a disease.
Dr. Saltz indicated that at the end of the day, there are many reasons a person might want to be in a relationship with someone just like there are a lot of reasons they might NOT want to be in a relationship with someone … Without considering whether or not that person has Rheumatoid Arthritis. The key is to find someone who loves you for who you are, not what you are. Being a rheumie is not who you are. It doesn’t define you as a person. You are so much more than that. In most cases, you are a strong young woman who should be appreciated for your courage, perseverance and ambition to fight a disease.
Dr. Saltz also said “actions speak louder than words”. Basically, if you have physical limitations, your partner should go out of their way to help you without even being asked. For example, if your feet are in excruciating pain, your partner should help you kick back and make dinner for you or run an errand so that you don’t have to when you’re feeling weak or fatigued. And if you’re really lucky, maybe you’ll even get a foot rub out of the deal! But make sure to repay those favors whenever you can. Find ways to return those favors that don’t wear you out when you’re flaring. A dinner out on the town, a massage gift card or a thoughtful note can show your appreciation and make for an equal partnership.
Keeping the line of communication open is one of the best ways to combat stressful times in a relationship. If your disease has you down in the dumps, express that to your partner rather than letting it build up. Letting negative feelings build up inside you is a recipe for disaster because chances are, that negative energy can explode all over the wrong person and in most cases (at least for me), that wrong person is usually someone you love. So be sure to share what you are going through rather than hiding it to avoid atomic bombs like that.
If you’re out and about on the dating scene and you want to approach the rheumie topic with someone, but don’t know how, ask yourself if they make you feel comfortable first. Make sure you really like them, see a future with them and have mutual chemistry before sharing this part of your life. If you decide that they’re worth moving forward with and you want to proceed, do so in a natural, positive way. Be honest and explain that you do have Rheumatoid Arthritis, but then tell them the ways that you are coping with it. I find that in most life situations, if you present an issue to someone along with how you’re working to accept the issue as part of your life, they feel more comfortable with the issue than they would if you were just to present the issue alone. If the relationship is meant to move forward, the person will communicate with you about the RA. They should ask questions and show interest rather than avoid discussing it all together. And if they don’t, DITCH THEM IMMEDIATELY! Don’t waste your time trying to change another person’s insensitivities to the reality of life because you can’t. Remember, you’re a strong young woman who should be appreciated for your courage, perseverance and ambition to fight a disease. So feel sexy for those reasons! And lucky for us, ballet flats and stretchy pants are in style again this year.
For more information on dating with RA, watch “Playing the Dating Game with RA”, a New Way RA webisode featuring our very own Dr. Gail Saltz.