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Contact sports, CTE and your relationship

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Have you found that your partner has changed for the worse?

Have they acquired some worrying symptoms, including irritability and aggression?

Are you familiar with a condition called Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE (the result of frequent head injuries)?

Then I’m so pleased you’ve landed on this page, because in this article I’m hoping to give you some insight into CTE. I’d like you to know about this condition just in case it could account for your partner’s change in behaviour.

In particular, I’m going to focus on what CTE could mean for you and your relationship.

Vector image: line drawing - profile showing brain. Text: Could your partner's behaviour be due to a brain injury after playing contact sports?
Your partner could have suffered multiple brain injuries over many years of playing a contact sport

Could your partner’s aggression, irritability and depression be the result of repetitive brain injuries?

Who’s at risk of developing Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy?

CTE used to be called “punch-drunk” as it was recognised only in boxers.

However, recent research has shown that boxers aren’t the only people at risk of developing the disease.

The New York Times published an article which reported the findings of a study: of the 111 brains of deceased NFL players, 110 had the disease. In his TEDtalk, Chris Nowinski reveals that in the 500 brains they have studied, 300 had CTE! 

Unfortunately, it’s not only American football players who are at risk of getting CTE. Frequent head injuries also occur in other contact sports, e.g. soccer, wrestling, ice hockey, field hockey, rugby, basketball, etc.

Military personnel can also develop CTE on account of repeated blasts. And victims of domestic violence can be subjected to repeated blows to the head which also results in lasting brain damage.

Photo: Two women playing soccer, heading the ball. Text: Head Injury symptoms
Soccer too is a contact sport

CTE and your relationship

Why should it matter to you whether or not your partner or spouse has CTE?

You’ll understand when you see this list of symptoms of CTE:

These symptoms may not become apparent until years or even decades down the line.

However, the first warning signs of your partner’s mood, behaviour and personality may appear in their late 20s or 30s. Cognitive symptoms appear later, possibly in their 40s and 50s [3].

You may well become aware of the symptoms before anybody else does (except for your partner). And doubtless you can see that those symptoms are potentially incompatible with building and maintaining a healthy relationship (although it’s by no means impossible).

If your partner is still playing their sport, they may well deny that anything’s wrong. So the subject stays off the table.

Their denial may be down to pride, not wanting to let their teammates down, and/or – particularly in case of elite sports – possibly money. They may be reluctant to talk about it or report any problems [2}.

However, you may at some point come to realise that you no longer recognise the person you love(d) and perhaps married.

Photo: woman using mobile phone. Text: Get help now, connect with an online counsellor in confidence. Click here.
Affordable individual, relationship help or marriage counselling – online!

So…

Many of us struggle with seeing our behaviour the same way our partners do even without a brain injury! So imagine how much more difficult it is if the very areas of the brain that govern your ability to appreciate how you are behaving has been affected.”

Steve Shears

See Steve’s guest article: Brain injury symptoms and your relationship.

Is your partner or spouse changing for the worse?

What can you do?

6 Tips to help you, your partner and your relationship

If you already recognise the above mentioned CTE symptoms, then here’s what you can do:

Head Games: Football’s Concussion Crisis from the NFL to Youth Leagues

1. Familiarise yourself with the condition
Read Chris Nowinski’s book: Head Games, Football’s Concussion Crisis. And talk about it together if at all possible. If not, leave the book lying around for your partner to pick up when they’re ready for it.

Book cover: Head Games. Football's Concussion Crisis. By Chris Nowinski
Buy now on Amazon

2. Make notes
Record what you see, hear and feel in a journal. It’ll help you keep track of the symptoms and any changes. This will help you both when your partner is ready to report the problem and/or see a doctor.

3. Encourage your partner to have a medical checkup
Your partner may not have CTE. There are other conditions that could account for some of the clusters of symptoms. Either way, the symptoms could be alleviated with appropriate strategies and/or medication.

Accompany your partner if they value your support.

4. Deal with any other relationship problems
Just like any other couple, the two of you will have your own relationship issues, whether or not they’re related to CTE.

It’s important that you address these as soon as possible. Get some good relationship advice. You can even get couples therapy online if that feels like the best fit for you.

5. Make a judgement on the aggression
Learn to distinguish between the following behaviours:

  • lack of impulse control and aggression;
  • calculated, manipulative, controlling and abusive behaviour.

See also: Brain injury symptoms and your relationship.

I’d like you to read my article on the signs of an abusive relationship too. You’ll then be able to discount any elements of control, manipulation and viciousness in your relationship.

It’s important to understand how the aggression associated with CTE is different from the calculated, abusive behaviour of a controlling, manipulative partner or spouse. Of course, there can be an overlap.

In the case of the former, this article from the the Alzheimer’s Association is a great resource to help you handle the anger and aggression.

In the case of the latter, you need the help of one of the organisations listed below my article on the signs of an abusive relationship.

Regardless of the cause of your partner’s aggressive outbursts, know that you have a right to be safe in your relationship. If you have children, be aware also of the consequences of their witnessing acts of violence in the home.

6. Look after yourself
That includes making sure you get support and perhaps some counselling for yourself.

Invest in interests and hobbies. Develop your relationships with your extended family and friends. These strategies will help you to develop as wide a social circle as possible. And importantly, your support networks will keep you sane in times of trouble.

You have a right to be safe in your relationship, regardless of the causes of aggressive behaviour.

Finally

If you suspect that your partner has CTE, the two of you are going to be facing really challenging times. But as with all difficulties in relationships, communication is key. 

If your partner’s reluctant to talk, don’t keep on at them. But, do let them know that at some point, you will need to tell them how you’re feeling and that you want to work out a way forward together. 

Choose your time carefully, and if your relationship is worth saving then your partner will hear your request for your worries to be addressed. If they continually refuse to listen to your needs, then it really is time to go for couples therapy, or reconsider your future.

Don’t forget: there are always two of you involved in this relationship, and you both matter equally.

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Sources

1. “Concussion Legacy Foundation.” Concussion Legacy Foundation, concussionfoundation.org/. Accessed 22 Feb. 2019.

2. BrainFacts.org. “Life After Football: The Effects of Repeated Concussions.” YouTube, BrainFacts.org, 30 Jan. 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?v=fH1Y4VB2Ntk.

3. “What Is CTE?” Concussion Legacy Foundation, 6 Nov. 2018, concussionfoundation.org/CTE-resources/what-is-CTE. Accessed 20 Feb. 2019.

Other interesting links

Headway fact sheet: How the brain works

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