Why do ASD husbands experience neurotypical feelings as an attack?

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.”)
  3. 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.

18 thoughts on “Why do ASD husbands experience neurotypical feelings as an attack?

  1. This is gold. True gold. I really wish I could send this to my spouse, for him to read it and then understand. From past experience, he would most likely say I’m trying to put him in a box and using this article to show once again I am picking on him. It has just become easier to not communicate at all because everything is turned back into me, exactly as this article describes. Even things I shared earlier in our marriage (for example that my parents divorced) are flung back at me as “evidence” that my intentions were always to divorce him instead of what I have been trying for years to do–work together.

    Thank you for this, I just don’t see any hope that my marriage can work as he is unwilling to put forth any effort or even acknowledge we may be wired differently from one another.

  2. Thanks a lot for this article! I am the neuro-atypical (I have been under-diagnosed with GAD but have all the typical ASD traits) husband that completely matches the profile here. I shared the article with my NT wife and told her that all that she’s been saying was right. I am going to apologize now; but I had to post my gratitude.

  3. Thank you so much for this! I have never felt so seen. This perfectly sums up the dynamic between my partner and I, and brought me both peace and grief over the years I spent thinking I was crazy and unreasonable for bringing up my needs. I don’t usually comment on these kinds of things, but I just had to on this occasion! I’ve sent it to my partner, hoping he will understand.

  4. I just came across this. I’ve been split from my ND partner for a year now. I’ve gotten over it but the memory of how painful it was being with someone like this is still as strong as ever. I wish I had found this kind of support to make me feel validated. His autism was mixed with skewed morals and values, defending his disloyalty and betrayal as he talked to other women (apparently innocently). I tried to make him understand my feelings in the most logic terms. It sounds bad but I can’t date anyone who is ND in the future because it hurts too much. NT’s to be with an ND you really need to look after yourselves. This can make you go crazy which it did me. It destroyed us but destroyed me more and had long term therapy because of it. It was probably the most traumatic experience in my life and most painful relationship I’ve ever been in. My inner peace is precious and I won’t let anyone disturb it again.

  5. Thank you so much for this article. Every word hits home as the neurotypical wife. You feel so alone. So lonely. It feels comforting to know I’m not the only one. It’s so hard. I’m bawling after reading this.

  6. As a NT wife, if my husband would read and understand this article, our life together could be more positive. This article describes our interactions for over 20 years. It is a traumatic existence that only spouses of Aspergers really understand.

  7. I am divorced 3 years now from my undiagnosed ND ex husband. I have always been thoroughly confused as to why I was blamed for everything (still am) or why any gift to me was something he liked and not necessarily what I liked.

    This post explains a lot of my feelings and may explain why he could never hear that he had verbally and emotionally abusive meltdowns with me and the children. I started to figure it out when we had a son with ASD with too many similarities to Dad.

    It has been a deep learning journey to accept his limitations, lack of empathy and responsibility for his disrespectful behaviors. The effect has been severe on all of us (both children suicidal at times). I have needed much therapy to deal with the stress/toxicity and carry the emotional burden as if I were the only parent, because in a way, I am.

    3 years and I still seek posts like this to understand that I’m not crazy. It is a complex issue with real grief. I don’t condone his behaviors, but at least in my recovery, I no longer take it personally and can have compassion for the hurt he must have suffered as a child to make him enlist such behavior mechanisms.

    To you all, i wish good luck in moving beyond the suffering this type of gap can cause. To the author, thank you for writing this post.

  8. This is certainly one of the most important issues in an nt/asd marriage, there really is no solving it but to divorce. I watched my parents arguing about this as a small child. I didn’t understand why my asd father would turn into a raving lunatic over my mother asking him to mow the lawn. A few minutes later she would be on the floor and was being kicked by him. This behavior lasted 47 years until he passed away. I see this behavior in my own asd/nt marriage and there is no solution but to divorce him if I had the financial resources to support myself.

    1. This is where I am at in my 17 year marriage. My focus is on my 15 year old daughter and understanding her ND needs after a suicide attempt that left her lucky to be alive. I’m doing it alone as my ND husband cannot/will not support and ‘avoids’ emotion and conflict at all costs. I’ve grieved over our relationship, it is what it is. It’s my daughter that can be helped and hopefully understand ND and masking impacts it has in a NT world. And be open to it without blame…

  9. This post is incredibly accurate. Now how can an nt wife fix it? Divorce or separation sounds like the best solution. But not always the best choice when there are children still living at home. Thank you for bringing this issue to light, it’s been hidden in the dark for for much too long.

  10. Wow, what powerful words. You are an excellent writer and I can’t thank you enough for your compassion for the nt spouse.

  11. Thank you. I w always wondered why he can’t hold space for me. This has truly been the most destructive relationship of my entire life. I hope one day I can get free.

  12. Thank you so much for this article. This describes exactly what happened every time I tried to discuss anything with my ASD ex-partner. It was emotionally and physically destructive to me. But reading articles like this has helped so much with my healing.

  13. Thank you for this article. My husband and i was reading this and OMG!, it fits to the tee. We’ve been together 20 years and it has been a very difficult marriage. I love my husband very much, but I think our marriage isam coming to end. I am so deprived and lonely. For 20 years I have been emotionally abused, mentally abused and yet have stayed in the relationship, but I think I’m going to file for divorce….Thanks Again

  14. I read this wonderful well written article awhile back and bookmarked it. I tried for close to a year to help my partner understand it, but he just couldnt grasp the meaning or concept of it. It’s too bad because it would have made our lives better. Thank you for writing it and hopefully other autistic people can use it in a positive way to make their relationships with others more positive.

  15. I could have cried reading this article. Married 39 years and communication has always been difficult. I’ve always struggled to work out why my professional, hardworking and clever husband reacts so badly when I’ve tried to explain how lonely, unsupported and unloved I feel with no affection, minimal conversation and no empathy and emotional support. ‘It’s always my fault’ is his reply, despite my explaining how just a little change would make such a difference in my life. It’s only recently I’ve been thinking that he is probably on the spectrum, after a jokey remark made to me by an old friend. I’ve read as much as I can and so many of his behaviours and communication make a diagnosis of Asperger’s possible. I am at the end of my patience and am full of sadness and frustration and depression and have no energy to continue like this. Do I give it one last shot and tell him what I think and beg him to go to therapy?

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