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Moving forward: Living beyond trauma - How do female brain injury survivors experience forming new romantic relationships post injury? An IPA study

Ball, J. (2021). Moving forward: Living beyond trauma - How do female brain injury survivors experience forming new romantic relationships post injury? An IPA study. (Unpublished Doctoral thesis, City, University of London)


Acquired brain injury is a leading cause of disability in the UK and often results in ‘hidden injuries’ with enduring consequences (Menon, 2018). The age group most at risk of sustaining a traumatic brain injury in the UK is 15 to 24 years (Dombrowski, Petrick & Strauss, 2000) meaning many survivors will live with associated impairments for years to come. Information regarding the number of brain injury survivors who are single at the point of injury is scarce. Several studies have highlighted negative attitudes towards brain injury survivors in wider society (Linden & Boylan, 2010; Ralph & Derbyshire, 2013), with one study suggesting people are less willing to establish relationships with those with traumatic brain injuries (Miller et al, 2009). Brain injury has been found to negatively impact romantic relationships (Wood and Yurdakul, 1997; Kreutzer, Marwitz, Hsu) and has been associated with difficulties establishing new social relationships (Salas, Casassus, Rowlands, Pimm & Flanagan, 2018).

Previous literature has explored the impact of brain injury upon romantic relationships extensively, but very little research has attempted to explore the challenges of being single and forming new romantic relationships whilst living with the consequences of this type of injury. The paucity of research in this area is concerning given single survivors have been found to have poorer post injury outcomes compared to those in relationships (Kaplan and Michael, 2000; Donker-Cools, Birgit, Wind & Frings-Dresen, 2016) and loneliness and isolation can be common difficulties for this population (Sander & Struchen, 2011).

This study used a qualitative approach and aimed to explore the impact living with a brain injury had on forming new romantic relationships post injury by interviewing six female brain injury survivors about their experiences. Data was collected using semi-structured interviews and analysed using Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA). Four superordinate themes emerged: (i) A Fragile Self (ii) Searching for Connection (iii) Barriers to Forming Romantic Relationships (iiii) and Navigating a Way Forward. The findings demonstrate that the prospect and reality of forming new romantic relationships post injury gives rise to a unique set of challenges and concerns indicating this a specific period of adjustment whereby the self and personal needs are re-evaluated. As the participants grappled with adjusting to their brain-injured selves, they made active and purposeful investments in their recovery which resulted in becoming protective of their brain injury and related progress. Desires to form new romantic relationships often conflicted with a need to protect a vulnerable, brain injured self. At times this tension made some participants wary of developing intimate and emotional closeness with others and as such they became avoidant of pursuing romantic opportunities. Attempting to re-establish the self in a non-brain injured world whilst wishing to form romantic connections was at times distressing and overwhelming due to concerns regarding stigma and disclosure. These findings are discussed alongside existing research and implications for practice are considered along with some specific suggestions based upon the findings which are designed around creating appropriate support for single survivors wishing to develop new romantic relationships. Implications for Counselling Psychology and ideas for further research relating to this topic are also considered.

Publication Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Subjects: B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > BF Psychology
H Social Sciences
Departments: Doctoral Theses
Doctoral Theses > School of Arts and Social Sciences Doctoral Theses
School of Health & Psychological Sciences > Psychology
[img] Text - Accepted Version
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