The Surrogate Mother & Defiant Child in a ND Marriage

Healthy spouses have no desire to parent each other. They want a reciprocal partner, lover, companion, and equal. Ideally, a marriage is complementary. Both partners bring different strengths and gifts to the relationship, contributing equally to the care and maintenance of the marriage – but not the upkeep, nor management, of the other person. Healthy husbands and wives do not want to supervise, monitor or attempt to control their spouse. Most importantly: a spouse should not be placed in the position of being tasked with acting as a surrogate parent.

In neurodiverse marriages, it’s not uncommon for a spouse to be parentified. Sometimes, it’s the ASD spouse who behaves in a fatherly way toward his wife. The circumstances of an autistic husband treating his NT wife in a parental manner are different from what occurs in reverse. For this discussion, we will focus on the occurrence of a mother-son dynamic between a neurotypical wife and her ASD spouse.

Initially, it might appear that her husband’s unmasking (and shedding of personal responsibility) is actually him ‘trusting her’ with his vulnerabilities. It can feel emotionally intimate to experience her stoic, intelligent, responsible, hard-working husband ‘needing’ her to ease certain aspects of life. She is likely a very natural caretaker, and it feels good to show her love through alleviating burdens from her husband.

The autistic husband is content to relinquish responsibility if it means more attention can be directed toward his special interest.

Does the neurodiverse husband want his wife to be a surrogate mother?

When her mothering provides comfort and relieves him of unwanted responsibility or duty – he is more than happy to be infantilized. It’s quite convenient for him to have a shield from aspects of adult life that he finds boring. When he’s hurt or sad, he likes that she’s consoling. But when his wife is parental in the sense of holding him accountable to obligations, expectations and agreements – he is often resentful, resistant and uncooperative. Due to his black and white thinking, he may struggle with viewing her reaction to his lack of personal responsibility as all good, or all bad, and extrapolate it to her value as a spouse. His good wife is a nurturing mother, or his bad wife is a rule-enforcing parent. The neurotypical wife experiences her husband as a child in two forms: the helpless little boy who is in need of rescuing, or an angry teenage boy, committed to defying his parent’s directions.

If the autistic spouse is demand-avoidant, then he can be particularly resistant to all cooperation, and ultra-protective of his ability to say no. He disregards the bigger picture of what is reasonable and beneficial for the higher good of the marriage and family. She becomes his nagging mother, pleading for him to wake up, get a shower, go to work, take his medicine, eat his meals, spend time with the kids (and keep them safe), pay the bills, do the dishes, etc. Even when it does not serve him to resist her, he is compelled to defy her ‘demands.’ He would rather put his job in jeopardy, have poor hygiene, stay hungry, skip his medicine, ignore the kids and stay up all night – if it means he doesn’t have to obey “mom.” It’s his family who bears the brunt of his resistance when he makes choices that result in personal dysregulation.

What does the mother-son dynamic look like in a neurodiverse marriage?

  • Time Management
    • Excessive or dysregulated sleep is an intertwined aspect of poor time management. He may struggle with getting up for work on time, creating fear in his wife that he could lose his job. She takes on the role of cajoling him out of bed and hurrying him along to get to work. When he returns home from work, he may expect a nap. After resting and leaving her to handle the night-time routine with children or be alone without companionship, he turns to his special interest. She points out to him the cycle of staying up too late and being tired the next day, but he resists a reasonable bed time. She may become obsessed with monitoring his bedtime in hopes of changing the cycle of conflict around his morning routine.
    • Time-blindness may occur throughout his day, which becomes disruptive on a number of levels – children cannot be forgotten at school, extra-curricular activities have certain time frames, dinner cannot wait until all hours. Even if they have agreed to a division of labor in regard to time management, she often finds herself reminding him through texts or phone calls to not neglect time restraint obligations.
  • Hygiene
    • Many ASD men are meticulous with their bodily self-care, but a good portion of men on the spectrum struggle with regular showering and tooth brushing. They may shower, but not wash their hair or body. They may brush their teeth, but less often than is necessary for a wife to feel like kissing her husband. She may simultaneously be dealing with a husband who refuses to improve his hygiene, yet also expects affection. Reminding him to shower regularly starts to feel like begging a pre-teen boy to take care of body odor. She takes on this responsibility both because it is difficult to tolerate as his companion, but she is also aware that he is harming himself socially at work (and thereby potentially risking his job).
  • Health
    • Many men with ASD receive treatment for co-occurring mental health issues, such as anxiety, explosive behavior, excessive irritability, ADHD, OCD, etc. Since she is the one who bears the brunt of his shutdowns, meltdowns, verbal assaults or other behaviors which hurt or harm the family environment, she is very invested in his continued treatment. However, the autistic husband may periodically resist consultation, struggle with making and attending his appointments, or taking his medication regularly.
    • Along with medication management, therapy is often a necessity and lifeline for the neurotypical wife. If her husband is inconsistent with appointments, non-compliant with instructions or otherwise refusing to participate on
  • Relationship Maintenance & Care
    • She is usually the one who must initiate, schedule, plan, remind and, at times, enforce dedicated couple time together that isn’t merely parallel play. (An example: he avoids an agreed upon date night by sleeping, or other distraction.) A wife does not want to be the sole pursuer in her marriage. She wants to feel desired, sought after, valued and cherished. Having to solely take charge of their emotional intimacy, and in many cases their physical intimacy, is demoralizing for her.
      • Most ASD men are content with what is essentially parallel play. They are happy to have their wife next to them as they watch their tv shows, scroll on their phone, play video games or otherwise engage in rest, relaxation or sometimes their special interest. The neurodiverse couple may do some shared activities together, such as exercising, gardening, attending church, etc. – but it is a side-by-side endeavor, not an interactive and connective experience for her.
  • Communication & Conflict Management
    • It is not uncommon for an explosive fight or bitter argument to end without resolution. In similar fashion, behavior that occurs during a meltdown will often go unacknowledged by the autistic husband. He will frequently expect his neurotypical wife to move on, without any repair. The NT wife needs and expects a follow-up discussion, but she will find herself approaching him first, much in the way a mother prompts a young child to apologize and take accountability for his actions. She may be met with an angry teenage boy who is unwilling to see his part in the conflict.
    • When the ASD husband has perceived a rejection from his wife, or a criticism, he may stonewall her or react with excessive anger and accusation. He expects profuse apologies and soothing from her in order to move past the event, even if his own actions were inappropriate and her intention was not to criticize. Just as a mother-child relationship is not reciprocal – because parents put aside their own feelings to help a child regulate – the NT wife puts aside her perspective to soothe his. Otherwise, she knows that he’s perfectly capable and happy to stonewall for days or weeks.
  • Co-Parenting
    • ASD men vary in their fathering, but it’s characteristic for an autistic husband to struggle with best practices of parenting. The NT wife often feels her children’s needs are poorly met by the ASD parent, unless he is meticulously instructed, especially during younger years when babies, toddlers and school-age children cannot care for themselves. The neurotypical wife takes on the task of instructing, directing, managing, prompting and correcting behavior that isn’t in the best interest of children. She may have safety concerns that require lots of vigilant planning on her part to prevent neglect.
      • Here is an example of what I commonly hear: “I have to do all the ‘thinking’ for everyone in this house. If he takes an aspirin, my mind has to consider if he put the bottle away. Because he’s left out bottles of medicine before, without lids, and our toddlers have grabbed them. If he decides to make dinner, I’m not even worrying about the mess. I’m thinking about the knives he forgets to put away. If he agrees to take them to the park, I have to remind him that he can’t sit on his phone and ignore their whereabouts. I have to remind him to bring water bottles. I know that it’s best if I pack them, because he may decide he won’t take them at all if he has to make one. If a kid has soccer practice and I have a work meeting, I know that I have to instruct him how to prioritize dinner and homework and showers around a 45 minute practice. I also know that the kids will likely be overtired the next day, because there’s no way he’s getting them to bed on time. He might decide it’s fine to skip homework, or even dinner. He cuts corners. He doesn’t seem to understand what can be cut, and what has to be prioritized. Another issue is that if he skips feeding them one night, it becomes a reasonable choice to him for other nights. He pushes the envelope of how much he can get away with not doing, or not remembering, all to save himself from effort or responsibility.”
  • Household & Meals
    • Some ASD men are hunger-blind, especially when absorbed in their work or special interest. They can forget to eat, forget to hydrate, etc. When he starts to get irritable and impatient, she’s the one who asks – have you eaten today?
    • Unless food or cooking is a special interest, it is often a challenge for an ASD man to put together meals. This can result in choosing not to eat if his wife isn’t available to make his meals. He may prefer the discomfort of hunger over the discomfort of providing food for himself.
    • Grocery shopping (or any errand-running) can be a challenge. If it isn’t an easy or familiar task, it can turn into excessive texting or calling her with questions. He isn’t sure where various things are located in the store, and finding them without her explicit instructions seems too overwhelming.
    • While some men with ASD are vigilant about cleaning (sometimes due to co-morbid OCD), many ASD spouses are resistant to contributing to household chores. The NT wife becomes the naggy mother, begging him to take on some contribution to the house. Sometimes she may notice him acting out – ruining her clothes in the laundry, parenting the children for a few hours but allowing them to trash the house, etc. This manipulation can effectively discourage her from pursuing his help, since it just creates more work.
  • Special Interests
    • Autistic partners have difficulty withdrawing from preferred activities. Special interests can be all-consuming, at the expense of time for the marriage and family. When he chooses to not abide by agreements for structuring time around the special interest, the neurotypical wife is in the position of either enforcing his cooperation, or accepting that he will not prioritize other obligations nor keep his agreements.
  • Money
    • Many men with ASD are quite frugal, and sometimes border on miserly. However, there are men on the spectrum who struggle with following a budget, paying bills on time, or having restraint in spending on their special interest. This can result in the neurotypical wife having to monitor spending and initiate confrontation when her husband acts in his own interest vs. the well-being of the family.
    • If a job loss occurs, unexpectedly or not, the ASD man might not prioritize job-seeking. Not having a routine usually devolves into an absence of any structure. Extra time for his special interest can result in a resistance toward seeking more employment. His wife takes on the parental role of prompting him to search for jobs, urgently explaining that they cannot survive without his income.

What is the impact on the neurotypical wife becoming her husband’s surrogate mother?

The neurotypical wife feels put in an impossible situation when her partner will not manage his time, sleep, job, special interest, self-care, health, obligations, parenting, finances or contribution to the marriage relationship. She begins to feel disdain, contempt, fear and resentment toward him. She also begins to loathe herself, as it harms her dignity as a woman to be mothering her husband. It feels emotionally incestuous to carry on a dual relationship of both mother and lover (though, often there is a significant sexual deficit in the marriage as well). A nuance that is especially crazy-making for a neurotypical wife, and different from the typical codependent marriage, is that she recalls her husband being competent prior to marriage. She wants and hopes for his responsibility to return.

Why does she participate in the mother-son dynamic?

The autistic husband rarely descends into avoiding all personal responsibility immediately. Before children are involved, it can be annoying, but not unendurable. Over time, and the addition of life milestones, she is more entrenched. His resistance increases proportionally. She is invested in trying to hold together a marriage while juggling multiple balls in the air. Sometimes it seems as though survival is at stake, if her husband is cavalier about his mental health, his employment, or is highly careless with the kids, or indiscriminate in his spending. It feels very frightening for her to consider the consequences of disengaging from parenting him.

Children add a complication and vulnerability to her time, resources and freedom. She can’t ignore their myriad of needs. She can’t bring herself to not be a buffer between his choices and their best interest. If they are neurodiverse like their father, that lends a multi-layered level of complication. Life is often spent in survival mode, and her options feel very few. The amount of energy poured into begging for cooperation and help is a chronic stress that diminishes her health and resiliency. She notices that he does not remember her instructions from day to day; she repeats herself endlessly. He is committed to helplessness. Her husband does not behave as a partner or an equal, but as a child in a man’s body who requires just as much mothering, if not more, than the actual children.

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4 thoughts on “The Surrogate Mother & Defiant Child in a ND Marriage

  1. As the wife of an undiagnosed Aspie, I found myself saying, ” Yes, yes, yes!” throughout this whole article. The only thing I could possibly add, is that after a couple of decades of this, you will be broken in mind, body, and soul. You will even cease to fight , because you will cease to care. Basically, you are married to a cyborg, half ” man”, half robot, and you will go unfulfilled in every aspect of marriage, and life. The extreme mental exhaustion I feel after raising 4 children alone, and mothering a 5th man- child, is enough to destroy my will to even exist. They never change…. so if you thinking that maybe one day things will get better, maybe one day you will ” break through”, I’m here to burst your bubble. The older they get, the worse it gets, and the meaner they get. You will think horrid thoughts, that a human being should never think…such as, “Maybe I wouldn’t even care if he died”. My ” marriage” to a man with autism has been soul crushing grief for 25 years. Please, if you have the chance, and you are young……leave. Just leave. It’s the only thing that will preserve your sanity.

  2. Try 40 and see how you feel. At first, I was encouraged to think the lack of physical affection, mutuality, keeping his word and immaturity was my fault. Then, as my family members died away, I could see that it was his autism but by then , I was physically shot, dependent on him for medical benefits and totally burned out .Only suicide gives me an out for my responsibility for him- but for our cats who are my children, I would be dead.. Leave while you have the chance. I will probably die here.

  3. So what is the solution to this dynamic? I am also autistic but because I’m socialized as a woman I end up doing too much executive functioning for the family. If I back off and allow natural consequences I’m also exposed to the crankiness and negativity of poor health from poor self care. The other day he let our kid go to school in a sweater with the weather in the upper 70s. So many conversations. The Fair Play book. He blames the ADHD and autism but i think a huge amount of it is gender stuff too. I’ve seen a ton of autistic women complaining that their partner in a cishet relationship is not pulling their weight and the one with a diagnosed executive functioning impairment has to manage things.

  4. This inequality of responsibility has been a huge problem after the ND children. I was too busy keeping peace and thought myself unworthy from my upbringing to know that my boundaries were being crossed over and over. It was one thing to do the lion’s share of the housework and parenting and another to live walking on eggshells in fear of an abusive tirade. The blame and the lack of acknowledgment of my contribution, the fatigue , the PTSD from the domestic violence, all of it caused a loss of confidence, second guessing myself and a withered shell of who ai once was. It took me leaving to begin to see who i was and who he was. As an empath, i physically became sick and am still dealing with anxiety and stress as I still carry a ridiculous load divorced because he argues responsibility financially and can’t understand the emotions of tue kids.

    I’m utterly proud of the work i have done to get to a place in my recovery where I’m much less resentful and able to detach from his manipulations and criticisms. I know now the behaviors occur because he is dysregulated, not because there is any truth to his words.

    He will never change because he can’t see the problems and denies all our pain. I am learning to have more realistic expectations of him. I of course, have all the relationship power. I don’t have mind blindness and the gaps. I know what my kids need. Yes, he will probably always cause me more work because of the kids, but it’s a hell of a lot easier and feels better not living with his constant negativity and bullying. I know he can never provide me what I need and that it’s ok as long as I do so. Instead of fending off his behaviors and my hurt about it, i put that time to self care. The rest is the same but the difference is i’m better. I now have hope.

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