The Criminalization of Emotion in Neurodiverse Marriages

Alexithymia is a condition in which one struggles to identify and verbalize emotion. It is closely associated with autism, as approximately half of ASD individuals meet criteria for alexithymia. The absence of emotional awareness from an ASD husband is a significant issue within neurodiverse marriages, as the disparity between himself and his neurotypical wife is profoundly impactful to her.

Without alexithymia, neurotypicals can identify emotions instinctively. Emotion is seamlessly associated with sensation, feeling and context, allowing an intuitive recognition of our present state. It is emotional awareness that allows us to infer the feeling of fear from our racing heart, quickened breath and jittery body. Sorting through the vocabularly of fear, and assessing the level of distress is automated – we can correctly differentiate between the experience of apprehension, unease, insecurity, nervousness, terror, horror, etc. Possessing this cognizance of emotional complexity is what permits language and verbalization of our experience. Additionally, without alexithymia – we effortlessly distinguish between emotions that have similar sensations. It’s possible to feel jittery, with a racing heart and quickened breath, because we’re feeling excited, not fearful.

The NT tries desperately to convey emotional experience to her ASD husband, but it’s as if she’s running on a treadmill to nowhere.

The nuances of emotional language are intrinsic for a neurotypical wife, and much less so for an ASD spouse. When alexithymia is co-occurring with ASD, the autistic husband has significantly less ability to understand the emotional experience of his wife, versus when autism is solely present. He cannot theorize, nor take perspective of his wife’s emotional truth, since he is disconnected from recognition of emotion identification within himself. One cannot extrapolate feelings to someone else, when they are indistinguishable and wordless in oneself.

When a neurodiverse marriage becomes precarious, the neurotypical wife digs into her vivid vocabulary of emotional language to communicate her sense of deprivation. She endeavors to be very clear with her autistic husband, since connection is developed through mutual understanding. The neurotypical wife earnestly shares how ignored, isolated, discarded, devalued, unseen, and misunderstood she feels. She cries to him – sobbing, pleading, begging, yelling. She uses metaphors to help him understand. No matter how vastly illustrative she is in sharing her emotional experience, it is often met with a disengaged or negative reaction.

The following are some emotional metaphors that neurotypical wives have described to me in coaching, desperately shared with their husbands in hopes of convincing him how much suffering she’s experiencing:

“I’m emotionally hemmoraghing on the floor, and he is just standing there, watching me bleed out.”

“I’m in a perpetual state of drowning. I have no ability to breathe, or swim, or draw air, or hope to rescue myself. I’m just suffocating, and waving my hands in desperation, while he’s completely oblivious.”

“I’m completely censored in this marriage. It’s as if he’s put tape over my mouth, every day of our marriage, for the last ten years. He doesn’t allow me to speak!”

“He abandoned me on a deserted island long ago, but doesn’t understand why I feel lonely. He thinks watching tv together every night means loneliness is impossible.”

“I’m basically a prisoner. He won’t agree to separate or divorce, but he won’t do the things I ask of him to improve the marriage, either.”

“I feel enslaved. I’m his mother, maid, nanny and personal assistant. Not his wife. He also acts like he can fire me at any moment, which amounts to cutting me off financially.”

“I feel so afraid to stay in this marriage. But it’s like being strapped down to a gurney, my arms and legs are unable to move. I want to leave, but I feel so powerless.”

“I feel like I’m DYING of thirst in our relationship, and he’s angry at me for even wanting a sip of water.”

Most neurotypical individuals, without alexithymia, would hear these descriptions of emotional anguish, and be able to immediately connect with the despair behind the metaphors. If attuned and good-hearted, they would respond with tenderness, empathy, concern, and likely a commitment toward problem-solving.

For an ASD husband with alexithymia, the above descriptions might likely elicit disengagement, dismissal, offense or anger. It isn’t uncommon to receive a blank stare as a response, or a text that just says, “ok.” He may interpret her emotional language as criticism and blame. He may reference her feelings or language as “negativity.” He may view her words and feelings as an attack, or say things like, “you always try to make me feel bad,” or “you’re just trying to ruin our day.” It is common with both autism and alexithymia to have difficulty reading facial expression and voice tone, so there can also be a belief that her emotional sharing is fueled only by anger. Not only does he miss the nuanced feelings of her emotions being reported, but the emotional experience she is undergoing while communicating with him. He sees only anger, when perhaps she is grief-stricken and driven by hopelessness.

Abstract language is difficult for concrete thinkers, and autistic men struggle more so than autistic women in this area (who are often quite gifted with language). Emotional metaphors usually fail to achieve a desired result, as it’s a combination of emotional language, extrapolation of emotional experience, plus a context that is not literally true from his perspective.

Complex emotional language is guesswork, even with a lot of effort, for those with alexithymia.

Alexithymia can exist at low, moderate or high levels of impairment. Ask an alexithymic ASD man what it feels like to be angry, which might be his most recognized emotion, and he’s quite clear. He likely has adjectives that can be verbalized in that regard. He may also use words like criticized and blamed, as that has been a lifetime experience for him in a variety of settings. He may use descriptors like “good,” or “fine,” as emotion labeling, or baseline words such as happy, mad, or sad. But ask an ASD man to truly consider if he’s been despondent, shattered, desolate, inconsolable, heartsick? He’s brilliant, and knows descriptive words by definition – but he does not intuitively pair nuanced emotion labels during his felt experience. His neurotypical wife uses strikingly expressive vocabulary to articulate her feelings, in an effort to be understood – often with neither partner realizing that it is met with incomprehension.

Over time, his seemingly absent response to her emotional requests elicit anger and contempt in the neurotypical wife. She needs tenderness, nurturing and validation. She wants a solution to their disconnection. She instead receives disinterested, angry, offended, hurt or dismissive reactions. The NT wife is frantic about the circumstances in her marriage, and yet cannot convey how crucial it is for him to understand, or even believe, that her deprivation is real.

Perhaps early on, the ASD husband expressed remorse, and made promises to do “better.” And despite good intent, it was not something he could self-direct, and resentment at her instructions set in. Relatively quickly, the status quo would return. Whenever he believes she is very close to leaving, he likely acknowledges her misery. Again, the effort to attune is short-lived. She grieves that he seems to require her emotional death before responding to her distress.

Over the course of endless circular conversations, the criminalization of emotion begins to develop. Her words have zero impact, as he’s heard them relentlessly, and he finds them more and more hyperbolic. Nobody is bleeding on the floor, nobody is in a jail cell, and nobody is strapped down against their will. This sounds like imagined nonsense to him. He starts to view her emotions as the crux of their marital conflict. If she wasn’t so dramatic, or if she wasn’t so unstable, or if she wasn’t so crazy – then there wouldn’t be a problem. He’s not the one quoting a thesaurus of emotional injury, so the problem must be her and her excessive feelings. Her sobbing and anger also adds to his perception of her emotionalism being out of control. He doesn’t experience emotions to this depth whatsoever – certainly there must be something wildly unbalanced in his wife.

When emotion is viewed as the source of all conflict in the marriage, it also impacts the alexithymic ASD husband from wanting to further build his emotional language vocabularly. Emotion becomes even less valuable, and much more dangerous -criminal – when he perceives it as being the source of attack against him. A primary argument between the neurodiverse couple often becomes that she is a histrionic, demanding, controlling lunatic, and he’s a cold, cruel, robot of indifference. Both believe the other to have malicious intent.

The deadlock over emotional misunderstanding in their intimate relationship may trickle down to other areas of their partnership. With his black and white thinking, he concludes that her perception is awry in all matters that elicit feelings for her. She may express feelings about family or household obligations that he fails to complete, expressing how frustrating and even how betraying it feels, when she can’t rely on his promises to do a specific responsibility. He interprets this as just more hyper-emotional criticism that is once again a means to blugeon or control him. He may believe himself to be abused by her emotional disclosures. With her needs demonized, the neurotypical wife feels more and more defeated as her marriage continues.

When emotion has become criminalized in a neurodiverse marriage, communication and cooperation is often at a standstill. For the neurotypical wife, it begins to feel that she is chasing after his understanding, on a treadmill – going nowhere.

(Good news: alexithymia can be improved with dedication, curiosity and willingness.)

Interested in coaching services? Contact me for more information here.

8 thoughts on “The Criminalization of Emotion in Neurodiverse Marriages

  1. Thank you. I don’t know who you are but I am in tears. Thank you for keeping my sense of sanity alive with this article in particular, but also all the other articles on here. <3

  2. When you’re told you’ve caused him to have PTSD and he insists you’re an abusive spouse what do you do? You’ve by default become the bad abusive person just by showing emotion and verbalizing your frustrations. Even when my emotional reaction was justified and purely innocent I still get reminded just how abusive and crazy I am and how much trauma Ive caused him. Absolutely Insane! 10 years of not being fulfilled, having my needs go unmet, and lacking reciprocal communication has caused me many tears and tons of confusion that have me questioning my sanity. I just don’t have it in me to continue living with him while we wait on a 2 month appointment with a ND/NT counselor and coach.

  3. Yes, my aspie husband feels abused if I disclose any unhappiness also. I didn’t know this was an asd trait. He will flip me off, cuss at me and behave like a juvenile boy. I never thought I would become his mother. I need a real man in my life.
    But, looking back on my childhood, my father would also react the same way. His meltdowns included violent physical abuse towards my mother for the simplest things. He was also childlike and was a huge disappointment to my mom.

  4. Reading your blog, I feel understood, finally, for the first time in twelve years. You describe, almost word-for-word, precisely what has evolved in my marriage to a brilliant man who we only recently learned has Autism. This revelation has given me the ability to finally make sense of the incredible confusion and pain I have experienced. I have never been believed before. I have never even really known how to describe it to an outsider. I have never trusted that anyone could possibly believe it. My husband appears to be sensitive and caring and affectionate to everyone else! To finally understand the concept of masking and how it explains the difference between the man I fell in love with, (the man that others know), and the man that I live with… it’s both heartbreaking and yet also such a relief to know that I’m not actually crazy. Thank you.

  5. My now ex-Husband is Alexithymia. A marriage counsellor saw it in 2015, he refused to seek help. Eventually, in 2021 when the marriage totally collapsed, he acknowledged and accepted both the Alexithymia and likely Autism/Aspergers (scored Borderline on poorly assessed NHS questionnaire but displays high traits of both).

    He never said goodbye when he left. He left very quickly when I saw him in Court last week and he didn’t make any eye contact as we were waiting for the Hearing. He left me after 20 years, 13 years of marriage. He left and never returned, leaving me with over £100k debt, with the home at the brink of repossession and me unemployed as only a few months back home (we’d lived overseas for several years and I supported his career). He left me with the debt he admitted to the divorce Judge he had hidden and I knew nothing about for years. He left me as soon as another woman pursued him. That was 2 years ago.

    Last year I was almost evicted and left close to destitution, (whilst still married). The home was bare and I couldn’t afford furniture, he refused to engage to release the shipping of half of our/my belongings for 18 months. The other half has gone and he felt no remorse for the tenant being kicked out at the Pandemic. He kept it all secret, including where the mortgage and rental money went, probably an investment addiction. Certainly debt addiction. He shut down and didn’t care. I battled to save my home and divorce him at the same time, to legally force him to pay his debts and the mortgage. He didn’t turn up to repossession hearings but did and said almost nothing throughout the Divorce trial. He is still fighting with me over money he owes and now I have filed for for him to be imprisoned for Contempt as he has broken Judge’s Orders and keeps pushing me to financial and psychological collapse. He has a Penal Notice over him . I have survived for over 2 years day-to-day whilst he went on seven holidays with a live-in girlfriend who is probably a prostitute/escort.

    He admitted to me he felt lonely at the end of the marriage, in 2020 after lockdown – before I knew about the hidden debt. I had the ‘brain fog’ for years, lifted after he left. His controlling and coercive abuse has been legally recognised as extreme domestic abuse, passing the gasp factor.’ I guess he doesn’t and didn’t care, and feels no regrets? I guess he has no feelings, emotions or care for me whatsoever now I am out of his life? I guess he feels absolutely nothing for the 20 years, no memories etc? He told the Judge it was a happy marriage.

    Will he ever feel any guilt? He felt guilt that his friend ended up in mental breakdown/schrizophenia after they took loads of drugs as teenagers. Though that was his old self: genuine, kind and affable. Now, he is a silent narcissist or psychopath: cold, unemotional and negative dark energy surrounding him. Will he ever feel guilt or remorse for a wife who did nothing but love and care him for for 20yrs, even after the marriage.

    None of the above is emotional language, only exactly the behaviours, non/actions and impact of my my Alexithimia/Aspergers ex-husband.

  6. Reading this article is like dictation- word for word, moment by moment experience of my life with my husband.
    I’ve cried many tears in the 11 years I’ve been with my husband- hes Avoident, dismissive, without compassion, No theory of mind, hears criticism ( not pleas, not love) Stonewalls and gaslights me.. All because I ask for emotional support. More so, when I’m directly upset, no matter how slight, at him. “Mr Hyde” who is always lurking and suspicious comes out on the defence like a raging bull, I find myself hypervigilent.
    My husband is a carbon copy of his mother. Its Ironic he can’t stand being around her too long.
    My husband has a poor working memory, if I cater for it by just doing the tasks he said he’d do for him, he’s happy. If I remind him to do the task hes forgotten hes verbally derogatory-then I’m the bad guy.
    If I don’t say anything and the task piles up he says it’s not his fault either because he “didn’t forget on purpose” and I “should have said something “.. again, my fault. When I describe how I’m in a no win situation he says I’m ” too sensitive or dramatic ”
    It’s a no win situation for anyone. He avoids resolution and rather focus on his feelings of his hurt because I’m just a “dissatisfied woman”.
    No actually – do your responsibilities!!

    Over the years he’s adapted more and more excuses. Articles, such as this, somehow “prove I’m the problem ” and not him.

    when the storm settled he used to apologise- and overcompensate to ” fix” the issue. Now he’s utterly convinced I’m the “issue”, and I understand better he really cannot comitte to self regulate and follow through with his promises. He affirms to himself his emotional neglect/abuse is “in my head and “I do it to myself” Requests are translated as ” over bearing controlling demands” he often yells “Don’t tell me what to do” will rage or tantrum, then offer me a cup of tea like nothing happened.
    I weathered these storms because my gut kept telling me there’s more to it. Unfortunately we recently separated. It got too much and when I placed healthy boundaries to protect my own emotional well-being- which predictability, furthur in his mind translated as a negative reflection towards me.
    My husband is seeking professional help psychologists/ psychiatric.. I wish him love and light, he is exploring ASD and its looking more to be the case.
    Thankyou for the article, It’s validation and holds healing powers for me.

  7. I can’t believe a kind soul online directed me to this article. I’m stunned, and also relieved.
    I’ve lived with this for 23 years of marriage. I’m always the bad guy, emotional, nagging (because he forgets nearly everything) etc.
    I’ve OFTEN wished he would just hit me instead because then the pain of the abuse would make sense. And could be seen & validated by others. (I am not trying to minimize physical abuse – only saying my emotional abuse feels just as painful.)
    I could write much more, but I’ll stop there. Thank you for writing this article.

  8. Oh my God, I’m lying here with my heart hurting from a conversation just like the one described in this article. To try to get across what I was feeling, I reached down deep for my own “vivid vocabulary,” and ran into detached scientific curiosity. I

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