In our society, the concept of physical abuse is perceived as more egregious than other forms of abuse, and certainly more heinous than the idea of neglect. If a woman has been physically harmed, it is more universally accepted as intolerable behavior from an intimate partner. Outsiders to the marriage have an easier time imagining how destructive the experience of physical abuse is – such as hitting, kicking, punching, choking, beating, etc. It’s worth noting that verbal, emotional, and financial abuse – and even the idea of rape within marriage – are often minimized by our culture, too. However, generally speaking, the word abuse signifies extremely unacceptable mistreatment. An abuse victim is largely met with care, compassion and support. Seeking separation or divorce is met with less judgment from outsiders when domestic violence of a physical nature has occurred.
Neglect is minimized in our culture. It is recognized as an issue primarily between parents and children. Babies who aren’t fed, children who are left dangerously unsupervised. Neglect is much wider in scope than the bare minimum of food and safety, yet consideration for the emotional needs of others is a more abstract concept. It is often a somewhat indefinable grey area for many to distinguish. How much nurturing and attention does a baby, child or adult need from others, in order to flourish?
It’s challenging for most neurotypical women to articulate what neglect looks like inside their marriages. It’s also a struggle for those around her to understand the cumulative effect and impact. When she tries to say, he sleeps so very much, every weekend. She might be met with, “well, he works hard! He’s just tired! Let him have some rest!” She is put in the position of trying to justify why it isn’t a surface problem – it isn’t merely the act of sleep. It’s the chronic deprivation of time, attention and bonding with him that is not prioritized. She might try to enumerate other issues that, when picked apart, can look very petty and small. Her support system, and even a marriage counselor unfamiliar with neurodiverse relationships, might view her as unreasonable in her expectations.
It is traumatizing for a neurotypical woman to find herself needing to be understood, but unable to convince others of her profound aloneness. Trauma is not just what happens to us, but being alone or disbelieved in our experience. Often, others are quite dismissive of anecdotal behaviors that a neurotypical wife might desperately draw upon to convey her experience. Outsiders to the neurodiverse marriage cannot conceptualize the storm that converges from daily acts of neglectful behaviors which lead to neurotypical despair. When an autistic husband is excessively sleeping, and absorbed in his special interest, and ignoring the household, and ignoring parenting duties, and avoiding conversation, and avoiding recreation and avoiding intimacy with his wife – on a daily basis – it is a combination of devastating neglect.
When she is unsupported in the reality of neglect within her marriage, the neurotypical wife questions her experience and options. She is confused by how invisible she is to her husband. Frequently, she has lost confidence in her own self worth. A marriage is only two people, and it is only him who can be her husband within the relationship. Yet the more she begs him for time, attention and help, the more he resists, perhaps denies, and avoids her. He may be genuinely anxious and perplexed as to why she is so dissatisfied with the relationship, when he is perfectly content (other than her complaints and demands). If she begins to contemplate divorce, she might be met with shock or derision from her friends and family. How can she justify ending the marriage when there isn’t abuse……….?
Because of our cultural understanding of abuse and underdeveloped comprehension of how severe and damaging neglect can be, terming it as deprivational abuse is sometimes helpful in the pursuit of understanding from others. Additionally, it can help the ASD spouse put his behavior in appropriate context if he chooses to persist in ignoring her reasonable request for improvement.
What makes chronic emotional neglect fairly termed as abuse? Again, it is important to understand that neglect is merely the flip side of abuse, whether it is fully distinguished as such, or not, by the average person. The murky area in a relationship with an autistic spouse is that he may not intend to neglect, abuse or deprive his wife. He may be genuinely without the skills in which to meet or even discern her needs. How can it be abuse, or even neglect, if he doesn’t understand what he is supposed to do?
Problematic and harmful behaviors within a marriage become abusive when a partner is unwilling to improve and change behavior. Being “sorry” is useless if an apology does not come with a commitment to do better. When he is informed of her needs and the harmful impact of his behaviors, he has a duty to repair and progress forward. If he is unwilling to learn how to adjust his behavior and strive to meet her needs, then that is an egregious withholding of care for his partner. Failing to take action and make changes is neglectful, and can be termed deprivational abuse (for those who need help comprehending how grievous his indifference is for her). While it is not his fault that he is unable to intuitively meet or understand her needs, it is his choice and responsibility to build skills and seek consultation if necessary. The opposite of love is not hate, it is apathy.