Relationship Connection: How do I have a good marriage when my husband has Asperger’s syndrome?

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Question

My husband is on the autism spectrum. He is highly intelligent, holds a Ph.D., has held admirable employment and in many ways is shockingly gifted. But he is emotionally absent. I would like some support in dealing with that as a spouse. Most of the time, I can handle it rationally and enjoy his gifts, but then I find myself hungry for emotional exchange — something he is just not wired for. I know I am not alone. I hope you can address Asperger’s syndrome in a marriage.

Answer

I appreciate your ability to hold space for both your husband’s gifts and his struggles. Even though you’ve found some measure of peace accepting his relational deficiencies, you also know this acceptance doesn’t offer automatic emotional fulfillment in the marriage. Let’s talk about how to help you address this important need within the limitations of the autism spectrum. 

Healthy friendships and marriages are based on the principle of reciprocity. Most neurotypical people quickly pick up on the rules of reciprocity in childhood by noticing body language, speech patterns and observing social rules in action. However, individuals on the autism spectrum have diminished (or non-existent, in some cases) reflexes to pick up on these subtle cues.

It’s maddening for many neurotypical spouses to experience a lack of reciprocity with their autistic partner. Without reciprocity, it’s difficult to feel connection, trust and reassurance that the other person cares about you. 

As you know, outsourcing many of your friendship and emotional support needs to other relationships can help you keep your emotional bucket full. But it’s also true that the one person you want connection with is your husband. Therefore, it’s vital that you stay motivated to keep working on staying as connected to him as possible.  

Your husband may not naturally initiate emotional connection with you, but is he willing to reciprocate when you initiate it? If you sense a willingness on his part to figure this out with you, then join his willingness with yours and keep working at it. I highly recommend you work with a therapist who specializes in working with people on the spectrum and can help you navigate these unique challenges. Traditional marriage counseling can make things worse, so seek out specialized support in the form of counseling, books and support groups to help you both get the help you need. 

Even though it’s difficult to know much about your marriage and what you’re facing, I’d like to share one thought that might help give you some forward movement. One small study of the communication patterns between neurotypical women and their autistic husbands highlighted a common, but difficult, pattern of communicating that created more difficulties for these couples.

The basic pattern looked like this: The neurotypical wife prompts the autistic husband for reciprocal interaction, and the autistic husband promptly blocks or avoids the interaction, as he mostly views it as critical and overwhelming. Then, because she’s now been blocked or avoided, it heightens her need for connection, so she delivers another prompt which is then met with the same response.  

Because you’re the neurotypical spouse, you’ll get plenty of validation and support from other people that your efforts at seeking emotional connection are normal and healthy. While this is true for neurotypical marriages, it can present frustrating challenges in a marriage such as yours. This distinction is crucial, so you don’t feel like you’re crazy. You’re doing what makes sense to you, and your autistic husband is doing what’s normal for him and needs the same validation and reassurance that he’s not crazy. 

This frustrating cycle burns out both partners in the marriage as they continue doing what intuitively makes sense to each of them. One possible way out of this cycle is to honor and respect your individual wiring and reflexes while seeking ways to not only see the cycle but then shape it into something different.

Instead of only prompting him to connect with you through specific requests, see if you can talk with him about your need for reciprocity in the relationship. This is less about him memorizing a list of your specific needs, but instead, addressing the larger need of having a caring relationship.

Both of you are trying decrease your own personal overwhelm by pursuing and distancing, so compassionately acknowledging both of your attempts to stabilize the relationship can help you both feel cared for. 

Keep working to identify what the other needs in the relationship and make adjustments. It takes tremendous flexibility, patience and outside support so you can make this work. As you both work to demonstrate an ongoing reciprocal dance of responding to each other’s different needs, it makes it less likely that you’ll feel distant and lonely. 

Every marriage requires a healthy level of acceptance and surrender as we recognize that our partner simply won’t do things in the way that makes the most sense to us. This can add diversity and beauty to your bond, or it can drive you completely insane. I believe this is a conscious choice and commitment we each have to make, whether we’re married to someone on the autism spectrum or not.

I don’t say this to bypass or downplay your specific challenges, but acceptance and surrender allow us to go the distance with relational differences in a more peaceful way. 

And please remember, as Dr. Stephen Shore once said, “If you’ve met one person with Asperger’s, you’ve met one person with Asperger’s.” Even though there are traits common to most individuals on the autism spectrum, it’s important to spend your energy understanding the unique needs of your marriage.  

I commend you for your willingness to see him as a gifted man who is still worthy of love and belonging. I hope you will continue to honor both of your unique needs as you work toward some form of reciprocity in this marriage. 

Have a relationship question for Geoff to answer? Submit to:

Email: geoff@lovingmarriage.com

Twitter: @geoffsteurer

Instagram: @geoffsteurer    

Facebook: facebook.com/GeoffSteurerMFT

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