When the neurodiverse marriage has spiraled into severe disenchantment, the ASD husband begins to view his neurotypical wife in an adversarial manner. The autistic partner is naturally self-focused, and his mind-blindness does not enable him to easily put context toward many of her expectations. He starts to regard his wife as an encumbrance to peace and pleasure in his life. It feels to him like she has an exhaustive list of instructions, obligations and tasks that he must fulfill. Over time, many of her expectations and requests are met with resistance, opposition or disregard. Why does the autistic husband feel justified in treating his wife as the enemy?
When the neurotypical wife has been discarded as the special interest, the ASD husband develops a certain sense of detachment from her. He is much less motivated to please her. While he was perhaps seemingly very helpful, reliable and eager to cooperate in the beginning of their relationship, this has been significantly decreased after cohabitation or marriage. Often, his resentment begins because of the disruption to his space and the cloud of expectation for connection that lingers near him at all times – her relational needs are no longer compartmentalized to their planned time together. Instead, her neurotypical nature anticipates conversation in the morning, after work, during dinner, before bedtime. She expects help with household labor, and quality time together. She awaits sex, and intimacy. She views their life together as one of collaboration and partnership. But the autistic husband’s nature is not designed for continuous interaction day and night, and nor is he able to anticipate any of these needs, despite the regularity in which they occur. The more she seeks connection, the further he withdraws.
When children have entered the picture and life is considerably more complicated, with many moving parts – the wife is quickly worn to the bone of doing it all, seemingly alone. At this juncture, the requests from her are not just relationship-oriented, they are much more practical in nature. If anything, she has to prioritize her requests, because pleading for relational intimacy has yielded few if any results. Now, she just needs HELP. Functional help with chores, kids, and overall juggling of adult marital life. This is when things tend to lean toward an exceptionally adversarial dynamic, if it has not already devolved into one earlier in the marriage.
The more that the neurotypical wife requests, the more resistant the ASD husband is to cooperation. He may go out of his way to avoid meeting her “demands.” He may even do the exact opposite of what she requests, so as to fully prevent her from receiving what she wants.
Why does an autistic husband withhold from his wife in this manner?
Seeking control to cope with anxiety, and perceived injustice, is often the underlying function of an ASD man’s resistance to cooperate with his wife’s reasonable expectations. Due to his mind-blindness, he has difficulty understanding “why” her requests – like taking out the trash, or doing the dishes, or putting a kid to bed, or cleaning up vomit, or transporting a kid from soccer practice to home – are a priority. Due to his selfism, he is focused on his own prerogatives and not internally juggling the needs and obligations of each family member. Instead, he views his wife as funneling responsibility, demands and work upon him that in his mind, are simply not his job nor within his agenda. This creates resentment, which turns into contempt, and then he acts out with passive aggressive punishment. He may also have a visceral distaste for being told what to do, causing an automatic avoidance of her instruction. He attributes her directives as intentionally designed to punish him (or keep him away from what he truly wants to be doing), and he is angered by the control he feels exerted over him. He views her as responsible for his miserable laundry list of responsibilities that are created from HER priorities, not his. She is the enemy of his agenda, not his partner or teammate.
The adversarial dynamic in a neurodiverse marriage can escalate to the point that he is withholding far more than just practical help. His brain may be hit with dopamine each time he feels the satisfaction of controlling a situation by withholding from his wife. This actually increases his interest in hearing her and he is listening to her needs more than ever – but with ill intent, using it as a means to punish by withholding, refusing and treating her as an enemy. However, he also genuinely – with his black and white thinking – believes himself to be correct. He has firmly concluded that his wife has earned this treatment from him through her demanding behavior. In his perception, her requests/demands are not reasonable and they do not consider his agenda, feelings or interests.
Other areas of life can also be drastically impacted by his belief that she is an enemy that must be contained and held at arm’s length. He may assert rigid boundaries with finances, knowing this is an exceptionally effective way to control her freedoms and security. Shutting her out of accounts, closing access to funds, doling out an allowance. Treating her as an opponent to control or thwart, instead of a partner to trust. The more she asks for transparency, the more he is given the opportunity to resist and withhold, which feels soothing to him and entrenches him further into the habit. He may extend this oppositional resistance into all areas of their life – breaking agreements about weekend plans, refusing to participate in fun outings, thwarting special occasions that she’s put effort into planning, reneging on commitments in all areas of life, etc.
Stonewalling is a common way in which the ASD husband effectively removes any chance at cooperation, by fully checking out and weaponizing his silence. Without any communication, his refusals and false promises cannot be discussed. It is an effective way to withhold partnership and punish his wife for her expectations that feel oppressive.
It’s worth noting that ASD often has blended features with other disorders that are certainly not “just” autism. It’s very important to know that some ASD men do not have oppositional or defiant tendencies – they sincerely desire to reduce conflict and communicate more effectively with their wives. They do not pursue control through withholding, refusing help or treating wives as adversaries to defeat. However, a great many men with autism DO have an underlying proclivity toward oppositional behavior, and it sometimes morphs into serious personality, integrity and character issues.
The impact of being treated as an opponent instead of a partner is yet another layer of emotional deprivation for the neurotypical partner. It is not just the lack of emotional intimacy and empathy, it is not just all the accommodations she must make for his inability to understand her needs, to account for his sensory preferences, his requirements for restoration and sleep, his minor control issues that quickly add up – it is being treated like an enemy on a day to day basis. It is noticing that he goes out of his way to deny her, to refuse her, to withhold from her. It is feeling like a mother with a rebellious teenage son whom she must beg, plead and cajole into cooperating on even the most fundamental of levels. She starts to realize that everyone else in his life receives a better version of him. If a stranger asked him to take out the trash, he probably would. But if it’s a request from her, then his reflexive response is a solid (or passive) “no.” It’s her, and solely her, that he seeks to resist. And that is soul-crushing for a neurotypical wife who married her husband in hopes of having a tender, connected and loyal marriage with mutuality and partnership. She vowed to love him above anyone else, and it seems that he has endeavored to do exactly the opposite – in all things, as usual.
Pathological Demand Avoidance (PDA) is a complex topic that will be defined and explored more in further posts to come.
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4 thoughts on “The Adversarial Dynamic of a neurodiverse marriage”
Amazing article. Reminds me of me and my adult son though, not partner.
I suspect ASD, whether ODD or PDA I’m not sure. It became an increasingly adverse relationship, unless it’s virtually totally on his terms, which are mostly totally unreasonable. (Though can occasionally be kind).
In the end, I found, there is virtually no real relationship left. It’s v sad. And I would imagine any future relationships he does have with girls will be similarly fraught.
Heartbreaking, but where to go and how to go from that point in the relationship?
Just hearing about Persistent Demand Avoidance. As a husband who went through a lot of what the wife in the story went through, I’ll just say this can happen with the sexes reversed as well.
Now I’m thinking some of my ex’s struggles and statements around intimacy were probably related to PDA?
– I know you want sex but I just can’t.
– Stop asking me for sex.
– Maybe if you stopped asking me how I’m doing and what I like and caring about whether I have a good time it would be better – it feels like so much pressure.
– I pray every day, God, can I have sex with my husband today? But I never feel like I can.
– Maybe if you never asked me for sex and just waited for me to offer, that would work better. (I said, that’s only happened like twice in our marriage. I don’t think that’s a good plan.)
Maybe these were all results of the PDA and her trying to figure out how to manage it.
All kinds of other behaviors that seem to match too. Most requests and suggestions in life were automatically a no at first. Lots of controlling behaviors from my point of view. Out of about 4 different therapists or pastoral counselors we saw together on an ongoing bases, she was the one that walked out and ended every one of those situations.
Too late now to learn about any of this though. She filed for separation 5 years ago, kicked me out of the house, took the kids until I got a forensic psychologist to do a custody evaluation and now I parent the kids 50/50. I think my oldest child may be affected by the same thing though.