Part 2: The Antithetical Nature of “Partnership” with a PDA Spouse

Our introductory post regarding Pathological Demand Avoidance can be found here.

As a behavioral profile of autism, PDA is exceptionally challenging to navigate in a neurodiverse relationship. By its nature, marriage intrinsically necessitates collaboration – which requires reasonable agreeability on the part of both spouses. If a PDA partner chronically pursues autonomy at the expense of a spouse’s needs, a high-conflict neurodiverse marriage often evolves. Reflexively resisting cooperation is incompatible to any lifelong partnership.

A reflexive “no” is common with Pathological Demand Avoidance.

What are the “routine demands” of marriage & family life that a PDA spouse may use extraordinary measures to resist?

 A “demand” is a direct or indirect request, expectation, desire, or obligation. The term “demand” is misleading if it’s interpreted as an adjective instead of a noun. The spouse making requests is not inherently “demanding” (i.e. difficult to please). “Demand” just encompasses any matter necessitating a response from the PDA individual. PDA is not characterized by tasks that require skill, excessive time, or specialized ability; it is most associated with “routine” demands. 

Routine demands of daily married life include: Household responsibilities, such as cleaning, cooking, budgeting, paying bills, shopping, house or car maintenance, lawn care, pet care, financial contribution, etc. Intimate relationship responsibilities, such as  communication, affection, companionship, emotional attunement, sexual connection, acts of service, date nights, etc. Parenting responsibilities, such as feeding, bathing, calming, overnight duties, interacting, nurturing, playing, schooling, chauffeuring children to activities, medical appointments, etc.

How do “routine demands” become a power struggle in marriage?

Often, the PDA partner has a high tolerance for incomplete responsibilities, since resisting the obligation provides a sense of control. Over time, the neurotypical partner becomes increasingly urgent and hypervigilant in managing the needs of the home, children and relationship. The NT spouse feels overwhelmed with both the practicalities of daily life, but also the invisible labor of strategizing how and when to bid for cooperation with the PDA spouse. Given the variety of strategies that a PDA spouse might use to maintain control and avoid demands, and how relentless the nature of PDA is – the neurotypical spouse is frequently caught in a maze of resentment, fury, devastation and desperation.

PDA is exacerbated as the volume of demands multiply in life. NT spouses notice this elevated resistance after marriage, and especially upon having children. While the NT spouse may previously have been fairly accommodating early on in the relationship, it is impossible and unsustainable to relinquish all “asks” in marriage. The autistic PDA spouse may come to associate the NT partner with a perception of threat at all times, due to the level of imperative demand in daily life – and possibly use this perception to justify increased avoidant behavior. 

The interaction between a PDA spouse and a NT spouse often turns adversarial, with various high-conflict patterns. A neurotypical spouse may vacillate between a variety of approaches to gain cooperation, and the PDA partner may grow more resolutely resistant. Most bids for cooperation turn into a Pursue-Evade dynamic, but expressed in different ways. The PDA spouse may view themselves as victimized by the NT partner, who is desperate for understanding, assistance, collaboration, agreement, reliability, security, and predictability. The PDA partner interprets the desperation and persistence with negative connotations. 

The despondent neurotypical spouse may approach requests with the PDA partner using the following strategies: 

  1. Logically Persuading: the NT spouse repeatedly initiates discussion to convince the PDA partner of the wisdom and benefit of a request being accepted. “Proof” from third-party input (articles, experts, opinions from friends or family) may be shared to bolster the rationale behind whatever request a NT spouse is making. Conversations may become circular, and devolve into “right” fighting, which may then lead to angry or anxious confronting. Stalemates often occur; partners exist in one power struggle after another. Logical persuaders are viewed as domineering, obsessive, and coercive. 
  2. Angrily Confronting: the NT spouse vehemently challenges the demand avoidant behavior, and may escalate to yelling, shouting, or other explosiveness. Threats to end the relationship might regularly occur, along with insults, and generalized accusatory language. Angry confronters tend to be called abusive, aggressive, and bullying. The PDA spouse is unmoved by threats regarding the relationship, as the avoidance-anger pattern continues without any actual withdrawal.
  3. Reactively Confronting: the neurotypical partner may use sarcasm, passive aggressive comments, or contemptuous remarks to point out the lack of cooperation. This is often the aftermath of angrily confronting for years and getting nowhere; the NT spouse is embittered and powerless, which creates an edge to every conversation. The PDA partner tends to justify the continued demand avoidance as being necessary and deserved due to the NT spouse’s “mean” behavior. 
  4. Anxiously Pleading: the NT spouse may present concern that escalates to tears, panic attacks, and regularly conveying a frantic urgency to convince the PDA partner of the imperative need for cooperation. Over time, the bid for cooperation may get more and more dysregulated. Anxious pleaders tend to be the most dismissed as “crazy” by PDA spouses, who cannot connect with the emotional experience of the NT spouse, and views it as catastrophizing, unnecessary hysteria, and melodrama.
  5. Silently Suppressing: to minimize conflict, the NT spouse stops mentioning the routine demands that need agreement and acceptance. The PDA spouse may assume that the NT partner has forgotten the demand discussion, or has accepted the non-cooperation. When the neurotypical partner can no longer ignore the issue and brings it up again, the PDAer may characterize the NT spouse as confusing, “negative,” sending “mixed signals,” determined to create conflict, etc. 
  6. Passively Withdrawing: when the neurotypical spouse believes all avenues have been exhausted to obtain agreement, disengagement from all non-essential conversation may occur. The secret hope is that disengaging could spark regret, remorse and changed behavior in the PDA spouse (which is unlikely). The PDA partner is either relieved to have all expectations of interaction lifted, or characterizes the NT partner’s withdrawal as hurtful, unfair, and hypocritical (likening it to stonewalling).

Occasionally, some of these approaches might elicit a response from the PDA partner, which creates an intermittent reinforcement pattern. A NT spouse may find themselves escalating to extraordinary proportions in hopes of being responded to with agreement by the otherwise impervious PDA spouse.

What methods of resistance might a PDA partner use to avoid demands in the marital relationship and household? 

Demand avoidant spouses may employ various strategies to maintain a sense of control within their daily life, and by extension the marriage and spouse. The common perception of autism in society, and as depicted in most accessible literature on Asperger’s Syndrome,  does not often include characteristics of PDA behavior. Neurotypical partners are often in turmoil at what seems like socially manipulative, antagonistic, callous, and indifferent behavior from their ASD spouse.  Because how could those attributes be consistent with autism? Yet, as we explored in our introduction to PDA, those traits are consistent with the PDA behavioral profile of autism. To quote the original post, “research tells us that PDA is characterized by an obsessive need for control; non-compliance with routine demands; socially manipulative and shocking behavior; unpredictable shifts in mood; extreme outbursts when requests increase; passive avoidance; domineering behavior; comfort in pretending; lack of cooperation.”

Demand avoidance can take many forms, and the following are strategies that may be used to evade demands: 

Outright Refusal – verbalizing an unwillingness to comply with a request

Trivializing – minimizing the necessity of a request

Countering – dismissing the perspective behind a request

Negotiating – debating terms and requirements of a request

Swindling – changing the terms of compliance after agreed-upon conditions are met

Bargaining – proposing a transactional exchange for cooperation with a request

Blindsiding – last minute reversal of support or cooperation

Deflection – insisting the demand is someone else’s responsibility

Distraction – changing the subject away from the request topic

Defending – arguing about whether avoidance is occurring, or a pattern

Defying – intentionally acting in opposition to the request

Blocking – disallowing any discussion about the request

Stonewalling – refusing to communicate about a request for extended periods of time

Delaying – prioritizing other tasks that were unimportant prior to a request

Humiliation – outbursts in public

Procrastination – postponing cooperation until the request is urgent

Aggression – any form of intimidation that is intended to coerce rescinding the request

Triangulation – seeking input from others about the validity of the request before complying

Shaming – characterizing the request negatively, or insulting the need behind a request

Blaming – finding fault in the requester to justify avoiding

Passivity – refraining from confirming or denying cooperation

Ghosting – refusing to respond or engage over text, email or phone to discuss a request

Escape – physically leaving so as to avoid proximity to the discussion or obligation

Fabrication – inventing plausible excuses to disguise avoidance

False Agreements – agreeing to honor the request without a sincere commitment

Martyrdom – conveying an exaggerated sense of suffering over the imposition of a request

Withholding – restricting affection, communication or interaction in response to a request

Penalization – punitive measures when requests are made, to discourage further requests

Escalation – increasing anger, explosiveness, or mood shifting to avoid a request

Pretending – feigning an inability to hear, or other faux impairments

Thwarting – sabotaging circumstances to avoid the ability to complete a request

Parentification – shifting responsibility to a child for undesirable demands

Weaponized Confusion – pretending to not understand the request itself, or components of fulfilling it

Weaponized Incompetence – intentionally failing to complete the request skillfully 

Weaponized Sleep or Illness – sudden onset of fatigue or symptoms which prevent cooperation

Weaponized Dependence – demanding control, while also demanding assistance (because the PDA partner resists cooperation, but insists on supportive accommodation)

What is the impact of living with a demand avoidant spouse who routinely resists meeting needs?

  1. Despair: the absence of hope to ever influence the PDA spouse and gain collaboration
  2. Outrage: fury at being denied essential help, cooperation, and partnership
  3. Bitterness: brimming with resentment at the PDA partner’s control–seeking
  4. Degradation: embarrassment when PDA behavior escalates around others
  5. Isolation: feeling alone in the marriage, and unable to confide about PDA elsewhere
  6. Fatigue: over-functioning in the home, parenting & relationship due to lack of help
  7. Fear: hypervigilance of wondering when PDA will unpredictably surface
  8. Shame: feeling devalued from the PDA spouse’s deprivational behavior
  9. Devastation: grief at the reality of PDA and  exposing children to high-conflict marriage
  10. Powerlessness: subjected to control tactics at every turn from the PDA spouse

When does PDA become traumatic for the neurotypical spouse?

Putting aside the baseline trauma of deprivational abuse that comes along with PDA refusals on a daily basis, there are often pivotal events in neurodiverse marriages with PDA that take on an elevated trauma level for the NT spouse. Experiences of demand avoidant behavior such as: indifferently withholding caretaking after medical events (childbirth, post-partum, disease treatment or recovery); restricting consolation for a spouse’s grief (death of loved ones, miscarriage, terminal diagnosis, etc); reneging on agreements to support the neurotypical spouse’s commitments (work trips, doctor appointments, gatherings); sabotaging once-in-a-lifetime events through minimal cooperation, or refusal to participate at the last moment after lots of mood-shifting (family weddings, children’s religious ceremonies, funerals).

In addition to event-based trauma for the NT spouse, the relentless nature of pathological demand avoidance is a compounded trauma in daily life. The PDA spouse protects personal autonomy by seeking control instead of connection or cooperation. Chronic experiences of demand avoidance that become traumatic for the neurotypical spouse would be: defiant co-parenting (imperiling children by resisting instructions, arguing against reasonable standards of care, chronic delay of responsiveness to children’s needs, inconsistent adherence to necessary routines); endangering stability (refusals to get up on time for work, restricting money or spending, delaying payments on important financial obligations – bills or mortgage, etc); withholding important information (financial transparency, child-based matters, employment considerations); thwarting intimacy (neglecting personal hygiene, inventing reasons to decline, “forgetting” to initiate, intentionally being discovered with porn to create conflict, routinely masturbating to minimize arousal, prioritizing rest over sex, scapegoating the NT spouse as unattractive for various faux reasons, etc); avoiding quality time (prioritizing work, neglecting dates, avoiding evening time together); neglecting chores (using various tactics that result in inequitable division of responsibility upon the NT partner); evading any firm commitments (scheduling household repairs, making important decisions, plans or vacations for the family); basic communication (ignoring texts or emails or conversational attempts, talking over and interrupting, using argument strategies to resist); last-minute refusal to support neurotypical spouse’s obligations that may have been planned well in advance (work trips, gatherings with friends, extended family events); avoiding participation or preparation for special days (celebrations, holidays, parties).

The compounded nature of demand avoidance in marriage is inherently traumatic and exhausting for the neurotypical spouse. It is a voiceless experience to be denied requests, needs, and cooperation when two people have made an inherent commitment to partnership.

If a couple is aware of PDA, it is also incredibly demoralizing to read the limited literature about PDA – which highly trends toward accommodation vs. accountability. While we can all highly empathize with the threat perception of demands in a PDA behavior profile, we must equally empathize with the threat perception ignited in a NT spouse who lives with chronic disregard. 

Is PDA ever manageable in marital relationships?

Research is already heavily lacking in regard to neurodiverse marriages, and even more so with adult PDA. Anecdotally, PDA is manageable in marital relationships when the following occurs: 

  1. The PDA spouse is willing to self-confront in regard to PDA behaviors.
  2. The PDA spouse is willing to learn strategies for coping with demands.
  3. The PDA spouse is willing to be conscientious in implementing PDA management.
  4. The PDA spouse accepts personal responsibility for self-regulation, instead of expecting excessive accommodation from others to reduce triggers and accept avoidance.
  5. The NT spouse is willing to adjust unhelpful communication patterns.
  6. The NT spouse develops or maintains a realistic viewpoint of neurotype differences.
  7. Both partners are willing to equally prioritize each other’s needs.

Outside the above framework, in my anecdotal experience, neurodiverse marriages with PDA will otherwise often be a continuous battleground for power and control. Additionally, there is often work to do around trauma, repair, and improving communication practices. 

The introductory post in regard to PDA shared the research regarding similarities between antisocial behavior and PDA. While the conditions are distinct, it bears reiterating that living with a PDA spouse (in particular, one who will not acknowledge nor change problematic behaviors), can feel like a sociopathic experience. Callous disregard, unemotional indifference, negative affect, emotional lability, strategic manipulation, aggressive behavior, and antagonistic demeanor have a substantially cumulative impact. The relationship might often feel devoid of care or compassion, and alarmingly tyrannical with the level of control exerted. Often what is most hurtful is not just the demand avoidance, but the unswerving prioritization of autonomy, at the expense of a NT spouse’s suffering. 

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Part 1: Autism, Pathological Demand Avoidance, and …Sociopathy?

Pathological Demand Avoidance (PDA) is a term used to reference a pattern of severe, chronic resistance toward cooperation with ordinary requests in daily life. PDA is considered by many to be an atypical presentation of autism, and has qualities that are seemingly inverse. Also referred to as Extreme Demand Avoidance, or Pervasive Drive for Autonomy, the UK acknowledges PDA as a behavioral profile of autism.

What is Pathological Demand Avoidance?

Before sharing research and more defining characteristics below, it is of course reasonable to acknowledge that a measure of demand avoidance is perfectly normal (and wise).

Generally speaking, autism without a PDA profile still presents with more demand avoidance than the average allistic individual. Demand avoidance associated with autism may occur due to rigid adherence to routine; difficulty transitioning between preferred and non-preferred activities; sensory overstimulation, which in turn creates overwhelm; inflexible thinking in regard to problem-solving; difficulty stopping perseveration; and social or performance anxiety in general. Poor executive functioning can look like demand avoidance – and might be, especially if strategies are resisted in implementation. Ordinary demand avoidance with ASD is selective or circumstantial. PDA encompasses a chronic resistance to comply with basic requests that are routine, familiar, and even personally beneficial sometimes. Pathological Demand Avoidance surrounds a desire to control – control autonomy, control threat perception internally – and control other people, alongside their expectations.

The referencing of a “demand” with PDA encompasses any want, need, expectation or request that is direct or indirect – a question, instruction, obligation, insinuation, guidance, rule, stipulation, internal feeling (hunger, thirst, fatigue), or prompting. The more pressure put upon compliance for a demand, the more escalation of resistance from a PDA individual. PDA avoidance is not necessarily the circumstances of the demand; but simply because there is a demand – internally or externally. PDA is often described as propelled by anxiety or uncertainty, but there is also observational research to suggest that PDA can be agenda-driven, such as seeking attention, access, or outcome of preference (Lucyshyn, 2015). PDA individuals “also seem to find reward in upsetting other people (Wing, 2002).”

This summary references the original journal article developed by Elizabeth Newson, a developmental psychologist who first proposed Pathological Demand Avoidance as a separate syndrome related to autism. “Descriptively, the key characteristics of PDA are an obsessive resistance to everyday demands and requests, use of socially manipulative or outrageous behaviour to avoid demands, sudden changes in mood apparently associated with a need to control, and ‘surface’ sociability… Newson described non-compliance in PDA as obsessive, not limited to unpleasant tasks, but at worst, a blanket resistance to accept suggestions, to talk, sit down, take part in fun activities… resorting to extreme, aggressive or socially shocking behaviour if pressed to comply. Newson et al. (2003) described them as… unlike most children with ASD, they tended to subvert requests by distraction, diversion, threats, or behaviour intended to shock, or upset. In addition, they lacked a sense of responsibility to others, and failed to moderate their behaviour for others’ benefit.”

This is a visual of Elizabeth Newson’s construct of PDA. Her aim was to classify PDA as a separate syndrome under the same developmental disorder umbrella.

Elizabeth Newson conceptualized PDA as a syndrome related to and intersected with autism, under the umbrella of Pervasive Developmental Disorders (now amended to Autism Spectrum Disorders). The lines between the circles indicate how the sub-groups can move and overlap with each other.

PDA is not yet included in the ICD-11 or DSM- 5 as a differential diagnosis. Viewpoints on how to classify PDA remain varied among clinicians, researchers, parents, families, and those who self-identify with PDA. There is a lack of consensus as to whether PDA is truly autism, or a separate neurotype; if it is a syndrome co-occurring only with autism or if it can occur alongside other conditions; or if it is a behavior profile covered under similar diagnoses (possibilities of which are discussed below). Some believe that PDA is parsing ASD behavior unnecessarily, and is simply part of autism, unworthy of definition otherwise. (See “symptoms but not a syndrome” here.) Others find offense that PDA is conceptualized as being related to autism at all – because aspects such as social behavior are different, among other nuances. However, there is an overall recognition that this cluster of rare, highly specific traits does exist – whether termed PDA, or not.

In the UK, PDA is referenced by the National Autism Society as a descriptive category of autism. In the US, PDA is gaining recognition, but much more limited in comparison… or interest. However, it’s not unusual in the United States to see dual diagnoses with ASD that seem to reference PDA-like behavior, such as: Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder, Oppositional Defiant Disorder with ADHD, Intermittent Explosive Disorder, Conduct Disorder, and personality disorders (in adulthood). Many aspects of these disorders certainly seem to describe attributes of PDA. However, proponents of differential diagnosis for PDA insist that it cannot be encapsulated by the above labels, citing the uniqueness of categorically resisting ordinary demands of daily life. Additionally, strategies that are helpful for disruptive conditions listed above can be unsuccessful for shifting problematic PDA behavior. (This study notes that neural activity in the brain for disruptive behavior and ASD symptom severity have “separate neural basis. Critically, these findings imply that differential treatment should be provided to treat disruptive behavior in ASD.” )

What are the differences in social behavior when comparing ASD to PDA?

I choose to focus on this particular aspect of PDA presenting inversely with a typical ASD Level 1 (formerly Asperger’s Syndrome) profile, because for neurotypical or allistic partners – it is by far the most profoundly confusing aspect. It is difficult to conceptualize behavior that still merits an ASD diagnosis, but is not consistent with the fairly limited literature that depicts ASD in adults.

One reason PDA is considered an “atypical” presentation of autism is that soft social skills are more developed (and utilized to avoid demands). This study suggests that theory of mind is less impaired in the PDA profile of autism, which is perhaps an explanation for why PDA individuals can use social strategy and manipulation to avoid cooperation. PDAers are sometimes referred to as “super-maskers,” because their social skills lack common ASD interactional deficits (such as awkward body language, poor eye contact, difficulty with discourse, inability to maintain topic, etc).

Also in the realm of inverse social behavior ascribed to typical autism – comfortability in role-play, escaping into fantasy, and playing “pretend” is a PDA trait. This can manifest with dishonesty that seems confusing – the adult PDA individual (childhood PDA “pretend” is different) may believe they are being clever, but the lies require suspension of reality to be true. Sometimes this manifests as issuing strong reversals of previous accountability, or emphatic denial of their personal actions that have been admitted on a separate occasion There is a comfort with “pretending” that an incident never happened, even when irrefutable proof is presented.

PDA individuals can become fixated upon a specific person. Instead of a topic or hobby, another person (or character) might become a special interest, in a positive or negative regard – excessive admiration, or excessive dislike (with potential harassment). The PDA person may lose interest rather abruptly in the case of excessive admiration, and be drawn to the next shiny, interesting person. …and we can imagine the impact on a confused neurotypical spouse when the fascination directed at them doesn’t just pass, but disappears seemingly overnight.

PDA individuals often have high degrees of emotional fluctuation. One might go from calm, caring, and regulated – to verbally aggressive behavior in a mere moment – because an obligation, request, or expectation is presented. Other times, resistance is quite passive, and the mood shift is into withdrawal. A PDAer might hear, “hey, can you put your dish in the sink?” or, “it’s almost time for dinner,” or, “did you read the email I sent you?” – or countless other iterations of mild ‘demands,’ can quickly shift the PDA individuals mood and behavior. While PDA is not reduced to only simplistic demands by any stretch, resistance of ordinary demands are absolutely a hallmark aspect of PDA. Emotional lability is seen through outbursts and irritability, but also through withdrawal and passivity. Social “strategies” might be distraction, excuses, deflection, delay, meltdowns, shutdowns, flight, or bizarre measures to render oneself incapable, etc. Additionally, PDA individuals are prone to abandon any social filter in public if it serves to avoid a “demand.”

One of the most troubling aspects of PDA for intimate partners to understand, or endure, is the component of disregard from their PDA spouse. The remorseless demeanor after a hurtful experience in which harm occurred, plus the seemingly manipulative behavior in a self-serving regard, is incredibly confusing (and disturbing) for loved ones. It does not seem consistent with the information about ASD, which depicts a socially naive and unintentionally hurtful person – who, when informed of harm, is contrite and motivated to make amends. With PDA, there is little if any acknowledgement of harm or impact of one’s actions – and moods shift back to “calm and loving” as if rupture never happened.

Some literature explores the reality of overlap between Pathological Demand Avoidance and anti-social traits (also referred to as sociopathy, psychopathy, or Anti-Social Personality Disorder in some cases). While PDA is not synonymous with ASPD, and autism is CERTAINLY not synonymous in any regard to ASPD – PDA has some elements of commonality in presentation that researchers have felt important to explore. Given how impactful PDA behavioral symptoms are upon individuals, their families, and relationships – it is highly important for anyone involved to understand what PDA feels and looks like to individuals and loved ones, just as much as understanding what it is and isn’t as a differential diagnosis.

To examine the seemingly antisocial behavior, such as Callous-Unemotional (CU) traits, and Conduct Problems (CP) noticed in PDA, Liz O’Nions (who developed a screening tool to identify PDA) created the first “systematic comparison” in Pathological demand avoidance: Exploring the behavioural profile, juxtaposing children with the PDA label to two other groups: one group with ASD-only, and the other group with anti-social (CP/CU) traits (more below). She wrote, “while PDA has historically been thought of in connection with ASD, the current data suggest that children receiving the PDA label show manipulative behavior similar to that seen in CP/CU; 44% of the PDA group scored in the “atypical” range on the APSD [anti-social personality disorder] measure. Indeed, very high levels of manipulative or controlling behaviour, and lack of remorse evident in descriptions of PDA, are similar to the CP/CU profile (Newson et al., 2003). Discrepant between the descriptions is the elicitation of these behaviours in response to demands, obsessive need for control, and lack of social constraint, despite social insight sufficient to render them able to manipulate. Very low levels of…pro-social behaviour in PDA is consistent with reported lack of concern for socially appropriate behaviour, and poor sense of responsibility towards others. Whether disruptive behavior in PDA and CP/CU is underpinned by different underlying motivations or neurocognitive deficits remains to be tested.”

What is a CP/CU profile? Callous-Unemotional (CU) traits refer to reduced affect, lack of empathy, cruel disregard for others, absence of remorse, and indifference toward personal responsibility. Conduct Problems (CP) are behaviors associated with deceit, defiance, aggression, destruction, and violating the rights of others. Sufficient CU + CP traits in childhood = a diagnosis of Conduct Disorder (CD) in youth. Callous-unemotional traits are believed to be a childhood precursor to psychopathy, and among youth with conduct problems, they designate those showing a particularly severe, stable, and aggressive pattern of antisocial behavior.” Diagnosis of or qualification for Conduct Disorder in childhood is a diagnostic criteria for Antisocial Personality Disorder.

Taken from this research, The Measurement of Adult Pathological Demand Avoidance, two studies were performed which “examine the relationship between PDA traits, ASD traits, and other psychopathology dimensions, in a community sample of adults reporting self-identified psychopathology.” Liz O’Nions begins with noting that “Pathological (“extreme”) demand avoidance (PDA) involves obsessively avoiding routine demands, and extreme emotional variability. It is clinically linked to autism spectrum disorder (ASD).” The results of both studies were reported: “Study 1 found [self-report PDA screening tool to be] reliable, univariate, and correlated with negative affect, antagonism, disinhibition, psychoticism, and [ASD Screening] scores. Study 2…found low agreeableness, greater Emotional Instability, and higher scores on the full [ASD Screening] predicted [Pathological “extreme” Demand Avoidance]. PDA…is associated with extremes of personality.” The study further specified in its concluding discussion about the overlapping characteristics between ASD, PDA & CU/CP, and psychopathology: “it may be personality that differentiates how ASD traits are expressed, with more emotionally unstable and antagonistic persons with ASD expressing PDA-type qualities. Research will show whether persons with low emotional stability and antagonism may likewise present with PDA symptoms despite not having significant ASD features. In short, in community samples, it is possible that PDA captures general p-factor psychopathology features (Caspi et al. 2014). In the context of ASD, PDA may reflect a developmental consequence of anxiety surrounding routine demands emerging in response to ASD-related vulnerabilities (e.g. sensory sensitivities, anxiety about uncertainty, or other emotive stimuli).”

To summarize, the above research discussion characterizes PDA by naming: an obsessive need for control; non-compliance with routine demands; socially manipulative and shocking behavior; unpredictable shifts in mood; extreme outbursts when requests increase; passive avoidance; domineering behavior; comfort in pretending; lack of cooperation. 

What are the definitions of traits listed above in regard to PDA, that also overlap with ASPD?

Negative Affectaffective instability has been defined as a dynamic process involving three components: extreme shifts in mood, exaggerated reactivity to environmental stimuli, and an ephemeral, fluctuating mood course (Trull, Solhan, Tragesser et al., 2008).” 

Antagonism –  “the low pole of agreeableness, references traits related to immorality, combativeness, grandiosity, callousness, and distrustfulness. It is a robust correlate of externalizing behaviors such as antisocial behavior, aggression, and substance use.”

Disinhibition“orientation toward immediate gratification, leading to impulsive behavior driven by current thoughts, feelings, and external stimuli, without regard for past learning or consideration of future consequences” (APA, 2013, p. 780).

Psychoticism“a dimension of personality in Eysenck’s dimensions characterized by aggression, impulsivity, aloofness, and antisocial behavior, indicating a susceptibility to psychosis and psychopathic disorders (see antisocial personality disorder).”

Worth noting from here, “the Personality Inventory for DSM-5 (PID-5; Krueger et al. 2012) measures the five domains of maladaptive personality in the alternative model: Negative Affect, Detachment, Psychoticism, Antagonism, and Disinhibition, which partially correspond with the pathological “poles” of the FFM personality domains (Skodol et al. 2015).”

In other words, PDA is correlated with four out of five characteristics commonly associated with personality disorder criteria.

Why is it important to understand PDA in the context of personality correlates?

Similar to the advocacy and voices that support individuals on the autism spectrum, there are sympathetic support pages for PDA individuals, and parents of PDA children. The PDA Society of the UK even has a section on workplace adjustments for adult PDA. There are subsections of advice and support for parents, teens, siblings, children, etc. Unsurprisingly, there is no menu category of suggestions for spouses married to a PDA partner.

PDA can vary in levels of impairment. Not all individuals will struggle across settings to the same extent – it varies in severity. It can vary from routine resistance in regard to specific categorical “demands,” to deeply impairing. Sometimes employment and relationships are nearly impossible. Yet, being “super-maskers,” I find that many low-to-mid PDA individuals tend to stay regulated at work, but struggle most with symptoms at home. Family life, and marriage in general, is filled to the brim with direct and indirect expectations – all day, every day. It is an inherent part of human relationships – being responsible to one another, the relationships we choose, and the families we create. Obviously, chronic avoidance of demand perception in the marital and family home is extremely problematic over time.

PDA is not “just” conventional autism. It’s not “just” living with a brilliant, quirky, slightly awkward spouse who struggles with flexibility, theory of mind, and social-emotional reciprocity. It is not living with someone who expresses remorse and contrition when social confusion is lifted.

PDA is living with a spouse who, at any moment in time, will reflexively resist, oppose, thwart, defy, deny, withhold, withdraw or otherwise enact control – to make certain that a spouse’s “demand” is avoided. And will then often or even likely exhibit callous, unemotional, and uncaring responses to a distressed spouse or children. As noted above, there might be an observable pleasure in upsetting a spouse to maintain control. The spousal dynamic of PDA is a relentless maze for a neurotypical spouse to navigate, especially when it is an unacknowledged profile of an ASD diagnosis. True manipulation might indeed be happening, and yet…. how can that be true, if it’s autism? Many spouses who are under the impression that a diagnosis of autism precludes any ability to manipulate, are stuck in despairing confusion – questioning the diagnosis, or gaslighting themselves that surely problematic behavior isn’t manipulative, because… autism.

It’s important to validate neurotypical or allistic spouses that their experience with the presence of callous disregard, unemotional affect, oppositionality, shocking conduct, antagonism, impulsivity, highly reactive emotional lability – can FEEL AND LOOK like living with sociopathic behavior, even though PDA is not ASPD.

PDA advocates sometimes find grave offense at the notion that anxiety-driven behaviors could be mislabeled as psychopathic – since, primary psychopathy (associated with ASPD) presents with a low levels of anxiety. However, secondary psychopathy “is characterized by high anxiety and thought to develop in response to environmental adversity.” This very recent 2022 study examined the differential neurocognitive deficits between psychopathy and ASD, and “found a phenotypical overlap between secondary but not primary psychopathy with autistic traits.” Interestingly, this study also seemed to discover “secondary psychopathy showed differential neural deficits, with specific and so far, unreported deficits found at the level of sensory integrative processing. This sensory deficit could be specific to voice communication signal processing, given the specific complexity of auditory signals and the neural effort to decode social information from sounds. This sensory processing deficit could be a common factor with autistic traits, for which we also found a large overlap in terms of the personality phenotype with secondary psychopathy.”

We can have all the empathy in the world for how challenging it is to struggle with PDA as an individual. (Or ODD, CD, IED, DMDD, ASPD.) It is a genuine hardship to be flooded by dread in the face of demand, and act in ways that harm oneself and others. Though, the most complex PDA presentations that I’ve encountered tend to be among those who resist any self-confronting. They do not express hardship at wanting to resist demands; they generally have an outlook that resisting daily and/or meaningful requests from a spouse or child is normal and justified. Their sense of hardship rests in not being able to fully control other people, or act without accountability.

Oppositional Defiant Disorder is probably the most parallel diagnosis for PDA in the US among children (though, again, PDA is differentiated from ODD, and ODD is a childhood diagnosis). We know that ODD can lead to a Conduct Disorder diagnosis in adolescence – and if symptoms persist or worsen, potentially ASPD in adulthood. Criteria for ODD behavior is separated into: angry and irritable symptoms; argumentative and defiant behavior; and vindictiveness. If we consider those traits, even if PDA is not necessarily defiance (just as it is not ASPD), it sounds and possibly looks… very similar. Aspects of oppositionality in ASD are discussed here.

Suffering is suffering. Just as we recognize the suffering of PDAers (among those who desperately desire to learn coping skills, and articulate how difficult it is to feel such alarm and flooding in the face of demand) – we can equally have empathy for how extraordinarily confusing, harmful and devastating that PDA often is for partners. We can have empathy for how voiceless a spouse may become when every need, request or inquiry is treated with outbursts, silent stonewalling, distraction, delay, faux excuses, or weaponized incompetence (among many other avoidance techniques). We can have empathy for how isolating it is that PDA is inexplicable to family or friends – because how does one normalize daily rage that is provoked by things like… a reminder to eat breakfast, a request to pick up milk on the way home from work, or an expectation of cuddling on the couch? Nevermind more abstract and commitment-required demands, like… “can we work on our communication? Our relationship? Our sex life? Our affection? Our companionship…?”

The average spouse doesn’t desire to pour over the DSM-5 and consult with a clinical psychologist as to which differential diagnosis of highly disruptive and anti-social behavior best fits their spouse. It all… feels quite the same, regardless of which box is ticked. A spouse isn’t supposed to be a treating clinician who looks at research-based evidence for best intervention, anyway. What a spouse often DOES need is affirmation that yes, personality and behaviors that they observe and experience from a PDA spouse, are termed highly disruptive and anti-social for a reason. That the astronomical hardship of PDA behavior isn’t just imagined.

This post is intended to be an introduction to PDA, and will have a follow-up post to more closely examine the many ways in which PDA is expressed within and/or impacts neurodiverse relationships.

Interested in coaching services? Contact me for more information here.

The Private Hell of Holidays in a Neurodiverse Marriage

Winter holidays often come with many expectations in our culture. Cozy togetherness, matching pajamas, gatherings with family, parties with co-workers and friends. It’s a season of preparation. We plan, we shop, we bake, we select gifts, we wrap them carefully. We look forward with anticipation to sharing love and connection within our most special relationships.

Most people acknowledge that holidays aren’t perfect, even in the most ideal of circumstances. While some may struggle with accepting that a flawless holiday isn’t attainable, most of my neurotypical clients aren’t seeking an illusion. They often just want the barest modicum of normalcy for their holiday. They would love some joy, mutuality, and cooperation with their spouse – and a day without meltdowns, shutdowns, arguments, opposition, or broken hearts.

An autistic dad may seem very solitary or disconnected on a holiday, evoking an angry or despairing grief in his wife and children.

Autistic behavior on holidays is often unpredictable. Many potential triggers exist – the anticipatory anxiety in the days ahead, apprehension over non-preferred activities, tolerating the expectations of others, disruption to predictable routine, gift-giving and gift-receiving, timelines for gathering or travel, socializing outside the family, handling visitors, various sensory overwhelms, unexpected occurrences, or the lack of structure. If foresight and coping strategies are not planned and employed, then autistic family members may have a very difficult time with maintaining emotional regulation and connected behavior.

How might the above triggers manifest in holiday scenarios for a neurodiverse marriage, particularly in a heterosexual marriage with an autistic husband and neurotypical wife?**

As an autistic father:

  • Avoidance or procrastination of responsibilities, causing the NT spouse to wonder and worry whether she can depend upon completion of tasks, and often compensating by taking on the labor last minute to avoid a catastrophe
  • Breaking agreements about shared responsibility
    • Example: ASD spouses might agree in a regulated moment to stay up and help wrap presents for children, only to find justification for not doing so – necessitating the NT spouse to make up the deficit at her expense 
  • Refusals to get out of bed when it’s time to open presents
    • Insisting he’s too tired, and everyone just needs to wait a few more hours
    • Depending on the age of children, this may be merely frustrating – or devastating, resulting in young children kept waiting and eventually dysregulated
    • Mom may try to buffer and diffuse, but children might be inconsolable, noisy and angry. Dad may insist that children need a consequence for their behavior – or that he simply will not leave the bed until everyone else is calm. This is an impossibility for children feeling highly betrayed, and the reversal of victim and offender is terribly impactful for both the children and NT wife
    • Mom may allow children to unwrap presents without Dad (in desperation), and then Dad blames her for proceeding without him
    • Dad may have an angry, grumpy attitude when grudgingly joining the family
    • Dad may join with distance and disinterest
    • Dad may pretend none of the above ever happened, but is successful in the children avoiding him for the rest of the day, allowing him to do his own thing
  • If participating without refusals, Dad may still have a short fuse for the excitement of children
  • Dad may get up and be quite jolly, and take undue credit for Mom’s efforts
    • He may have had conflict with Mom the night before about his refusals to help or finish tasks, and ignore her – while exclusively directing cheerful, positive attention to the children

As an autistic husband:

  • Failing to purchase any present for his spouse
  • Choosing to not acknowledge the lack of gift for his wife
  • If a gift is purchased, choosing something hastily, cheap, miniscule, impersonal – or something that would interest him
  • Possibly passing off a purchase that he wants for himself as a generous gift for her
  • Belittling a hurt wife who has not received recognition of her efforts, or inclusion in receiving a gift (or more) to open
  • Reversing victim and offender by using her hurt as a reason to justify stonewalling, or storming off in anger
  • Easily finding offense at various moments, and storming off in anger or silence
  • Possibly throwing out an, “Okay, kids, lets all thank Mom for putting together the holiday,” as a generic and impersonal acknowledgement of her labor – not even directly spoken to her from him
  • Threatening to not attend holiday gatherings at the last minute (instead of just planning not to), or threatening not to dress or behave appropriately within typical expectation
  • Threatening to embarrass the spouse in front of extended family, friends or guests
  • Attempting to guilt, shame, prevent or thwart a spouse from attending a gathering when he does not want to attend
  • Disappearing for long naps or self-isolating without explanation
  • Meltdowns with screaming, cursing, throwing objects, slamming doors, raging, blaming
  • Extreme castigating of a spouse, usually to release anxious tension and gain control (she takes on an equal share of his miserable feelings)
  • Criticizing various elements of the day
  • Moping or pouting or bringing a sullen energy to the household
  • Performative masking at gatherings
    • The ASD husband may treat his wife angrily and oppositionally for the full day, but moments later put on his mask when guests arrive
    • He may appear to be a kind, gracious, cooperative co-host in front of others
    • He may appear to be a happy party participant, as if none of his poor behavior ever happened
    • He may speak to his wife with deference and kindness in front of others, never privately acknowledging to her that his earlier treatment was unacceptable
    • He may appear to be surprised or offended if she confronts the discrepancy
    • He may be quite cuddly and eagerly involved with the children, despite avoiding and refusing in private
    • The NT wife may feel compelled to pretend alongside him, or if she cannot successfully hide her feelings at being gaslighted, appear to be churlish to others observing the dynamic
    • If she tries to confide in a family member or friend, she may be disbelieved since his performative masking is so seemingly above reproach
  • Non-masking behavior at gatherings
    • He may follow through on his threat to embarrass her in front of others, speaking condescendingly, critically, or provoking an argument
    • Vindictively, or out of genuine need to cope, he may do things like go lay down and sleep on a couch in the middle of a party
    • He may sit silently and scroll on his phone, unable to be drawn into conversation by anyone
    • He may abdicate any shared parenting role, refusing to monitor children and necessitating his wife to over-function while she tries to enjoy the gathering (possibly her only positive holiday experience)
  • Imposing inflexible standards and expectations: expecting all family members to participate in religious observance to the same extent and devotion level; extolling the virtues of simplicity to serve his financial goals and/or absolve him of gift-giving; using his mother’s manner of doing things as the litmus test for his wife

** A note about gender: I tend to observe that ASD men in heterosexual marriages struggle the most with the above holiday behavior being a stacked phenomenon. (Meaning, multiple characteristics vs. a few.) While autistic wives certainly deal with overwhelm, and can be quite high-conflict with their same-sex partner or male partner on a holiday, it appears that their overwhelm does not quite manifest in the totality of what is described above. Autistic wives, from my discussions with clients, tend to mask at a higher level through the holiday, participating with children and responsibilities of the day (not always prior) – and then have a crash afterwards. Their spouse may be treated as a scapegoat, and they may be left out of receiving gifts, but the autistic wife is not abandoning total participation in the holiday (to the degree that autistic husbands often do). I try to be very inclusive on the blog with my language, but this is an acknowledgement of my intentional choice to reference that these behaviors tend to be shared in coaching from NT wives and ASD husbands, despite the fact that I work with all manner of neurotype pairings. This does not minimize the deprivation or harmful impact on neurotypical spouses of autistic women, but to offer a means in which to voice the different manifestations of autism in marriage and holidays.

The isolating perspective from others around the NT spouse, who fail to understand the chronic nature of deprivation, is that it isn’t just one random, odd holiday that is couched in misery. Depending on the family’s culture – it’s EVERY Diwali, Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Solstice or the New Year that are spent in high conflict and disappointment. It’s her birthday, the kids’ birthdays, Mother’s Day, the 4th of July, Thanksgiving, Ramadan, Easter, Passover, Eid al-Adha. It’s any special holiday that creates a bucket of potential triggers for the autistic partner. For the neurotypical spouse, with neurotypical needs, it is a pervasive lack of joy on sacred days that the rest of the world experiences as connected, relational, attuned and memory-making.

The relentless absence of gift-giving is an often private shame and sadness for neurotypical spouses. For one, it may compound childhood traumas of being ignored or neglected on holidays. The hope of a generous husband who sees and values his wife in a tangible way, never quite dies. It may feel embarrassing to disclose to others, wondering if they will conclude it’s somehow deserved to be deprived. It may even feel humiliating in front of children, as forgetting mom becomes normalized, and trickles down into Mother’s Day and her birthday as children grow up. Other times, children may be put in the position of surrogate spouse, feeling an inappropriate obligation to make up for Mom’s lack of presents since Dad is unbothered. Lastly, women who are routinely ignored on holidays tend to chastise themselves internally, thinking they must seem materialistic to expect a present on holidays. Husbands may say, “just buy yourself something,” or “just buy it, wrap it, and put your name on it.” (The relational aspect of gift-giving is not grasped.) Conversely, with the frequent co-occurrence of financially controlling behavior, the autistic husband may behave in a miserly way toward his wife in the area of gifting. Neurotypical wives in these dynamics are almost never in hope of extravagance – just acknowledgement that they are valued. Trinkets from the dollar store, or presents that are impersonally bizarre, are more hurtful than nothing at all. 

Autistic husbands may experience shame or dread about their inadequacy in the area of gifting, or they may also be angry that their efforts aren’t “good enough.” Some may consider the intent behind the gift to matter more than the actual gift, imposing an expectation of unending altruism from his wife. Mindblindness may prevent the autistic husband’s imagination of what she would like to receive, even when he is well-meaning and striving to be thoughtful. Gifts from spiteful ASD spouses (possibly lost in the adversarial dynamic), might be intentionally paltry. The justification in his mind stems from her responses to previous efforts. (It’s also less painful for him to hear that his gift is terrible when he knows he didn’t try, and he places blame on her expectations.) Other autistic men will not purchase anything out of anxiety, distraction, avoidance or disinterest. Despite their struggles with intimate, thoughtful gift-giving – autistic husbands often have firm expectations for receiving gifts.

Aside from spending the holiday feeling personally disappointed, over-worked, hypervigilant and forgotten – a neurotypical wife often despairs for her children. She so desperately wants happy childhood memories of holidays, for them. She may wear herself out in trying to masquerade normalcy for her children. Bright smiles, corralling kids through holiday traditions that she’s implemented – hoping children don’t notice that Dad has disappeared, refused to participate, or made his presence an angry or uncomfortable one. She often grieves behind her own mask, wanting to just get through the day, trying to not imagine that her children will suffer lasting impact from relentlessly dysfunctional holidays. 

As often discussed on this blog, there is no doubt that autistic limitations are real. There is also no doubt that neurotypical needs don’t simply disappear in neurodiverse marriage. A middle ground does exist, one in which mutual personal responsibility is resolutely undertaken. The neurotypical spouse may be equally lacking emotional resources on a holiday, though for different reasons. She is likely masking through the holiday in order to get through it. The effort expended in doing most of the shopping, wrapping, baking, meal-planning, house-cleaning, and preparation for gatherings is certainly not without impact. Years of “doing it all,” in hopes of enjoying a holiday that isn’t marred by ruination takes an emotional toll. Yet, most of the time, especially with children involved, neurotypical wives hold it together. They don’t permit themselves to further devolve the holiday by contributing to dysregulation. Others may become reactive, and then drown in shame (or be blamed) that they couldn’t endure another holiday with deprivational abuse.

Autistic spouses who are willing to self-confront, acknowledge the holiday pattern, and actively seek to correct the course through coping ahead – have much different experiential and relational outcomes. It is possible to handle triggers, honor marital agreements, and take on the necessary self-management to get through a day that is highly meaningful to their spouses and children. The act of integrity in doing so is often the best family gift that a wife could imagine the family receiving, and has a positive generational impact on children – who have the emotional nurturing of healthy, holiday memories being modeled by Mom and Dad.

Interested in coaching services? Contact me for more information here.

Can Abuse be Attributed to an Autistic Spouse?

October was Domestic Violence Awareness month. (And as much as I wanted to post this blog in the appropriate month, I couldn’t quite make it happen.) During October, survivors, advocates and allies come together in hopes of raising awareness, mourning the tragedy of lives lost, and discussing the trauma and experience of intimate partner violence. For many victims, abuse and neglect remain a hidden source of pain and shame. For neurodiverse couples, domestic violence is an issue that remains under-discussed, and VERY poorly resourced. 

What is domestic violence?

Domestic violence encompasses the perpetration of maltreatment that falls under categories of physical violence and psychological aggression. It includes emotional, verbal, sexual, economic, covert, passive-aggressive, reaction-seeking and deprivational abuse.

The function of abuse is to gain power and/or control. In abusive marriages, a pattern exists in which a spouse uses tactics to intimidate, threaten, aggress, injure, humiliate, frighten, punish, retaliate, isolate, encroach, coerce, guilt, blame, shame, taunt, malign, slander, demean, gaslight, stonewall, scapegoat, stalk, thwart, withhold, deprive or restrict.

Can an autistic spouse abuse their partner?

Yes. Any neurotype can be a victim, and any neurotype can be an offender. Just as allistic individuals can be an abusive partner – so, too, can an autistic spouse. 

Cassandra spouses often wrestle with how to characterize harmful behavior from their autistic spouse. Since autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder, and considered a disability from a medical and legal standpoint in the US, a neurotypical spouse may feel very conflicted about whether pernicious behavior can be termed abusive.

Isn’t it more likely that autistic individuals are primarily in the position of victim, and not offender?

It is absolutely true that ASD children are at increased likelihood of victimization. Bullying and exclusion at school, inability to perceive predatory intent from others – many aspects of autism exacerbate vulnerability. Higher levels of anger in ASD children seem to correlate with increased victimization (perhaps increased maltreatment from frustrated caregivers, as ASD children are more frequently reported to child abuse hotlines for substantiated abuse or neglect concerns). Sexual victimization is at a much higher incidence compared to non-autistic individuals, and especially pervasive among autistic girls and women. It’s also safe to say that abuse and neglect are likely under-reported in ASD individuals. This document outlines various complicated factors that disrupt accurate reporting, and also reveals findings from surveys conducted amongst caregivers and autistic individuals (with and without intellectual disabilities) regarding perpetration of abuse and violence.

This study used self-reporting to examine rates of violence against autistic adults without intellectual disabilities (ID), and non-autistic adults. Collectively, autistic adults without ID reported experiencing more violence than non-autistic adults. Autistic women without ID reported a much higher rate of violence in comparison to non-autistic women. TGNC (Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming) autistic adults also reported a high level of violence (but could not be compared against non-autistic counterparts). There was no significant statistical difference in victimization patterns when comparing the same-gender reports of autistic men without ID, to non-autistic men. 

What features of autism create difficulty in discerning culpability for abusive behavior?

Many neurotypical spouses struggle with wondering if mind-blindness, poor perspective-taking, social deficits, inflexible thinking, and propensity for emotional dysregulation, may exonerate ASD partners from being labeled abusive.

When are autistic deficits no longer a factor in determining abusive behavior?

If a partner has been informed of perpetrating harm, then social-emotional confusion is mitigated. Choosing to persist in unwelcome behavior is no longer an issue of impaired social cognition. It is a willful choice to disregard the spouse’s communication and needs.

Any autistic person, without co-occurring intellectual disabilities, is capable of grasping the following words and phrases: “stop,” “no,” “I don’t like that,” “you’re scaring me,” “you’re hurting me,” “please don’t do that.” Consent language is not a mystery. Babies develop comprehension of the word “no” as early as 6 months old (and as late as 18 months old); it’s reasonable to expect an otherwise cognitively-functioning autistic adult to grasp the meaning, too. 

What is an autistic individual’s personal responsibility?

The responsibility of any person is to stop harming other people when made aware of impact. Unintentional harm is still harm. Culpability exists when we know better, but choose not to do better, and refuse to consider impact over intention. If we lack the skills to prevent ourselves from harming others – such as poor impulse control, maladaptive coping skills, easily triggered anger, mood instability, executive function deficits – then it is a personal responsibility to find supports in which to compensate for those impairments that negatively impact our loved ones.

Autistic or not, everyone is tasked with understanding where personal freedom begins and ends, especially in our most intimate relationships. It is a misuse of our power to behave in a way that imposes harm, and then excuse the impact by insisting it is our right and freedom to do as we choose. Inflexible thinking might be a symptom of autism, but imposing a self-serving belief that agreement must be achieved before ceasing unwelcome behavior is not an autism trait. It’s an entitlement issue.

Does research reveal anything about abuse directed at an intimate partner by an autistic spouse?

It is only recently that we have empirical data regarding the incidence of physical and psychological abuse present in ND relationships, specifically toward neurotypical women from autistic men. The results showed that “women with diagnosed partners, and women who suspect their partners to be on the autism spectrum, similarly reported being subjected to physical and psychological abuse at a significantly higher rate than women in a NT relationship.” The researchers also wrote, “according to the existent body of knowledge, women who are in Neurodiverse Relationships report a pattern of ongoing emotional and sexual deprivation, as well as physical and mental symptoms that are reminiscent of symptoms of trauma and post trauma. They describe a relationship categorized by domestic, physical and mental abuse, extreme challenges in communication and high levels of conflict.”

A recent international study focused on ASD & ADHD male offenders of domestic violence, and the limitations of current perpetrator programs that fail to serve their needs. Researchers interviewed ten practitioners, from around the globe, who specifically work with neurodiverse male perpetrators. Within the report, several quotes were shared concerning the special concerns for female survivors.

One practitioner interviewed said, “I can very easily see how talking about somebody’s diagnosis or presentation could actually really encourage survivors to further remove the accountability, and the blame, for where that behavior is coming from in the perpetrator. That may encourage people to stay in relationships, whereas otherwise they wouldn’t necessarily have done so. Or, to make excuses, or to continue to blame themselves for triggering behaviors, because actually it’s not (the autistic partner’s) fault, it’s their diagnosis…” 

How can there be room for autistic behaviors alongside the consideration of others?

Solutions that honor the needs of both partners can certainly be found. The key is that equal consideration is given to both parties. Might an autistic partner need a break during a difficult conversation, and perhaps it’s frustrating for the neurotypical spouse? Yes. Is it reasonable for the autistic spouse’s break to extend for hours, and turn into a nap, followed by phone scrolling, tv time and total neglect of household and childcare duties, while also avoiding the difficult conversation? No. It is not reasonable.

Autistic individuals are sometimes vocal about the imposing of limitations on autistic behaviors in marriage. Yet, we cannot ask either spouse to do the impossible. We cannot eliminate autism, and nor can we ask any spouse to endure abuse. 

One example: meltdowns commonly happen when an autistic individual is overloaded. The function of a meltdown is to release overwhelm for the autistic person, but it negatively impacts those who witness it. Children simply cannot be exposed to a parent who is screaming, yelling obscenities, throwing things, hitting walls, possibly issuing threats, targeting them or their other parent, etc., and nor should any spouse be subjected to that behavior. (Read more about the horrifying implications for children’s futures when they witness household dysfunction, abuse and neglect.)

In 2019 at the World Autism Summit, Dr. Tony Attwood (world-renowned autism expert) spoke about the troubling issue of inauthentic meltdowns among autistic individuals. A true autistic meltdown is an involuntary loss of faculties due to overwhelm. A weaponized outburst may look like a meltdown, but the autistic person is in control of their behavior, seeking to coerce a specific outcome. Dr. Attwood referred to this as “domestic terrorism,” and then repeated his sentiments in later formats. As imaginable, the term “domestic terrorism” has been met with outrage from the autistic community. Yet, what else should we term behavior that is an intentional, imposed hostage situation for spouses and children? The message of, “if you don’t comply with what I want, then you will suffer my calculated screaming, throwing things, aggression, verbal intimidation, property destruction (etc),” is abusive. It is domestic violence.

An autistic individual with consideration for his or her family is willing to cope ahead, by creating a behavioral plan, and seeking consultation to help minimize harmful exposure of problematic behaviors to loved ones. This approach is true for any autistic behavior – sensory overload, shutdowns, rigid or repetitive behaviors, executive functioning deficits. The autistic partner must be permitted to caretake himself, but not at the expense of others. Middle grounds must be found that take into consideration the needs of both partners. One set of needs does not outweigh the other, and some measure of sacrifice is involved for each person.

What if the autistic partner insists that their behavior is not abusive?

For neurodiverse marriages to work, there must be an inherent trust that both partners are communicating with integrity. If a spouse identifies behavior that is harmful to their sense of safety and well-being, then the other spouse responds with attunement and effort to shift behavior. We don’t need to concur that something is harmful in order to change behavior that infringes upon personal safety or well-being; we just need the willingness to respond with accommodation.

When an autistic spouse tells me it isn’t fair to be held to neurotypical standards of communication, I remind him or her that these aren’t neurotypical standards. It is a human standard that we cannot emotionally or physically injure those around us, whether we have interactional challenges or not. The truth is that we all have areas that require extra effort, many of which are not by choice, and life is sadly not fair. We can look to individuals born with missing limbs, lack of eyesight, impaired hearing. We can consider the sufferings acquired from car accidents, sports injuries, assaults, combat service, or other various circumstances. Is a deaf parent less accountable for keeping their child safe, just because they can’t hear a train or car coming? Are the experiences of childhood trauma an excuse to enact the same abuse upon our own children, just because that’s what was modeled to us? No.

When we choose to get married, or when we choose to have children, inherent behavioral expectations come alongside those decisions. 

The neurotypical spouse accommodates her neurodivergent spouse on many levels, including the cultivation of her own self-control when frustrated by his behavior. But we cannot expect anyone to walk on eggshells with a misplaced sense of responsibility for preventing it, nor indulge harmful behavior.

Why might an autistic person view harmful behavior as non-abusive?

Limited perspective-taking can contribute to difficulty in taking ownership of behavior. An autistic spouse might emphasize intention over impact when defending objectively abusive behavior. Most adults with autism have adverse childhood experiences that negatively impact their perception of appropriate social behavior (in addition to acting as triggers and increasing reactivity). Malice may not be the intent, perception of normalcy might be distorted, but harm is perpetrated. When we unintentionally harm someone, remorse is still necessary, along with a commitment to not repeat the behavior. Unintentional harm becomes abusive when a spouse persists in continuing the behavior, even after being informed that it is unwelcome and unacceptable.

Sometimes an autistic partner may view negative interactions through the lens of fair exchange. If he feels slighted, provoked or mistreated, then he may justify retaliatory behavior that he acknowledges is wrong – but believes it is deserved.

Highly controlling behaviors of autistic individuals are often a maladaptive coping mechanism for managing distress. Autistic spouses may vigorously defend their belief that the controlling behaviors are good, necessary and right. However, seeking toxic control in a marital relationship becomes an infringement on the rights of a spouse. Healthy coping is certainly available to learn, and should be used as a replacement for managing anxiety.

An autistic partner may insist that a behavior is not problematic unless he or she agrees it is harmful. This attitude can quickly become dangerously entitled behavior, with the underlying message being: “I will treat you this way until you convince me to agree that it’s harmful, because I like the benefits of this abusive behavior more than I care about honoring the standard of how you prefer to be treated.”

Can mutual abuse occur in a neurodiverse marriage?

Reactive abuse is often an issue in dysfunctional neurodiverse marriages. It occurs when a victim is being abused or neglected, and then responds to the occurrence with self-protection. It may be singular incidents, or a slow-burning contempt that develops over time.

Episodic reactive abuse can look volatile. It may come with screaming, yelling, sobbing, accusations and insults toward the ASD spouse. Chronic reactive abuse is less volatile and more of an attitude that has developed over years of being mistreated. It’s a combination of self-protection (distancing), despair and anger. Grief and fury live just beneath the surface of a battered neurotypical spouse. The unacknowledged impact of autism upon the relationship can sometimes lead to denigrating, belittling or demeaning an ASD partner’s neurology. (Not character or integrity issues in regard to abusive behaviors, or autistic deficits that are weaponized as excuses – but shaming, condescending or humiliating a partner for true autistic impairment that cannot be mitigated past a certain ceiling.) It may sometimes lead to imposing impossible expectations that dismiss legitimate limitations. Autistic individuals cannot become neurotypical. Refusing to accept or accommodate reasonable adjustments for autism, is equal to autistic spouses refusing to accept or accommodate reasonable neurotypical needs.

A neurotypical spouse may apologize for their reactive behaviors and be met with the autistic partner viewing the apology as admission of full responsibility for the entire dynamic. The autistic spouse may not reciprocate apologies, believing that only one person can be wrong, and focus more on their own feelings of mistreatment in the current moment. It’s not uncommon for an autistic partner to view themselves as the primary victim in a neurodiverse marriage, regardless of how and when the dynamic started. Additionally, they may focus on the current moment of conflict, versus recognition of the abusive pattern.

Both partners must be accountable for cultivating self-control, healthy coping, and personal safety, especially if a relationship is so dysfunctional that circular abuse patterns are the norm.

What objectively abusive behaviors are commonly misattributed to the nature of autism, despite the spouse having been informed of the harmful impact?

Financial: preventing access to funds, withholding account passwords, dictating spousal allowances, miserly or obsessive tracking of expenditures, punishing reasonable spending, inequality in spending privileges, lack of transparency with marital funds, indiscriminate spending, irresponsible financial behavior that places jeopardy upon the family well-being

Physical: rough touching, injury, restricting spousal movement, backing a spouse into a corner, aggressive posture toward spouse, slapping, kicking, hitting, smacking, grabbing, shaking

Sexual: rape, assault, coercion, unwelcome groping, disregarding consent, ignoring bodily autonomy, infidelity, secret porn use, compulsive masturbation to the exclusion of the spouse, pressure to conceive, controlling access to birth control, guilt-tripping, punishment when declined

Verbal: belittling, demeaning, denigration, name-calling, taunting, screaming, mockery, cursing or swearing at the spouse (or in front of children), harassment

Emotional: threatening, frightening, stonewalling, blame-shifting, gaslighting, revisionist history, pervasive rejection, instilling fear, discrepancy of attention toward spouse vs. other interests, investigative snooping without cause, slander, weaponizing executive functioning deficits, passive-aggression, retaliation, humiliation, inappropriate attachments or affairs, stalking, coercive control, choosing to weaponize children or household stability

Reaction-seeking: intentional provocation to trigger victim responses, weaponized demand avoidance, faux helplessness, or choosing to not monitor executive functioning

Withholding: sex, affection, communication, interaction, money, necessary information, cooperation, quality time, equitable household distribution of labor, shared parenting, self-monitoring, personal responsibility (relying on excessive prompt-dependency).

Ultimately, what is the way forward when an abusive pattern exists in a neurodiverse marriage?

  1. Determining if mitigating autistic social-emotional confusion stops abusive behavior.
  2. Determining if co-occurring mental health issues are in need of therapeutic treatment.
  3. Determining if abusive behaviors are a function of entitlement.
  4. Determining if the autistic partner is willing to seek and implement consultation for problematic behaviors and skill-building.
  5. Practicing boundaries and committing to enforcement and prioritization of personal safety.

Abuse is fundamentally an issue of entitlement. It’s not a neurology issue, and it isn’t a marriage issue. We cannot expect anyone to accommodate abusive behavior, whether it is exacerbated by extenuating circumstances or not. The burden of change is on the person infringing upon the rights and safety of others.

Interested in coaching services? Contact me for more information here.

The Barren Desert of Emotional Reciprocity

Of all the various categories that require reciprocity in marriage, emotional reciprocity is at the heart of intimacy for a neurotypical wife. She is inherently drawn toward connection, and she desires the mutuality of synchrony with her husband. Since warm, loving, intimate relationships are a necessity for her neurology,  the presence of chronic impassivity from her spouse is a primary factor in the development of Cassandra Syndrome (also called Emotional Deprivation Disorder, Affective Deprivation Disorder or, most recently – Ongoing Traumatic Relationship Syndrome).

As human beings, we never lose our need for attunement. We see across our life span the need for empathic response. A crying baby needs the affective support of a concerned expression and soothing voice. A delighted toddler looks expectantly at our face to recognize the reflected joy in our smile and eyes. As adults, we still need empathy. No matter how many other close relationships we have, emotional reciprocity from our spouse is a fundamental need for the health and wellness of a neurotypical individual.

The absence of emotional reciprocity in a marriage to an autistic partner can feel like a barren desert. A neurotypical wife’s emotions are often unseen, ignored, mishandled or mistreated.

What is emotional reciprocity?

In marriage, we practice emotional reciprocity through empathic response. We remain cognizant of our spouse’s affect, understanding it is an outward indication of their inner emotional experience. We notice when our partner needs attentiveness, and we respond or initiate as necessary. We nurture with generosity, soothing our spouse with connected words, actions and affective demeanor. As emotional needs surface on either side, partners turn toward one another for sustenance, providing the feeling of being “felt.” A sacred trust develops between spouses as they cultivate the emotional intimacy of empathic exchange. We meet our spouse in their emotional experience, whether it’s reflecting our affective notice of a simple pleasure, tiny disappointment, or life-changing event. It is found within our greetings and goodbyes, our pillow talk before bed, our conversation over dinner, our mundane and milestone parenting moments, our serious conversations, and lighthearted humor. Emotional reciprocity is the circle of communication between spouses who respond congruently to one another’s affect. 

Our affect is a tremendous source of information for our spouse. We are able to convey nuanced emotion just through the micro-movements of our face, body, expression and tone. It is the leaning in toward our spouse, the tilt of our head to show our engagement. Our gaze locked into their eyes, waiting with measured anticipation of what they might say. Affect includes our smiles and grins and frowns and quivering lips. It is the edge to our voice, or the softness. It is the rise of an eyebrow, the furrow of a brow, the exclamation punctuating our words. The note in our voice that breaks from heartache. The surprise evidenced by our open mouth that gapes in shock. Our wrinkled nose of disgust, the squint of disbelief. Our hands clasped with hope. A shake of our head, a sneer on our face, the pain behind our lips pressed tightly together. So much of our mind and heart is conveyed through our face and body.

Emotional reciprocity is a reflection of the influence that develops from intimacy. The feelings of those we love matter to us! We may not agree with their feelings, we may not share their perspective. But when we see our spouse’s outer reflection of an inner emotion, we are moved. Our partner’s feelings influence our behavior. Their emotion elicits our empathetic response, and affective support, which creates emotional reciprocity in a relationship. 

What elements of autism contribute to a lack of emotional reciprocity in a neurodiverse marriage?

– Language and auditory processing delays

– Literal thinking that limits abstract language comprehension

– Challenges with registering facial expressions of partner

– Lacking awareness of his own facial expression

– Incongruence between his facial expression and inner feeling

– Alexithymia and poor capacity to verbalize emotional language

– Misinterpretation of his partner’s tone, and difficulty with his own voice modulation

– Impaired interactional perspective-taking and/or mind-blindness

– Impaired ability to store and apply information about other people

– Restricted topics of interest that hold his attention 

– Repetitive behaviors from him that distract either partner (motor movements, vocal tics, echolalia, palilalia) 

– Difficulty noticing and interpreting non-verbal cues correctly

– Difficulty with turn-taking in conversation

– Difficulty staying on topic and not shifting to his preferred topic

– Emotional dysregulation and poor distress tolerance

– Social anxiety reducing communication skills

– Anticipatory anxiety due to outcome from past conversations

– Executive functioning deficits (working memory, self-monitoring, organizing thoughts)

– Poor sustained attention and in-attentional blindness 

Do these neurological attributes remove the possibility of emotional reciprocity?

No. The biggest block to emotional reciprocity, intimacy and attunement is a lack of willingness, agreeability and conscientiousness. When two partners are equally oriented toward the goal of empathic response, then the difficulties that arise from neurology are endurable. A blip in memory, a distracted response, a robotic tone, a missed non-verbal cue – it doesn’t add up in the manner that problematic behavior patterns do over time. A neurotypical wife often has an abundance of compassion and kindness for a good-hearted husband who acknowledges his challenges, addresses the impact upon his wife, and endeavors to sustain learning and change.

What behavior in a neurodiverse marriage thwarts emotional reciprocity?

Impassivity is the antithesis of emotional reciprocity, and the autistic spouse might often present as detached or indifferent to his wife. Her daily initiation of interaction with him might be rarely met with more than a blip of acknowledgement. Sometimes, the most heartbreaking appearance of impassivity is when the neurotypical wife has something to share that is especially important. Maybe she’s gotten wonderful news, or perhaps something tragic has happened. I’ve met countless women who have shared any number of life-altering disclosures with their ASD husband (cancer diagnosis, death of a parent, catastrophic incidents involving children, severe injuries sustained from car accidents, job loss or work transfers across the country, ruined financial investments, a house fire, pregnancy loss or stillbirth, a variety of health crises) – only to be met with minimal response. A blank expression, flat voice, absent eye contact. “Ok,” is a common response (especially over text). Neurotypical wives frequently carry the grief of having spoken their most intimate words into a vast void of silence, instead of into their husband’s heart.

An autistic husband’s flat affect is equally devastating when a neurotypical wife attempts to problem-solve her pain with him. She has likely voiced her catastrophic despair on a regular basis to her husband. Yet, his impassivity only seems to increase as her emotions escalate. No matter how much primal sobbing, begging and pleading for a response that acknowledges her devastation – he is seemingly unmoved. Maybe mildly annoyed, or yawning with somatic symptoms of anxiety, but certainly not responding with emotional reciprocity. His eyes are not filled with tears of shame and horror upon learning of his wife’s daily deprivational ruination. Instead, he may view himself as being abused by her emotions, when they have escalated to a point that involves hysteria. He likely doesn’t connect any personal responsibility toward the antecedent of her desolation – not his years of neglect toward her, nor the repeated ignoring of her requests for emotional attentiveness, and not even his stony face and silence during the immediate conversation. I’ve heard stories of some impassive husbands who whistle or hum to themselves during their wife’s breakdowns. This serves as a self-soothing stim, but to his neurotypical wife – the impact is a sense of monstrous cruelty. Impassive men also tend to run away, back out of the room or otherwise “abandon” when their wife reaches a certain level of panic – typically triggering her original wounds from childhood.

For some autistic men, they fall on the more reactive side of engagement. They have difficulty regulating their emotions. An autistic spouse might become explosive or angry when hearing about the feelings of his wife. He may respond in ways that are not only unattuned, but designed to shut down the experience so that he is not exposed to her feelings. He may admonish, shame, blame, mock or behave with a sense of irritation or boredom (or even project smug amusement at what he considers absurdity). If his anxiety is triggered by her emotions, then he may be disruptive in his insistence that she stop crying, stop speaking, etc. He may diminish her feelings by demeaning validity. If she escalates in response, then he escalates more.

Staying on topic is often an enormous difficulty for an autistic husband when his neurotypical wife is experience-sharing. Most topic-switching behaviors are an effective avoidance tool, which destroys any opportunity for emotional reciprocity.

The autistic husband may classify his wife’s feelings as being either right, or wrong. When his wife shares a perspective that differs from his own, he may feel compelled to argue about her feelings and insist they aren’t justified. He misses that it isn’t his job to grant permission for her feelings to exist, but that she simply needs to be heard with empathic support. Even when prompted as to the response she needs, he might perseverate on his insistence that feelings cannot be supported if they are wrong.

He may become stuck on certain words or language that she uses, choosing to argue about semantics instead of addressing her topic. Hey may choose to debate her experience, negating the informational content of her sharing. When she pushes back on her right to assert her experience in the words that she chooses, he categorically denies her reality and the conflict escalates. The discussion is no longer about her feelings in regard to an occurrence, but about “what actually happened.” Feelings go unaddressed because the factual component is too distracting to him, and the idea that her perspective differs is too unacceptable. Truth is objective, so therefore only one correct interpretation can exist.

When she shares her feelings, he may echo them as his own and shift the topic away from her experience. This is especially likely if she shares hurt or discomfort, and can take on a competitive edge. She says she feels sick, and he asserts that he feels worse. He may take it a step further and go straight to bed in order to recover, despite not having mentioned a word until she spoke up about her own ill feeling. Often there is zero recognition that she, too, might need to rest. The focus becomes his suffering, and not hers. If it’s a matter of her addressing a hurtful occurrence, he may not waste a word of acknowledgement toward anything she shared. Instead, he swiftly launches into a list of his grievances about her behavior.

Stonewalling is an all too common occurrence in neurodiverse marriages, and akin to murdering any possibility of emotional reciprocity. Her feelings are not just invalidated, shut down, argued with, flipped or otherwise denigrated. Instead, the neurotypical wife and her emotions are ignored and neglected into oblivion. When her feelings appear to be sufficiently extinguished from the weight of his silent punishment, then the autistic husband might re-engage with his wife – but not with emotional reciprocity. If he views himself victimized by the audacity of her emotional experience sharing, he may believe she owes him an apology before permitting her to exist in his universe again.

Autistic men who exhibit a larger degree of delayed language processing may seem to ignore conversational initiation. Yet, the intention is not usually to be avoidant. It is more reflective of genuine interactive impairment. Conversation requires verbal and auditory sequencing skills, and the autistic man who is a very slow processor will also struggle to predict purpose or intended outcome of the language exchange. She may nervously share about an upcoming meeting with her boss, or express excitement over a child’s new milestone. While allistic individuals would respond with congruent affect, men who are especially slow processors frequently do not. He may respond to questions, as those are more concrete. But her commentary seemingly floats past him. Feeling ignored in everyday acknowledgement of basic conversation is impactful for the neurotypical wife – not just on a daily basis, but over the course of time. One does not expect to be unseen and unheard in one’s own home. A neurotypical wife has the need and expectation of daily conversational connection. She may interpret his chronic silence as disdain, disinterest or a lack of love.

Transactional mindset is often an issue. The neurotypical woman is a connective communicator, while her autistic husband is likely an informational communicator. He has his preferred topics of interest to discuss, which usually revolve around his special interest or work. He may also consider his information-sharing to be instructive, and beneficial to his wife. His favorite topics hold his attention for long periods of time, unlike conversation matters that she might bring up to him. If his speaking pattern veers toward compulsively over-talking, his wife’s strained affect might go unnoticed. He may be offended when she makes boundaries around the restrictive and repetitive information-sharing, and conflate it with her need for emotional connection on a daily basis. If she doesn’t want to hear about astronomy every day, then he doesn’t want to discuss her feelings. His limited perspective and different priorities cloud insight into the mutual benefit of cultivating emotional intimacy – without transaction.

Over time, disinterest is sometimes his primary response to her distressed affect or experience-sharing. Not confusion, not anger. Possibly annoyance, but minimal arguing and not angry stonewalling. Just disinterest. “Are you done crying yet?” may be asked with a polite or slightly irritated tone. Her despair is status quo for him.

How does the absence of emotional reciprocity hinder emotional intimacy in the marriage?

Emotional intimacy is simply the feeling of being deeply known and seen by our spouse. It is difficult for a neurotypical wife to be deeply known or seen, because the autistic partner is inherently self-focused through the default of his neurology. She finds herself having to explain and defend herself, and her needs, very frequently. She may be cast by her husband as too emotional, too needy, too demanding, too critical. It’s a heartbreaking barrier to ever being truly emotionally intimate when one is gravely misunderstood, or criminalized for having emotional needs, by their intimate partner.

Sometimes, the neurotypical wife receives a glimmer of understanding and accountability from him. The respite from emotional starvation feels almost intoxicating – she wants to believe that this can be the new normal. It affirms his capability and brightens her hope for the future dramatically. She may likely suggest that they attend counseling, coaching or receive some sort of consultation to maintain momentum. It can be a new season for the couple in which emotional intimacy and reciprocity begin to bloom. Alternatively, it can be exponentially crazy-making to receive acknowledgement of her emotions, confirmation of his role, promises for change – and then have it stripped away when it cannot be sustained with support. Her glimpse of emotional intimacy is even more desperately desired, and her belief that she can convince him if she just tries hard enough is reinforced.

Does the autistic husband have any expectation of emotional reciprocity for himself?

Yes, the paradox of autism is how aware individuals are of their own sense of deprivation, but of course has vast difficulty identifying the deprivation that partners experience. An autistic husband can become quite hurt and feel angrily slighted when his wife does not reciprocate through affect, or action, an acknowledgement of distress that he is experiencing. Additionally, he may misread his wife’s affect when she is genuinely trying to attune herself to him. He may find fault with her words, her tone or her body language. Other times, he looks to his wife as a maternal source of comfort when he’s ill or sad or otherwise feeling hurt or stressed. He may feel envious when children require her attentiveness, and believe she is neglecting him.

There are times in which empathic response is triggering for an autistic individual. A reactive husband with poor distress tolerance may displace anger upon his wife when she responds with concern. He may attempt to escalate the situation to goad her into negative reciprocity, which in turn releases anxiety and tension for him – but creates harm through scapegoating her and blame-shifting. 

The neurotypical wife voluntarily turns toward him as his emotional needs arise. She sees and intuitively reads the cues of her husband. Part of her empathic nature (and neurological skill) includes the ability to place herself within his experience, and her response is driven by recognizing his inner actuality. The autistic husband enjoys the benefit of her nurturing, yet does not necessarily recognize it for what it is, nor precisely what he fails to provide for his wife in this area.

Given all the social-emotional-interactional deficits, what is reasonable to emotionally expect from an autistic husband?

While an autistic husband may be uncertain about how to provide affective support or conversational response, the neurotypical wife has often repeatedly scripted for her husband exactly what she would like to hear. She has largely accepted that his face and body are not going to reflect congruent affect, but she still longs for some measure of reciprocity in word or action. 

It’s heartbreaking for the neurotypical wife when she has shortened her expectations of emotional reciprocity to the bare minimum of sustaining emotional survival. It is a never-ending grief that she is reduced to pleading for what sometimes feels like breadcrumbs for her neurological needs. “If you can ask me how my day was at dinner every night, and ask a follow-up question – that would really help me feel connected.” “Can we have a plan that whenever I start to cry, you’ll ask me what’s wrong?” 

Despite her high level of accommodation, she may notice that her husband does not respond to agreed-upon cues, or may resist her prompts. She may still be often told, “I don’t know what you want me to say.” A neurotypical wife may suspect that his confusion has become weaponized in order to avoid engaging in non-preferred conversation. While memorizing phrases to use in certain situations might genuinely be challenging to generalize, an autistic spouse without intellectual deficit is still capable of asking his wife if she needs a hug when she’s crying. Just as he learns other scripts within the broader social world, so too can he build his repertoire of scripts and rules in responding to his wife.

It is unquestionably a challenge to have emotional reciprocity in a marriage when one partner intrinsically struggles with social awareness, relationship skills, affect congruence, and emotional regulation. However, it is not impossible for improvement to be made. The volume of helping professionals in the field of autism, and the success that is achieved with repetition and engagement, is evidence that skills can be built and strategies employed. It takes a willing partner to do the very hard work of learning and implementing strategies with his wife in a manner that better meets her neurological needs. It IS difficult to build skills that are not intuitive, and to engage in interaction that is often non-preferred. Yet it is a reciprocal endeavor. She, too, has largely existed outside of preference for the majority of the marriage. Both partners must meet within a middle path to have some hope for a measure of contentment. 

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The Deprivation of Sense-Making for Cassandra

As human beings, we have a desire to understand our experiences, our relationships, our world and ourselves. When events occur that are surprising, unusual, or substantially outside of our expectations, we are driven to consider what factors influence the occurrence. We often don’t realize that sense-making is automated until we are confronted with a disruption. Prolonged confusion from an inability to label, identify or otherwise understand the circumstances we are confronted with can deeply impact our sense of well-being.

Women married to men on the spectrum are often chronically disoriented within their relationships, in both broad and narrow dimensions. When the autistic partner’s mask comes off, it is highly startling for his neurotypical wife. His conduct and treatment of her is bewildering, as it isn’t congruent to the man she dated. Over the course of time, various aspects of his behavior, and the marriage itself, are far outside the predicted course of what the neurotypical wife expected from her relationship. She experiences turmoil in trying to make sense of her husband, who seems so utterly different from the person she originally married. The absence of expected experiences and interactions from her spouse are equally baffling and hurtful. She is habitually preoccupied with trying to make sense of his demeanor, intent and conduct. Equally strange to her is that he seems to be his best self when around other people.

The search for sense-making is often arduous for the neurotypical wife of an undiagnosed ASD husband.

When she discovers autism as a probability, some sense-making can begin for the neurotypical wife. However, neurodiverse marriages have not been abundantly studied. We have relatively little relationship research nor literature available for women who urgently need to make sense of their marital dynamic. Autism presents differently (and sometimes diametrically) from one adult individual to the next, and there are frequently additional, co-occurring issues happening. The result is that even as the neurotypical wife is encountering a glimmer of sense-making from uncovering autism, she is impeded by lack of information and few resources. Some Cassandras will seek out individual consultation from mental health practitioners in hopes of acquiring more sense-making. Sadly, adult autism is not widely understood by the average therapist, especially in the context of marital relationships. This can be another door shut in the pursuit of sense-making.

Making sense of her husband is an imperative factor in aiding Cassandra’s peace, health and wellness. Her mind and body have experienced persistent turmoil for often the entire duration of their marriage. The consequence of her years and years of bewilderment (along with the impact of his conduct toward her) is destructive for her emotional and physical welfare. If the identification of autism has long eluded her, she may have succumbed to blaming herself for the treatment she receives – perhaps she is deserving of emotional neglect, deprivation, and behaviors that seem intentionally cruel. Her autistic husband may seemingly ignore her pleas for problem-solving in hopes of sustainable change. If he goes to couples therapy with her, he may do so reluctantly, or not implement suggestions from the therapist. The therapist may minimize or dismiss Cassandra’s notion that neurodiversity is a possibility in the marriage (compounding the feeling of being disbelieved, and unable to convey the complexities of the marriage to anyone at all).

Unfortunately, many neurodiverse marriages are lacking in equal desire to make sense of marital dynamics. The neurotypical wife’s effort to initiate sense-making for the marriage might often be met with resistance, avoidance or disinterest. Her broaching of neurodiversity as a topic to explore may be viewed as an attack upon him, and perceived as a negative attribution of his behavior and idiosyncrasies. He may refuse any shared investigation into the possibility of autism as a factor applicable to their marital difficulties. He may frequently respond with self-righteous indignation when she points out unintelligible behavior. He may find it silly that she spends such a great deal of time attempting to understand him. He may express contempt for her desire to make sense of his conduct, and what motivates it. In addition to the status quo of emotional deprivation from him, she is deprived of the well-being associated with collaborative sense-making. His disinterest is also a rejection of her – she is eager to understand her husband, but that curiosity is not reciprocal. He is not interested in decoding his wife. He is not endlessly researching to understand why he and his wife have such discord, nor why his wife expresses such hurt and discontent.

The adversarial withholding of sense-making is a significant emotional deprivation for Cassandra. Connected couples make sense of their difficulties alongside one another. Healthy, allied partners thoughtfully communicate perspectives, and they receive one another’s narrative with care and consideration. Reciprocal sharing, and open-mindedness toward one another, allows for integrating a mutual understanding of events, behaviors and experiences. It permits collaborative sense-making. Most importantly, the neurotypical wife feels less alone.

Men who are willing to consider the presence of autism, and especially those who are able to see themselves within the symptoms – effectively open the door to the relief of sense-making for Cassandra. When he consents to ASD evaluation, participates with honest self-disclosure, allows his wife to provide input if asked, and is open to accepting the diagnosis if one is given – he provides his marriage an opportunity for growth and insight. Using the lens of neurology to understand one another is a much more helpful way to make sense of each other’s needs and behaviors. Implementing strategies that take neurology differences into consideration are also more productive in building marital satisfaction.

A second tier of sense-making is when the husband (who is perhaps reluctant to accept the label of autism), is still willing to acknowledge that foundational differences exist between them. If he is agreeable to labeling their patterns in similar fashion to his wife, this provides a reference point for both of them, and aids sense-making. Any admission of intrinsic difference is powerful, as it removes the denial that anything identifiable exists. It helps the couple turn toward each other, instead of away. (The neurotypical wife might be used to hearing that if she wasn’t so critical, demanding, unhappy, depressed, emotional… THEN they wouldn’t have any marital conflict.) The challenges of autism still exist for the neurotypical wife – but it is no longer an unmentionable. When discord happens, there is a shared context for safe reference in problem-solving.

Circumstances listed below are commonly a source of confusion for a neurotypical wife married to an autistic man. As one can imagine, the cumulative effect of multiple disruptions to her expectations of a typical relationship is immensely disturbing for her well-being. Marriages are not a source of fulfillment, love, trust or safety when a chronic deprivation from sense-making exists.

The following list is certainly not comprehensive, but here are many issues of which Cassandra might try to make sense of within her marriage:

  • why the relationship shifted so dramatically after marriage
  • why the meltdowns, shutdowns and shut-outs
  • why the rigid and repetitive behaviors
  • why the avoidance when she seeks to positively engage
  • why the social-emotional interaction deficits
  • why the lack of reciprocity or mutuality
  • why the lack of perspective-taking
  • why the poor theory of mind
  • why the explosiveness
  • why the false marital agreements
  • why the defensiveness and denials
  • why the rejection sensitive dysphoria
  • why the executive functioning challenges
  • why the excessive sleep
  • why the longevity of stonewalling
  • why the lack of conflict resolution
  • why the authoritarian exerting of control
  • why the pretending conflict never happened
  • why the refusal to admit wrongdoing
  • why the lack of adequate apologies
  • why the making of amends doesn’t happen
  • why the ‘sorry’ without contrition or changed behavior
  • why the delayed language processing
  • why the differences in auditory processing
  • why the sensory sensitivities
  • why the need for sameness and predictability
  • why the dichotomy of his brilliance + absence of basic life skills
  • why the relationship maintenance seems to fall to her
  • why the co-workers receive his best self, but not her
  • why the adversarial dynamic
  • why the expectation for her to mother him
  • why the reliance on prompts to fulfill obligations
  • why the entitlement to prompts from her
  • why the refusal to implement strategies to fade prompts
  • why the passive disengagement
  • why the passive aggressive punishments
  • why the sullen demeanor
  • why the defensive demeanor
  • why the inflexible demeanor
  • why the angry demeanor
  • why the pretend-everything-is-okay demeanor
  • why the child-like demeanor
  • why the hypomanic demeanor
  • why the lack of empathy for her feelings
  • why the blunt or tactless comments
  • why the negative regard for her
  • why the porn addiction
  • why the seeming lack of libido or hyper-libido
  • why the inability to follow or remember sexual preferences
  • why the secretive sexual behaviors individually
  • why the aversion to aspects of her body
  • why the stimming behaviors
  • why the refusal to seek consultation
  • why the demand avoidance in small requests
  • why the demand avoidance in all matters
  • why the difficulty with compromise
  • why the lack of cooperative problem-solving
  • why the financial secrets or financial control
  • why the financial resources withheld from her
  • why the financial irresponsibility
  • why the lack of consideration for her needs
  • why the requests for change are ignored
  • why the absence of celebration or gifts
  • why the missing recall of basic facts about her life
  • why the variety of struggles with parenting
  • why the inability to anticipate needs for her or the children
  • why the detachment from obligation to meet needs
  • why the household division of labor isn’t equitable
  • why the lack of initiation within their relationship or household
  • why the blame is put upon her for his emotions
  • why the conversational deficits in daily communication
  • why the unresponsiveness to her communication
  • why the endless semantics about words and word meaning
  • why the literal interpretation of her words
  • why the black and white thinking
  • why the ignoring of her feelings in favor of his agenda
  • why her angry or hurt feelings ignite his own angry or hurt feelings
  • why the reversal of victim and offender during grievance sharing
  • why the non-committal answers when attempting to problem-solve
  • why the limited repertoire of emotional language
  • why the expressionless face when she is sobbing
  • why the conclusion that her emotions indicate an intellectual deficit
  • why the emotional affairs when he avoids emotions with her
  • why the physical affairs when he avoids sex with her
  • why there are so many rules
  • why the rules never apply to him
  • why the insisting that his intention matters more than the impact upon her
  • why the refusal to change behavior until she’s almost out the door
  • why the promise to change is never sustained
  • why the special interest deserves more time than the marriage or family
  • why the hours of video games or phone scrolling
  • why the lack of couple friends
  • why the disinterest in socializing together
  • why the workaholic behavior
  • why the shirking of work behavior
  • why the inability to prioritize
  • why the susceptibility to distraction
  • why the enmeshed relationship with his family (or no relationship)
  • why the inability for him to predict outcomes of his behavior
  • why the inability for him to see cause and effect
  • why the desire to stay married despite mutual dissatisfaction

The list could probably go on and on, especially if we were to consider the amount of micro sense-making necessary for daily interactions. It is no surprise that the emotional labor of sense-making is an extraordinarily taxing endeavor, and not always one that is satisfied in the short nor long-term.

Sense-making of the marital dynamic is not an all-encompassing problem solver for Cassandra, nor the neurodiverse marriage. But, it eliminates one piece of the overall deprivation that she faces on a regular basis. Her husband’s willingness to develop mutual understanding helps reduce her feeling of being adrift. The diagnosis and/or acceptance of autism is not a light switch moment for the ASD husband, either – it still takes time to develop insight into himself. He must self-confront and take ownership of his behaviors that confuse and sometimes hurt or harm her. When both partners accept the existence of autism, spouses can begin to make sense of one another through the perspective of neurology.

Interested in coaching services? Contact me for more information here.

Alexithymia, Mind-blindness & Sexual Dysfunction in ASD-NT Marriages

Physical intimacy within a neurodiverse marriage is often problematic. While not a universal problem, it is frequently a devastating reality.

Various circumstances contribute to sexual dysfunction in an AS-NT marriage. (Sensory issues and porn addiction are frequently contributing factors, discussed in more detail here and here.) Additionally, two often overlooked components of sexual dysfunction are the presence of alexithymia and mind-blindness, within the autistic partner. Both conditions play a role in two of the most common and problematic sexual dynamics found in neurodiverse marriages: the Sexual Discard, and the Sexual Obsession.

Sometimes an autistic husband is more affectionate with the family pet than his own wife.

What different manifestations of Sexual Discard exist in a neurodiverse marriage?

  • During dating, the neurodiverse couple may have a satisfying and frequent sex life. The novelty of a new partner might override sensory overwhelm for the autistic man. A new partner may also activate the autistic man’s focus, to the extent that he is more able to cue into his partner’s responses during sex. The neurotypical woman often experiences intimacy as a satisfying and attuned experience. After marriage, usually when she is declining as his special interest, she notices that his sexual desire toward her diminishes. He no longer initiates. He may also act as if he barely recalls the time in which they enjoyed sex together.
  • For couples who reserve sex for marriage, there is often a mutual inexperience that remains unknown until after they are married. The neurotypical wife may have expected her ASD husband to be an enthusiastic lover, as both may have expressed the frustration of waiting for marital sex. She is quite surprised in marriage when he seems indifferent to sex. He may struggle to feel aroused, or maintain arousal. He might be squeamish or stoic during the act, keeping his eyes closed and containing himself in a way that feels distant. The honeymoon may have been an intensely lonely and confusing experience. Occasionally, a couple may not even fully consummate the marriage, despite attempts to do so. The neurotypical wife might find his movements to be robotic, repetitive and ritualized when sex intermittently occurs. Sex feels like the least intimate part of their life instead of the most intimate.
  • Whether sex was previously satisfying or never satisfying, the neurotypical wife may report that she becomes the sole initiator after marriage. He might tell her he “wants” to have sex with her, but never follow through on initiating. He seemingly invents reasons to reject or ignore her. If sex is scheduled, he finds reasons to avoid. If she initiates, he may agree – but is passive about cultivating arousal in her, and might consider the activity to be over when he finishes. Sex is perfunctory and possibly passion-less.
  • Secret porn use may replace any sexual relationship with his neurotypical wife. If he is a long-time user, the private experience is preferable to engaging with his wife. He’s conditioned to experience arousal through observation instead of participation. He may present himself to his wife as being low-drive, when really his sex drive is quite high – but oriented toward masturbation and porn, instead of mutuality. When discovered, her hurt and betrayal may actually be a convenient way to cultivate more sexual avoidance. She is hurt, so she withdraws; she can now be “equally” blamed for why there is no sexual relationship! He’s unmotivated to heal the rupture within the relationship, because this would involve re-connection. His avoidance of marital sex is more firmly secured, thanks to her feeling of betrayal. He may express remorse, but do little in the way of action to change the behavior in the long-term; many husbands report that internet monitoring is easily subverted. Even if he is able to reduce his porn use and behave with authentic transparency, marital sex is rarely a replacement.
  • Sex may exist as a silent ghost in the marriage. Sexuality is not mentioned by either partner, except maybe in small pockets of grief and devastation from the neurotypical wife. He does not ever, under virtually any circumstance, make any mention of sex. He may say he “wants to,” or suggest it during a sobbing confrontation from her – when he knows it’s unlikely to happen as she’s in pure devastation. They co-exist as roommates, parents and maybe as friends. If they still share a bedroom, neither notice or comment on each other’s sexuality. Undressing in front of each other is benign. Her naked body elicits no reaction whatsoever. He seems perfectly happy with the status quo, although he dislikes any brief moment of being confronted with her hurt. She exists in a private hell of rejection and wanting, but knowing that discussion is circular and promises are false. Over time, her grief and outrage over the lack of sex in her marriage morphs into repulsion and fury at the idea of him sexually touching her. If she ever mentions this during a fight, he may hold on to it as “evidence” that she doesn’t want him sexually touching her anyway – so it’s just as much her “fault.”
  • The ASD husband may fear that affection could lead to sex, so he takes great care to avoid offering more than a kiss on the forehead, or a small hug. He may do this when it’s impossible for sex to happen, such as in the morning when both partners are heading off to work. His initiation of affection may never go beyond holding hands or sitting next to each other on the couch, or a very occasional peck on her lips.
  • The autistic man may have a moralistic view of sex as being vulgar outside the function of procreation. He may use highly clinical terms when discussing sex, and be silent or put off if his wife broaches the topic of sex with any slang terms. He may also find sex to be germy, and will offer up facts about hygiene that impede sex as being “safe.” He might be quite tidy and fastidious about requirements prior to and after physical intimacy. Wives are expected to thoroughly shower before and after, lay on a towel during intercourse, ignore any desire for post-sex cuddling, and tolerate his leaping off of her body to immediately go cleanse himself of her.
  • Shaming and blaming of the neurotypical wife can occur in a Sexual Discard neurodiverse marriage. When confronted about the repeated avoidance and refusal to initiate despite promises otherwise, the ASD spouse may resist accountability and criticize his wife. If she was prettier, more put together at home, if she hadn’t gained weight during pregnancy, if her feminine body parts weren’t so off-putting, if she wasn’t so demanding in her desires, if she didn’t take so long to orgasm, if she cleaned the house better, if she stopped complaining about his behaviors, if she wasn’t so controlling and in charge – THEN he would want to have sex with her. The goalposts change frequently, but the intended takeaway is that sex with her is repulsive to him, and it’s entirely her fault.

The Sexual Discard dynamic can be related to Intimacy Anorexia (best described as an addiction to withholding), which will be discussed in a different post.

What does Sexual Obsession look like in a neurodiverse marriage?

  • When and ASD spouse presents as hypersexual, he very much enjoys the sensory experience of sex. He can be quite focused on quantity over quality. He is often single-minded in his expectation of sexual routines established, even as life becomes more complicated during the course of a marriage.
  • The neurotypical wife may notice that her autistic husband has minimal empathy for why she might be sexually unavailable to him. If she is sick, heavily pregnant, post-partum, dealing with health complications, overwhelmed by extra responsibilities, feeling emotionally disconnected – he may still view her reasons as an injustice toward him.
  • The hypersexual autistic man may have mood dysregulation that he claims is due to his unmet sexual needs. He may feel that his anger over lack of frequency justifies his outbursts or punishing behavior toward his wife.
  • Autistic men may view sex as transactional. Neurotypical wives may notice that he is “suddenly” helpful around the home, engaging in parenting, may stop his stonewalling or irritability, possibly offer an acknowledgement of his problematic behaviors. His expectation for sex in exchange for cooperation is not lost on his neurotypical wife, and if she resists completing the “transaction,” this results in angry, sullen behavior.
  • In similar transactional fashion, when neurotypical wife requests re-connection after a rupture – more specifically, an apology – she may be told that until his sexual needs are met, he will not consider any emotional engagement. He justifies this as “simply fair,” and might find it reasonable to say that he is unmotivated to give her what she needs emotionally, when his sexual needs are not fulfilled first.
  • Porn use may be less hidden in a Sexual Obsession dynamic. It can be more overt, with the intention of using it to punish the neurotypical wife for her inability to be sexually available at every interval of arousal.
  • Sexual input may serve as a sensory stim for an ASD husband. He finds it self-soothing to obtain sexual release, and his preference is sex with his wife, but he may compulsively masturbate and use porn, too.
  • Sex may be a special interest in a hypersexual autistic partner. He may devote himself to learning every technique, position and experience possible. He expects participation from his wife regardless of her own level of curiosity or interest.
  • Manipulation and threats can occur in a Sexual Obsession dynamic. Threats of using porn, seeking sex outside the marriage, pushing boundaries of interactions with other women, emotional affairs – all can be a form of threat or punishment to incite fear in the neurotypical wife, and coerce sexual availability.

The Role of Alexithymia & Mind-blindness in Marital Sexual Dysfunction

As discussed, alexithymia is a limitation of emotional awareness. A person with alexithymia struggles to verbalize emotional experience, has a more limited emotional language vocabulary, is challenged in pairing body sensations related to emotions, and deeply struggles to identify emotions in others. He does not have nuanced language for how he feels; therefore he cannot know how his wife feels, even when she verbalizes it with complex vocabulary.

Mind-blindness, otherwise referred to as “lacking theory of mind,” is related to alexithymia from a similarity standpoint. The autistic husband has difficulty imagining the perspective of his wife, and cannot intuit her thoughts, feelings, preferences or opinions. When combined with alexithymia, there is a deep deficit in all manner of correctly guessing and understanding his wife’s needs, emotions, feelings, desires, preferences, use of abstract language and non-verbal cues. Obviously, these difficulties extend into contributing toward sexual dysfunction and discord in a neurodiverse marriage.

Referencing the above scenarios of Sexual Discard & Sexual Obsession, how does Alexithymia and Mind-blindness manifest in physical intimacy problems?

Hyposexuality & Sexual Discard:

  • The ASD husband may miss cues from his wife that she desires sex. His mind-blindness fails to see that his wife still has sexual needs that did not disappear alongside his waning interest. Her hinting or attempts at seduction may go unnoticed or seem slightly puzzling.
  • He may never have experienced a longing for intimacy with anyone, despite previous enjoyment with his wife. Due to his alexithymia, her longing for sex with him is not an understood feeling or sensation.
  • Since sex is a physical act, the alexithymic partner may not understand the neurotypical wife’s expectation for emotional connection. He fails to recognize that a lack of caring words, eye contact, or checking-in with her verbally during sex is important.
  • An autistic husband without sexual experience may not realize his lack of skill. (He may have a poor innate sense of motor-planning – not uncommon with autism – hindering his coordination during intercourse.) With mind-blindness, he may not realize that his awkward movements aren’t pleasurable to his wife. He may have confusion and frustration as to why his efforts to help her orgasm aren’t successful. He may conclude (on his own) that she’s incapable, or even disinterested. His alexithymia does not understand all the nuances necessary for his wife to be comfortable enough to experience orgasm, and he may not understand that he is directly hindering her ability to do so.
  • Even if orgasm is important to him, the ASD husband may not prioritize it in the same way for his wife. He may view it as happenstance, or optional to put time and effort into cultivating. He cannot guess that her needs exist outside of his own, due to mind-blindness. Due to alexithymia, he may not recognize her desire and frustration at lack of sexual outlet.
  • Her responses are difficult to make sense of during sex. Not every woman wants to instruct a play-by-play of what does and doesn’t feel good. He might rely on guessing, and then feel very criticized if she doesn’t enjoy it. Porn exposure distorts his perception of reasonable expectations, and his own ability to orgasm may be quite straightforward. He’s unable to see that her experience is different, or read her non-verbal cues due to alexithymia.
  • If an autistic husband regularly struggles to maintain arousal or sexual interest, he may not realize it is humiliating for his wife. She may naturally wonder if it is an issue of her lacking desirability, and the autistic husband may reinforce her insecurity. Due to both mind-blindness and alexithymia, he does not sense her need for reassurance. He may consider her suggestion a feasible explanation, especially since he doesn’t want to be to blame.
  • He may fail to realize that his “honest to a fault” habit (in all areas of life, but especially with intimacy) is very impactful to his wife. If he comments on her body, especially very vulnerable parts of her, in ways that are received in a critical way – this can dramatically impact her sexual response and emotional wellness. His alexithymia creates difficulty in both understanding why she’s feeling hurt, alongside not grasping that a quick “sorry,” is not going to assuage insecurity at a deeper level.
  • Somatic symptoms are common when distress is happening internally for an autistic individual. He struggles to identify why his stomach hurts, or a headache always occurs when there is an expectation of sex. He genuinely feels sick, or tired, but alexithymia prevents making the correlation between anxiety, somatic symptoms and avoidance of sex. He insists that he is sick, not avoiding.
  • Due to alexithymia, the ASD husband may not recognize his true sexual orientation. It may not be until his wife suggests that his lack of physical desire is perhaps due to a non-heterosexual orientation, that he considers the possibility of asexuality or homosexuality.

Hypersexuality & Sexual Obsession:

  • The neurotypical wife’s need for pairing emotional connection and physical intimacy may be lost on an autistic husband. With mind-blindness, he struggles to understand why an emotional sense of safety is important for his wife. She may feel it is an act of self-betrayal to be physically intimate with her husband when he ignores her emotional needs. He does not require emotional connection prior to sex, so her request for it is easily dismissed since it isn’t his own perspective.
  • If porn is a habit or special interest, the ASD husband may believe it to be an accurate portrayal of female responsiveness and sexual desires of a neurotypical wife. He may expect that she respond instantaneously to a mere touch, or be theatrically passionate from the most minor effort on his part. He may be confused on how to initiate conversation about special sexual interests, and neglect the importance of consent before introducing atypical activities into the marriage bed. He may assume, due to mind-blindness, that she is equally experiencing sexual pleasure parallel to his own sensation.
  • When an autistic spouse is hypersexual and experiences arousal, his mind-blindness may prevent him from understanding that she is not similarly aroused. He may view his arousal as her job to relieve at every interval, especially if his definition of sexual partnership is especially literal. If she is feeling used, and describes this to him, it may not be a feeling he can access inside his own emotional experience due to alexithymia.
  • An ASD man may consider all affection to be a lead-in to sex. Hugs or kisses or touching have an expectation of intercourse immediately following. He is frustrated or confused when his wife asks for “just a hug.” His mind-blindness fails to see that she might be interested in cuddling without sex. He’s unable to understand that physical bonding that is emotionally important to his wife outside of the sexual act. For him, sex might be an event that begins and ends in specific fashion.
  • His mind-blindness may prevent any understanding of why sex is NOT transactional for his wife, and he may fail to see why renewing basic participation in family life does not “earn” him sex.
  • Groping without consent or in socially-inappropriate contexts is not uncommon. An ASD man may feel entitled to his wife’s body, and view it as touchable at all times and never off-limits. Due to mind-blindness, he may not notice her non-verbal cues of dislike or disgust. If she verbalizes how encroaching or disrespectful this feels, his alexithymia may limit his ability to perceive the depth of her reaction.
  • Porn is a self-focused withholding of intimacy in a sexless marriage, and an alexithymic ASD husband may dismiss the sense of betrayal a wife feels. The pervasive rejection and visceral reaction to discovering that he prefers to watch strangers, instead of experiencing connection with her, is powerfully devastating. His alexithymic response can add to her trauma. He may not acknowledge her distinction between not having sex, and not having sex because he sexually deprives her in favor of porn.

What feelings might the neurotypical wife experience in a sexually-disordered marriage, where she is either discarded and ignored, or used as a sex doll to fulfill one-sided expectations?

With sexual discard, she usually feels deprived beyond measure, emptied of value, devoid of desirability, and thwarted from accessing the sole outlet for a primary need. She feels cheated of satisfaction and affection. She grieves the loss of emotional intimacy paired with physical intimacy. She feels sentenced to a prison of no sex, or terrible sex, and of blame and shame. She feels powerless to stop the betrayal and sexual abandonment. She’s humiliated by the rejection, and carries it as a degrading secret. She feels victimized by his unilateral decision to exclude her from any hope of physical intimacy. She feels voiceless at the lack of conversation nor accountability for improving their physical intimacy. She’s terribly disappointed that sex requires so much ignoring of his awkwardness. She feels so defeated that he requires reminders and explicit instructions just for sex to happen, and even then he rarely follows through. She feels gutted at missing out on the shared joy of physically loving one another, as perhaps she now only associates fury, heartbreak or revulsion at the thought of sex with him.

With sexual obsession, the neurotypical wife feels oppressed by her husband’s sexual expectations. She feels an ever-present responsibility to either satisfy him, or face the pouting, anger or punishment. She may struggle to feel emotionally safe in her own bed, knowing the expectations that come along with laying next to him. She feels dread at being sick, knowing he will have very little accommodation for her limitations. Sometimes she feels like a sex worker. No care for her emotional needs, just for her body to be present and available. She feels ashamed when he oversteps social boundaries in public, touching her as if she’s an object instead of a person. She feels worried her kids will pick up his phone and see the texting between himself and a random girl wearing a bikini, on Instagram. She feels fear over anyone in the family using his computer, worried impressionable children might see pornographic images. She feels hypervigilant in wondering how much she should resist checking his phone, trying to balance not managing him, but wondering if she’s being betrayed. If he’s a serial cheater, she wonders if “trusting him again” may physically risk her body. She never feels safe or as if her personhood matters to him.

The unfortunate reaction to neurotypical women expressing her feelings and needs to an alexithymic, mind-blind ASD spouse is that she is often met with minimizing, dismissal, invalidation, denial, silence, or argument. His inclination may be to resist considering her perspective, since it differs from his own. However, alexithymia, mind-blindness and autism are not excuses for a neurotypical wife’s needs to remain unmet. If an autistic husband is informed of a need, then it is his personal responsibility to cooperatively problem-solve with his wife. Skills can be built when one is willing to learn, and the act of prioritizing each other’s feelings as real and worthy of attention is necessary for mutuality in marriage. Physical intimacy and emotional consideration are reasonable expectations of marital relationships.

Interested in coaching services? Contact me for more information here.

The Criminalization of Emotion in Neurodiverse Marriages

Alexithymia is a condition in which one struggles to identify and verbalize emotion. It is closely associated with autism, as approximately half of ASD individuals meet criteria for alexithymia. The absence of emotional awareness from an ASD husband is a significant issue within neurodiverse marriages, as the disparity between himself and his neurotypical wife is profoundly impactful to her.

Without alexithymia, neurotypicals can identify emotions instinctively. Emotion is seamlessly associated with sensation, feeling and context, allowing an intuitive recognition of our present state. It is emotional awareness that allows us to infer the feeling of fear from our racing heart, quickened breath and jittery body. Sorting through the vocabularly of fear, and assessing the level of distress is automated – we can correctly differentiate between the experience of apprehension, unease, insecurity, nervousness, terror, horror, etc. Possessing this cognizance of emotional complexity is what permits language and verbalization of our experience. Additionally, without alexithymia – we effortlessly distinguish between emotions that have similar sensations. It’s possible to feel jittery, with a racing heart and quickened breath, because we’re feeling excited, not fearful.

The NT tries desperately to convey emotional experience to her ASD husband, but it’s as if she’s running on a treadmill to nowhere.

The nuances of emotional language are intrinsic for a neurotypical wife, and much less so for an ASD spouse. When alexithymia is co-occurring with ASD, the autistic husband has significantly less ability to understand the emotional experience of his wife, versus when autism is solely present. He cannot theorize, nor take perspective of his wife’s emotional truth, since he is disconnected from recognition of emotion identification within himself. One cannot extrapolate feelings to someone else, when they are indistinguishable and wordless in oneself.

When a neurodiverse marriage becomes precarious, the neurotypical wife digs into her vivid vocabulary of emotional language to communicate her sense of deprivation. She endeavors to be very clear with her autistic husband, since connection is developed through mutual understanding. The neurotypical wife earnestly shares how ignored, isolated, discarded, devalued, unseen, and misunderstood she feels. She cries to him – sobbing, pleading, begging, yelling. She uses metaphors to help him understand. No matter how vastly illustrative she is in sharing her emotional experience, it is often met with a disengaged or negative reaction.

The following are some emotional metaphors that neurotypical wives have described to me in coaching, desperately shared with their husbands in hopes of convincing him how much suffering she’s experiencing:

“I’m emotionally hemmoraghing on the floor, and he is just standing there, watching me bleed out.”

“I’m in a perpetual state of drowning. I have no ability to breathe, or swim, or draw air, or hope to rescue myself. I’m just suffocating, and waving my hands in desperation, while he’s completely oblivious.”

“I’m completely censored in this marriage. It’s as if he’s put tape over my mouth, every day of our marriage, for the last ten years. He doesn’t allow me to speak!”

“He abandoned me on a deserted island long ago, but doesn’t understand why I feel lonely. He thinks watching tv together every night means loneliness is impossible.”

“I’m basically a prisoner. He won’t agree to separate or divorce, but he won’t do the things I ask of him to improve the marriage, either.”

“I feel enslaved. I’m his mother, maid, nanny and personal assistant. Not his wife. He also acts like he can fire me at any moment, which amounts to cutting me off financially.”

“I feel so afraid to stay in this marriage. But it’s like being strapped down to a gurney, my arms and legs are unable to move. I want to leave, but I feel so powerless.”

“I feel like I’m DYING of thirst in our relationship, and he’s angry at me for even wanting a sip of water.”

Most neurotypical individuals, without alexithymia, would hear these descriptions of emotional anguish, and be able to immediately connect with the despair behind the metaphors. If attuned and good-hearted, they would respond with tenderness, empathy, concern, and likely a commitment toward problem-solving.

For an ASD husband with alexithymia, the above descriptions might likely elicit disengagement, dismissal, offense or anger. It isn’t uncommon to receive a blank stare as a response, or a text that just says, “ok.” He may interpret her emotional language as criticism and blame. He may reference her feelings or language as “negativity.” He may view her words and feelings as an attack, or say things like, “you always try to make me feel bad,” or “you’re just trying to ruin our day.” It is common with both autism and alexithymia to have difficulty reading facial expression and voice tone, so there can also be a belief that her emotional sharing is fueled only by anger. Not only does he miss the nuanced feelings of her emotions being reported, but the emotional experience she is undergoing while communicating with him. He sees only anger, when perhaps she is grief-stricken and driven by hopelessness.

Abstract language is difficult for concrete thinkers, and autistic men struggle more so than autistic women in this area (who are often quite gifted with language). Emotional metaphors usually fail to achieve a desired result, as it’s a combination of emotional language, extrapolation of emotional experience, plus a context that is not literally true from his perspective.

Complex emotional language is guesswork, even with a lot of effort, for those with alexithymia.

Alexithymia can exist at low, moderate or high levels of impairment. Ask an alexithymic ASD man what it feels like to be angry, which might be his most recognized emotion, and he’s quite clear. He likely has adjectives that can be verbalized in that regard. He may also use words like criticized and blamed, as that has been a lifetime experience for him in a variety of settings. He may use descriptors like “good,” or “fine,” as emotion labeling, or baseline words such as happy, mad, or sad. But ask an ASD man to truly consider if he’s been despondent, shattered, desolate, inconsolable, heartsick? He’s brilliant, and knows descriptive words by definition – but he does not intuitively pair nuanced emotion labels during his felt experience. His neurotypical wife uses strikingly expressive vocabulary to articulate her feelings, in an effort to be understood – often with neither partner realizing that it is met with incomprehension.

Over time, his seemingly absent response to her emotional requests elicit anger and contempt in the neurotypical wife. She needs tenderness, nurturing and validation. She wants a solution to their disconnection. She instead receives disinterested, angry, offended, hurt or dismissive reactions. The NT wife is frantic about the circumstances in her marriage, and yet cannot convey how crucial it is for him to understand, or even believe, that her deprivation is real.

Perhaps early on, the ASD husband expressed remorse, and made promises to do “better.” And despite good intent, it was not something he could self-direct, and resentment at her instructions set in. Relatively quickly, the status quo would return. Whenever he believes she is very close to leaving, he likely acknowledges her misery. Again, the effort to attune is short-lived. She grieves that he seems to require her emotional death before responding to her distress.

Over the course of endless circular conversations, the criminalization of emotion begins to develop. Her words have zero impact, as he’s heard them relentlessly, and he finds them more and more hyperbolic. Nobody is bleeding on the floor, nobody is in a jail cell, and nobody is strapped down against their will. This sounds like imagined nonsense to him. He starts to view her emotions as the crux of their marital conflict. If she wasn’t so dramatic, or if she wasn’t so unstable, or if she wasn’t so crazy – then there wouldn’t be a problem. He’s not the one quoting a thesaurus of emotional injury, so the problem must be her and her excessive feelings. Her sobbing and anger also adds to his perception of her emotionalism being out of control. He doesn’t experience emotions to this depth whatsoever – certainly there must be something wildly unbalanced in his wife.

When emotion is viewed as the source of all conflict in the marriage, it also impacts the alexithymic ASD husband from wanting to further build his emotional language vocabularly. Emotion becomes even less valuable, and much more dangerous -criminal – when he perceives it as being the source of attack against him. A primary argument between the neurodiverse couple often becomes that she is a histrionic, demanding, controlling lunatic, and he’s a cold, cruel, robot of indifference. Both believe the other to have malicious intent.

The deadlock over emotional misunderstanding in their intimate relationship may trickle down to other areas of their partnership. With his black and white thinking, he concludes that her perception is awry in all matters that elicit feelings for her. She may express feelings about family or household obligations that he fails to complete, expressing how frustrating and even how betraying it feels, when she can’t rely on his promises to do a specific responsibility. He interprets this as just more hyper-emotional criticism that is once again a means to blugeon or control him. He may believe himself to be abused by her emotional disclosures. With her needs demonized, the neurotypical wife feels more and more defeated as her marriage continues.

When emotion has become criminalized in a neurodiverse marriage, communication and cooperation is often at a standstill. For the neurotypical wife, it begins to feel that she is chasing after his understanding, on a treadmill – going nowhere.

(Good news: alexithymia can be improved with dedication, curiosity and willingness.)

Interested in coaching services? Contact me for more information here.

The Missed Experiences of Cassandra’s Life

Trauma events, while painful to discuss, can be articulated to empathic listeners. It’s possible to describe what happened to us with great detail, including the distress we experienced during and after the event. But what happens when we are traumatized by non-events? Just as neglect is difficult to characterize, so too is the absence of what we hoped for, dreamed of and believed would happen to us. The neurotypical wife struggles to name the trauma of what hasn’t occurred in her life – the sense of exclusion from joy, connection and safety that is chronically missing in her marriage.

Sometimes the harm of what hasn’t happened in a neurotypical wif’es marriage is equally, or more, traumatic than painful events.

Below are some examples of what a neurotypical wife may suffer as deprivational trauma of a lost, missed, botched or omitted experience in her life that is reasonably expected to occur in a marriage. Over the course of time, inadequate quantity of bonding moments establishes a sense of perpetual longing. Anger accompanies the hurt and regret, as the neurotypical wife exists with the bitter knowledge that many experiences cannot be retreived or saved. Her loss cannot be rescued from the past with a do-over.

A neurotypical wife has a fundamental need for empathy and compassion, which is gained through sharing of her thoughts with words. But when she lacks the words to convey her anguish at what hasn’t happened, it is very distressing. She is already dismissed by others when she tries to recount actual incidents in her marriage. If she’s able to convey to any degree what she has missed out on in her marital life, it can be minimized as petty, small, ungrateful, bitter, envious, resentful. Many do not understand that most neurotypical wives have not just missed out on just one, or a mere handful of events – she has lived without a majority of the following positive, routine occurrences and milestones in life. She has been destitute of joy, connection, tenderness, mutuality, and happy memories of shared experience with her husband.

Common Non-Existent Events in the Life of a Neurotypical Wife (married to an ASD man):

  • The specialness of a memorable proposal or wedding night
  • A husband who desires sexual intimacy with her regularly
  • A responsive, caring, generous and intuitive lover
  • Regular date nights and romance initiated by her spouse
  • A marital bedroom and shared sleeping space with her husband
  • A peaceful pregnancy and supportive partner during childbirth
  • Practical help and emotional support during post-partum
  • Shared joy of delighting in children together
  • Equal partnership in parenting
  • Teamwork in managing the neurodiversity of their children
  • Respect and admiration for her contributions to the family
  • A division of labor within the household
  • A distribution of responsibility for the marriage and family
  • Receiving care for herself during illness or injury
  • Apologies freely given and received
  • Holidays routinely celebrated happily
  • Seasonal fun
  • Thoughtful gift-giving from him
  • Her birthday remembered
  • Wedding anniversaries treated as a special occasion
  • Mother’s Day honored even though she isn’t his mom
  • Quality family time prioritized
  • Family vacations and couple trips
  • Weekends spent together
  • Travel in retirement
  • Shared money and marital resources
  • Truth-telling and transparency
  • Conversation that isn’t only informational
  • Daily physical affection
  • Evenings spent together
  • Conflict that is low to moderate in level and duration
  • Shared interests enjoyed together regularly
  • Compromise in difficult moments
  • Safety to communicate and be heard
  • Empathic concern and sincere mutual interest
  • Cooperation, agreeability and problem-solving
  • A husband who prioritizes her needs equally to his own
  • A spouse who remembers her likes and dislikes
  • A partner who dependably keeps his promises
  • Friendships with other couples
  • Socializing together in groups
  • Family parties, reunions and events
  • Inviting company to the home regularly
  • A best friend and companion for life

Sometimes the most traumatic, disappointing and heartbreaking non-event in her marriage is not even the cumulative effect of missing fulfilling experiences. It’s the lack of improvement in her marriage, despite the begging, pleading, researching, explaining and seeking of help. Her hope for future joyful events, experiences and milestones is stolen from her when a partner deliberately stonewalls any change.

If a neurotypical wife also had a childhood of neglect with a lack of attuned caregivers, unmet needs and invisibility to her family of origin – she may realize that perhaps her life story is one with many missing events and experiences. Perhaps her trauma is largely associated not just from what has happened to her in life, but all the countless moments of joy, celebration, togetherness, nurturing, caregiving, bonding, security, and valuation that were nowhere to be found amongst the relationships with those she loved.

Perhaps she has been a Cassandra for the entirety of her life.

Interested in coaching services? Contact me for more information here.

The Extended Family System of a Neurodiverse Marriage

Partners in a neurodiverse marriage often have families of origin with various complexities, many of which may impact the marital life in significant ways. For neurotypical wives, the most difficult aspect is the lack of support from extended family members. When families of origin aren’t burdened by pervasive mental health disorders, addictions, generational trauma, neurodiversity limitations, or personality shortcomings – they are often able to serve as a buttress of support for married couples. Unfortunately, that is rarely the case in neurodiverse pairings. It lends to even more isolation for the NT wife, as she often does not have reliable parents, adult siblings, nor in-laws, to call upon for healthy support. Some extended family members may directly contribute to discord with the marriage, and intentionally (or not) enact emotional harm to both partners.

The neurotypical wife often feels alone within her marriage, and an absence of safe or healthy extended family.

Who are the extended family members commonly found amongst the family tree of a neurotypical wife and ASD husband?

The Undiagnosed ASD Parent or Adult Siblings

The Bipolar, ADHD, OCD Parent or Adult Siblings

The Neurotypical Parent or Adult Siblings

The Mentally Ill Parent or Adult Siblings

The Alcoholic or Addict Parent or Adult Siblings

The Personality-Disordered Parent or Adult Siblings

The Absent Parent (Abandonment or Death)

The Profoundly Neglectful or Verbally, Emotionally & Physically Abusive Parent

The Sexually Abusive Parent, Sibling, Grandparent, Aunt/Uncle or Cousin

Here is a look at a few roles within the extended family system, and how they impact the neurodiverse marriage – and in particular, the neurotypical wife’s life.

The Undiagnosed ASD Mother (of the ASD partner)

  • The undiagnosed ASD mother-in-law (MIL) may view the NT wife as an interloper. Frequently, an ASD MIL is very enmeshed with her ASD son. If his parents had a difficult marriage, he may have served as a surrogate spouse for his ASD mother. She may expect that same level of involvement to continue after her son’s marriage. If a NT wife asserts herself as the priority, this could lead to inappropriate anger and jealousy from the ASD MIL. The ASD son may lack the social-emotional insight to understand where his loyalty should be (with his wife). With the ASD mother’s black and white thinking, she may view the NT wife as “all bad,” due to her feelings of exclusion, since a grey area isn’t accessible for her perspective.
  • Over time, as disillusionment in the neurodiverse marriage grows, the ASD husband may turn to his ASD mother for comfort and refuge. She affirms him in his negative thinking about the NT wife. The ASD husband may over-confide in his mother, leading to feelings of terrible betrayal in the NT wife. The ASD MIL struggles with perspective taking, so she is unable to imagine where the NT wife’s behavior is coming from. (The ASD mother may also may take her son’s perspective as absolute truth.) She may attribute negative intent from the daughter-in-law (DIL) toward her son, reinforcing his perception that his NT wife is an adversary.
  • The ASD MIL may not understand typical boundaries in the marriage of adult children. She may be intrusive, show up unnanounced, criticize the manner in which a NT wife runs her home, and not hesitate to share blunt observations that alienate the NT wife. She may have rigid or inflexible ideas about child-rearing. She may impose her standards or expectations, and believe herself to be very heplful – and that her DIL is simply ungrateful.
  • The ASD MIL may have profound emotional regulation difficulties. Her ASD son may recall being raised with frequent outburts (meltdowns), lots of screaming and crying (due to overwhelm ), harshness (due to her irritability, lack of coping skills and mind-blindness), excessive control (due to her rigid and inflexible thinking). frequent withdrawal (shutdowns), and sometimes neglect (left to his own devices because she was too overwhelmed to supervise). The neurotypical wife may have fear in leaving her children with the ASD MIL, because she’s heard the stories of how dysregulated some of her behavior was during the childhood of her husband. She may also have witnessed outbursts from her MIL firsthand, and feel very cautious about trusting her on that basis alone. This furthers the perception that the NT wife is unreasonable, divisive, and an enemy of the in-laws.

The Neurotypical Mother (of the ASD partner)

  • A neurotypical mother-in-law can be a rare gem in the life of a neurotypical wife. MIL may have been married to an ASD man for the majority of her life, and recognizes the unique challenges that her Neurotypical DIL is facing.
  • Sometimes, a NT MIL is so wounded by her own neurodiverse marriage, that observing the dynamic between her son and daughter-in-law is quite painful and she withdraws.
  • Unfortunately, a neurotypical MIL can also be enmeshed with her ASD son, possibly due to the emotional deprivation she experienced in her own neurodiverse marriage. She found solace in her children, and her ASD son was open to her care-taking long after most neurotypical children will accept it. This can make her defensive and protective of her ASD son, villainizing her NT DIL.

The Obessive Compulsive Personality Disordered Father (of the ASD partner)

  • OCPD individuals are exacting, critical, precise, rigid, inflexible, hyper-controlling, perfectionistic, fixated on task completion, miserly to an exceptional degree, and workaholics. Their perfectionistic tendencies lend to an inherent mistrust in others’ capabilities. They are withholders of information, money, approval and cooperation. Many characteristics overlap with ASD, and the two disorders can co-exist.
  • The OCPD father-in-law (FIL) may encourage his ASD son to be withholding of financial reciprocity in the marriage. FIL is exceptionally pre-occupied with money, and he may reinforce the idea to his son that his NT wife should be treated as an adversary. The ASD husband may have seen a financially withholding dynamic in his parents’ marriage, and find this to be normal and necessary.
  • The OCPD FIL may have disdain or contempt for his daughter-in-law. He may find her household management to be lacking. He may be a score-keeper who notices each time she fails to thank him excessively for any gesture (especially financial in nature, like paying for dinner), and hold this against her.
  • He’s likely uninvested in his grandchildren beyond a surface level, and may have some unfiltered disdain for diagnoses (since he views them as an indication of lacking perfection). He was likely a very punishing father, and criticizes the behavior of neurodiverse children, blaming poor parenting from his DIL.
  • The OCPD individual is an expert at stonewalling. The ASD son saw this demonstrated in his parents’ marriage over and over again.

The Narcissistic, Histrionic or Borderline Mother (of the NT wife)

  • Many neurotypical women who marry ASD men have a mother whose behavior would fall into the Cluster B personality type (narcissistic, histrionic, or borderline). The narcissistic mother is critical, highly self-focused, theatrical, entitled, demanding, dismissive, invalidating, manipulative, emotionally dysregulated, catastrophic, grandiose, unable to admit fault, incapable of apologizing, and lacks empathy. She is highly controlling by nature. Similarly to the black and white thinking of ASD, her mother may split others (including her daughter) into “all good” or “all bad.”
  • The neurotypical wife often grew up as the target of her mother’s covert abuse and control. She may have been the scapegoat in her family of origin, and at the very least treated as an extension of her mother (i.e. unable to voice or have individual feelings). The NT wife learned that she must suppress her sense of self in order to maintain any sense of connection, approval or love from her mother. She was often put in the caretaking role of her mother’s feelings. Her mother may have found fault with her daughter in a number of areas, criticizing her appearance, choices, and judgment.
  • The NT wife likely has a brother or sister treated as the golden child. While the ASD son-in-law is not always the narcissistic mother’s ‘new’ golden child, the narcissistic mother elevates him in comparison to her daughter. The narcissistic mother perceives her ASD son-in-law at face value – hard-working, successful, high-earning – and invalidates her daughter’s emotional experience of deprivation. In the narcissistic mother’s world, image is much more important than depth. Conversely, if the narcissistic mother is ever publicly embarrassed by her ASD son-in-law’s social deficits, she may switch her opinion, denigrate the ASD partner, and shame her daughter for marrying someone so highly incompetent.
  • Quite frequently, a NT wife has gone no contact or very low contact with her narcissistic mother. This is a major source of grief and sorrow for the NT wife, as she deeply wishes for a maternal figure to confide in due to a difficult marriage. She often has endured decades of failed attempts to connect with her mother, and finally cuts contact out of self-preservation. Her mother either discards her entirely, or periodically reaches out with martyrdom and/or gaslighting.
  • The narcissistic mother is often obsessed with her grandchildren, though ashamed of their neurodiversity (or uses it as a means of attention from others), and feels highly entitled to time with them. She devalues and demeans her daughter, but expects to still have access to grandchildren.
  • In cases of divorce, the narcissistic mother may triangulate with the ASD son-in-law. She enjoys creating an allyship against her daughter, further isolating her from emotional support, also knowing that it’s a deep betrayal. The ASD husband often lacks the insight to understand the hidden agenda of his MIL – he views her reaching out to him as evidence of how slighted he is by his former wife. He happily provides her with information, betrays his ex-wife’s privacy, and facilitates a relationship with grandchildren (despite his ex-wife’s preferences).

The Undiagnosed Autistic Father (of the NT wife)

  • Some NT women discover long after marriage to their ASD partner (and the journey to his diagnosis) that they likely grew up with a parent on the spectrum.
  • The ASD father may have limited or surface interest in his grandchildren, creating a trigger of grief for the NT wife as she recalls her childhood and feeling largely invisible to her father. His disinterest toward her felt rejecting.
  • If the NT wife confides in her parents about the possibility of divorce, her ASD father may discourage or shame her for even considering it. Like many ASD partners, he believes marriage is forever and should never be disrupted for any reason – and certainly not for emotional deprivation, a concept he is unable to grasp nor value. He may have a strong Christian mindset that informs his view.
  • The ASD father might be financially controlling, and normalized this behavior in the NT wife’s childhood. He may even encourage his ASD son-in-law in withholding money from his adult daughter, or other problematic behaviors toward her. He may naturally align with the ASD son-in-law, feeling a kinship ‘against’ women. He has a black and white perception of marital roles, often leaning to traditional paradigms. If his daughter is career-driven, he may blame her for not having decided to be a stay at home mother, extrapolating that she neglected her husband or children and created the resulting discord.
  • The NT wife may have had an exceptional amount of conflict with her father while growing up. He did not have theory of mind for his children, and perhaps he found them sensorily overwhelming, uncooperative to his agenda, and difficult to control (which he considered a reasonable goal). He maintains this sense of disapproval for her in adulthood.
  • She may have witnessed a childhood full of meltdowns or silence between her parents. Her father may have lived in the basement, or a separate bedroom, and rarely spoken to her mother. The NT wife thought she was marrying a man quite different from her father, not realizing his attention to her was due to being the short-term special interest. Her husband retreating from her is quite reminiscient of her parents’ marriage.

The Sexually Abusive Family Member (of the NT wife)

  • The NT wife may have been a victim of incest in her childhood. Her symptoms of abuse were undetected or ignored by her caregivers. If she disclosed the abuse to protect herself – they perhaps failed to intervene, or dismissed it as untruth. If they are made aware in her adulthood, her family may react even more forcefully with the assertion of dishonesty. Her trauma is dismissed.
  • Even if the childhood abuse is known, the perpetrator is often still treated as a valued family member by her parents or adult siblings, especially if one of them was the abuser. Her family invalidates her experience, minimizes her pain, and even villainizes her attempts at boundaries. They may insist on inviting the family member to all activities, expecting the adult NT wife to ignore her discomfort, jeopardize her own children and dismiss it as “being in the past.” She is devalued by her family, placing the importance on protecting the perpetrator.
  • The family may ostracize the NT wife (instead of the sexually abusive family member). Her truth-telling is threatening, and requires personal responsibilty from others, which is outside the realm of their emotional maturity. She is abandoned, blamed and discarded by her family, or forced to self-betray in order to maintain a connection.

The Alcoholic Father (of the NT wife)

  • The NT wife may have felt invisible to her addict father growing up, and may have also felt responsible for keeping his addiction and related behaviors a secret. In her marriage, she may also keep her ASD husband’s problematic behaviors a secret, since this is an expectation (and shame) ingrained within her.
  • Addicts are often expert at ‘breadcrumbing.’ They disperse intermittent attention when briefly sober, showering a child or wife with love, then abruptly losing interest when focus returns to substance abuse. This can feel similar to the changing moods of her ASD husband toward her.
  • The NT wife may have felt protective of her alcoholic father as a child, if he was an especially sloppy or chaotic man when drunk. Passing out after drinking can look similarly to an autistic shutdown, even though it is not the same. The excessive sleeping of her ASD husband may also be triggering, due to her father having been a passed-out alcoholic on a frequent basis.
  • Alcoholic rage is common. The NT wife may conditioned to meltdown behavior, with significant exposure to her father’s fury as a child. She dreads the behavior in her husband, even though it is different in origin.
  • Some ASD individuals are prone to addiction. Her ASD spouse may bond with her alcoholic father and the two may drink together, creating a double sense of abandonment in the NT wife.
  • The addict father can also be an absent parent. A disappearing parent (through death, addiction or abandonment) creates sense of longing that is normalized within the NT wife as a child. She experiences this same longing in her neurodiverse marriage when her husband is neglecting her for a special interest, stonewalling, shutdown, or shutting her out.

As we see, the neurodiverse couple is surround by dysfunctional and disordered family members who are entirely self-focused, emotionally unavailable, actively harmful and add to the sense of deprivation that the NT wife experiences in her marriage. We recognize how the neurotypical wife was formed by caregivers, and difficult circumstances, that increased her vulnerability to choosing a partner with poor emotional reciprocity skills. We see that she has likely experienced a lifetime of emotional deprivation, and the continuation of it within marriage is terribly painful – but not the original wound. Her grief and trauma is exacerbated by the ASD masking in the early years of her relationship. The neurotypical wife thought she was escaping the invisibility of her childhood, only to realize “too late” (after a lifetime commitment) that being truly seen by her husband was just an illusion. We see that the behaviors of her caregivers and family members from childhood are actually similar to the problematic ASD behaviors of her husband, but they are simply different in origin. Her ASD husband has neurological limitations that result in relational deprivation for her. The NT wife’s family members have character and personality shortcomings, or mental health and addiction struggles, that lend to relational deprivation, too. It all feels the same way, despite the differing genesis. The ASD husband’s behaviors build upon and exacerbate her childhood trauma, though he is not the first nor original source.

Since the neurotypical wife is faced with a family system incapable of support, she has very few personal resources in the way of help. This contributes to her pervasive feeling of isolation. There is often zero safety net if she were to consider leaving her marriage. Since children may wholly lack healthy grandparents, aunts, uncles or cousins, the absence of family community is significant, since neurodiversity inhibits friendships formed at school. The neurotypical wife spends much of her marriage, and mothering, feeling like an island unto herself. She may experience the full force of a high-conflict and emotionally deprivational marriage, a spouse that treats her as an adversary, parents who perpetrate harm even into adulthood, children with a variety of special needs, and the sole responsibility for the day to day management of keeping the home and family afloat. The cumulative effect of her trauma and emotional + relational deprivation extends into all areas of life, feeling enormously overwhelming and inescapable.

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