How brain injury affects relationships

The emotional, behavioural, physical and cognitive effects of brain injury can often have an impact on existing and future relationships. There are a number of ways in which this can happen and a number of different outcomes. Some relationships may strengthen, whereas others may become strained over time or even completely break down.

This section offers some information on how brain injury can have an impact on the different types of relationships that many people have in their day-to-day lives. More information is available in the Headway booklet Relationships after brain injury.

Couples

Couples usually spend a significant amount of time together, and so the brain injury survivor’s partner is often aware of the effects of the injury, including ‘hidden’ effects. Partners also often take on caring roles, which can lead to the boundaries between the roles of ‘carer’ and partner becoming blurred.

If the survivor’s personality has changed, the partner may feel that they are no longer the person they originally chose to be in a relationship with, resulting in feelings of confusion, longing, sadness and loss. The survivor themselves may no longer feel the same way about the relationship as they did prior to the injury. However, enduring challenging experiences like this can also, with support, strengthen some couple relationships.

Children

The reaction a child will have to their parent sustaining a brain injury will depend on a number of things such as the child’s age, their temperament, the type of relationship that they had with the parent prior to the injury and the way in which the injury has affected the parent.

Relationships between some parents and their children may strengthen. Children can also offer a potential contribution to their parent’s recovery, if supported in an appropriate manner. However, it can also be quite common for the child to feel distant and confused about the relationship.

Other family members

It is often family members, such as partners, parents and siblings, who spend the most time with the brain injury survivor in the early stages, for instance when the survivor is in hospital or when they first return home. These are often emotionally intense and difficult times for everyone, and experiences such as this can either strengthen or strain family relationships.

Family members may take on the role of caring for the survivor. This may lead to feelings of stress as the family member finds that they are less able to spend time with friends or doing activities they enjoy. On the other hand, some families may enjoy being able to spend more time together than they did prior to the injury.

Friends

Many friends will have little understanding of the nature of brain injury and how this has affected the brain injury survivor. As a result, friends may make fewer allowances of the effects that the survivor experiences, especially if these are ‘hidden’. In social situations, friends may initially joke about the survivor’s injury, or trivialise the effects of it from a lack of understanding, failing to recognise the impact that this has on the survivor themselves.

It is unfortunately quite common for brain injury survivors to feel as though friends are drifting away. However, as with family members, some friendships may in fact strengthen, especially is a friend is sympathetic and willing to learn about brain injury.

Work colleagues

The people with whom we work often form an important social network in our lives. Some working relationships with colleagues may even develop into friendships, whereas others stay as professional relationships restricted to the workplace.

Those brain injury survivors who are able to return to work may have difficulties with maintaining appropriate social contact with colleagues. Colleagues may also struggle to understand and adapt to the survivor’s new needs or pace of work. Supervisors and managers may not know how to respond to such challenges, especially if they are not familiar with the effects of brain injury.

For brain injury survivors who find that they cannot return to work after their injury, relationships with former colleagues may taper off over time. The changed circumstance of not seeing work colleagues on a regular basis can lead to feelings of social isolation and a loss of a familiar social network.

Impact of changed relationships

When any type of relationship is changed, this can commonly cause feelings of sadness, confusion, hurt and loneliness among everyone involved. In turn, the brain injury survivor may become withdrawn and socially isolated, and it might become more difficult for them to seek support.

Some brain injury survivors may feel that their loved ones do not understand how they are feeling, which can cause them to become frustrated and distant. Conversely, families and friends of a brain injury survivor may also feel frustrated and helpless if they are unable to understand how the survivor is feeling and how they can help.

Both brain injury survivors and their partners, relatives and friends can be affected by a change in the relationship, and it’s important that both feel able to access support accordingly.

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.

Read story