Marriage on the Autism Spectrum: He said/ She said
Marriage on the Autism Spectrum: He said/ She said
Categories: RECENT RESEARCH
Stephanie C. Holmes, MA, BCCC
Certified Autism Specialist
With the complexities involved in what is referred to as an Aspie- NT (Asperger’s- Neurotypical) marriage, I struggled with what angle or aspect to cover as a marital counselor who specializes in this complex marriage issue. My intention is to bring light to the situation without overgeneralizing, yet not marginalizing the complexities experienced in this marital dynamic and to represent both halves of the marital equation as equally and respectfully as possible.
With this motivation in mind I surveyed husbands with Asperger’s (Aspies) and neuro-typical (NT) wives to let them share some of the challenges experienced in an Aspie- NT marriage. I also surveyed Aspie wives but found some differences and further complexities that were beyond the scope of this article. So this article will be specific to Aspie males and NT females.
Weekly I receive a call, text, or blog comment from all over the world inquiring about some dynamic of Aspie- NT marriages. The term Asperger’s Syndrome came on the mental health scene in 1994 as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders- IV (DSM-IV) was published and when the term began to circulate and become a more common phrase. For a decade the research and publications focused on the syndrome as it affects children and pre-teens. Knowledge exploded but stayed limited to childhood issues for the longest time. If we were just to consider those diagnosed since 1994, even the youngest of those diagnosed are in late adolescence and early adulthood. What about those who fit the criteria before the criteria had a name? What has become commonplace in my counseling practice is that a child has received a formal diagnosis of AS/ASD (Asperger’s/Autism Spectrum Disorder) and when research is being done as to what this entails or means the call or email to me is, “Can you help me, I think I am married to an Aspie!” The second type of call I receive is after children have been launched from home and the couple is entering retirement years and the NT wife has expected that once children were grown and retirement came from work there would be a time to better connect and enjoy the final stage of marriage. Nothing changes. Why can’t we connect? Is he an Aspie? The third type of call I receive is more rare, but it is the Aspie male who has reached out and said ,” My wife thinks (or I have found out) I have Asperger’s and without help I think we are heading for divorce can you help me?” Often times I am the 4th or 5th marriage counselor this type of couple has worked with to during marriage. Counselors who have failed to understand the complexities of the marriage have been reported by my couple to have done more harm than good. Without a diagnosis or understanding of the diagnosis a counselor might mistake his behaviors as NPD (Narcissism) or mere anxiety or selfishness. If the husband is more quiet in session and the wife is more demonstrative explaining her hurts and how lack of connection and intimacy for years has compounded her feeling needs have not been met, a counselor might say that the issues are co-dependency, or she has high expectations, or maybe a mood disorder or HPD (Histrionic). In either case, spouses walk away feeling ignored, blamed, placated, or misunderstood and usually drop out of counseling wondering what if anything can help them in their marital struggles. When one does research and finds the word Asperger’s Syndrome (AS) it brings mixed emotions for both.
When Aspie- NT spouses reach out to me for counseling either in my office or on-line, they are weary, exacerbated, feel misunderstood, and are both hopeless and hopeful as to the prognosis of happiness and satisfaction in marriage. Asperger’s as a label offers hope but also feels like a third wheel to the marriage. My first question to my couples was, “While dating, what were the qualities you admired in your partner?”
A compilation of NT wives answers include:
- His boyish charm/ nativity/ social immaturity/awkwardness around me
- He was quiet/shy/aloof/mysterious/reserved/stable/honest
- He was interested in me/Went out of his way to show me he like me/almost obsessed with me
- He wasn’t like the other guys
- Intelligent/smart/kind of geeky in a cute way/felt he would go far in his line of work
- Felt he would stable/good provider/good father because he got along with children
Aspie husbands said:
- She was kind, sweet, praised/encouraged me
- She saw potential or things in me I did not see
- She said accepted me for who/how I was
- She is bright/intelligent/ could carry –on heady or substantive conversations
- She was fun and liked some of the same things I liked (but with less intensity)
By the time a couple comes in for counseling after a few years of marriage they have a different view of those qualities.
NT wives say:
- He rude/cold/aloof/He only cares about himself/selfish
- He is embarrassing often in social situations and does not seem to care
- I feel like it was bait and switch as interested as he was in my while dating, he ignores me now
- He is so smart but cannot seem to progress at work and never seems to understand what I am communicating. He is stuck in a rut at work or cannot keep a job.
- He is not attached as a spouse or parent
- Those stupid obsessions/interests/hobbies he would rather spend money and time with those than me
- I don’t feel like I can rely on him or respect him
- I feel alone/isolated/rejected/de-valued/ unimportant to him
- Whenever I try to have a conversation he gets combative/he hammers me/he shuts me out/he says I am nagging/criticizing
Aspie husbands say:
- I thought she was kind/sweet but now nothing I do can please her
- Why can’t she say what she means? Why does she expect me to guess her thoughts? Why is my being direct/honest wrong?
- She says we “don’t connect” /”have intimacy” I have no clue what she means by these words
- I thought she knew my quirks/eccentricities/nuances/differences and accepted them now all she brings up is how I need to change and how terrible of a person I am
- She says, “Why can’t you do this or that like so- and so’s spouse?”
- I feel nagged/bullied/criticized
- I wonder why bother trying, nothing is right
How did a couple who seemingly fell for each other based on the other’s Aspie or NT traits now feel so differently about those same traits? One of the first things I address is that NT’s enter a marriage with expectations of an NT-NT marriage. When the wife hears about Asperger’s she may first feel elated that “this was not in her head” that “I’ve tried everything and thought it was all me” but there is a label or name for this. She may have to grieve the loss of the marriage she thought she was getting (NT-NT). But I make it clear that our goal is not to meet expectations of an NT-NT marriage, this is not what we have, the goals are to reexamine the expectations and goals in light of an Aspie- NT marriage and strive to reach a relationship both can feel marital satisfaction. The Aspie has mixed emotions usually depending on his age. At first older gentlemen may feel like “I cannot have that I was a successful career person and went far in this area etc., I cannot possibly have that.” Yet once we look at patterns of relationships, we see a pattern that fit Aspie traits. Some upon hearing the criteria/traits say, “That explains so much of my life and makes so much sense.” Often times these couples are already on a 2nd or 3rd marriage.
The second article in the series will address counseling approaches.
Aspie- Nt marriage is a complex marital counseling situation. This DVD set is useful to both couples and therapist to better understand nuances of Aspie- NT marriage. Stephanie C. Holmes has put her best workshop material into a DVD seminar you can watch from home.
Stephanie C. Holmes, M.A., is an ordained minister, a Licensed Christian Counselor, and a Certified Autism Specialist. Stephanie’s career path changed when her eldest daughter was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome in 2004. She then began to focus on helping families deal with the frustrations and challenges of having a special needs child and works with Aspie- NT couples across the country through Skype consultation. She speaks nationally about AS/ASD and families, Spectrum Teens, and Aspie- NT marriage. Her newly published book Confessions of a Christian Counselor: How Infertility and Autism Grew My Faith explores her personal journey and gives practical advice to families. With leading ASD researcher, Dr. Tony Attwood, Stephanie has published articles in Autism /Asperger’s Digest on issues Spectrum Teens face.