How Brain Injury Affects Marriage

What survives of a marriage when a spouse suffers brain injury?

According to an article in The New York Times, that’s the question being investigated by Dr. Jeffrey S. Kreutzer and other psychologists at Virginia Commonwealth University (V.C.U.) in Richmond. In addition, the psychologists are working to develop marriage counseling techniques for affected couples.

According to a 2007 article published in the journal NeuroRehabilitation, when a spouse suffers a brain injury, the risk of divorce is surprisingly low—approximately 17 percent. Well below the national average for uninjured couples. But the statistic may not be an accurate reflection of the health of the marriages—the couples aren’t necessarily happy. According to Dr. Kreutzer: “While people may technically be married, the quality of their relationship has been seriously diminished.” According to The New York Times:

Dr. Kreutzer and other psychologists at V.C.U. are among the few therapists in the country trying to develop marriage counseling techniques tailored to couples dealing with brain injuries. Traditional marriage counselors often hope to restore people and their relationships to their original luster. For Dr. Kreutzer and his team, recovery often means teaching uninjured spouses to forge a relationship with a profoundly changed person — and helping injured spouses to accept that they are changed people.

“Changed” doesn’t begin to describe what some spouses experience.

Depending on the severity of the brain injury, an individual may be considerably changed by the injury…so much so that he or she may seem like an entirely different person. Injured people often have difficulties with attention, concentration, memory, reading, writing, and speaking. They may appear confused, have trouble with physical coordination, and become impulsive—buying expensive items they can’t afford, take off on trips without notification, or other potentially damaging behaviors. And then there are the possible personality changes:  aggressiveness, irritability, mood swings, depression, lack of motivation, and poor judgment. While every person experiences a different constellation of symptoms, even a small number of these symptoms can make the spouse of a brain-injured individual wonder what happened to the person they married.

The article in The New York Times talks about the experiences of Terry Curtis—who suffered brain injury from a tumor and the surgery needed to remove it—and his wife Vicky:

Mrs. Curtis, 60, was once drawn to her husband’s “sparkle,” she said. After the injury, he “flat-lined” emotionally, and he suffers from depression, anxiety and a lack of motivation. Her husband sometimes makes erratic decisions, she added, like the time he decided to take a do-it-yourself approach to the plumbing at their home in Coralville, Iowa. “Not a good picture when I got home,” Mrs. Curtis said. “And you can yell at him like a little kid, but he didn’t know any better.”

Once a software programming analyst, Mr. Curtis, 57, has “a lot fewer interests” than he did before the injury, and he estimates he has lost 90 percent of his friends.

“It’s a new you,” he said, “and they just can’t cope with that.”

It’s worse for a spouse, who lives with the changed person. According to the psychologists, the factor that seems to keep marriages from falling apart is guilt. It’s hard to be the kind of person who gets a divorce from a brain-injured person. The goal in therapy is to help the couple see that the person will not ever be exactly the same…that they will have to deal with a “new normal” in their lives…but that it may be possible to rediscover a new facet to the old relationship.

That may be the real definition of hope.

To read the full article in The New York Times, click here:  When Injuries to the Brain Tear at Hearts

To learn more about traumatic brain injuries, visit our dedicated webpage here:  HensonFuerst TBI page

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