How brain injury affects partners

Partners can often be affected if their spouse, boyfriend or girlfriend sustains a brain injury, as it can be very upsetting and frightening to have a loved one in hospital. In addition to this, they often have a good understanding of the personality, habits and emotions of their partner before the injury, and are therefore often aware of how their partner has changed afterwards.

The injury can also cause many practical changes to the couple’s life, which can have an overall effect on the relationship itself. Below are some of the common ways in which this can happen. 

  • Changes in communication – a brain injury survivor might have problems with word finding, comprehension or speech production. They might also struggle with understanding and using non-verbal communication such as body language and facial expressions. Day-to-day discussions can become difficult, as it might take them more time and effort to make themselves understood.

  • Changes in personality – many survivors report feeling like a new person after their injury, which is often also noticed by their partner. The partner may feel that they are no longer in a relationship with the person they initially chose to be with.  Some partners even describe the brain injury survivor as becoming a stranger. Survivors themselves might also experience effects that alter their own feelings towards their partner and the relationship.

  • Changes in intimacy – intimacy can be described as an emotional, physical and psychological closeness between two people that is often accompanied by romantic feelings. It can be affected if, for instance, the survivor has a lack of insight or anger problems.

  • Changes in behaviour – socially inappropriate behaviour, such as swearing or making inappropriate comments in public, can cause partners to feel embarrassed, frustrated or saddened. A survivor might also make sexually inappropriate remarks to others, which can be particularly upsetting or embarrassing for partners.

  • Changes in cognitive ability – cognitive (thinking) skills are commonly affected after brain injury. Problems with attention, multi-tasking and decision making can also cause practical and emotional challenges in the relationship.

  • Practical changes – the survivor might be unable to work or drive after their injury. As a result, various aspects of life might need to be readjusted to accommodate for such changes. There might also be a change in the type of activities or pace of activities that the couple can partake in together. A survivor might also be unable to work, which can cause difficulties if the couple was previously on a joint income.

  • Role changes – practical changes can cause roles to change, for instance the non-injured partner might need to take on new responsibilities that the survivor previously did, such as managing household finances. This can be stressful for the non-injured partner, and affect the survivor’s self-esteem.

Adjustment to changes in life following a brain injury can be difficult for both the survivor and their partner. In addition to this, partners are often left with little or no support, despite often having to take on caring responsibilities. These changes can typically cause feelings of isolation, longing for the past and sadness. Acceptance for the new way of life can, however, set in over time, especially if the survivor continues to recovery or learns coping strategies to regain their independence. Indeed, some relationships strengthen over time as the couple learn new ways of managing the effects of the injury and their relationship.

More information for couples and tips for managing couple relationships after brain injury are available in the Headway factsheet Brain injury: a guide for partners, which you can download in the Related resources section.

"All the odds were stacked up against us"

Thalia and Matt from Cambridgeshire went to school together but their relationship only began after Matt sustained a brain injury. The couple say despite all the challenges they’ve faced, their relationship is constantly evolving, and they work hard to ensure they’re always talking to each other. Here they discuss their love story – from the joys they share together to the difficulties of being a partner and carer.


My story

"Play the cards you've been dealt, as best you can"

27th September 2014, life changed for us. On the second day of a holiday in Sydney, Rob suffered a near fatal brain haemorrhage and stroke. Rob had lengthy emergency surgery before being put into an induced coma. When he came round a few weeks later, he had lost all means of communication, with full right side paralysis.

I’ve been asked by Headway to share my thoughts on my experience from a relationships perspective; the good, the bad and the ugly.

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