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Love and Relationships After Brain Injury

February 24, 2021

Laura Barlow is an associate in the Adult Brain Injury department at Bolt Burdon Kemp.

There was happy news for James Cracknell and Jordan Connell recently, as they announced they are engaged to be married.

The tabloids seem to have focused on the relatively short period of time between James’ divorce from Beverly Turner, without considering some of the more complex issues surrounding love and relationships after brain injury. I shall therefore explore those complexities a bit more here.

It is widely known that James suffered a serious brain injury in 2010, after being hit by a petrol tanker whilst cycling in The US. Despite making a good recovery, James was left with some permanent effects of the frontal lobe damage to his brain, most notably, changes to his personality and behaviour.

James and Beverly worked at their marriage for several years before accepting that things were not working. And although marriages and romantic relationships can survive the changes that come with a brain injury, it’s not unusual for relationships to come to an end. In some cases the injured party feels like a changed person and they may feel differently about the relationship post-injury. Where there has been personality change, the uninjured partner may suffer a sense of loss, loneliness and grief for the partner they used to know. Additionally, the boundaries between the roles of partner and carer can sometimes become blurred, which can lead to frustration, resentment and fatigue for both parties. In some cases, despite best efforts, there may be no way to make the relationship work going forwards.

It’s not all bad news though, because many relationships DO survive long-term following brain injury, and as James has proved, people who want it CAN find new love after brain injury.

In terms of nurturing existing relationships following brain injury, one of the most important things is that the partner learns about brain injury and the effects of the injury on their loved one. The more educated somebody is about their partner’s injury, the more likely they are to be able to utilise strategies to manage difficulties.

And we have to remember that it’s not only romantic relationships that can be challenging following brain-injury. Other family relationships can be put under a great deal of strain:

  • Parents of a child (whether adult or child) who has suffered a brain injury can suffer a great deal of fear and apprehension about their child’s future – they may want to protect their child from the world, which can cause conflict and tension.
  • Younger children of a parent who suffers a brain injury may find themselves taking on a caring role, forever changing the parent-child dynamics and resulting in a ‘stolen’ childhood.
  • Other family relationships can also be impacted by brain injury (siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles etc.), as can relationships with those outside the home, including friends and colleagues.

Lockdown has placed an additional strain on many families living with a brain-injury survivor. Securing appropriate practical and emotional support can make a huge difference to all concerned, but for many, getting the right support has been especially challenging in the past year, with the isolation, social-distancing and lockdown measures that have been in place.

With the reduction in care services and support centres, many family members living at home with brain injury survivors have had little, if no, respite from the daily strain of keeping their loved one safe and healthy. Many charities and support organisations have moved services online during the pandemic, and although not quite the same as meeting face-to-face, they can provide that virtual ‘change of scenery’ and enough reassurance and support to give people a short break and a mental-health boost.

For those brain injury survivors who are keen to find a romantic partner, please have hope! The idea of dating can be a daunting prospect for anyone, but for brain injury survivors, some additional courage might be needed. Many brain-injury survivors successfully build and maintain loving relationships after brain injury, and there are specialist agencies who can help those who aren’t sure where to start in actively pursuing a new romantic relationship.

When it comes to going on dates, brain injury survivors may have concerns about a number of things, including communication difficulties. The key seems to be openness, and communicating honestly about any difficulties at the outset. Ensuring personal safety may also be a concern, especially when dating in-person comes back! Some tips for ensuring safety (for anyone) are to always meet in a public place until you feel you can trust somebody, being wary of how much personal information you share, and tell someone you trust if you feel a new partner is putting you under pressure to progress the relationship more quickly that feels comfortable.

With the right support, brain-injury survivors should be able to enter into new relationships with confidence and pride. And instead of the implied criticism directed towards James Cracknell for progressing a new relationship, we should all be applauding him and following his lead.

The brain injury association, ‘Headway’, has produced some excellent resources on relationships after brain injury, which you can find here.’

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