A new study published in the July issue of Arthritis Care & Research indicates that men and women with RA who perceive that they have better mutuality, meaning responsive communications, with their spouses or partners have better mental and physical health outcomes.
This study investigated relational mutuality in women and men with RA. Relational mutuality is one aspect of a theory of women's psychological development, called self-in-relation theory that deals with developing and maintaining positive, close and complex interpersonal connections. According to the study, mutuality is defined as both partners reciprocating interest in both people listening and sharing in order to truly know and be known by each other. This kind of communication includes engagement, interest, empathy, validation and authenticity. It has been shown to improve marital satisfaction, self-esteem, less depression and better quality of life.
This study builds from other research showing that psychosocial factors, such as life stress, depression, social network size, and perceived available support all have great impact on disease activity, pain and disability. For example, "problematic support" that is not responsive to the needs of the recipient (like ill-fitting or unrequested assistance) can actually be more stressful and has been linked to increased depression. The study also builds on other studies of couples' relationships in which at least one partner has RA. For example, more spousal criticism, avoidance and negative spousal response to patients' pain have all been linked to poor coping, depression, anxiety or increased disease activity during stressful episodes.
This small study of 148 patients (114 women and 34 men; largely white, non-hispanic) looked at three different types of mutuality: self-mutuality (a person's perceptions of their own responsiveness); partner mutuality (partners' responsiveness) and overall mutuality. It found that partner mutuality and overall mutuality is linked to fewer depressive symptoms for both men and women, but that self-mutuality (responsiveness to one's partner) seemed to be more important for women's psychological health than men's. While the authors focused on mutuality in couple relationships, they predicted that mutuality in other close family and friend relationships may be linked to better health and RA outcomes.
This study interested me for two reasons. First, because I have seen others post expressions of frustration with a lack of empathy, understanding or knowledge by their partners or spouses. Secondly, because I have struggled a bit over the years with helping some boyfriends to understand what RA is and how it affects me. And since I try not to complain or let the stiffness show in general (not just around them), they haven't really perceived that it really does affect me on a daily basis.