Beyond the Physical: How Traumatic Brain Injuries Impact Relationships

Rep. Gabrielle Giffords is on a remarkable journey of recovery Рand her husband is on it with her. In January 2012, she resigned from Congress. But many Americans have been inspired with the courage and determination she has demonstrated during her recovery. Just one year ago, the Congresswoman suffered gunshot wounds to the head and a severe traumatic brain injury as the result of a shooting rampage.

Although Giffords and her husband, astronaut Mark E. Kelly, have spoken about her progress with regard to physical recovery, they have kept private regarding how her brain injury has impacted their personal relationship.

With so much emphasis on survival and physical recovery after a brain injury, sometimes the aspects of emotional recovery and strains in personal relationships can be overlooked.

According to a recent New York Times article, besides the physical challenges a brain injured person faces, differences in personality and mood can be significant. Sarah Wheaton writing for the Times explained, “Doctors frequently warn uninjured spouses that that the marriage may well be over, that the personality changes that can result from the brain injury may do irreparable harm to the relationship.”

Marriage and Traumatic Brain Injuries

Despite these words of caution, many marriages continue after one spouse experiences a traumatic brain injury. Multiple studies have found such couples have divorce rates under the national average. Unfortunately, however, couples may still be unhappy and sticking together out of a sense of obligation or guilt rather than true love.

Psychologist Jeffrey S. Kreutzer from Virginia Commonwealth University explained, “While people may technically be married, the quality of their relationship has been seriously diminished.” Dr. Kreutzer is among a group of psychologists pioneering marriage counseling techniques aimed at helping couples cope with brain injury.

Couples are taught communication strategies and encouraged to make time for one another in between doctors’ appointments and physical rehabilitation. Additionally, couples need to be reminded to look forward rather than backward, because the relationship will likely never be the same as when they first met. The uninjured spouse often needs to learn how to accept that they may now be in a relationship with a very different person, and the injured spouse needs to accept the changes within himself or herself. This can be challenging for both spouses no matter how much they are focused on cultivating a healthy relationship.

One woman whose husband experienced a traumatic brain injury explained that her husband lost the sparkle she loved and “flat-lined” emotionally. Her husband told her, “I’m not the person you married,” and that she was “free to leave.” She felt lonely in the role of caregiver rather than wife.

Although there have been setbacks, counseling has helped the couple rebuild their relationship and set appropriate expectations. Hopefully with new attention and research focused on the issue, more couples impacted by brain injury will have similar success.