Couples dealing with brain trauma face challenges

Published 12:00 am Friday, January 20, 2012

Gabrielle Giffords and her husband Mark Kelly remain prominent public persons despite having suffered a traumatic change in their private lives.
She continues to be a member of Congress from Arizona and he is a retired astronaut. It was a year ago that a gunman at a Tucson supermarket killed six people, wounded 12 others, and left Giffords with a severe brain injury.
Kelly recently acknowledged to The New York Times that “we’ve had new realities to live with — the reality and pain of letting go of the past.”
The reality is that their marriage is no longer the same but must be rebuilt.
Sarah Wheaton, writing in the Times, notes that “doctors frequently warn uninjured spouses that the marriage may well be over, that the personality changes that can result from brain injury may do irreparable harm to the relationship.”
However, such challenged marriages often get a new lease on life. A 2007 study revealed that only 17 percent of such couples divorce after one spouse suffers a brain injury. The typical failure rate of marriages without such a tragedy can be as high as 50 percent.
That revelation has motivated psychologists at Virginia Commonwealth University to develop marriage counseling techniques aimed specifically at couples with a brain-injured spouse.
Dr. Jeffery S. Kreutzer told The Times that “while people may technically be married, the quality of their relationship has been seriously diminished. Two or three years later they want a whole lot more than simply to be alive.”
Unlike traditional marriage counseling, the challenge is not to restore the original relationship, but to teach uninjured spouses to build a new relationship with a profoundly changed person, and to help injured spouses to acknowledge that they are now changed persons.
Marriage, like religion, rests on faith and fidelity. From his early 60s my father suffered from progressive dementia. In common parlance, he became a “different person” and accepted the changes as they came. So did my mother. They made an effort to communicate better and to focus on the present and future rather than dwell on nostalgia for the past.
Couples in such marriages typically lose friends shocked by the changes. Loneliness enters the marriage. Kreutzer says that guilt can become the constant companion of both spouses. The uninjured spouse can feel guilty because of the constant burden of being a caregiver for so little reward.
Meanwhile, in many cases, the injured partner, unable to hold down a job, feels guilty for being unable to provide financial and emotional support.
Recently, Gabrielle Giffords and her husband jointly addressed a vigil in Tucson that honored her fellow victims. Holding hands, the spouses recited the Pledge of Allegiance — something they share along with their original marriage vows “for better, for worse, in sickness and in health, till death do us part.”
David Yount writes about marriage and can be reached at