After being discarded as the special interest of her ASD husband, the neurotypical wife is desperate to understand what is happening. She becomes obsessed with decoding her autistic spouse, though ASD may not even be on her radar for months or even years. She tirelessly strives to understand his myriad of unfamiliar behaviors that ultimately feel like a bait and switch from their earlier relationship. As his neglect and emotional deprivation of her needs continues in duration, her effort to understand him becomes more and more frantic. The NT wife simultaneously blames herself for his discard, and searches for an underlying source of explanation. Additionally, so many of his behaviors – independent of the relationship, but limited to home life – seem baffling and not representative of anything previously experienced.
When she eventually seeks out consultation to make sense of her lonesome relationship, her insidious despair, her relentless anxiety, her physical symptoms from ongoing stress that will eventually be diagnosed as chronic illness – her topical focus always circles back to her husband. Every aspect of his behavior is reported to the therapist and her words tumble out at lightning speed – she has so much to get out, and isn’t easily diverted. She’s wholly focused on understanding him, longing for a returned connection, avoiding his meltdowns, and preventing his shutdowns. Although codependency isn’t a diagnosis, the therapist may use the term as a label for her. But is she truly a codependent individual who sought out a codependent relationship?
It’s my belief that the nuances of the neurotypical wife’s hyperfocus on her husband’s behavior is much broader than the traditional idea of what encompasses codependency. The term codependent is mired in misplaced shame for most women, despite the fact that codependency develops out of profound trauma, abuse or neglect – usually stemming from childhood. A child does not choose this type of upbringing, and there is no self-blame or shame necessary when an adult struggles with the effects of being poorly nurtured. The label can be unhelpful to a neurotypical wife because she is already dealing with the shame and confusion of being discarded, unseen and devalued in her marriage. She may frequently be told by her ASD husband that the problem is her, not him. Being termed “codependent” when seeking help from a therapist, even without negative insinuation, can feel criminalizing – even though it’s merely a matter of describing a behavior pattern. It also fails to truly see the big picture of neurodiverse marriages.
It’s true that someone raised in chaotic or controlling circumstances often has an under-developed sense of personhood, due to deficits of caregivers or circumstances. Adult children of these environments are vulnerable to codependent tendencies, having been conditioned to minimize their own needs and stay focused on others who demanded it. However, there is a key difference between the neurotypical wife and the ordinary codependent who is compelled to be a rescuer: the autistic husband masked during the early part of their relationship, before marriage. Why is this significant? Because it means that the neurotypical wife chose her marriage based on the dating dynamic of reciprocity. She did not get married with the notion of toxic selflessness on the agenda. She did not expect to spend her marital life obsessively researching psychology, neurology and developmental disorders, pouring energy exclusively into her husband – just to obtain basic insight and a modicum of mutuality from him.
Is this a universal phenomenon? Of course not. In some instances, the neurotypical wife WAS in the position of mothering and managing her ASD husband prior to marriage. Additionally, sometimes there were clues despite the masking, but childhood perceptions were still a blindspot – which is certainly understandable. However, a significant majority of neurotypical women did not establish a codependent relationship with their ASD husband prior to marriage, and symptoms did not develop until after she was dropped as the special interest.
What symptoms does a neurotypical wife exhibit which lend toward a codependent label from therapists or other helpers?
- excessive focus on his behavior and desperately trying to change it
- pleading and begging for him to adjust his behavior and cooperate with her
- frequently ruminating about how to influence or convince him to change
- needing acknowledgement of reality from him about his behavior
- solely contributing to the care, concern and maintenance of the marriage
- caregiving at the expense of herself
- over-functioning in all aspects of parenting
- over-functioning in all practical management of the household
- acting as a buffer between him and their children or extended family
- shielding or disguising his poor behavior to the children
- managing his lack of executive function for daily life
- accommodating his rules, preferences and moods
- taking on blame to appease and avoid punishment
- accepting excessive control to keep the peace or avoid conflict
- sacrificing her feelings and needs
- tolerating a sexual dynamic that is not aligned with her desires
- having her own mood be impacted by his mood
- her sense of peace being measured by the relationship’s well-being
- taking on the prevention of his meltdowns and shutdowns
- avoiding conflict for fear of his meltdown, shutdown, or shut out
- walking on eggshells around his cognitive distortions
- soothing his rejection sensitivity dysphoria
- acting in the parent role of managing his access to poor choices
- fear of ending the relationship prematurely (in case he changes)
- difficulty setting firm boundaries
- unreservedly loyal despite his poor treatment of her
- taking on the sole responsibility of pursuing help for him
- failing to trust her own perceptions of the marriage (or it’s direction)
(Some neurotypical wives may read this list with a feeling of shame. It’s important for every wife to practice self-compassion at recognizing how much she has tried her very best to change the course of her marriage. It’s especially important to know that she cannot do his work for him to change the relationship.)
Despite how consumed she is by her husband’s behavior, most NT wives lack a fundamental aspect of true codependency: the desire for her ASD husband to stay dysfunctional. The neurotypical wife deeply desires for his best self to return.
Frequently, NT wives were cognizant of the dynamics in their childhood that put them at greater risk for choosing a dysfunctional partner. Possessing the introspection of an emotionally intelligent person, NT wives often dated with this awareness in mind, looking for qualities in a partner that signaled reliability, responsibility, competency and mutuality. They were drawn to the intelligent man with a strong work ethic, professional success and principled nature. He seemed steady in life, work, and she was dazzled by his single-minded devotion to her. With good reason, she believed that marrying this man was a wise and safe decision, and would result in a continued mutuality.
Does such a thoughtful choice sound like someone who craves becoming enslaved to her partner’s turbulence? His savior, rescuer, mother and caretaker?
When the mask of her autistic husband is not only off, but flung aside and perhaps never to be worn inside the home ever again, the neurotypical wife is emotionally shattered. She reverts over time to the coping skills that were learned long ago in her first chaotic environment. If she is an adult child conditioned toward toxic selflessness (aka codependency), then it is her most primal adaptation toward survival. Neurodiverse marriages often exist in survival mode.
The neurotypical wife sought something very different from her childhood. The man behind the mask is her special interest, but he isn’t her husband.