The communication difficulties between NT/ASD partners is usually a primary source of conflict, hurt and misunderstanding. The neurotypical wife feels very isolated and hopeless when the ASD husband is unable to receive her feelings and perspective. A neurotypical woman needs her intimate partner to be her softest place to land, the primary spot where she is received with empathy, kindness, warmth and understanding. Unfortunately, the autistic husband is often overwhelmed by her feelings and this makes it very difficult for him to hold space.
Honest communication is an inherent part of any healthy marital relationship. Spouses should be able to both give and receive honest feedback to one another. Unfortunately, this can function like a minefield in a NT/ASD relationship. Many neurotypical women report that their husbands perceive her feelings universally as criticism, and a personal attack. Sharing her feelings can quickly escalate to a serious conflict with her Asperger’s Syndrome husband.
DARVO is an an acronym that stands for DENY, ARGUE, REVERSE VICTIM & OFFENDER. Unfortunately, this is a common communication pattern in ASD marriages when the neurotypical wife brings her feelings to a discussion. The autistic husband might view her feelings in black and white, right or wrong terms. This might be reflected in him denying the content of what she is sharing. He might say – no, that didn’t happen, because he disagrees from a perspective of literalism. Or, her feelings are “wrong,” because his behavior isn’t inappropriate (by his estimation). He didn’t intend to be hurtful, so she shouldn’t feel hurt. This is terribly invalidating to the NT wife, who is yet again experiencing deprivation of empathic engagement. An argument ensues, and the husband is now angry – he insists that she apologize for being so critical, negative and accusatory toward him. He may spiral into all or nothing statements, like “he can’t do anything right, she always attacks him.” The neurotypical wife is possibly further villainized if she doesn’t swiftly jump to apologizing and reassuring the ASD spouse. Yet………………………………………………this conversation was supposed to be about HER grievances.
Many circumstances contribute to the autistic partner’s perception of criticism when his wife shares her feelings, such as:
- Autistic individuals often think in black and white terms. If he is judged as doing something “wrong,” then he feels irredeemably “ALL” wrong in his mind. Holding two opposing thoughts is difficult for the ASD husband. He has difficulty knowing that his strengths and good points still exist – simultaneously – with her disappointment in other aspects of his behavior.
- Feeling inherently bad, wrong, unlikeable, etc., is usually very triggering for the ASD spouse. Most autistic individuals have experienced a great deal of bullying in life, especially in childhood. He can perceive his wife’s feelings as her presenting evidence of his innately flawed self. Her dissatisfaction over his behavior is perceived as a rejection of him vs. his actions. (Example: “my behavior is disappointing” vs. “I am disappointing.”)
- His poor theory of mind skills (also called “mind-blindness,” or lacking intuitive empathy) present difficulty in imagining her intention in approaching him, or what pain is motivating it. He is consumed by his own engulfing feelings of shame and defensiveness, possibly crowded out by anger. The autistic spouse places value on his intent, and struggles to see that his intention does not minimize the harmful impact upon her.
When the conversation about her feelings is turned upside down, the neurotypical wife is left feeling outraged (and broken-hearted) that she cannot communicate her honest feelings and be heard by her husband, Her feelings that were the original point of the conversation are no longer the focus – she must repair his feelings, accept his perspective of her intent and perhaps be treated to his silence, anger, shutdown or meltdown.
Sometimes, an ASD husband will ask me, “why should I listen to her feelings when they’re really just complaints about me? She just wants to treat me like a punching bag.” I will tell him, “the way that a neurotypical wife solves a problem is to communicate. Her sharing hurt feelings about your behavior in the relationship is an attempt to be understood. She hopes that if you understand her pain, then you will modify your behavior. Bringing her “complaints” directly to you is a hopeful thing, because she is inviting you to help solve the problem, and it also means she believes you are capable of solving it.” This is often a mind-blowing revelation for an ASD spouse, because his experience with hearing negative things about himself is usually in the context of bullies who get a thrill out of hurting him. To realize that his wife is actually trying to problem-solve at heart is helpful and concrete to him. The more abstract concepts that a neurotypical wife wants – of being heard, seen, understood intuitively, and met with remorse – are difficult to convey. But we can start with problem-solving. If he can “see” her need to change the problem behavior and not personalize it as hatred for him – but actually confidence in his potential – then he’s less flooded with anxiety and defensiveness. This helps increase the likelihood of the NT wife having her needs met to a certain degree, instead of not at all.