Marriage After Traumatic Brain Injury

couple holding hands

Traumatic brain injury can cause a great deal of stress and disruption to marriage. When one partner becomes a caregiver for the other, the result can be an unequal partnership, and bitter feelings can arise from both sides.

Research has reported that marital breakdown can be common after TBI. Marital breakdown can often mean divorce, but it can also mean a decrease in marital satisfaction. Intimacy, especially, can be affected by a number of problems that are common after TBI. Impairments in cognition and motor skills, changes in hormones and neurochemistry, psychological distress such as depression or anxiety, and communication problems can all lead to a negative impact on intimacy.

A recent study interviewed both TBI patients and their partners in order to examine problems with intimacy. Their findings revealed a complexity of feelings with regard to intimacy-especially with the caregiving spouse. Although many spoke of their efforts to find positive experiences with their partners, caregiving spouses often found they had too little energy to devote to intimacy, and often felt angry (and then guilty for their anger) towards their partners. Caregiving spouses felt that they would benefit from not only unconditional love and commitment from their partners, but also from strong-positive relationships with friends and other family members. Having both a strong social structure and an outwardly appreciative partner helped the caregiving spouses deal with major changes after TBI.

Another study attempted to de-code the complex effect of TBI on marriage by narrowing potential problems into specific areas. TBI can change specific areas such as spousal roles and responsibilities, trust and emotional bonding, communication, and behavior. The way a couple adjusts to these changes can greatly affect the marriage-does the couple work together on problems, or do they tackle them independently? Does the couple live in the present or do they wish for the past? Does the couple pull together or do they pull apart?

Although it has been understood that TBI can negatively affect marriage, only recently has research studied the specific problems that can help or hinder the relationship. Additionally, the effect of TBI on marriage is greatly influenced by the gender of the caregiving spouse. Therefore continuing research can help provide future supportive services that address the specific problems that can arise, as well as issues specific to both genders.

Gil CJ, Sander AM, Robins N, Mazzei DK, & Struchen MA. Exploring experiences of intimacy from the viewpoint of individuals with traumatic brain injury and their partners. Journal of Head Trauma Rehabilitation. (January 2011).

Godwin EE, Kreutzer JS, Arango-Lasprilla JC, & Lehan TJ. Marriage after brain injury: Review, analysis, and research recommendations. Journal of Head Trauma Rehabilitation. (January 2011).

Hammond FM, Davis CS, Whiteside OY, Philbrick P, & Hirsch MA. Marital adjustment and stability following traumatic brain injury: A pilot qualitative analysis of spouse perspectives. Journal of Head Trauma Rehabilitation. (January 2011).