The tyranny of ASD rules in a neurodiverse marriage

ASD individuals are often very uncomfortable with change, and have a strong need for predictability. Black and white thinking that is common with autism also lends itself to narrow ideas about the way in which life should happen. In a marriage, rigid inflexibility can begin to feel like a dictatorship for the neurotypical wife when compromise has not been established. Compromise can be viewed in a negative manner for the ASD spouse, as he often has strongly developed opinions paired with all or nothing thinking, giving him the perception that opinions and preferences are either right or wrong. Finding a grey area can feel like “losing” to the autistic spouse, even if he is gaining a portion of his preference. He might view compromise as her attempt to withhold what he wants and create discord, even when her intent is to find common ground.

Black and white thinking is a highly challenging component of neurodiverse marriages.

The neurotypical wife is often very willing to “meet halfway” when negotiating with her autistic spouse. She is flexible with give and take, understanding we all need to make adjustments in life. She has the ability to take perspective, which means she can imagine the thoughts and feelings driving the inclination behind a request. Knowing her autistic husband’s preferences, the neurotypical wife is often quick to accommodate him – especially in the early years, as her hope to maintain or restore connection is still at the forefront. Her desire to please him and promote unity becomes a pattern of deferring to his wishes, which essentially becomes the status quo of the relationship. She notices that if she pushes back on his preferences, he may become emotionally dysregulated. Even after heartbreak has led to severe disillusionment, she may still defer to his wishes because she hopes to avoid meltdowns and shutdowns (and in cases of abuse – punishment). At this point, the NT wife often feels that she is walking on eggshells to avoid discord with her ASD husband. Breaking his rules elicits blame from him, which is very painful for a NT wife who strives so hard to be above reproach. He may feel entitled to her unswerving cooperation as he believes it to be simply the way in which their relationship functions. Additionally, he tends to strongly believe that his manner of preference is not just an opinion, but the only good, right and correct way to proceed.

Rules help create a framework for the ASD partner to feel safe. He feels more in control of his environment (and often his intimate relationships, which largely confuse him) when he can impose “the right way of doing things.” However, just as there cannot be a rule for every eventuality when teaching the ASD partner about social expectations, rules can also not be unequivocally followed. Marriage and family life require flexibility.

These are some examples of rules that I commonly hear, which perhaps someone outside of a neurodiverse relationship would find surprising (alongside the unspoken rule that follows it):

Spoken rule: There is a right way and a wrong way to load the dishwasher (or do any particular chore). Unspoken rule: Failing to load the dishwasher “correctly,” is an intentional slight meant to cause conflict and ignore his lesson on efficiency.

Spoken rule: Money should never be frivolously spent. Unspoken rule: the ASD partner is entitled to unilaterally decide what is worthy of expense.

Spoken rule: The husband works outside of the home. The wife is a stay at home mom. Unspoken rule: Mom takes care of the kids all day, every day, whether it’s the weekend or not, AND she’s responsible for all household chores since “she doesn’t have a job.” If she’s sick, busy or otherwise worn out – too bad, it’s the rule of her role. Expecting help or flexibility from him might be considered wildly imposing, unfair and deviating from “the rule.”

In households with ASD partners who are prone to significant meltdowns or shutdowns (including stonewalling), often the #1 Unspoken Rule is that the ASD partner’s preferences have to be followed in order to keep the peace. His expectations become the standard to which everyone in the family is held, because the ASD partner has difficulty understanding that other people have different and valid viewpoints. The wife and family want to avoid his reaction to rules not being followed at all costs – including at the price of autonomy and personhood.

ASD rules and expectations become a way of life in many neurodiverse homes. Often, a wife will come to coaching and share that agreements made with her husband are not being upheld by him. A common situation is that her husband agrees to complete a household project, such as installing an appliance. Perhaps she is capable of installing the appliance, but he insists she is not ‘permitted’ to do it. He may have reasons for it, most of which come down to her potentially not doing it “the right way.” He continuously promises to get to it, but time passes and still the family is living without a clothes dryer. When I suggest that she set one more deadline and inform him that if it is not installed by X date, she is hiring help – the NT wife might respond with lots of fear. “Oh, no. I can’t do that. He would be so angry at me for spending money on something he can do himself. He’ll also be mad that I just couldn’t wait for him to get to it.” She is sincerely afraid of setting and holding a boundary. (She may also have genuine budget concerns and it is very difficult to let go of the fact that her husband IS capable of doing it, but simply will not prioritize it.) However, she is clearly conditioned to accommodate his rules to avoid his anger. It has almost escaped her notice that following his rules has become a hostage situation, where she is forced to either 1) obey his rules and go without a needed appliance for an interminable amount of time 2) disobey his preference and face his reaction 3) disobey his preference, face his reaction AND feel guilty about spending money on what could have been saved, IF he followed through on agreements. She feels like there is no way to safely meet her needs. (It’s worth noting that boundaries are important and will feel very uncomfortable at first, but setting them is how we begin to change the dynamic within the marriage.)

Since there are so many aspects that go into managing ASD life due to sensory overload, social confusion, the need for routine and predictability – lots of little rules exist, too, even if they are followed unconsciously. The emotional labor of abiding by these rules takes a toll on the NT wife. I’ve had women tell me she “can’t”:

  • buy food for herself that her husband doesn’t like
  • bake cookies from a different recipe than the one he’s used to
  • deviate from the typical meal schedule, both in what is cooked and what time it is ready
  • have conversations with him in the car, listen to music or permit children to speak – too overwhelming for him to safely drive
  • touch the household thermostat and adjust the temperature to her liking
  • skip shaving because otherwise he’s disturbed by stubble on her legs
  • purchase any non-grocery item without his agreement
  • plan a typical family vacation because it’s too much disruption & stress for him
  • watch a movie with him that isn’t his choice
  • expect him to take turns with nighttime parenting – the impact of being tired is far too great on his daytime functioning, and she’s used to over-functioning
  • suggest anything spontaneous, like even a walk after dinner, or an impromptu date night
  • request him to do a chore immediately without prior notice – it doesn’t matter if a kid vomited all over the couch, it can wait until he’s ready on his timeline
  • have company or baby-sitters in the house
  • socialize without him – he resents her time outside of the home, because it’s stressful for him and outside of the family routine

…the list goes on and on.

The reality is that many accommodations the NT wife makes could be considered fair, just and loving – IF the ASD partner reciprocates with adjustments for things that are important to his wife. Or, at the very least – takes responsibility for his preferences that are within his own control. (Examples: wearing pajama pants to bed so he doesn’t have to feel her unshaven legs, if it bothers him. Skip eating the chocolate chip cookies, even if they aren’t his favorite. Wear noise muffling headphones in the car. Encourage her to meet her needs for practical help or personal time, even if it means spending money. Allow her to guide him into what is reasonable, and learn skills to tolerate the distress of practicing flexibility.)

The ASD partner doesn’t usually intend to be tyrannical. He is highly overwhelmed by the world around him, and making rules help him feel safe. He struggles to understand the impact of his rules on those around him. When an ASD partner comes to coaching and says, “it just seems so unfair that I have to learn all of these strategies to make her neurotypical brain happy” – it can be helpful to expand his theory of mind by examining ways in which his NT wife has been accommodating his autistic brain all along. Often, he is quite surprised to think about all of the ways she has silently shown him love by keeping his needs ever-present in her mind for the entirety of their marriage. Sometimes he has genuinely thought that she, too, prefers silent car rides and enjoys getting up with babies in the middle of the night while he sleeps. No, she endures many things that she prefers not to do, because she loves her husband and needs her family home to be peaceful and functional. He is often motivated by learning that her mood, energy and attitude toward him might greatly improve if there is effort on his part to build skills that will increase reciprocity in the marriage. While that may seem an obvious conclusion to a neurotypical, cause and effect is sometimes quite challenging for the ASD brain and abstract concepts like reciprocity and mutuality need to be broken down into specifics. As I tell him and all of my clients, there is always hope for a marriage when BOTH partners are willing to learn, bend and grow.

When a neurotypical wife has twisted herself into a pretzel with the cumulative effect of accommodating an ASD husband’s needs, the impact can be quite substantial. Knowing that a meltdown or shutdown is looming creates a sense of hypervigilance. This contributes to a sense of danger inside of her, instilling fear, and often resulting in outward expressions of anger. Chronic stress, heightened cortisol, adrenal overload – the long-term impact of “rules” in an ASD household have detrimental health implications for the NT wife. The one-sided nature of the neurodiverse household is certainly a contributing factor to Ongoing Traumatic Relationship Syndrome, and it manifests as mental health challenges and chronic health issues. Righting the balance in a neurodiverse marriage is essential for the neurotypical wife’s wellness.

(Also worth noting: A NT wife is often raising neurodiverse children. All of whom likely have their own unspoken rules, preferences and sensitivities. This post cannot begin to even delve into the complication of managing multiple ASD individuals who have a plethora of rules in regard to “how things should go” in daily life. It all contributes to overload for the neurotypical wife, who for the sake of survival must keep it all in mind, accommodate and then spend significant time diffusing the result from upset to routines and expectations.)

8 thoughts on “The tyranny of ASD rules in a neurodiverse marriage

  1. I was able to identify with many areas of this. The scenarios are a bit different bur enough to recognise the behaviour.

    What I don’t get is why he’s so much worse. The doctor says some of it is male menopause but he used to be able to control it more. It is not as though he can’t.

    He is alienating all of our friends. Then feels rejected because they don’t come around anymore.

  2. Replying to Melissa. Same here—increased anxiety after major surgery has led to the same issue. We are losing friends as a result. Not fair!

  3. “silently shown him love by keeping his needs ever-present in her mind for the entirety of their marriage” I recently described just this lovingly with my husband and he sneered at me sarcastically saying ” aren’t you just a saint!” Left me speechless and crushed.

  4. wow fantastic,this is my marriage,my husband has aspergers plus ADHD,now he is diagnosed at long last i understand,but for years i tried to follow THE RULES to keep husband and children[both on spectrum]happy,of course it never worked but i hated them to be upset,and i hated hubby shouting if i broke the rules,every thing was on his terms,however he is now diagnosed,i understand aspergers,however i got councelling for me,i learnt to be assertive[but not agressive],life is better,i understand his total need for his routine,i leave him to it,but now i have learnt to love and repect me too,

  5. Love this! Also, what’s Ongoing Traumatic Relationship Syndrome? I feel like I deal with that lol

  6. I am a gay man, in a long term relationship/marriage with my husband. Much of what is in this article is him. We are now in the middle of a 3 day shutdown after an episode from him yesterday. I am at my wits end.

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