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Exploring Experiences of Intimacy From the Viewpoint of Individuals With Traumatic Brain Injury and Their Partners

Gill, Carol J. PhD; Sander, Angelle M. PhD; Robins, Nina MS; Mazzei, Diana MA; Struchen, Margaret A. PhD

The Journal of Head Trauma Rehabilitation: January/February 2011 - Volume 26 - Issue 1 - p 56–68
doi: 10.1097/HTR.0b013e3182048ee9
Original Article

Objective: To explore qualitatively the experience of intimacy from the viewpoint of persons with traumatic brain injury (TBI) and their intimate partners.

Design: Qualitative interview study.

Setting: Outpatient community.

Participants: Eighteen persons with TBI and their intimate partners at a mean length of 4.78 years postinjury.

Main measures: Open-ended, semistructured, in-depth interviews regarding participants’ experience of intimacy, factors impacting intimacy, and need for services.

Results: Factors that were perceived as helping relationships remain strong included unconditional commitment, spending time together, open communication, a strong preinjury relationship, bonding through surviving the injury together, social support, family bonds, spirituality, experience with overcoming hardship, and coping skills. Factors that were perceived as barriers to intimacy included injury-related changes, emotional reactions to changes, sexual difficulties, role conflict and strain, family issues, social isolation, and communication issues.

Conclusions and Implications: Education regarding the impact of TBI on intimacy should be integrated into rehabilitation. Health professionals should be sensitized as to the needs that persons with TBI and their partners have regarding intimacy and how to make appropriate referrals to assist them.

Department of Disability and Human Development (Drs Gill and Robins), University of Illinois at Chicago; and Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, Baylor College of Medicine/Harris County Hospital District (Drs Sander and Struchen), and Brain Injury Research Center (Drs Sander and Struchen and Ms Mazzei), TIRR Memorial Hermann, Houston, Texas.

Corresponding Author: Carol J. Gill, PhD, Department of Disability and Human Development, University of Illinois, 1640 W Roosevelt Road (MC 626), Chicago IL 60608 (

This work was supported by grants from the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research, US Department of Education (grants H133B031117, Rehabilitation Research and Training Center on Community Integration of Persons With Traumatic Brain Injury; H133B090023, Rehabilitation Research and Training Center on Developing Strategies to Foster Community Integration and Participation for Individuals With Traumatic Brain Injury; and H133A70015, Texas Traumatic Brain Injury Model System of TIRR). The authors thank the individuals with traumatic brain injury and their partners who trusted us enough to share intimate details of their relationships with us. We hope that the information published here will be a first step toward increasing the services available to couples to improve intimacy after traumatic brain injury.

© 2011 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.