One oddly pervasive misconception about autism is that individuals with ASD are unable to lie. It appears that the lack of tactfulness commonly associated with ASD has been frequently confused for an inability to be deceitful. Being “blunt” when his wife asks how she looks in a dress is certainly not the same thing as being “unable” to lie. While the abrasive observations that comes along with ASD can be problematic for an intimate relationship, it is small in comparison to the damage that dishonesty inflicts upon the neurodiverse marriage.
ASD individuals are certainly capable of lying, and many are quite resistant to sharing information with their spouses. Dishonesty in marriage certainly isn’t unique to autism – obviously, no one is questioning whether neurotypicals are capable of duplicitous behavior. But, it is worth examining the ‘myth’ of ASD absolute truthfulness, because so many NT wives feel stunned that her husband is dishonest with her in very significant ways.
Why do ASD husbands have difficulty being honest with their neurotypical wives?
Mind-blindness is an underpin of secretive behavior from an ASD spouse. The autistic husband has difficulty understanding how his wife thinks or feels, and he also struggles to correctly predict how his wife will react to certain occurrences or situations that inevitably arise in marriage. He may not place value on the importance of transparency between spouses, and he struggles to see why the lack of it feels so betraying to her. The ASD husband often prioritizes autonomy over mutuality, and again cannot understand his wife’s insistence that she be privy to his personal decisions (even if they impact her).
Anxiety is also an underlying factor to consider when ASD husbands fail to be honest with their NT wives. He dreads any response whatsoever from his wife when she is made aware of his mistakes, poor choices or other decisions that impact herself and the family. (He generally predicts that she will react with rage and anger, and even if her reaction is quite moderate – he may experience it as overwhelmingly negative and catastrophic due to his anxiety.) Shame is also interwoven with anxiety, and ASD men often have a significant sense of shame due to long feeling inadequate in a neurotypical world. He also may seek to avoid any input from her, because he fears being engulfed by her emotions or diverted from his agenda.
Conversely, a lack of foresight can be an elemental issue of the ASD husband’s dishonesty, and is the opposite of an anxious ASD spouse – consequences aren’t real (or imagined) unless he’s currently enduring them. Some partners simply fail to consider nor care what the unintended outcome might be of his secretive choices. If a blip of concern regarding consequences happens to cross his mind, he dismisses it as something he’ll deal with later. His focus is on getting what he wants, not evaluating risk/reward. A lot of smaller lies fall into this mindset, too – reflexively lying because it’s the path of least resistance from his wife.
Control is by far the biggest factor in why ASD husbands choose to be secretive, outright lie or withhold information from their neurotypical wives. It’s worth clarifying that maintaining a sense of control is a generalized coping mechanism for ASD anxiety, not exclusive to secret-keeping. However, when control is the function of his secretive behavior, it is usually self-serving and in pursuit of his agenda. Those with autism are led by their rigid black and white thinking, which informs their notion that right and wrong is absolute. If he believes his secret reflects the right way to do something, then he will not risk being thwarted by consulting his wife! Black and white thinking also impacts his notion of what constitutes a “need to know basis,” and he can convince himself that his wife is not entitled to the privilege of information. Withholding information can also be a means in which to defy his wife’s expectation of honesty. In cases where he is intending to be vindictive, keeping information from her is a satisfying means in which to do so. He gets to control the output of information and thereby have a leg up from her, when he so often feels like her social-emotional skills provide an advantage in life. Additionally, many men with autism will argue that omitting the truth is certainly not a lie and nor is it dishonest. This makes perfect sense in their literal brain – a non-verbal inaction (withholding) cannot be a verbalized action (lie).
What sort of secrets do ASD men typically keep?
The most common issues of deception that I hear about in coaching are:
- Financial: secret debt, undisclosed earnings, private bank accounts, hidden spending, unknown credit cards, lending money without agreement, neglecting bills, employment status change, business failure, major purchases without consultation
- Sexual: extreme porn addictions, failure to disclose true orientation, betrayal, history
- Relational: emotional attachments to other women, breaking marital agreements regarding other people (children, parents, in-laws, friends)
How does the ASD partner’s secret-keeping impact the neurotypical wife and marriage?
When dishonesty is a significant problem in a neurodiverse marriage, it often compounds the despair a neurotypical wife feels due to the baseline emotional deprivation that exists in their marriage. Neurotypical relationships tend to feel blindsided that such an emotionally intimate relationship could have such deceit, but neurodiverse marriages suffer from the sense of a double blow. The message to the neurotypical wife from her autistic husband is: “Not only do I not value emotional reciprocity with you on a daily basis in the ways that most married couples would expect and share, I am not interested in even telling you the truth. I am not interested in trusting you with any information that might change my access to what I want. I don’t value your input, and I see it as potentially thwarting my outcome. Nor do I think you deserve to have access to information that may impact you. I also fail to see how important trust is in our relationship and if you try to convince me otherwise, I will just view you as overly emotional, illogical and hypercritical.”
Secret-keeping, lies and withholding of information are crazy-making in any relationship, but it is extremely deleterious for a neurotypical wife in a neurodiverse marriage. It increases her trauma reaction that is likely already present, creates more hypervigilance, and usually she has physical symptoms from the stress of realizing how many miles apart she and her husband exist from even a modicum of reciprocity in their marriage. It also reinforces that deep, pervasive, devastating sense of “aloneness” in her “marriage.”