Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Brain Injury and Marriage

            Relationships and marriage can be difficult for anybody, which means with brain injury they can be exceptionally tough. I was engaged to be married at the time of my accident in January of 1989. After I came out of my coma we had to decide whether or not to continue with our June wedding as planned and risk forfeiting our deposits, or to put it off for another year.

            Against the advice of many, we decided to go for it. All my wife had to do was work full time, pay the bills, and plan a wedding for two hundred, as well as take care of me. I had to learn how to walk so I could make it down the aisle. In the end I did my part and my wife did hers.

            That was the easy part. Most relationships don’t make it past a brain injury. Brain injury can fundamentally alter who you are. A common lament in many troubled marriages is that one’s spouse is no longer the person one fell in love with. Brain injury pretty much assures that fact. After over 20 years of marriage I can give you some hints as to what you can expect.

                        If you marry a brain injured person you may feel like you have to do everything. You have to support the household because your spouse may not be able to earn a significant income. Fatigue is a major component of brain injury so you may have to do a lot of the work around the house and yard. Your spouse may no longer be able to do mechanical repairs or cook, and if they try do some of the things they could do before, it can have disastrous results. There are no clear boundaries, which means, you are perpetually walking on a mine field.

            At first, and for the foreseeable future, you are going to feel like you gained a child, not a spouse. No adult wants to be treated like a child, and no adult wants to admit they need to be treated like a child. Nevertheless, with brain injury that is a fact of life. A brain injury survivor needs to admit they need help and their spouse needs to admit that an adult is not going to enjoy being taken care of like a child. The lines of tension are set very taut and very ambiguous.

            On the off hand chance your marriage lasts long enough, there is yet another hurdle. Supposing a brain injury survivor gains the ability to function more or less like a competent adult, a process which can take years, the marriage must once again adjust to shifting roles. This doesn’t happen all at once either. Just like that troubled part of life we call adolescence, returning to the role of co-equal partner is an awkward process of fits and starts. All the boundaries can change and there is no set or certain rhythm along the way. One hopes that after everything else, the marriage can make this adjustment.

            At this point in my essay you are probably asking “is it worth it?” I will tell you in all honesty, probably not. I say this because I don’t want to fill anyone’s head with all sorts of unrealistic hopes. I don’t believe that soul mates are found, I believe they are made after years of effort. I believe one of the reasons so many marriages fail today is that we listen to all these love songs that place unrealistic expectations on a relationship in which things like fellowship and respect and good communication are just supposed to happen. The love song that I do believe in is one by RUSH called “Ghost of a Chance” and it starts out like this:

“I don’t believe in destiny or the guiding hand of fate

I don’t believe in forever or in love as a mystical state

I don’t believe in the stars or the planets or angels watching from above

But I believe there’s a ghost of a chance that we can find some one to love

And make it last”

I have a wonderful marriage; my wife and I are very much in love, but it hasn’t been easy and I certainly don’t want to say, “Hey, we did it, you can too!” For us it has been worth it, but it has meant a lot of pain and regret as well as happiness. It is possible; it’s just not easy; which can be said of marriage in general, only with brain injury it is more so.


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