The Extended Family System of a Neurodiverse Marriage

Partners in a neurodiverse marriage often have families of origin with various complexities, many of which may impact the marital life in significant ways. For neurotypical wives, the most difficult aspect is the lack of support from extended family members. When families of origin aren’t burdened by pervasive mental health disorders, addictions, generational trauma, neurodiversity limitations, or personality shortcomings – they are often able to serve as a buttress of support for married couples. Unfortunately, that is rarely the case in neurodiverse pairings. It lends to even more isolation for the NT wife, as she often does not have reliable parents, adult siblings, nor in-laws, to call upon for healthy support. Some extended family members may directly contribute to discord with the marriage, and intentionally (or not) enact emotional harm to both partners.

The neurotypical wife often feels alone within her marriage, and an absence of safe or healthy extended family.

Who are the extended family members commonly found amongst the family tree of a neurotypical wife and ASD husband?

The Undiagnosed ASD Parent or Adult Siblings

The Bipolar, ADHD, OCD Parent or Adult Siblings

The Neurotypical Parent or Adult Siblings

The Mentally Ill Parent or Adult Siblings

The Alcoholic or Addict Parent or Adult Siblings

The Personality-Disordered Parent or Adult Siblings

The Absent Parent (Abandonment or Death)

The Profoundly Neglectful or Verbally, Emotionally & Physically Abusive Parent

The Sexually Abusive Parent, Sibling, Grandparent, Aunt/Uncle or Cousin

Here is a look at a few roles within the extended family system, and how they impact the neurodiverse marriage – and in particular, the neurotypical wife’s life.

The Undiagnosed ASD Mother (of the ASD partner)

  • The undiagnosed ASD mother-in-law (MIL) may view the NT wife as an interloper. Frequently, an ASD MIL is very enmeshed with her ASD son. If his parents had a difficult marriage, he may have served as a surrogate spouse for his ASD mother. She may expect that same level of involvement to continue after her son’s marriage. If a NT wife asserts herself as the priority, this could lead to inappropriate anger and jealousy from the ASD MIL. The ASD son may lack the social-emotional insight to understand where his loyalty should be (with his wife). With the ASD mother’s black and white thinking, she may view the NT wife as “all bad,” due to her feelings of exclusion, since a grey area isn’t accessible for her perspective.
  • Over time, as disillusionment in the neurodiverse marriage grows, the ASD husband may turn to his ASD mother for comfort and refuge. She affirms him in his negative thinking about the NT wife. The ASD husband may over-confide in his mother, leading to feelings of terrible betrayal in the NT wife. The ASD MIL struggles with perspective taking, so she is unable to imagine where the NT wife’s behavior is coming from. (The ASD mother may also may take her son’s perspective as absolute truth.) She may attribute negative intent from the daughter-in-law (DIL) toward her son, reinforcing his perception that his NT wife is an adversary.
  • The ASD MIL may not understand typical boundaries in the marriage of adult children. She may be intrusive, show up unnanounced, criticize the manner in which a NT wife runs her home, and not hesitate to share blunt observations that alienate the NT wife. She may have rigid or inflexible ideas about child-rearing. She may impose her standards or expectations, and believe herself to be very heplful – and that her DIL is simply ungrateful.
  • The ASD MIL may have profound emotional regulation difficulties. Her ASD son may recall being raised with frequent outburts (meltdowns), lots of screaming and crying (due to overwhelm ), harshness (due to her irritability, lack of coping skills and mind-blindness), excessive control (due to her rigid and inflexible thinking). frequent withdrawal (shutdowns), and sometimes neglect (left to his own devices because she was too overwhelmed to supervise). The neurotypical wife may have fear in leaving her children with the ASD MIL, because she’s heard the stories of how dysregulated some of her behavior was during the childhood of her husband. She may also have witnessed outbursts from her MIL firsthand, and feel very cautious about trusting her on that basis alone. This furthers the perception that the NT wife is unreasonable, divisive, and an enemy of the in-laws.

The Neurotypical Mother (of the ASD partner)

  • A neurotypical mother-in-law can be a rare gem in the life of a neurotypical wife. MIL may have been married to an ASD man for the majority of her life, and recognizes the unique challenges that her Neurotypical DIL is facing.
  • Sometimes, a NT MIL is so wounded by her own neurodiverse marriage, that observing the dynamic between her son and daughter-in-law is quite painful and she withdraws.
  • Unfortunately, a neurotypical MIL can also be enmeshed with her ASD son, possibly due to the emotional deprivation she experienced in her own neurodiverse marriage. She found solace in her children, and her ASD son was open to her care-taking long after most neurotypical children will accept it. This can make her defensive and protective of her ASD son, villainizing her NT DIL.

The Obessive Compulsive Personality Disordered Father (of the ASD partner)

  • OCPD individuals are exacting, critical, precise, rigid, inflexible, hyper-controlling, perfectionistic, fixated on task completion, miserly to an exceptional degree, and workaholics. Their perfectionistic tendencies lend to an inherent mistrust in others’ capabilities. They are withholders of information, money, approval and cooperation. Many characteristics overlap with ASD, and the two disorders can co-exist.
  • The OCPD father-in-law (FIL) may encourage his ASD son to be withholding of financial reciprocity in the marriage. FIL is exceptionally pre-occupied with money, and he may reinforce the idea to his son that his NT wife should be treated as an adversary. The ASD husband may have seen a financially withholding dynamic in his parents’ marriage, and find this to be normal and necessary.
  • The OCPD FIL may have disdain or contempt for his daughter-in-law. He may find her household management to be lacking. He may be a score-keeper who notices each time she fails to thank him excessively for any gesture (especially financial in nature, like paying for dinner), and hold this against her.
  • He’s likely uninvested in his grandchildren beyond a surface level, and may have some unfiltered disdain for diagnoses (since he views them as an indication of lacking perfection). He was likely a very punishing father, and criticizes the behavior of neurodiverse children, blaming poor parenting from his DIL.
  • The OCPD individual is an expert at stonewalling. The ASD son saw this demonstrated in his parents’ marriage over and over again.

The Narcissistic, Histrionic or Borderline Mother (of the NT wife)

  • Many neurotypical women who marry ASD men have a mother whose behavior would fall into the Cluster B personality type (narcissistic, histrionic, or borderline). The narcissistic mother is critical, highly self-focused, theatrical, entitled, demanding, dismissive, invalidating, manipulative, emotionally dysregulated, catastrophic, grandiose, unable to admit fault, incapable of apologizing, and lacks empathy. She is highly controlling by nature. Similarly to the black and white thinking of ASD, her mother may split others (including her daughter) into “all good” or “all bad.”
  • The neurotypical wife often grew up as the target of her mother’s covert abuse and control. She may have been the scapegoat in her family of origin, and at the very least treated as an extension of her mother (i.e. unable to voice or have individual feelings). The NT wife learned that she must suppress her sense of self in order to maintain any sense of connection, approval or love from her mother. She was often put in the caretaking role of her mother’s feelings. Her mother may have found fault with her daughter in a number of areas, criticizing her appearance, choices, and judgment.
  • The NT wife likely has a brother or sister treated as the golden child. While the ASD son-in-law is not always the narcissistic mother’s ‘new’ golden child, the narcissistic mother elevates him in comparison to her daughter. The narcissistic mother perceives her ASD son-in-law at face value – hard-working, successful, high-earning – and invalidates her daughter’s emotional experience of deprivation. In the narcissistic mother’s world, image is much more important than depth. Conversely, if the narcissistic mother is ever publicly embarrassed by her ASD son-in-law’s social deficits, she may switch her opinion, denigrate the ASD partner, and shame her daughter for marrying someone so highly incompetent.
  • Quite frequently, a NT wife has gone no contact or very low contact with her narcissistic mother. This is a major source of grief and sorrow for the NT wife, as she deeply wishes for a maternal figure to confide in due to a difficult marriage. She often has endured decades of failed attempts to connect with her mother, and finally cuts contact out of self-preservation. Her mother either discards her entirely, or periodically reaches out with martyrdom and/or gaslighting.
  • The narcissistic mother is often obsessed with her grandchildren, though ashamed of their neurodiversity (or uses it as a means of attention from others), and feels highly entitled to time with them. She devalues and demeans her daughter, but expects to still have access to grandchildren.
  • In cases of divorce, the narcissistic mother may triangulate with the ASD son-in-law. She enjoys creating an allyship against her daughter, further isolating her from emotional support, also knowing that it’s a deep betrayal. The ASD husband often lacks the insight to understand the hidden agenda of his MIL – he views her reaching out to him as evidence of how slighted he is by his former wife. He happily provides her with information, betrays his ex-wife’s privacy, and facilitates a relationship with grandchildren (despite his ex-wife’s preferences).

The Undiagnosed Autistic Father (of the NT wife)

  • Some NT women discover long after marriage to their ASD partner (and the journey to his diagnosis) that they likely grew up with a parent on the spectrum.
  • The ASD father may have limited or surface interest in his grandchildren, creating a trigger of grief for the NT wife as she recalls her childhood and feeling largely invisible to her father. His disinterest toward her felt rejecting.
  • If the NT wife confides in her parents about the possibility of divorce, her ASD father may discourage or shame her for even considering it. Like many ASD partners, he believes marriage is forever and should never be disrupted for any reason – and certainly not for emotional deprivation, a concept he is unable to grasp nor value. He may have a strong Christian mindset that informs his view.
  • The ASD father might be financially controlling, and normalized this behavior in the NT wife’s childhood. He may even encourage his ASD son-in-law in withholding money from his adult daughter, or other problematic behaviors toward her. He may naturally align with the ASD son-in-law, feeling a kinship ‘against’ women. He has a black and white perception of marital roles, often leaning to traditional paradigms. If his daughter is career-driven, he may blame her for not having decided to be a stay at home mother, extrapolating that she neglected her husband or children and created the resulting discord.
  • The NT wife may have had an exceptional amount of conflict with her father while growing up. He did not have theory of mind for his children, and perhaps he found them sensorily overwhelming, uncooperative to his agenda, and difficult to control (which he considered a reasonable goal). He maintains this sense of disapproval for her in adulthood.
  • She may have witnessed a childhood full of meltdowns or silence between her parents. Her father may have lived in the basement, or a separate bedroom, and rarely spoken to her mother. The NT wife thought she was marrying a man quite different from her father, not realizing his attention to her was due to being the short-term special interest. Her husband retreating from her is quite reminiscient of her parents’ marriage.

The Sexually Abusive Family Member (of the NT wife)

  • The NT wife may have been a victim of incest in her childhood. Her symptoms of abuse were undetected or ignored by her caregivers. If she disclosed the abuse to protect herself – they perhaps failed to intervene, or dismissed it as untruth. If they are made aware in her adulthood, her family may react even more forcefully with the assertion of dishonesty. Her trauma is dismissed.
  • Even if the childhood abuse is known, the perpetrator is often still treated as a valued family member by her parents or adult siblings, especially if one of them was the abuser. Her family invalidates her experience, minimizes her pain, and even villainizes her attempts at boundaries. They may insist on inviting the family member to all activities, expecting the adult NT wife to ignore her discomfort, jeopardize her own children and dismiss it as “being in the past.” She is devalued by her family, placing the importance on protecting the perpetrator.
  • The family may ostracize the NT wife (instead of the sexually abusive family member). Her truth-telling is threatening, and requires personal responsibilty from others, which is outside the realm of their emotional maturity. She is abandoned, blamed and discarded by her family, or forced to self-betray in order to maintain a connection.

The Alcoholic Father (of the NT wife)

  • The NT wife may have felt invisible to her addict father growing up, and may have also felt responsible for keeping his addiction and related behaviors a secret. In her marriage, she may also keep her ASD husband’s problematic behaviors a secret, since this is an expectation (and shame) ingrained within her.
  • Addicts are often expert at ‘breadcrumbing.’ They disperse intermittent attention when briefly sober, showering a child or wife with love, then abruptly losing interest when focus returns to substance abuse. This can feel similar to the changing moods of her ASD husband toward her.
  • The NT wife may have felt protective of her alcoholic father as a child, if he was an especially sloppy or chaotic man when drunk. Passing out after drinking can look similarly to an autistic shutdown, even though it is not the same. The excessive sleeping of her ASD husband may also be triggering, due to her father having been a passed-out alcoholic on a frequent basis.
  • Alcoholic rage is common. The NT wife may conditioned to meltdown behavior, with significant exposure to her father’s fury as a child. She dreads the behavior in her husband, even though it is different in origin.
  • Some ASD individuals are prone to addiction. Her ASD spouse may bond with her alcoholic father and the two may drink together, creating a double sense of abandonment in the NT wife.
  • The addict father can also be an absent parent. A disappearing parent (through death, addiction or abandonment) creates sense of longing that is normalized within the NT wife as a child. She experiences this same longing in her neurodiverse marriage when her husband is neglecting her for a special interest, stonewalling, shutdown, or shutting her out.

As we see, the neurodiverse couple is surround by dysfunctional and disordered family members who are entirely self-focused, emotionally unavailable, actively harmful and add to the sense of deprivation that the NT wife experiences in her marriage. We recognize how the neurotypical wife was formed by caregivers, and difficult circumstances, that increased her vulnerability to choosing a partner with poor emotional reciprocity skills. We see that she has likely experienced a lifetime of emotional deprivation, and the continuation of it within marriage is terribly painful – but not the original wound. Her grief and trauma is exacerbated by the ASD masking in the early years of her relationship. The neurotypical wife thought she was escaping the invisibility of her childhood, only to realize “too late” (after a lifetime commitment) that being truly seen by her husband was just an illusion. We see that the behaviors of her caregivers and family members from childhood are actually similar to the problematic ASD behaviors of her husband, but they are simply different in origin. Her ASD husband has neurological limitations that result in relational deprivation for her. The NT wife’s family members have character and personality shortcomings, or mental health and addiction struggles, that lend to relational deprivation, too. It all feels the same way, despite the differing genesis. The ASD husband’s behaviors build upon and exacerbate her childhood trauma, though he is not the first nor original source.

Since the neurotypical wife is faced with a family system incapable of support, she has very few personal resources in the way of help. This contributes to her pervasive feeling of isolation. There is often zero safety net if she were to consider leaving her marriage. Since children may wholly lack healthy grandparents, aunts, uncles or cousins, the absence of family community is significant, since neurodiversity inhibits friendships formed at school. The neurotypical wife spends much of her marriage, and mothering, feeling like an island unto herself. She may experience the full force of a high-conflict and emotionally deprivational marriage, a spouse that treats her as an adversary, parents who perpetrate harm even into adulthood, children with a variety of special needs, and the sole responsibility for the day to day management of keeping the home and family afloat. The cumulative effect of her trauma and emotional + relational deprivation extends into all areas of life, feeling enormously overwhelming and inescapable.

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4 thoughts on “The Extended Family System of a Neurodiverse Marriage

  1. I want to thank you. By the grace of God I found your website and things are finally starting to make sense. I have been married to an ASD for 23 years and had an alcoholic father with a narcissistic mother (still living). This post ties everything together in a neat little bow. You have made my acceptance more tangible.

    May God bless your work,

    Nikki ________________________________

  2. This is spot on as usual. I grew up with a very cold and controlling mother. Survived CSA in my own home. I now know my dad is an aspie. I unknowingly and unconsciously repeated my childhood. My MIL was a narc aspie who was enmeshed with my ex.

    I’m divorcing my aspie after 22 years of hell and abuse. Unlearning dysfunctional family patterns. I truly understand how I got here. I can and do have a better life. Thanks for your well thought out and thorough posts.

  3. This was an eye opener to read. I’m not feeling so alone any longer. My extended family have had their own mental health illnesses and were unable to help me with my marriage problems.

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