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Relationships after brain injury

The impact of a brain injury can place immense stress and pressure upon a relationship

Following the amazing story of the 46 year old Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) survivor James Cracknell was part of the winning Cambridge team at the annual boat race, many commentators have looked at his motivations, the way in which he has overcome obstacles, but also that it seems, sadly, that his marriage is over.

In July 2010 James was undertaking a challenge to cross America, when whilst on a bicycle he was hit from behind by an oil tanker in Arizona. The severe head injury he sustained as a result was life threatening. His recovery has been gradual and incomplete, and friends report the sort of significant personality changes often associated with brain injuries of this type.

Tragically, relationship breakdown after a TBI is a common occurrence. Partners of brain injury survivors often have to see their loved one exhibit a range of symptoms including personality change, disinhibition, lack of insight, mood swings and anger and frustration. Roles can change, a relationship of loving spouse or partner can sometimes change to one where people become carers. A typical pattern may be a deep commitment immediately after the brain injury but as time moves on, adapting to changes and new roles becomes difficult and places a strain on even the strongest of relationships.

Research is divided, but there are a number of studies which have found evidence suggesting that relationship breakdown after brain injury is significantly higher than in the general population. Relationship breakdown adds yet more stress and emotional turmoil to people already going through life changing experiences. Provision of support in this situation is not consistent across the country, but there are things that may help.

For those who have a compensation claim following an accident which has caused a brain injury, funding may be available for private therapy, treatment and support. This can include neuropsychological and psychological rehabilitation therapy to help people deal with the changes in their lives, behavioural therapy to help understand why people behave in certain ways and how to respond to that, and where appropriate these therapies can be aimed directly at relationships, whether with a partner or across the wider family. In cases where a change in roles is a factor, it might be that certain types of support can be provided by trained professionals and therapists, allowing a partner to go back to being just that, rather than a carer.

The goal would always be to try to support and manage loving relationships in a positive way for all involved, but those who work in this field know that is not always possible. Practical solutions have to be considered.

Sadly the impact of a brain injury can place immense stress and pressure upon a relationship. Approximately three quarters of marriages where a brain injury has been sustained lead to divorce. In dealing with these separations consideration of the needs of the family are a priority but also consideration of the future ongoing requirements of the brain injury survivor is essential. Damages acquired as a result of suffering a brain injury are not excluded from consideration of the Court when assessing the financial settlement on divorce. They are not automatically ring fenced. Working with the survivor and their support team is imperative to understanding their needs moving forward as well as the rest of the family.

In some circumstances it is also well advised to consider a pre nuptial agreement that can look to exclude damages acquired from consideration in any future financial settlement so that they can be preserved for the survivor and their needs in the event of any relationship breakdown.

In a large number of cases where there is a breakdown in the relationship the couple will have children. Dependent on the extent and implications of the injury it is imperative that the child’s relationship with their parent remains. Part of ensuring that it is to try to retain civility and an amicable approach wherever possible between the parties. As members of Resolution we are committed to ensuring that approach in all cases but it is particularly vital in these instances. A relationship with the parent can take on a number of forms and depending on the extent of the injury and its impact there are several options that can be explored to ensure that relationship continues in the child’s best interests.

In the news recently there was the welcome decision that the government were taking on board the need for reform of our current divorce laws. The suggestion that divorce proceedings will be able to proceed without blame will assist in the anticipation of reaching amicable solutions and will avoid the need to place reliance on allegations that may seem hurtful and unfair to a brain injury survivor, particularly where there is a lack of insight on the part of the brain injured person.

Clarke Willmott have for some time worked closely across teams to work together in the best interests of not only the client but the overall family. This involves the Divorce and Family team having a good understanding of the needs and impact of brain injury. This is a good relationship between our lawyers who although trained in different disciplines work together to achieve the best outcome, not just in financial terms, but in the most important need of ensuring that whilst the parents may be unable to resolve their differences they can both continue to parent in the best interests of their children.


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Rayner Grice


Rayner advises on the issues that arise for an individual following the breakdown of a relationship in relation to divorce/civil partnership dissolution, their financial affairs and their children.
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