Addressing partner trauma after an SCI

Danie Breedt
By Danie Breedt
4 Min Read

A spinal cord injury and its aftermath can be very traumatic for the romantic or life partner of the injured person. DANIE BREEDT takes a look at the three phases partners face

When sustaining a spinal cord injury (SCI), a lot can change but it doesn’t mean your relationship is over. Your physical, emotional, intimate and parenting roles may change somewhat to accommodate your capabilities.

However, an SCI doesn’t only affect the injured person, but their partner as well. The initial phases after a new SCI can be especially traumatic and disruptive for both individuals and the relationship as a whole.

Supporting your partner through their SCI has a definite impact on you too. Research has found that partners often experience three phases after an SCI. The initial phase is the immediate negative impact of the SCI on the partner’s life. This is an uncertain waiting period with feelings of powerlessness, watching your partner from the side-lines, and having your own needs become secondary.

The main focus of this stage is survival, in a physical sense for the person with the SCI and in an emotional sense for the partner. Partners often have the greatest need for emotional and practical support at this time.

The second phase is characterised by feelings of isolation or being separated from your partner. It is in this phase that a lot of partners realise the impact of the SCI on themselves and their relationship going forward. The focus during this time moves somewhat to planning for a life that has now changed forever.

This phase is also marked by a long period of separation while in hospital, managing the overwhelming tasks of a household or family during a partner’s rehabilitation and discharge process.

In the third phase the two individual journeys merge to re-establish the relationship. Emotions that are common during this phase are grief and loss, exhaustion, feeling overwhelmed or inadequate, vulnerable and/or depression.

The process of re-establishing a sense of normalsy while going through the major life crisis of an SCI and navigating its impact on the relationship is extremely stressful. This phase after a partner stabilises physically can often be the most difficult for the uninjured partner.

It is unfortunate that the needs of the partner is often neglected. It might even feel selfish to think of your needs while your partner is suffering. However, building a relationship is a two-way street. Your partner’s SCI is part of your sexual health and should be included in your decisions, thoughts, and feelings.

Try to build trust with each other and have open dialogues about your relationship. Regular discussions and an acknowledgement for both partners’ needs in the relationship is of paramount importance when navigating such a difficult experience.

ContributorDr Danie Breedt is a passionate scholar-practitioner in the field of psychology. He divides his time between training, research and clinical practice. Danie works from an integrative interactional approach in psychotherapy, dealing with a wide range of emotional difficulties and sexual rehabilitation for patients with disabilities. He is the co-owner of Charis Psychological Services, a psychology practice that specialises in physical rehabilitation across South Africa.


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Danie Breedt
By Danie Breedt Psychologist
Danie Breedt is a passionate scholar-practitioner in the field of psychology. He divides his time between training future psychologists, research and clinical practice. Danie works from an integrative interactional approach in therapy dealing with a wide range of emotional difficulties. He is currently working as a psychologist at numerous physical rehabilitation hospitals across Gauteng for Charis Psychological Services where he does supportive counselling as well as sexual education for patients with disabilities. Column courtesy of Charis Psychological Services.
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