Something often misunderstood about the formation of trauma is that it does not just develop from a single event, or a complex set of ongoing events. Trauma occurs when we are left alone with our hurt, and subjected to disbelief from others. There is nothing more isolating and further traumatizing to a survivor than being dismissed, minimized, or invalidated. How does this relate to neurotypical wives married to ASD men? First, we must look at the dynamic of neurodiverse marriage.
Autistic individuals are capable of masking for certain periods of time. (Masking is a way in which ASD people try to adopt neurotypical behaviors in social settings, to cope or fit in better with neurotypical counterparts.) At work, with extended family, outside in the neighborhood, at church, at special interest gatherings – the ASD husband might appear to outsiders as a fully-functioning-like-a-neurotypical person. Reserved, perhaps a little introverted, a tiny bit endearingly quirky. But certainly participatory, awake and present. While this leaves a positive impression socially, masking is an exhausting endeavor for the autistic person. Once at home, the autistic spouse needs recovery time, which might include sleeping, isolating, focusing on special interests, and having little tolerance for the needs or expectations of his family members. This ongoing recovery cycle often creates burnout for both spouses – but for differing reasons. The ASD husband exists in defense mode from navigating social expectations inside of his relationship, and outside of the home. The neurotypical wife strives to give her husband all the down time he needs, but this has her shouldering the household and parenting obligations alone – and desperately missing emotional engagement with her husband.
Before the term “Ongoing Traumatic Relationship Syndrome” was coined by Families of Adults Affected by Autism, a few different descriptors were in rotation to describe the chronic emotional deprivation experienced by neurotypical wives married to autistic men. Many might be familiar with the term “Cassandra Syndrome,” which references the Greek Mythology character, Cassandra. When she does not return Apollo’s love interest, he curses her – she is allowed foresight into the future, but she is unable to share it with anyone. Cassandra is left alone with her burden of truth – unheard, and unable to convince anyone of of what she knows to be true. Neurotypical wives are thought of as “Cassandras,” because nobody believes what they say about their experience in a neurodiverse marriage. She is often met with, “but he’s so nice!”
Doubt from others when we share our pain is crushing, especially because it’s so difficult to characterize invisibility within our marriages. Anecdotes rarely work, since it isn’t just the one-off weekend when he slept from Friday night until Sunday evening. (While waking up to pee and correcting your characterization by saying that he is NOT sleeping all weekend, he’s in the bathroom right this second!) How do we explain big picture concepts? That his excessive sleeping habits are really an underlying inability to SEE that we have needs on the weekends, too. It’s the cumulative effect of being unrelentingly deprived of intuitive empathy and having our personhood not just ignored, but literally unseen by our spouse. How does a neurotypical meet her need for emotional intimacy with her husband, if she’s invisible to him?
Denial of someone’s reality is toxic. Being left alone with hurt is harmful. It is traumatic. We all need others to see our perspective. It’s also important to keep the social confusion of the autistic partner in context. While he may not intend to ignore, or under-respond to his wife, intention does not minimize impact. Trauma still happens for a neurotypical wife even if her husband does not intend to be hurtful.