It’s hard to describe the chemistry that exists between couples in a strong and attuned partnership. There’s an unspoken connection that seems to underlie these relationships, the type that allows partners to intuitively read each other’s thoughts, anticipate the other’s needs, and even predict their partner’s reactions. That chemistry isn’t perfect, of course. Even the happiest of marriages or relationships have moments of frustration as two people struggle to communicate and reach for understanding.
Like a lot of people, I took that unspoken connection for granted. My husband TC and I had been together for seven years before his brain injury — the event that would transform our family. And over those seven years we had developed a pretty secure communication style, one that allowed us to do a lot of nonverbal negotiating. All kinds of decisions were reached through a simple facial expression or pause. Your turn to change the baby’s diaper, or Let’s cancel our dinner plans and hang out at home tonight. Before marriage, I never knew so much could be communicated without words.
Although our personalities have always been very different, we tended to agree on a lot when it came to our everyday lives. For that reason, I often found myself trying to channel my inner TC as I dealt with the series of shocks and critical decisions that had to be addressed in the weeks and months after his brain injury. Almost daily, I found myself asking, What would TC say about this? How would he handle this situation? And because we knew each other so implicitly, I felt confident in my ability to step inside his head and honor his wishes and opinions.
However, in the chaos of all of the other losses we have sustained, it has taken me awhile to pinpoint the loss of our intuition as well. Articles often refer to the financial and health stressors caused by a traumatic brain injury in a marriage, but it’s significantly more difficult to quantify the stress associated with losing one’s intangible and very sacred connection to his or her partner. Over the course of our journey, I’ve thought a lot on this topic, wondering if others had experienced the same feelings of loneliness and confusing grief. I still love my husband, I’ve often pondered, so why do I feel so alone? Much has been written about ambiguous loss and grief, but part of my personal experience with grief has stemmed from accepting the loss of a connection I never believed could be broken.
Over the last year TC and I have been in the throes of reestablishing our unspoken connection and I can report that it’s very arduous, difficult work. It seems that when reading each other’s thoughts and feelings is no longer second nature, you have to want it very badly in order to get it back. There have been many moments in which post-TBI marriage has felt like an awkward first date. Just shuffling around our narrow kitchen as we cook dinner together includes a lot of, “I’ll move over here,” and “I’m sorry, did you want to roast the veggies or should I?” In many ways, we’re like two clumsy teenagers moving right to left and bumping foreheads as we go in for that first kiss. Very little can be unspoken anymore. To get our needs met, we must be exhaustively explicit, and even then there are challenges.
We are different people now and, because of that, we are no longer very good mind readers. Undoubtedly, our personalities have changed as a result of our individual experiences. While TC finds himself softened by brain injury, more sensitive and less worried than I remember him before, I, the caregiver, am the opposite: tougher and grittier than I once was, intently focused on staying above water and maintaining constant efficiency. We will never fully understand each other’s experiences over the past two years and while that seems to be an obvious fact of life, it is one we find surprisingly difficult to wrap our minds around.
It takes a long time to rebuild something that took seven years to refine. And so I’ve found that admitting the difficulty in this challenge is one way of relieving the internal pressure. I know we are not alone in our mission. Our partnership has been altered by TBI, but there are many couples who have also found themselves trying to find common ground after a traumatic or difficult experience. For us, success has come in small measures: a great conversation on a long car ride, sharing enthusiasm over a new or renewed hobby, even laughing over a silly television show. Interestingly, the scariest parts have been admitting that there is real work to do in order to restore this connection and learning to let go of old notions about how things “should” be.
When looking at the big picture, I can see how fortunate TC and I are to be at this stage of recovery — a time in which we can concern ourselves with things like partner intuition and unspoken connections. It doesn’t always feel like it, but it is a gift simply to be in the position of doing this work. And while I always preface my caregiving advice with the disclaimer “I’M NOT PERFECT,” I deeply believe that we are all entitled to a satisfying life and that such a life is possible, even in the toughest circumstances. Not a day goes by that I don’t miss the ease and playfulness I used to share with TC, but there is a new life, a new relationship, ahead of us all if we can courageously choose to accept it.