Manage Your Relationships

Brain injury can, and likely will, impact every relationship held by a person who has sustained a brain injury, and their family members and caregivers. When describing changes in relationships after brain injury, both family members and survivors mention they may not hear from their friends, co-workers, and extended family members – phone calls, emails, and letters may be left unanswered. It is vital to remember that the impact of brain injury is not only felt by the person who has sustained the injury, but the entire family.

If you or your loved one are experiencing these thoughts or others like them, try to picture the brain injury as a hurricane that has hit everything and everyone in its path. The response may be fast and overwhelming, but at some point most responders leave, then you, and your family, must begin to rebuild your home and lives. Progress may seem slow, but every step makes a difference.

Significant others –

A brain injury can significantly change a couple’s relationship. There are different degrees of brain injury severity, and less severe injuries do not always result in significant or long-term relationship changes. However, after moderate to severe, or complicated-mild brain injury, both the person who has sustained the injury and his or her partner are often forced to change many parts of their lives. Perhaps most often, partners will experience a change in responsibilities or roles within their relationships. For example, the family’s primary breadwinner is now unemployed and recovering, or the family’s primary homemaker is now unable to care for the home and children, etc.

Also, intimate relationships are likely to experience challenges with communication. With shifts in roles, focus, and even daily routine, it is difficult to maintain the level of communication that many relationships rely on to stay healthy. Those who have had a brain injury often demonstrate new personality traits, challenges, fears, and limitations. Their spouses are often surprised by how these changes impact their relationships, and these changes have led many spouses to feel like they are “married to a stranger”. Although some of the relationship changes after a brain injury are difficult and can be painful, there are many things that couples can do in order to enjoy each other and their relationship in new, positive, and meaningful ways.

Family –

Relationships with your children, parents, siblings, cousins, and other extended family will change after a brain injury. These changes will be more noticeable if you live with them. The biggest changes your relationships will go through are communication and responsibilities, or role reversals. Communication between family members is made up of conversation, gestures, and body language, all used to convey thoughts and feelings. After a brain injury, you may experience trouble with communication for a variety of reasons. You may be coping with changes to your cognitive abilities that make conversing, paying attention, or understanding others challenging.

This is incredibly frustrating for all, especially kids who may not understand why things have changed and why they are not getting your attention. Close family members are likely to experience high levels of anxiety and depression during the years following a brain injury. As time elapses, there is often a decrease in relatives’ capacity for coping, particularly with emotional and behavioral problems. Without communication, family relationships can quickly run into obstacles. That’s why it’s important to be as honest and forthcoming as possible with your family members and be mindful of how you’re communicating with them. Children may not fully understand what’s happening and will need you to take the lead in teaching them how to share their thoughts and feelings.

Friends –

Brain injury can cause changes in the way a person thinks, feels and behaves, and can also affect their physical ability. This can sometimes affect the relationships they have with their friends. Many friends will not know what a brain injury is and how it can affect someone, and therefore may not be able to understand how and why their friend has changed. Friends might also assume that once the survivor is out of hospital, they will be ‘back to normal’. However, for many survivors the emotional, cognitive and behavioral effects only become noticeable once they have returned home.

The survivor might need time to adjust to their new circumstances, and friends might need to adjust accordingly as well. Learning about the effects of brain injury and identifying ways of offering support can help friends during this period of adjustment. Continuing support and care from friends can also help the survivor to feel more positive about themselves and their circumstances, which can have a positive impact on their overall recovery and general well-being. In turn, this can have a positive impact on the friendship, and it can become possible to move forward creating new memories together.

Family, friends, and caregivers must point out every gain the person has made since the onset of the brain injury. Avoid comparing speech, language or physical abilities prior to the injury with how they are now. Look ahead, and help them to do the same. Treat them as adults by not talking down to them.