Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) affects 1.3 million adults in the United States, causing painful inflammation in the small joints of the hands and the feet. While chronic joint pain is a life-long reality for these individuals, there is another painful issue many face: divorce.
The exact numbers associated with chronic illness and divorce vary study to study; however, most evidence suggests as many as 75 percent of marriages where a chronic illness develops end in divorce. What’s more, a marriage is most likely to end this way if it is the wife who becomes ill rather than the husband. For rheumatoid arthritis sufferers, the divorce rate is said to be 70 percent higher when compared to the rest of the general population.
“Illness requires so much extra time and laborbetween medical appointments, insurance bills and health regimens, the need for rest, or just added time for the smallest things, like taking a shower or getting dressed, explained psychotherapist Deborah Ross to MORE. Meanwhile, the healthy spouse often has to take on more of the to-do list for home and family life. People can get caught up in just doing and plowing through.
Though not viewed to be as life-changing as cancer or other immune diseases, rheumatoid arthritis can be equally debilitating in its own way. According to the Mayo Clinic, RA causes painful swelling of the joints that can eventually cause bone deformity, sometimes preventing the use of a joint completely, but people with RA can also experience other complications. This form of arthritis is an autoimmune conditions, caused when the body attacks its own healthy tissues. Though the joints are primarily affected, and individual with RA may experience deterioration of the skin, eyes, lungs and blood vessels.
The silent but painful life changer, rheumatoid arthritis
Because the symptoms associated with RA may not be as outwardly noticeable as other illnesses, it can be difficult for partners to understand the level of pain and fatigue a patient is experiencing. That lack of understanding can lead to resentment when one spouse falls behind in regular duties or experiences difficulties related to the condition, like erectile dysfunction. As physical changes start to occur and chronic pain sets in, many people don’t feel attractive, and physical intimacy declines.
“Divorce is certainly a potential consequence of having a chronic disease like rheumatoid arthritis,” Kristin Flynn Peters, PhD, told Everyday Health. “The visible changes in their hands and joints don’t happen right away, so a person with rheumatoid arthritis symptoms can be experiencing the stiffness and joint pain, but otherwise look okay. That can make it hard for the healthy spouse to understand. The couple needs to be on the same page about what’s going on with the illness, and often the person with RA has to talk about what’s going on and what they’re feeling so everyone knows.”
Chronic illness isn’t a marriage death sentence, however. There are proactive things people can do to safeguard their relationships. Flynn Peters explained a large part of the marriage-illness equation is education and understanding. Both spouses need to realize the barriers they will face and subsequently adjust their expectations of one another. Activities that once took ten minutes may now take twenty, and both partners need to practice patience with one another, especially during the first few years of the disease.
Support groups and communication therapy are also beneficial. Couples with difficulty communicating prior to a chronic illness will see those issues compound when a medical situation occurs. Flynn Peters recomends patients be as specific as possible with their needs and learn how to correctly phrase them. Instead of “I can’t do anything today,” saying “I need help making dinner today” may be more readily received.
Last but not least, couples facing a decline in intimacy as a result of chronic illness need to find alternative ways to connect. Finding mutual activities and learning how to pleasure one another without having to actually have intercourse can mean the difference in a relationship that lasts versus one that ends in divorce.