Research Unclear on Divorce and Traumatic Brain Injury Connection

  • VCU's studies have contradicted previous research that has connected those that suffer from a traumatic brain injury to a high divorce rate.
  • A study published in the Brain Injury journal indicated a higher percentage than the VCU studies.
  • Questions of financial stability and mental incompetence arise when dealing with divorce and traumatic brain injuries.

"Because of how much an injury can change a person, the situation has changed, and the uninjured spouse may need to move forward in a relationship where they do not have to be a parent to their spouse."

Without your health, you cannot function. Even in the strongest of marriage, a marriage with one or both spouses suffering from severe medical issues is more likely to experience problems, either financially or within their actual relationship.

Given the decision-making necessary to explore the option of a divorce requires a lot of cognitive function, those suffering from traumatic brain injuries (TBI). However, much of the research regarding the correlation between TBIs and marital stability is divided.

VCU’s studies

In 2012, Virginia Commonwealth University examined just that and found that divorce rates among couples where one individual has experienced a TBI tended to be higher than the CDC-reported national average. They identified the most recent study to look at this trend was from 2007, and it said that 8 percent of the sample data was separated and 17 percent were divorced at a follow-up meeting after three to eight weeks had passed.

They also found that the amount of time that it can take after a TBI for a marriage to break down is from five to nine years. The uninjured spouse also is the one to report negative change in the marital stability more often than the uninjured spouse. Whichever spouse that is uninjured reports to have a role change within their marriage, where the uninjured spouse becomes a caretaking parental figure, rather than a spouse.

They also discovered that communication suffers between the couple. Typically, there are multiple facets to a healthy line of communication between two happily married spouses, but when one of them becomes the caretaker of the other, the physical and emotional way they communicate can suffer, leaving only the injured spouse’s sense of gratefulness to sustain the dialogue.

The rate is much lower than previously anticipated. According to Brainline, an informational organization dedicated to understanding TBIs, researchers in the 1970s found that 40 percent of couples were either separated or divorced seven years after a TBI. Another study published after 1980 had the post-injury divorce range between 48 and 78 percent.

VCU’s first study back in 2007 (before the 2012 examination) found that out of the 120 people with mild, moderate, and severe injuries who were married at the time of their injury, three out of four remained married at the time of the follow-up interview, three to eight years after the injury.

They revisited the research in 2008 and found that out of 977 individuals from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds that are married and have suffered from TBIs, 85 percent of them remained married for at least two years.

Brain Injury journal study

This study is not necessarily indicative of all of the studies regarding TBIs and divorce.

One study published in the medical journal, Brain Injury, found that out of the 131 married adults with TBIs, 49 percent of them reported that they had divorced or separated from their partner during a five to eight year period following a brain injury.

Cordell & Cordell understands the concerns men face during divorce.

Unique elements of a relationship

While it is important to monitor the effects of a brain injury and how they relate to behavior, it also is important to understand the unique dynamics that can be found in any relationship and how those can just as easily create conflict that leads to a divorce.

While the emotional attachments that are reformatted during the act of getting married can be affected by a TBI, the injury is not always the end of the marriage. That being said, those looking to end their marriage need to be aware of the legal issues they may face.

Financial well-being and mental incompetence

Some with a TBI facing a divorce struggle with their financial well-being. Between the legal fees throughout the experience and the medical fees that seemingly never end, it can leave one’s finances in a state of crisis.

Some are no longer able to make this type of decision for themselves and have been declared mentally incompetent. Depending on the laws of the individual state, the procedure for the divorce process involving someone that has been declared mentally incompetent may be different. Many states look to the annulment process for answers, since a mentally incompetent individual cannot willingly stay in a marriage and is facing subjective consent.

Those that look for answers in ending the marriage with someone who has suffered from a TBI are not doing so because they are insensitive to the devastating injury that their soon-to-be ex-spouse is suffering from. They are doing so, because both parties are unhappy and no longer recognize the relationship that they are in.

Because of how much an injury can change a person, the situation has changed, and the uninjured spouse may need to move forward in a relationship where they do not have to be a parent to their spouse. They can seek a better future for themselves, and the injured spouse can find the help that they need.

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