In some neurodiverse marriages, a father-daughter dynamic develops early on in the relationship. The ASD partner appoints himself as the authority figure, devolving over time into micromanaging his wife.
It’s important to note that this type of parental interplay is highly different from the mother-son dynamic in ND marriages.
What factors contribute to the father-daughter construct within a ND marriage?
- The initial and mutual perception of his wisdom
ASD men are often brilliant, logical, analytical thinkers. Their gifts and talents serve them well in professions such as a science, technology, software, engineering, medicine, finance, business, military, law, academia, mechanics, etc. Autistic men often pursue careers that are related to their special interests, which creates a relentless work ethic and a level of expertise often unmatched by their colleagues. Unlike their growing up years with limited social success, professional life is sometimes the first place that an autistic individual feels accepted for his strengths. Often, the ASD man is openly admired in his career, with peers recognizing his contributions and achievements, and it feels very validating to him. The ASD man’s intellectual strength is an aspect about himself that he implicitly trusts. A lifetime’s worth of unswerving confidence in his mental acuity, alongside the workplace admiration, can develop a sense of superior judgment within himself.
(Note: While there are ASD men who struggle with employment due to poor executive functioning and/or co-occurring mental health issues, a large percentage of men with Asperger’s Syndrome are successful and confident in their professional life.)
From an early stage in the relationship, neurotypical women admire the ASD boyfriend’s professional success and aptitude. She feels trusting of the confident strength projected from his unwavering decisiveness. When it comes to decision-making for the marriage or relationship in specific areas (like finances), he speaks with an absolutism that conveys his utter certainty of the path forward. His style is different from hers, as she is much more likely to seek out input from other sources while thoughtfully formulating an opinion or preference. He seems to know exactly what he wants – without deliberation, consultation or discussion. The wife may not share his self-assuredness. She may hesitate to disrupt his assumption of being the primary and wisest decision maker.
- The NT wife’s preference for marital harmony
The neurotypical wife usually notices that her ASD husband feels very, very strongly about his opinions. She may sense an impatience from him to “hurry up” and agree with his plan, or even an unspoken disposition from him that discussion is not welcomed. She may very well have ideas that she would like for him to consider more carefully, but her priority is connection with him. She values their unity much more so than she values pushing her own preferences (and creating conflict), so she is flexible with acquiescing to her husband’s inclinations. He begins to expect her full and total cooperation, reacting in ways that withdraw his love and approval when she voices feedback he doesn’t like. This is painful to her, and she doubles her effort to preserve their mutual agreeability – especially in the earlier stages of the marriage. She might also be in the midst of discardment as the special interest, so she is also very vulnerable to trying to please him.
- The NT wife’s conditioning from childhood
The neurotypical wife likely has extensive familiarity with suppression of her personhood. She was possibly taught in childhood that differentiating is selfish, but ignoring herself is an act of love. Perhaps her caregivers were under-protective or over-protective. Her caregivers possibly withheld love, approval or nurturing if she expressed needs, so she quickly learned to mute herself, and defer to others. She may also have experienced a chronic lack of safety due to abuse, neglect, trauma or chaos. Without any refuge or context as a child, she developed a misplaced sense of having failed to keep herself safe. As an adult, she doubts her capability to make wise decisions, due to an underlying lack of trust in herself. Her husband reinforces this poor self-concept with his determination to parent instead of partner with her.
- The ASD husband’s black and white thinking
Autism is prone to rigid beliefs and inflexible thinking. When the ASD man forms a perspective or opinion, he also develops an implicit trust of the inherent ‘rightness’ of his judgment. If an alternative viewpoint is presented to him, the difficulty of accepting a grey area usually surfaces. Additionally, he’s unable to find context, or theory of mind, for a perspective that isn’t his own. A viewpoint is either right, or wrong. An opinion is either valid, or not valid. A feeling is either justified, or not justified. A decision is either correct, or incorrect. For him to see another perspective, he would naturally conclude (with his black and white thinking) that his own perspective is wrong – which is very distressing for him. It isn’t just his perspective that would be labeled as wrong – he merges himself with his opinion and finds the rejection of it (and himself) to be intolerable.
Additionally, ASD men are often very literal in their use of words. Semantics are a common source of discord and derision. Language has many nuances, but ASD men prefer exactitudes. When a wife paraphrases, recounts conversation and attributes synonyms to the speaker, he is compelled to correct her. When he asks questions, he wants answers conveyed with precision. He takes an attitude of correcting her frequently during conversation, and especially in the midst of conflict – with the assumption that it’s his job to instruct her.
- The ASD husband valuing logical intelligence over emotional intelligence
The ASD husband considers his (visual-spatial and logical-mathematical) intellect as being far more valuable and desirable than any interpersonal (or intrapersonal) skillset. He believes his analytical manner of thinking provides an indisputable form of reliable intellect. He is factual and informational. Facts are right or wrong. Truth is objective. The social-emotional intelligence of his wife is far more subjective in his estimation. While she may be academically successful, equally accomplished in career, considered brilliant by peers in a competitive field – he views her social-emotional intelligence as a limitation, especially in their relationship. His perception is that her emotionalism clouds her judgment, rendering her mental intellect deficient.
He struggles to compartmentalize their marital discord in regard to her experience of emotional deprivation. When she is dysregulated during high conflict – emotional outburts with crying, begging, pleading, yelling, insisting – he generalizes a perception that she is irrational both in the moment, and in ALL areas of life. Her judgment can’t be trusted. He privately thinks that she, perhaps, is not as mentally ‘smart’ as she appears to others. He considers her perception of events and intention on his part to be wholly inaccurate most of the time, which reinforces his belief that she has an inferior reasoning ability. He concludes that she is not trustworthy to have input on decisions that impact him or his desired outcomes.
Since he struggles with introspection, the ASD husband does not view his own meltdowns or shutdowns as indicative of any intellectual lack – he is able to compartmentalize his own behaviors as being situationally specific. He trusts that his perceptions are accurate and his reaction (meltdown, shutdown, shut-out) is understandable.
- The ASD partner’s need for control to self-soothe
Anxiety is a contributor to the authoritarian ASD husband’s desire to appoint himself as the primary force within the marriage and family. He feels very uncomfortable with decision-making being a collaborative process. Risking an outcome that differs from his preference feels threatening. He may not identify, recognize or define his anxiety due to alexithymia. Anxiety may be so ever-present that it is normalized for him as a baseline part of functioning. He is propelled by an urgency to eliminate any menace to his preference, and thereby relieve his anxiety through controlling behavior.
Exerting control to excessive levels is a means for the ASD partner to guard his sense of safety. Marriage to a spouse whom he struggles to comprehend is a source of constant disquiet. Compromise is threatening to him, as it may thwart his access to preferences, disrupt his agenda, or provoke uncomfortable change that will heighten his anxiety. When he can influence his wife through parental-type authority and exertion of control – then he can better predict outcomes. This reinforces his sense of competency, promotes confidence in his logical extrapolations, and thereby reduces his anxiety. Controlling her is soothing to him.
- Potentially a traditional or religious worldview of marriage
Some neurodiverse marriages have a construct of traditional roles. The wife is considered the caretaker of the home and children, while the husband is the primary breadwinner. Because he is very black and white in his understanding of roles, he may view himself as a husband or father within the sole context of providership. He may interpret his paycheck literally, believing that his earnings belong solely to him. By extension, money should be accessed and distrubted according to his exclusive judgment. He may develop an extreme attachment to safeguarding money, especially as he struggles with theory of mind to understand expenditures for his wife or children that he doesn’t value. Confusingly, he may have a strong ideal to maintain his wife’s role at home, but he also may resent and denigrate it by treating her as less than his equal.
If the partners in a neurodiverse marriage adhere to a religion, such as Christianity, the ASD partner may take his headship role to a black and white extreme. The neurotypical wife’s faith ideals becomes a vulnerability that can be exploited by her husband, used as a means in which to maintain control. He may reference his spiritual authority in ways that are far outside reasonable expectation. When she voices her opinion, asks for him to meet a need, communicates a preference – he uses his headship as a means to exert compliance and shut down conversation. He may conveniently forgo reflection about Ephesians 5:25, choosing to not offer personal sacrifice in the manner he is specifically instructed to do. His focus is on parentally monitoring and chastising his wife’s level of submission, holding her to a standard of his own estimation.
In what ways does the autistic husband assert himself as a parental figure toward his neurotypical wife in the marriage?
- Expecting her to ask and obtain permission before spending money, socializing, minor home repairs, acquiring help, scheduling activites, self-development, etc
- Monitoring her spending and possibly requiring receipts for all purchases
- Asking obsessive questions about every minor cash withdrawal or expense
- Excluding her from financial decisions, investments and accounts
- Not consulting her before quitting or taking a job
- Making major purchases (like a car) without any conversation
- Removing or limiting her access to financial information
- Confiscating debit or credit cards without consent
- Appointing himself the gatekeeper of all non-essential spending
- Requiring her to convince him as to why ‘frivolous’ spending on vacations or date nights should be prioritized
- Criticizing or shaming her for personal purchases, like new clothing
- Correcting her manner of speech, word choice, summary of events
- Scolding her on what he insists are factual inaccuracies from her
- Accusing her of disrespect over a difference of opinion
- Intruding upon her job or career and offering unsolicited input or criticism
- Imposing his standards for household chores (though not participating in them)
- Creating rules that he expects to be followed by her, but not by him
- Inspecting for infractions to his rules
- Instructing her on the ‘right’ way to do various tasks
- Withholding ‘privileges,’ like marital intimacy or breaking marital agreements
- Escalating to avoid discussion when she asserts herself
- Instilling fear of retribution for ‘disobedience’
- Punishing her through his behavior
- Humiliating her in front of family with intentional disclosure of her ‘misbehavior’
- Threatening to confiscate access (to car keys, money, information, etc.)
- Pendantic questions that have no satisfactory answer
- Nitpicking her choices
- Insinuating she’s stupid or untrustworthy when any mistake is discovered
- Investigating her personal belongings (reading journals, going through her desk, purse, computer, or phone without discussion)
- Surveilling her whereabouts at all times, through an app or camera system
- Examining her phone records or social media without cause
- Weaponizing spiritual or religious beliefs
- Seeking out a perceived higher authority (priest, pastor, parents ) to admonish her
- Imposing one-sided moral or legalistic standards upon her behavior
- Reprimanding any deviation from his instructions
- Hovering over her to assure compliance to his directions
- Withholding important disclosures under the guise of protecting her from having an emotional reaction
What is the effect on the neurotypical wife when her husband treats her as a stupid child that needs to be monitored, instructed and controlled?
Unlike the mother-son dynamic, which is often quite comfortable for the ASD partner with one-sided benefits, the neurotypical wife feels deeply oppressed over time. The dynamic begins as an investment in her relationship and trusting her spouse’s good intentions. It culminates in her world at home becoming a correctional facility. She develops a sense of hypervigilance, fearing that criticism, punishment, disapproval or control will be exerted.
Neurodiverse marriages with a father-daughter dynamic are usually among the highest experience of fear for the NT wife. When one lives under a smokescreen of tyranny, it starts to feel like a hostage situation. The neurotypical wife may forget her own freedom, because his assertion of power is so frightening and overpowering to her.
Infantalizing and controlling his ‘stupid’ wife becomes a special interest for the authoritarian ASD husband. It is terribly destructive – and imprisoning – for the smart, capable, competent woman he married.