Ah Valentine’s Day – the day of candlelit dinners, red roses, love and romance; or the biggest marketing gimmick that ever existed?! From restaurants’ twice the price Valentine’s specials, to Hallmark’s cheesiest cards, one thing is certain, you can’t escape it.
Love it or loathe it, perhaps Valentine’s Day is the perfect opportunity to take stock of all of our relationships, and especially the relationships we have with our loved ones.
Relationships after a brain injury
Life is often described as a journey. A path that we take from beginning to end with many twists and turns along the way. Our relationships are who we share this journey with. Some may be brief passing acquaintances, others will walk beside you, weathering every storm that comes your way. When someone has a brain injury, the path on which you were walking can veer off in a completely unexpected direction.
Individuals with brain injury often experience changes in their social, emotional and behavioural functioning, and this in turn can affect their relationships. People may experience a ‘blunting’ of their emotions and may come across as cold, or self-centred and lacking in empathy, or they may be more emotional than before. They may behave in ways that are socially or sexually inappropriate, or become angry and aggressive more easily. Personality changes are common and the person you once knew so well, can at times feel like a stranger. Couples may experience changes in responsibilities and relationship roles. Partners may feel increased levels of strain or stress and low mood.
Although some of the relationship changes after brain injury can be challenging and painful, there are many things that couples can do to enjoy each other and their relationship in new and meaningful ways.
A successful marriage involves falling in love many times, always with the same person. Mignon McLaughlin
A new normal
In the aftermath of a brain injury, it can feel as though your whole world has been tipped upside down and it can take a while before the dust settles. Acceptance and adjustment both take time. You may need to adjust to a relationship that is very different to the one you had before. Accept that the past is behind you and the future will be different. Many couples describe going through many challenges and yet come out even stronger than before.
What can help
Rebuilding relationships. Start slowly. Get to know each other again. Discover the things that you like about each other and the things you enjoy doing together.
Communication. Listen to one another. Talk frequently. Be open and honest.
Time in. Spend quality time together. Turn off the technology. Go for a walk, enjoy a meal out, or visit a place special to both of you.
Time out. Make time for yourselves. Don’t neglect your own individual hobbies, interests and pastimes.
Respect. Respect your partner, their feelings, needs and boundaries. Hoping they will change or wanting to change someone is not realistic. Focus instead on their unique qualities and attributes that you admire.
Compromise. Give and take is essential. Recognise when you might need to ‘go with the flow’, or when clear communication is needed to express your needs.
Agree on how to disagree. Arguments happen and are a normal part of life. Acknowledge that you may not always agree on everything. Try not to bring up the past. Acknowledge when you have disagreed and move on – don’t stew on things. A simple touch or a hug can make a big difference. Rather than trying to ‘win’ the argument, remember the importance of pulling together as a team and finding common ground.
With time and patience, you can find your way back to the shared path and the next step of your journey together.
If in the twilight of memory we should meet once more, we shall speak again together and you shall sing to me a deeper song. And if our hands should meet in another dream, we shall build another tower in the sky. Kahlil Gibran
Looking for love?
Dating can be a challenge, and even more so after a brain injury. Thanks to online dating, we now have more choice than ever, with formulas created to help you find your “perfect match”.
Online dating gives you time to talk and get to know somebody, and can remove the uncertainty over whether someone likes you. It is not without its challenges and sometimes the person you meet in person may not match their online profile!
Perhaps you prefer speed dating, asking a friend to set you up on a blind date or maybe taking up a new hobby and meeting people with shared likes and interests may work for you.
Ultimately, having the confidence to get back into dating after brain injury is a significant and important step and however you meet them, the right person is out there and worth waiting for!
The Anti-Valentine’s Day
If the thought of Valentine’s Day fills you with dread, then you can of course choose to just completely ignore it and go about your normal routine. As important as other people are in our lives, the most important relationship is the one you have with yourself - so be kind to yourself, order in a nice meal, have a nice relaxing bath, or go for a brisk walk. Relax by watching an anti-valentine’s day movie of your choice or meet up with some friends. Spread the love by doing something positive or making an unexpected act of kindness for someone else - you will not only brighten their day but it could make you feel good too!
The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched. They must be felt with the heart. Helen Keller
Professional support for couples and relationships is available for those who need it and your GP or health professional can provide information on local support services.
Headway have produced a number of helpful information leaflets, including these on relationships and brain injury:
There are also plenty of other resources out there which may be helpful, including the ‘Brain Injury Bites’ Podcast (Spotify) – Ep. 11 ‘Dating and relationships after brain injury’ and Relationships After TBI - YouTube
Dr Mari O’Neill
Consultant Clinical Psychologist
Neurotherapy Services Ltd
Mari is a Consultant Clinical Psychologist at Neurotherapy Services, a specialist rehabilitation service providing assessment and treatment to adults and families affected by brain injury, spinal injury and neurological conditions. The team are based in Scotland and offer services across the UK.
Tel: 07729 551771