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Relationships & Illness: A Chronic Problem?

Relationships & Illness: A Chronic Problem?

“The divorce rate for marriages when one spouse is chronically ill or disabled is 75% — that’s 25% higher than the national average in the United States. And on average, men are 6 times more likely to leave a sick partner than women are.”

I saw this quote the other day on a fellow RA advocate’s Facebook page, although she didn’t cite a source so I’m not sure where she acquired her information (someone should really check on this). Even if the numbers are off, reading it still made me stop and notice and think–Oh wow, I really hope that’s not true.

If it is true, why do you think that is? Are women more nurturing or loyal caregivers than men? Are men less equipped to take care of a sick spouse? And does having a partner with a chronic illness or disability really affect the divorce (or relationship break-up) rate that much?

After a quick Google search, I found this mostly-depressing article from 2011 on about this very issue: “When Spouse Gets Sick–Who Leaves?”

I’m really interested, and a bit afraid, to hear others’ thoughts on these statistics and their personal experiences. Sadly, I’m not surprised if the divorce rate is higher when one person in the relationship has a chronic illness. It’s not easy being single while dealing with sickness, never mind trying to take care of yourself and your illness when another person is involved. Living with chronic pain and RA is really hard, but being a caregiver for someone else is hard, too, I realize. Despite how difficult and stressful it can be caring for a sick partner, it’s extremely sad to hear stories of people suddenly developing serious illnesses who are then dumped by their spouses or partners. As a woman myself, it’s especially disappointing to learn that this happens to more women than men.

Admittedly, I’ve had a lot of rotten luck when it comes to dating and relationships ever since I was diagnosed with RA at age 18. To some of my friends I try to laugh it off and say that I’m “cursed” in this department, but it’s not that funny.

Has having RA significantly affected my dating life? Has it affected it at all? I’m really not sure, and I hope that it hasn’t. During all of those years of my youthful singleness (I’m still single by the way, just maybe not as youthful), I tried very hard to live life normally, especially when it came to my social life. I fought to keep up with other people my age, regarding going out with friends, making new connections with people, and navigating the often confusing and stressful dating world. I didn’t think that my RA was getting in the way of me having and keeping healthy relationships, yet what was the problem?

Looking back, I do recall situations where things became awkward and stressful with someone I was dating (or wanting to date), mostly due to miscommunication problems. I remember a lot of tension occurring and then the ultimate break-up happening with one guy in particular when I was dealing with some mood swings, most likely associated with the medication I was taking. This was several years ago now so I can’t remember exactly what happened, but it was more than likely a communication issue–me not communicating enough or effectively about my disease and him not understanding what I was going through.

Dating while living with RA can be a lot more challenging compared to a healthy person trying to do the same thing. One of the main challenges that’s usually right in the beginning of a relationship or potential relationship is making the decision about disclosing to this person that you have RA. Do you tell him/her? If so, when is the right time to do it? How much do you tell?

On one hand, you want to be honest with the other person about your situation, especially if anything “weird” might come up in the future: pill bottles lining your purse, frequent “sit-down” breaks, an array of wraps and braces for various body parts, inexplicably ugly shoes for a 20 year-old (or a 30 year-old), your refrigerator looking like a science lab holding biologic medication, sudden flare-ups that require the cancellation of plans, mood swings due to the nasty effects of steroids, that fatty lump on the back of your neck, passing out during the middle of a movie, and the list goes on.

On the other hand, you don’t want to freak out your partner by any of the things in the above list.

My usual method of disclosure veers toward saying less than more, and the more I think about this, I wonder if it’s been the right approach all of these years. While I don’t think it’s a great idea to blab your entire RA history and story right after you first meet someone, I think there is also a risk in not saying enough, or downplaying the seriousness of the disease.

Saying that, I don’t think I downplay my RA, I just think that when I’m trying to date someone I want things to move along without RA having to be a big deal. But sometimes it is a big deal and if you want to have a healthy, honest relationship with someone, he (or she) needs to know that. It’s a tricky balance. So if anybody has good answers and insight about how to deal with it, I’m all ears. And don’t worry, I’m free for a chat–it’s not like I have a date or anything tonight. I’m too busy lying here with bags of frozen peas on my feet.

Oh, the wild and crazy RA single life.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.


  • tckrd
    1 year ago

    Well I can tell you this it is not just men leaving women it is the opposite also. I was diagnosed 4 years ago. My wife asked for a divorce 2 years in. She said it just wasn’t the same because of everything I was going through. This after 16 years of wonderful marriage. I was no fun anymore. I am hoping we have worked things out with the help of therapists, but when it has happened twice you always wonder when you will be told that terrible statement again. I can’t take all this I want a divorce.

  • Bailey1810
    1 year ago

    I have RA but I’m the one leaving because I try to talk to my husband about the pain that it causes and all he can say to me is that he feels good. He doesn’t want to know anything about my condition and hates when I have appointments for it. I’d rather live alone than with someone who doesn’t listen or understand me.

  • mamarama
    4 years ago

    My older sister was diagnosed with RA in her early 30’s. She was married and they would later have a son. Her husband left 10 years ago, when their son was 14. I really don’t know how much of a factor RA played because this was a man who was a serial adulterer who was actually very different in his home life than the life he presented to the world and his parishoners.

    My husband and I had been married 7 years with a 5 year old son when I was diagnosed. I believe had I still been married to my first husband, he would have beat it to the door within a month of my diagnosis. But this was a man who planned to be taken care of, not to have to take care of someone else.

    I believe that my husbands struggles with my cluster of autoimmune diseases as well as the assorted associated problems (a minor sickness becomes major in a heartbeat, surgeries are risky, etc.) is that he can’t fix them or me. He believes that he should be able to fix, repair, resolve or find ways to work around everything. Sometimes you just can’t do that with RA, fibro, spinal stenosis, facets syndrome, thyroid disease and knees like Joe Namath. I wish I’d known him in our 20’s when I was strong and healthy, racing sailboats when not working. But that’s not the me he knows, so that’s not the me he misses. Would things be different had he known that young, tanned girl, racing a catamaran across a finish buoy? I don’t really know. Some people simply cannot cope with a person with progressive disease(s). I do think women cope better because we tend to be caretakers. Whether that’s societal or genetic, I don’t know. But it would explain why men leave ill women more than women leave ill men. I just pray my husbands frustrations at not being able to fix me don’t become too much for him. But as strange as this may sound and as sad as it would make me, I’d understand if he left. But I don’t believe he will because he knows that we are stronger together. We have weathered many obstacles and tragedies that have nothing to do with my health, so, I have hope.

  • Jennifmo
    4 years ago

    I was diagnosed with moderate RA July 2015 at 43yrs old. I had been through a horrid divorce and back to back deaths in the family. I cried many a tear on my mom’s shoulder that no man would want me with RA…. My mom’s reply — ‘Get a grip! You have plenty going for you! RA sucks but don’t let it ruin your life. If a man doesn’t want you because you have RA, then he’s not worth having.’. That’s my Mom…not one to sugar-coat anything…

    A few months later, I met a very nice man. I think it was the second or third date when I told him I have RA. His reply, ‘So does my Mom’. He is familiar with the disease and understands about flares and fatigue and all the other crappy stuff that goes along with RA. He kind, gentle and understanding… He’s one of those men that my mom told me was ‘worth having’.

    For better or worse, RA is a part of me. I wish it wasn’t but it is… there are illness that could be much worse.

    Here’s is what I would say to a new fellow… ‘I have RA. Some days are good, some are not so good These are the meds that I take to help my body control the RA. I have promised myself that I will live each day to the fullest potential and will fight RA with my last dying breath.’

    And if they don’t want to stick around…. wait for the one that is ‘worth it’.

  • Kimberly King
    4 years ago

    While I meet Eric almost 6 years before being diagnosed, he was already dealing with small-fiber neuropathy. While it was extremely challenging, we found a wonderful relationship. Communication was/is key. Now almost two years after my diagnosis of RA we are still finding our way. Granted we were not kids when we found each other, but we communicate about everything…depression, pain, pooping, not pooping…I feel we have a fantastic relationship considering we have two people living together while both suffer a chronic pain disease. Chances are those relationships would have fallen apart due to another issue if this RA hadn’t shown up.

  • Carla Kienast
    4 years ago

    I think being single in general would be hard, but adding a chronic disease on top of it has got to be horribly complicated. My brother is disabled by (primarily) osteoarthritis and is now only able to get around via wheelchair. His wife of 30 years just divorced him because she wasn’t going to give up her life for him. There are some real jewels out there.

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