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Traumatic Brain Injury and Romantic Relationships: Stigma Experiences and Improving Romantic Relationship Quality

Angela Adler, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


People with traumatic brain injury (TBI) and their romantic partners face many interconnected social challenges. The data for this dissertation were gathered through in-depth interviews with seventeen couples in which one partner had TBI. This sociological dissertation draws on the field of disability studies in design, recruitment, data collection, analysis, and writeup. Importantly, this study centers the accounts that participants with TBI and their partners gave about their own experiences. The first research question investigated the stigma experienced by people with TBI, the stigma by association experienced by their romantic partners, and how those stigmas were managed. The second research question explored factors that improved the romantic relationship quality of couples affected by TBI. Participants were interviewed via email individually about stigma experiences and management, and dyadically as a couple about factors that improved their romantic relationship quality. Participants connected multiple types of negative consequences to various stigma experiences as well as to stigma management strategies. The negative consequences reflected in the data included social isolation, perceived discrimination, and identity discrepancy. Stigma experiences included social exclusion, as well as disbelief and misattribution of TBI effects. Participants reported managing stigma through nondisclosure of TBI status, concealing TBI effects, and avoiding potentially stigmatizing situations. Participant couples reported severe and pervasive social isolation resulting from a cycle of social exclusion stigma and managing stigma by avoiding potentially stigmatizing situations. This social isolation may have contributed to the finding that participants’ romantic relationship quality was improved by togetherness, both between the partners and with family and friends. Togetherness between the partners was characterized by spending time together, cooperating, and being emotional intimate. Professional advice and workplace policies that supported partners’ togetherness were reported as improving the couple’s romantic relationship quality. Togetherness with friends and family was characterized as the couple receiving various types of support, and being socially accepted and included. These findings are essential for identifying ways to improve the lives of people with TBI and their romantic partners.

Subject Area

Disability studies|Social research|Sociology

Recommended Citation

Adler, Angela, "Traumatic Brain Injury and Romantic Relationships: Stigma Experiences and Improving Romantic Relationship Quality" (2023). ETD collection for University of Nebraska - Lincoln. AAI30575720.