Reality says maintaining a healthy long-term relationship takes a lot of work. Contrary to the fairy tales we read as kids, it's not all sunshine and roses.
Add brain injury into the equation and watch out! Be prepared for many roller coaster rides.
It is extremely challenging to be in a relationship with a brain-injured survivor. The lives of survivors and their loved ones are completely turned upside down. As a survivor I see this in my own relationship and with others.
If us survivors appear to be acting in a selfish way, this is because we are in survival mode. Most of us lost our jobs, our careers, sense of purpose and self-confidence.
In a previous article, I mentioned the "child brain" and the "adult brain" not working cooperatively after a brain injury. This is problematic because our inside voice comes spewing out before we have a chance to think about what we are going to say. On the opposite spectrum, there are survivors like me who emotionally flat line. It appears like we have no empathy, don't care about anybody or anything. Feelings get squashed on both sides. Resentment builds, conversations are difficult to engage in and the cycle can repeats itself over and over.
In my case, my short-term memory was assessed in the 10th percentile. Imagine being with a spouse who can't retain information. Communication can be an ongoing source of frustration when the injured partner can't recall important conversations and decisions that were made. As the saying goes "the lights are on but no one's home." Couples can often feel they are drifting further away from each other. So what can be done to tighten the gap?
At the Brain Injured Group (BIG), there is a group and manual for couples called Rebuilding Relationships After Brain Injury. Communication is the glue that prevents the fraying relationship strings snapping completely from the core. It is recommended that survivors and their partners communicate individual and relationship needs. This is called You, Me & Us. Of course these skills have to practised again and again because they don't come naturally. It's also important to write the details down when plans and solutions are agreed upon.
I've learned from BIG and my own experiences that listening to your spouse is key. Survivors think we are listening but we are often not because we're thinking about our response. I have found it helpful to stop in my tracks and take a time out. I will say "I need to gather my thoughts. Give me a minute." I need to do this because if I don't, my brain will shut down and I might say something I will regret. Even worse, I won't remember what I said.
Prior to my injury, I was a firecracker who always had to be right. I've learned a lot about myself in the last year and a half. When conversations start to become difficult another strategy I used is to imagine myself being in my husband Bob's shoes. I would be thinking "Who are you and what did you do with my wife?"
Bob has told me many times that he forgets I have a brain injury. I look the same and talk the same most of the time. It would be really hard to have a spouse who forgets important errands, conversations and decisions. It would be really hard to watch your spouse become exhausted after doing a couple of simple tasks and have to sleep for hours to recoup. It would be really hard to have a spouse who never goes out and socializes with other couples because of fatigue.
Both sides can say "Walk a mile in my shoes.”