Meeting new people, arranging dates and investing in romantic prospects are all part of the dating game. But exploring dating options alongside managing a chronic illness means redirecting energy from finding love to maintaining your well-being, so striking the right balance can be complex.
An estimated 157 million people in the United States live with some form of chronic disease, states the National Health Council. The different forms of arthritis affect 24 percent of all adults in the U.S., or almost 59 million people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 350 million people are affected around the world.
For these people, it's important to prevent painful joints from ruining flourishing romances. Dating allows people to explore each other without rushing into commitment. However, the social stigma attached to illness and disability requires divulging sensitive information early in a relationship, if only to weed out prejudice.
How does arthritis affect people?
While the word arthritis is widely known and typically associated with aging joints, the condition affects a wide cross-section of people and comes in many forms. In fact, there are over 100 types of arthritis.
"Arthritis is a common disorder that affects your joints," said Carol Stillman, D.P.T., a physical therapist based in Manhattan in New York City. "It can cause pain and inflammation, making it difficult to move or stay active. Each form causes different symptoms and may need different treatments. While arthritis more commonly affects older adults, it can develop in men, women and children of any age."
'Day-to-day life has changed dramatically. I use aids for almost everything, including bathing and getting dressed, and having my crutches to get around.'
The most common type is osteoarthritis, caused by a breakdown of cartilage that normally protects joints from wear and tear. The next most common type is rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disease that attacks parts of the body, particularly the joints. Two other fairly common types are psoriatic arthritis, characterized by skin and joint inflammation, and juvenile arthritis, an umbrella term that defines more than 100 different childhood inflammatory and autoimmune conditions.
The effects of arthritis are wide-ranging and include joint pain, tenderness and stiffness, inflammation, restricted movement, weakness and muscle wasting.
"It's been a roller coaster of emotions, definitely some really low points living with constant pain," explained Daisy-May, 29, a United Kingdom-based customer service advisor who has psoriatic arthritis. "Day-to-day life has changed dramatically. I use aids for almost everything, including bathing and getting dressed, and having my crutches to get around."
"When a person is diagnosed with a disability or chronic illness, it can significantly affect their self-esteem," said Davina Tiwari, M.S.W., R.S.W., a solution-focused therapist in Ontario, Canada, who specializes in coping with chronic illness and relationship issues.
Being born with a chronic condition or developing a long-term illness alters the core of our being, which necessitates putting immense effort into adapting to a world built for nondisabled people. The impact a chronic illness or disability may have on self-esteem requires time to reforge the foundation of ourselves.
"To boost my confidence, I have custom crutches and I like to dress up so I feel cute," Daisy-May said. "A really helpful tip, especially when going on a date, is to wear something comfortable but cute. My pain is mostly in my lower back, so I usually wear a dress that is flowy to reduce the pressure of clothes on my lower back."
Rebuilding confidence can take many approaches, but one of the simplest is adopting micro-behaviors that become habitual over time, such as repeating daily affirmations or embracing your bare face in public. Exploring methods that feel right for you injects some much-needed self-assurance into your life, and eventually, your confidence becomes ingrained.
The importance of self-evaluation
Arthritis is an evolving condition with a carousel of symptoms and ever-changing energy levels. Trying to date new people alongside a new diagnosis can be complicated. One strategy is to step out of the scene for a moment to reflect on how this condition changed your life and how it might affect a dating scenario, and then imagine how you'll communicate your diagnosis to someone.
"It's important for the person to decide if they see a potential future with their partner, as this may help them figure out when and how much detail to share with their partner, especially as personal health information is sensitive and we may want to be selective in who we share it with," Tiwari explained.
Telling your diagnosis to a prospective partner is not a prerequisite. You do not owe anyone this information, so never let anyone tell you otherwise. But sharing this vulnerability is a significant step toward building a strong foundation for a future relationship.
"Try to be as clear and simple in your message as possible, as this may be a lot for your partner to absorb and they may be surprised, concerned, worried or unsure of what to do next," Tiwari said.
Being honest about the future implications of a condition is the hardest but most important part of sharing a diagnosis.
"Remember, you and your partner don't have to have everything figured out today, or even tomorrow," Tiwari added. "The goal is to start the conversation with a partner that you love and trust, and you will continue to make these important decisions as your relationship continues to move forward."
Impact on sexual function
Anyone with a chronic illness would be thrilled if the condition had zero impact on sexual function and action. However, life isn't always that kind. Arthritis and sex is a combination that requires some adaptation, especially when symptoms are flaring.
Penetration is by no means off the table, but learning how to prioritize other forms of sexual pleasure, such as outercourse, the use of toys and roleplay, opens up your world and helps strike a balance between wellness and sexual fulfillment.
"I have issues with my pelvis due to arthritis, which means most positions are uncomfortable and cause so much pain," Daisy-May said. "I speak to my husband, and if it's a bad day, we stick to foreplay. There is so much more to sex than just having sex, so it's about communicating and finding what works for you."
To keep penetrative sex in your wheelhouse, explore adaptive sex toys and try supportive positions, such as side-by-side sex and pillow-assisted doggy style, that are less stressful on the joints.
"If you have arthritis or not, it's still going to be awkward the first time if you are newly with someone, so it takes time to get to know what works for each other," Daisy-May said. "The less pressure you put on yourself, the easier it becomes and, of course, most important is just to have fun. Life's too short to let your condition get in your way."