Intimacy & chronic illness: Redefining “normal”

Intimacy & chronic illness: Redefining “normal”

Creating and sustaining both emotional and physical intimacy (closeness and affection with another person) in any relationship can be difficult. For people living with a chronic disease, such as rheumatoid arthritis (RA) – an autoimmune disease of the joints that impacts 1.6 million people in the United States – it can be even more challenging.

In fact, a study of those living with RA revealed that more than half feel that their disease places limitations on intimacy and more than a third say that living with RA has strained their relationship with their partner.

For many people, browsing the self-help section of a book store, an internet search, or picking up a women’s magazine can help provide some suggestions for how to build or repair intimacy. However, for those with RA, help and advice is more limited and there’s a real need for support for those with a chronic disease looking to address intimacy challenges.

So, let’s start here. The best first step to addressing any challenge — whether it’s related to RA or not — is to take a look at it from a higher perspective and evaluate the bigger picture. When we step back and look at relationship “issues,” the first thing we realize is that when it comes to relationships, “normal” doesn’t exist. There is no one way to define a healthy relationship.

Once you’ve accepted that there is no “normal,” you can start to focus on redefining your relationships in the face of a chronic disease, like RA. Here are a few tips that may help address intimacy with RA:

  • Focus on self-love. The old adage “you must love yourself first before someone else can love you” rings true. While it can be difficult to love yourself when it feels like you are fighting against your body, it is even more important to exercise healthy self-love behaviors when dealing with a chronic disease. Focus on things that you love about yourself, practice positive affirmations, and take the time to do things that make you feel good.
  • Communicate with your partner. An open dialogue is a critical component to intimacy — both physically and emotionally. Communicating openly and honestly paves the way for a feeling of closeness that comes from shared expectations and understanding. It’s also important to know that intimacy doesn’t require physicality, and if there are times you can’t be physical due to RA symptoms such as fatigue or swollen joints — that’s okay as long as you are open and honest with your partner. Make sure the intimacy in your relationship is maintained by enjoying shared interests or hobbies – have pillow talks or compliment one another out of the blue!
  • Work as a team. There are times in every relationship when each person faces his or her own challenges. You and your partner are in this together. You are each other’s advocates. Maintaining a healthy and successful relationship is all about balance and understanding that challenges come in all shapes and forms. Living with RA is no exception.
  • Talk to a professional. If your RA symptoms are inhibiting your relationship, talk to a professional. The right professional probably has some good ideas of how to address the impact on intimacy. If you don’t feel comfortable talking to your rheumatologist, try speaking with someone who specializes in intimate relationships such as a relationship counselor or sex therapist.

If you have a chronic disease like RA, it’s important to remember that it does not define you and there are steps you can take to better manage lifestyle challenges as a result of your condition. With a little research and communication with your rheumatologist or other healthcare professional, there are ways to prioritize your health, but not sacrifice your relationships and ability to enjoy life with the people closest to you.

For more tips on relationships while living with RA from intimacy and relationship expert Logan Levkoff, Ph.D., visit



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