Marriage and Divorce after Brain Injury

Marriage and Divorce after Brain Injury – Findings of 3 Research Studies

By Marilyn Lash, M.S.W. and Taryn Stejskal, Ph.D.

It’s a common belief that most marriages end in separation or divorce after a spouse has a traumatic brain injury. Certainly the physical, cognitive, social, behavioral and communicative changes caused by brain trauma can affect a couple’s relationship. These changes are just the primary losses. Additional changes, known as secondary losses, can range from loss of income, to loss of friends, jobs or careers. As roles and responsibilities formerly shared by a couple are reexamined and redistributed after a spouse is injured, the relationship between a husband and wife changes in many ways. 

There is very little scientific research on marital relationships so much is still unknown about the impact of a spouse’s brain injury on the marriage. Reasons for a marriage dissolving are always complex, but this may be even more so when one partner has a disability or impairment due to a brain injury.  So it is important to look at the findings from 3 research studies on this topic. 

  • One study conducted by Thomsen in 1984 found a very high rate of 78% for marital breakdown. But it is important to note that this was a very select group of individuals who were studied. It examined only 9 couples who were 10-15 years post-injury. In addition, many of them had severe brain injuries and most were living in a residential assisted living program. So one must question how applicable these findings are today.
  • The second study led by J.C. Arango-Lasprilla was more recent in 2008. It also was much larger, including 927 individuals who were injured. In contrast to the earlier study, the marital breakdown rate was only 15% within the first 2 years post-injury. This study offers much more hope for relationships to survive the stresses and challenges of daily living after a partner has been hurt. 
  • The third study led by J. Kreutzer in 2007 not only found that 25% of relationships broke down but that this occurred an average of 4.1 years after a spouse’s injury. 

Research has found that several factors make a difference in whether couples stay together or separate after one of the partners has a brain injury. The highest rates of marital breakdown are found among younger couples and in shorter or more recent marriages. Another risk factor is domestic violence. Couples with a more severely injured member were also found to be at greater risk for separation or divorce. 

Much more research is needed to understand why some couples manage to stay together and others separate. But one thing is clear – research does not support the common belief that there is a much higher incidence of marital separation and divorce when one partner or spouse has a brain injury. 

Recommended Reading

Couples: Hope and Intimacy after Brain Injury

 By Taryn Stejskal, Ph.D.

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