Dating, Romance and Sexuality Post-ABI

Dating and relationships are complicated for just about everyone. A brain injury can add one more level of complexity. Indeed, it can seem overwhelming at times, but there are several things a person can do to help navigate through. On Monday February 27, 2012, at 6 p.m., BIST Social Worker Michelle Ratcliff will lead a workshop at the Northern District Library for people living with the effects of an acquired brain injury (ABI), along with their families and friends. The topic of the night, and her article for Torontobraininjuryblog, is Dating, Romance and Sexuality Post-ABI. 

Michelle Ratcliff

Entering into a new relationship or holding onto a previous relationship after a brain injury can be a complicated path to navigate. All brain injuries are unique, as are all relationships.  This means that starting, maintaining and ending romantic relationships will be different for everyone. People often feel overwhelmed when trying to reenter into this area of their lives.

When looking to find love with another person, it is important to start by figuring out what you want from the relationship. Some people might be looking to go on dates without a lot of commitment. Other people are hoping to settle down with someone soon.

Another important thing to remember is that relationships may be different in a number of ways after a brain injury. Depending on the injury, communication styles, emotional needs and physical considerations can alter the way a person dates and maintains a relationship, but this doesn’t mean relationships aren’t possible. Just like knowing what you want in a relationship, it is important to think about how your needs might have changed since the injury. Asking for input, advice and observations from trusted people in your life about ways to adapt and adjust may also help you to figure this part out. Understanding this aspect may not happen immediately; often people need to adjust to life post-ABI before reexamining dating and relationship needs.

One of the hardest things can be finding a date. People meet their partners in a number of ways. Some people meet through friends. Some people bump into a fantastic person in a store, at a concert, in a restaurant or on the subway. Other people try online dating. These methods aren’t for everyone, so it important to to know what you feel comfortable trying.

It’s also key to be safe when entering into new relationships. Meeting new people in public places, not giving out personal information or loaning money, and feeling comfortable to say no if you feel uncomfortable, is essential when dating.

For some, finding a new relationship isn’t the issue. Many ABI survivors were in relationships at the time of their injury. However, an injury can mean major changes to the relationship, for both the survivor and the partner. Both people will have to adjust to the changes after a brain injury, which can be a stressful period.  Maintaining a relationship is often dependant on communication. Being able to talk with your partner about your feelings, needs and wants while listening to your partner’s feelings, needs and wants is an essential part of being in a relationship. Part of communicating well with your partner may involve conversations about your injury. How to tell the person about your injury and talking about how your injury impacts the relationship can be difficult talks to start, but starting slow, providing small amounts of information at a time and planning ahead about when, where and how you want to talk to your partner can help to reduce anxiety.

Being sexually intimate is another area to figure out. For some brain injury survivors, sexual needs, functions and abilities change. This can be a major life change for people, and a major consideration when re-entering the dating world. For those in relationships before injury, both partners may have to work together to renegotiate the sexual aspects they share. Communication is important. Talking to your partner is key.

Michelle Ratcliff, BIST Social Worker.

Visit Brain Injury Society of Toronto for more information about BIST’s community meeting on the theme: Relationships, Dating and Intimacy Post-ABI


Monthly preview: BIST on love and intimacy

Sweaty palms, butterflies in the stomach, an increased heart rate.

Smiling, laughing, and sometimes, tears.

Being in love or feeling attracted to someone stirs up plenty of emotions — positive, negative and everything in between — that can be hard to navigate at the best of times.

A Couple sharing a moment at the park
Image: photostock / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

For a person with an acquired brain injury, there are a host of other challenges thrown into the mix when it comes to dating and relationships.

Consider a few examples.

A young man, thanks to his ABI, lacks sexual inhibition and often makes inappropriate comments to complete strangers, such as fellow riders on the subway. A few people file complaints and now he has to explain himself to the authorities.

A woman married 12 years finds herself acting as a caregiver for her spouse who she feels “Is not the person I fell in love with.”

An eight-year-old girl with a brain injury hits puberty well ahead of other girls her age in a process known as precocious puberty, leaving her confused and embarrassed about the changes happening to her.

Throughout this month, Toronto brain injury blog will address these and other issues relating to Love and intimacy.

In our Question and Answer, Caron Gan, a registered marriage and family therapist at Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital, will offer insight into the issue of sexuality for youths aged 8 to 25.

Also this month, BIST member Ian Bowles shares his story of how he and his partner maintained their relationship after Ian’s ABI.

And BIST social worker Michelle Ratcliff provides advice for people with an ABI who are thinking about dating.

To read these articles and get other information from BIST, check out the sidebar of this page to subscribe to the blog via email or ‘Like’ us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Matthew Chung, BIST member and Editor of Toronto brain injury blog

Image: photostock / FreeDigitalPhotos.net