How Mild Traumatic Brain Injuries Affect Even The Strongest Relationships

Photo: Unsplash: Nathan McBride
What Is Mild Traumatic Brain Injury? 7 Common Relationship & Marriage Issues From TBI Damage, Symptoms & Recovery

The human brain is an incredible thing.

But when someone suffers from symptoms and damage caused by mild traumatic brain injury (TBI), their brain may never fully recover, and the effects on even the strongest marriages and long-term relationships can be devastating if left unaddressed for long by both partners.

Most of us know the story of at least one loving, committed couple who were enjoying a beautiful life together when suddenly, a tragic accident, sports injury, or stroke comes along and changes everything.

Their world is turned upside-down as the injured partner struggles through their painful recovery. Months, even years, of medical appointments, tests, and physical therapy pass in a painful blur, consuming a huge share of their time and energy.

As the visible wounds begin to heal, both partners hold onto the belief that things will soon get back to normal — but in fact, nothing is, or ever will be, the same as it was before.

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The injured one has trouble sleeping ... and concentrating ... and following conversations. Both are tired all the time and can’t keep up with everyday activities.

Memory and attention problems resulting from brain damage are creating conflicts between the two, and the torture brought on by the bright lights and noisy environments makes even dinner at what was their favorite restaurant more trouble than it's worth.

“I’m just not myself,” the injured partner says.

And the loved one listening may silently think to themselves, “That’s right. You’re not the person I fell in love with.”

These are just a few ways the effects of a mild brain traumatic injury permeate relationships, and it's something millions of couples live through everyday.

What is mild traumatic brain injury and how does it happen?

Don’t let the word “mild” fool you. The effects of brain injury on individuals and couples are anything but light.

We often think of brain damage as something caused by a catastrophic event, like a car crash or a fall from a great height, but in reality, there are many ways brain injuries happen.

You can tumble off your bike and hit your head, not even losing consciousness, and hurt your brain. You can take a spill walking the dog or going down the stairs or playing tennis. The blow to your head doesn’t have to be particularly hard, and you don’t have to be in a coma for the effects to be serious and long-lasting.

There are two common sources of brain injuries:

  • Acquired brain injuries: Those that happen as the result of a stroke, an aneurysm, or a period of time when the brain is deprived of oxygen. Other causes include drug use or exposure to certain chemicals.
  • Traumatic brain injuries: Those resulting from accidents, falls, sports injuries, and explosions such as a soldier might survive in a war zone.

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If you are dealing with the effects of brain injury on your primary relationship, you are far from alone.

In the U.S., a traumatic brain injury happens every twenty-one seconds, affecting more than 3.5 million people every year.

No wonder millions of couples are desperately searching for help. If you’re one of them, you have already seen the devastating effects that brain injury is having on your loved one — and you.

Here are 7 ways mild traumatic brain injuries threaten even the strongest relationships and marriages.

1. You feel like a stranger in your own body — or in your partnership.

This is a common complaint from people who suffer these injuries. The injured person feels alienated from him or herself, and the “healthy” partner hardly recognizes his or her loved one.

2. Communicating becomes even harder.

Coming up with the right words can feel impossible. The injured one may rattle on without getting to the point, or sink into silence, or have that glazed-over look, leaving the other one completely in the dark.

3. Your energy levels are low.

Brain-injured people suffer from chronic and profound fatigue. Partly, this is due to poor sleep, but even after eight or more hours of rest, the brain is working so much harder just to process the same information that energy is sapped quickly, much like a cell phone battery dying fast.

4. Sex goes out the window.

Brain injuries affect hormone levels, which in turn can affect desire. The sense of anguish and embarrassment about everything that’s happened can also hack away at a couple’s intimate life.

Many say they haven’t even thought of asking each other for sex, yet they’re starved for the closeness it once gave them.

5. Roles and responsibilities suddenly change.

The injured partner may not be able to handle the simplest of chores. He or she may not follow through on things, or may handle tasks in a shoddy way. This can affect the ability to work and, in turn, create serious financial stress.

The inability to initiate, plan, organize and pay attention — all supported by the brain’s executive functioning — are profoundly disrupted, leaving the healthy partner struggling to compensate.

6. Resentment and anger build up.

Both of you may feel the injured one “should be better by now,” even though you know that healing takes time. This can create a climate of blame and shame that colors every interaction and leads to open conflict.

7. Loneliness and isolation may set in.

Your loved one may be too tired, angry or ashamed to socialize. Worse yet, you may feel lonely in each other’s presence — a tremendous source of pain that is hard to discuss.

Family and friends don’t always understand, and they may agree you should be healed by now, an attitude that only makes matters worse.

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With all these difficult changes, one or both of you may feel depressed and hopeless. But take heart. There are things you can do to turn things around.

You can rebuild your relationship after a brain injury. A brain injury doesn’t have to destroy your relationship or marriage.

You’ve already lost a lot — but you don’t have to lose each other.

Many couples believe that breaking up or settling for an unsatisfying relationship are their only two options, but there are ways to create a strong, loving union as you adjust to the “new normal” and move forward with your lives.

If you’re terrified that your relationship is in trouble after a mild traumatic brain injury, here are three crucial things to remember:

  • Healing takes time.

Regardless of how the brain injury happened, it’s crucial to know that recovery is often slow. The injured person may look just fine, but that’s only what you see on the outside. It can take years for the brain to heal, which means that patience must be an essential part of your approach to life now.

  • You are NOT alone.

While it may not feel true right now, you do still have each other. And now that you know more about the effects of brain injury, you can turn toward each other for sustenance and understanding. The right therapist will be able to provide you with rock-solid support as you navigate the healing process together.

  • Including a trained couples' therapist as part of your care team can make all the difference.

Be sure to look for one educated in the effects of brain injury. Your therapist will help you see the effects of the injury on your relationship and create a loving, safe environment where you can say how you truly feel. This is one of many first steps on the hopeful road to a new life for both of you.

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Lori Weisman, MA, LMHC, is a psychotherapist, frequent lecturer and consultant near Seattle, Washington who has helped thousands of married and committed couples rebuild their lives in the wake of brain injuries. To get your copy of her free guide, 10 Things You Should Never Say to a Brain-Injured Spouse or Partner, visit her website.