When it comes to living with rheumatoid arthritis (RA), a good marriage may be good medicine, according to study results. In the study, published in The Journal of Pain, researchers surveyed 255 people with RA. Based on their responses, study participants were grouped in one of three categories: unmarried, in a distressed marriage and in a non-distressed marriage. After controlling for disease severity and demographic variables, scientists found that people with RA who were in a non-distressed marriage had less pain, and less physical and psychological disability – measured by mood and tension – than those who were unmarried or in a distressed marriage. Those who were not married had more pain and psychological disability – about the same levels as those in distressed marriages.

“While we often hear about the health benefits of being married, what we are seeing here is that it is not just being married that counts,” says Jennifer Barksy Reese, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, Md., who led the study. “The main take-home finding is that the benefits of being married seem to really depend on the quality of the marriage. Our research suggests that only being in a high-quality marriage would have those health benefits."

So if your marriage isn’t the greatest, does that mean you are doomed to marital unhappiness and more disability from your arthritis? Not necessarily, says LeslieBeth Wish, a psychologist and a licensed clinical social worker specializing in women's issues. Even if you’re having marital troubles, better times – and less pain and disability – could be in your future. “Every single long-term relationship has something that can be improved,” she says. “Research shows that even people who are happy in long-term marriages report fairly long patches of up-and-down times. Just because your marriage isn’t great right now doesn’t mean you are doomed to be unhappy.”

One step toward a better marriage could be drawing your spouse into helping manage your arthritis, she says. “Working with your partner to handle your illness will automatically address issues such as communication, empathy, patience, learning to ask for help or learning to tell someone what is wrong. These are critical tools in a relationship.”

If you have had trouble communicating with your spouse or find it difficult to ask for help, Wish recommends deferring to your doctor’s advice. For instance, “My doctor told me some ways couples can work as a team on this. He says we need to get used to telling each other what’s wrong and asking if we think the other might be in trouble.”

She also recommends coming up with a scale – say one to 10 – to let your partner know how you are feeling or to prepare him when broaching difficult issues. For example, before telling your spouse that your son failed a test, give him warning by saying, “I need to tell you a problem with [our son] that ranks about five or six,” she says.

Taking steps to improve your marriage could pay off in unexpected ways. “If you are in a distressed marriage and are able to work on it and improve your marital quality, we think that would also have beneficial effects for other aspects of your health, too,” says Reese.