Keep Friendships Strong When You Have Arthritis

Use these solutions to maintain strong bonds when arthritis tries to get in the way of your friendships.

Is arthritis causing a rift between you and your BFF? If you have recently been diagnosed, new physical limitations and extra doctors visits may be isolating you from your social circle. For those who have had chronic pain for some time, years of canceled plans and illness-centered conversations may have put some wear and tear on an otherwise unbreakable bond.   

“Friendships are extremely important for our mental and emotional wellbeing, and when we need them most, such as when we are facing chronic pain, they can be difficult to nurture and maintain,” says Kira Lynne, RPC, a psychotherapist in Vancouver. “You only have so much energy each day, and some days it might take all you have just to survive the day. Finding the energy for others can be difficult.” 

But connecting with your peers can do wonders for your emotional and physical health. Here are common spats friends experience and tips to get your kumbaya back.  

Common Challenges

“My friends don’t understand what this feels like.”

Most people with arthritis look fairly healthy. When you look good it can be hard for other people to understand that you actually feel terrible. When we feel misunderstood it leads to thoughts of loneliness, frustration, and even despair. 

Your friend will never know exactly what it feels like to have arthritis – and that is not their fault! Communication is key. Try to explain how you feel in ways they can relate to, such “tired like when you have the flu,” or use a pain scale.

“Give them enough information so they understand your limits but do not talk their ear off,” advises Nancy Molitor, PhD, clinical assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University.

“My buddy gets mad when I cancel plans.”

When you flake on a lunch date for the third week in a row, even the nicest of friends is bound to take it a little personally. Managing expectations ahead of time is key, says Tamara McClintock Greenberg, PsyD, author of When Someone You Love Has a Chronic Illness. “Tell them you can make plans but you are not always able to follow through if you wake up having a bad day,” she says. 
Lynne advises you develop a special language with your friends so they understand what kind of day you are having. A “hare day” might mean you have little pain and are ready to go, and a “tortoise day” means you need to take things slowly.

“I used to be really active, but I’m usually not up for those activities anymore.”

Friends often socialize through physical activities like workout classes, tennis matches, or cycling. Arthritis can put a damper on those friendships fast, especially if most of your together time involved a high-impact sport. 
Explain your limitations, but let them know you can still participate in less strenuous activities when you feel good. For instance, bike three miles instead of 15. Suggest alternative ways to spend time together, like getting together for dinner or a movie.
Be proactive – do not let your buddy down at the last minute. If someone asks you to join a tennis group tell them you can probably make three-quarters of the matches. And have a sub lined up if you have to cancel.  

“I thought so-and-so was my closest friend. Now, she never calls or asks if I need help.”

Does it feel like the phone never rings anymore? When you’re sick it is easy to think your pal should do all the work. But you have to reciprocate if you want a friendship to last. They may be going through a difficult time in their life too. 

Reach out. Don’t just sit back and wait for someone to call you. If you are having a bad day, calling a friend can help brighten your mood. Or use text messages to connect, or walk outside and say hi to the neighbors.   

Ask for what you need. Your friend may want to help, but be unsure about what to do.  Find ways for them to support you – ask to go shopping together, request a ride to an appointment, or see if she’ll make a meal for the week.   

“My friendship has become toxic.”

Friendships can bring great joy and comfort when they are healthy, but they can also be a source of stress, anxiety, and pain when they are bad. 

“Relationships that become unstable and toxic can make your symptoms worse. Pay attention to the quality of your friendships when you have arthritis. No one is perfect, but if there is a really negative influence in your life, then you need to put yourself first and pull away,” says Molitor.  

“True friends will make room for the arthritis and its effects,” adds Jackson Rainer, PhD, a clinical psychologist practicing in Atlanta. “Those who are less able to accommodate to the illness generally drift away, which in my mind, is not a bad thing.”

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