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 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.)