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How to develop a new relationship path after a TBI

A pair of hands clasped together Air Force Capt. Spencer Crandall and his wife Kristen hold each other’s hands during a marriage retreat in Charlotte, North Carolina in 2012. (Photo by Human Performance Resources by CHAMP at USU.)

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Traumatic Brain Injury

When you or your partner suffer a traumatic brain injury (TBI), changes to your relationship are likely. Both of you might experience a range of emotions as you adapt to new expectations in your relationship, but you can weather the changes. TBIs can occur without warning, and the path to recovery isn’t always clear, which can add strain to your romantic relationship.

Shifting roles and changing emotions

The uninjured partner is likely to shift into a caregiving role after a TBI. This can be fulfilling and frustrating for both of you. It’s likely neither of you expected one would have to intensely depend on the other as sometimes happens after a TBI. However, it’s also an opportunity to show commitment and gratitude toward each other on a regular basis.

Still, these new roles can leave you both feeling isolated at times. That’s why it’s important to garner external support. Caregivers need a break to take care of themselves every so often. Encouragement from other family members and friends can help as you or your loved one recover from a TBI together. You both can’t make it through this process alone, or by only depending on each other. Reap the benefits of getting comfortable asking others for help because it could provide some well-needed relief.

You might feel a sense of loss or grief about your relationship as a couple, which can be similar to the grief felt after the death of a loved one. You also might grieve future plans that now have to be canceled or adjusted. And you might mourn for the couple you once were.

Your view of future goals and dreams probably needs to be modified or abandoned, and that’s hard. These feelings are normal, and talking about them with your partner, other trusted confidants, or a professional therapist can help.

The “new” us

After a TBI, work toward establishing a new understanding of what it means to be a couple in your current circumstances. Strive to answer, “Who are we now?” together. Build new rituals as a team, find novel ways to manage frustrations, and redistribute responsibilities at home.

A TBI survivor might not be able to handle detailed, more tedious jobs such as paying bills or balancing your family budget. Get creative about how you can reassign roles, so you’re both still involved and feel engaged in your partnership.

Learn more

Lastly, educate yourselves about what recovery after a TBI looks like. Understanding the typical changes in behavior, mood, and personality of someone who has experienced a TBI can help. Reach out to the Defense Centers of Excellence Outreach Center with your TBI questions. It’s still possible to build strong family and relationship ties after a TBI—it just might look different than you initially planned.

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Exiting an A-10C Thunderbolt

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U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Judith Bulkley, an electrical and environmental systems specialist deployed from the 23rd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, Moody Air Force Base, Ga., exits an A-10C Thunderbolt II after performing an external power operations check on the aircraft at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan. Because service members in particular are often exposed to high noise levels, hearing protection is crucial, especially with a TBI. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Stephen Schester)

U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Judith Bulkley, an electrical and environmental systems specialist deployed from the 23rd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, Moody Air Force Base, Ga., exits an A-10C Thunderbolt II after performing an external power operations check on the aircraft at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan. Because service members in particular are often exposed to high noise levels, hearing protection is crucial, especially with a TBI. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Stephen Schester)

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Public Health Service Cmdr. Robin Toblin speaks at TBI Summit

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Public Health Service Cmdr. Robin Toblin with the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research was one of the more than 1,700 health care providers and policy makers from the Military Health System, the Department of Veterans Affairs, academia and commercial research companies who met in person and virtually during the recent Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury Summit held at the Defense Health Headquarters in Falls Church, Virginia. (DCoE photo by Terry Welch)

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