Physical intimacy within a neurodiverse marriage is often problematic. While not a universal problem, it is frequently a devastating reality.
Various circumstances contribute to sexual dysfunction in an AS-NT marriage. (Sensory issues and porn addiction are frequently contributing factors, discussed in more detail here and here.) Additionally, two often overlooked components of sexual dysfunction are the presence of alexithymia and mind-blindness, within the autistic partner. Both conditions play a role in two of the most common and problematic sexual dynamics found in neurodiverse marriages: the Sexual Discard, and the Sexual Obsession.
What different manifestations of Sexual Discard exist in a neurodiverse marriage?
- During dating, the neurodiverse couple may have a satisfying and frequent sex life. The novelty of a new partner might override sensory overwhelm for the autistic man. A new partner may also activate the autistic man’s focus, to the extent that he is more able to cue into his partner’s responses during sex. The neurotypical woman often experiences intimacy as a satisfying and attuned experience. After marriage, usually when she is declining as his special interest, she notices that his sexual desire toward her diminishes. He no longer initiates. He may also act as if he barely recalls the time in which they enjoyed sex together.
- For couples who reserve sex for marriage, there is often a mutual inexperience that remains unknown until after they are married. The neurotypical wife may have expected her ASD husband to be an enthusiastic lover, as both may have expressed the frustration of waiting for marital sex. She is quite surprised in marriage when he seems indifferent to sex. He may struggle to feel aroused, or maintain arousal. He might be squeamish or stoic during the act, keeping his eyes closed and containing himself in a way that feels distant. The honeymoon may have been an intensely lonely and confusing experience. Occasionally, a couple may not even fully consummate the marriage, despite attempts to do so. The neurotypical wife might find his movements to be robotic, repetitive and ritualized when sex intermittently occurs. Sex feels like the least intimate part of their life instead of the most intimate.
- Whether sex was previously satisfying or never satisfying, the neurotypical wife may report that she becomes the sole initiator after marriage. He might tell her he “wants” to have sex with her, but never follow through on initiating. He seemingly invents reasons to reject or ignore her. If sex is scheduled, he finds reasons to avoid. If she initiates, he may agree – but is passive about cultivating arousal in her, and might consider the activity to be over when he finishes. Sex is perfunctory and possibly passion-less.
- Secret porn use may replace any sexual relationship with his neurotypical wife. If he is a long-time user, the private experience is preferable to engaging with his wife. He’s conditioned to experience arousal through observation instead of participation. He may present himself to his wife as being low-drive, when really his sex drive is quite high – but oriented toward masturbation and porn, instead of mutuality. When discovered, her hurt and betrayal may actually be a convenient way to cultivate more sexual avoidance. She is hurt, so she withdraws; she can now be “equally” blamed for why there is no sexual relationship! He’s unmotivated to heal the rupture within the relationship, because this would involve re-connection. His avoidance of marital sex is more firmly secured, thanks to her feeling of betrayal. He may express remorse, but do little in the way of action to change the behavior in the long-term; many husbands report that internet monitoring is easily subverted. Even if he is able to reduce his porn use and behave with authentic transparency, marital sex is rarely a replacement.
- Sex may exist as a silent ghost in the marriage. Sexuality is not mentioned by either partner, except maybe in small pockets of grief and devastation from the neurotypical wife. He does not ever, under virtually any circumstance, make any mention of sex. He may say he “wants to,” or suggest it during a sobbing confrontation from her – when he knows it’s unlikely to happen as she’s in pure devastation. They co-exist as roommates, parents and maybe as friends. If they still share a bedroom, neither notice or comment on each other’s sexuality. Undressing in front of each other is benign. Her naked body elicits no reaction whatsoever. He seems perfectly happy with the status quo, although he dislikes any brief moment of being confronted with her hurt. She exists in a private hell of rejection and wanting, but knowing that discussion is circular and promises are false. Over time, her grief and outrage over the lack of sex in her marriage morphs into repulsion and fury at the idea of him sexually touching her. If she ever mentions this during a fight, he may hold on to it as “evidence” that she doesn’t want him sexually touching her anyway – so it’s just as much her “fault.”
- The ASD husband may fear that affection could lead to sex, so he takes great care to avoid offering more than a kiss on the forehead, or a small hug. He may do this when it’s impossible for sex to happen, such as in the morning when both partners are heading off to work. His initiation of affection may never go beyond holding hands or sitting next to each other on the couch, or a very occasional peck on her lips.
- The autistic man may have a moralistic view of sex as being vulgar outside the function of procreation. He may use highly clinical terms when discussing sex, and be silent or put off if his wife broaches the topic of sex with any slang terms. He may also find sex to be germy, and will offer up facts about hygiene that impede sex as being “safe.” He might be quite tidy and fastidious about requirements prior to and after physical intimacy. Wives are expected to thoroughly shower before and after, lay on a towel during intercourse, ignore any desire for post-sex cuddling, and tolerate his leaping off of her body to immediately go cleanse himself of her.
- Shaming and blaming of the neurotypical wife can occur in a Sexual Discard neurodiverse marriage. When confronted about the repeated avoidance and refusal to initiate despite promises otherwise, the ASD spouse may resist accountability and criticize his wife. If she was prettier, more put together at home, if she hadn’t gained weight during pregnancy, if her feminine body parts weren’t so off-putting, if she wasn’t so demanding in her desires, if she didn’t take so long to orgasm, if she cleaned the house better, if she stopped complaining about his behaviors, if she wasn’t so controlling and in charge – THEN he would want to have sex with her. The goalposts change frequently, but the intended takeaway is that sex with her is repulsive to him, and it’s entirely her fault.
What does Sexual Obsession look like in a neurodiverse marriage?
- When and ASD spouse presents as hypersexual, he very much enjoys the sensory experience of sex. He can be quite focused on quantity over quality. He is often single-minded in his expectation of sexual routines established, even as life becomes more complicated during the course of a marriage.
- The neurotypical wife may notice that her autistic husband has minimal empathy for why she might be sexually unavailable to him. If she is sick, heavily pregnant, post-partum, dealing with health complications, overwhelmed by extra responsibilities, feeling emotionally disconnected – he may still view her reasons as an injustice toward him.
- The hypersexual autistic man may have mood dysregulation that he claims is due to his unmet sexual needs. He may feel that his anger over lack of frequency justifies his outbursts or punishing behavior toward his wife.
- Autistic men may view sex as transactional. Neurotypical wives may notice that he is “suddenly” helpful around the home, engaging in parenting, may stop his stonewalling or irritability, possibly offer an acknowledgement of his problematic behaviors. His expectation for sex in exchange for cooperation is not lost on his neurotypical wife, and if she resists completing the “transaction,” this results in angry, sullen behavior.
- In similar transactional fashion, when neurotypical wife requests re-connection after a rupture – more specifically, an apology – she may be told that until his sexual needs are met, he will not consider any emotional engagement. He justifies this as “simply fair,” and might find it reasonable to say that he is unmotivated to give her what she needs emotionally, when his sexual needs are not fulfilled first.
- Porn use may be less hidden in a Sexual Obsession dynamic. It can be more overt, with the intention of using it to punish the neurotypical wife for her inability to be sexually available at every interval of arousal.
- Sexual input may serve as a sensory stim for an ASD husband. He finds it self-soothing to obtain sexual release, and his preference is sex with his wife, but he may compulsively masturbate and use porn, too.
- Sex may be a special interest in a hypersexual autistic partner. He may devote himself to learning every technique, position and experience possible. He expects participation from his wife regardless of her own level of curiosity or interest.
- Manipulation and threats can occur in a Sexual Obsession dynamic. Threats of using porn, seeking sex outside the marriage, pushing boundaries of interactions with other women, emotional affairs – all can be a form of threat or punishment to incite fear in the neurotypical wife, and coerce sexual availability.
The Role of Alexithymia & Mind-blindness in Marital Sexual Dysfunction
As discussed, alexithymia is a limitation of emotional awareness. A person with alexithymia struggles to verbalize emotional experience, has a more limited emotional language vocabulary, is challenged in pairing body sensations related to emotions, and deeply struggles to identify emotions in others. He does not have nuanced language for how he feels; therefore he cannot know how his wife feels, even when she verbalizes it with complex vocabulary.
Mind-blindness, otherwise referred to as “lacking theory of mind,” is related to alexithymia from a similarity standpoint. The autistic husband has difficulty imagining the perspective of his wife, and cannot intuit her thoughts, feelings, preferences or opinions. When combined with alexithymia, there is a deep deficit in all manner of correctly guessing and understanding his wife’s needs, emotions, feelings, desires, preferences, use of abstract language and non-verbal cues. Obviously, these difficulties extend into contributing toward sexual dysfunction and discord in a neurodiverse marriage.
Referencing the above scenarios of Sexual Discard & Sexual Obsession, how does Alexithymia and Mind-blindness manifest in physical intimacy problems?
Hyposexuality & Sexual Discard:
- The ASD husband may miss cues from his wife that she desires sex. His mind-blindness fails to see that his wife still has sexual needs that did not disappear alongside his waning interest. Her hinting or attempts at seduction may go unnoticed or seem slightly puzzling.
- He may never have experienced a longing for intimacy with anyone, despite previous enjoyment with his wife. Due to his alexithymia, her longing for sex with him is not an understood feeling or sensation.
- Since sex is a physical act, the alexithymic partner may not understand the neurotypical wife’s expectation for emotional connection. He fails to recognize that a lack of caring words, eye contact, or checking-in with her verbally during sex is important.
- An autistic husband without sexual experience may not realize his lack of skill. (He may have a poor innate sense of motor-planning – not uncommon with autism – hindering his coordination during intercourse.) With mind-blindness, he may not realize that his awkward movements aren’t pleasurable to his wife. He may have confusion and frustration as to why his efforts to help her orgasm aren’t successful. He may conclude (on his own) that she’s incapable, or even disinterested. His alexithymia does not understand all the nuances necessary for his wife to be comfortable enough to experience orgasm, and he may not understand that he is directly hindering her ability to do so.
- Even if orgasm is important to him, the ASD husband may not prioritize it in the same way for his wife. He may view it as happenstance, or optional to put time and effort into cultivating. He cannot guess that her needs exist outside of his own, due to mind-blindness. Due to alexithymia, he may not recognize her desire and frustration at lack of sexual outlet.
- Her responses are difficult to make sense of during sex. Not every woman wants to instruct a play-by-play of what does and doesn’t feel good. He might rely on guessing, and then feel very criticized if she doesn’t enjoy it. Porn exposure distorts his perception of reasonable expectations, and his own ability to orgasm may be quite straightforward. He’s unable to see that her experience is different, or read her non-verbal cues due to alexithymia.
- If an autistic husband regularly struggles to maintain arousal or sexual interest, he may not realize it is humiliating for his wife. She may naturally wonder if it is an issue of her lacking desirability, and the autistic husband may reinforce her insecurity. Due to both mind-blindness and alexithymia, he does not sense her need for reassurance. He may consider her suggestion a feasible explanation, especially since he doesn’t want to be to blame.
- He may fail to realize that his “honest to a fault” habit (in all areas of life, but especially with intimacy) is very impactful to his wife. If he comments on her body, especially very vulnerable parts of her, in ways that are received in a critical way – this can dramatically impact her sexual response and emotional wellness. His alexithymia creates difficulty in both understanding why she’s feeling hurt, alongside not grasping that a quick “sorry,” is not going to assuage insecurity at a deeper level.
- Somatic symptoms are common when distress is happening internally for an autistic individual. He struggles to identify why his stomach hurts, or a headache always occurs when there is an expectation of sex. He genuinely feels sick, or tired, but alexithymia prevents making the correlation between anxiety, somatic symptoms and avoidance of sex. He insists that he is sick, not avoiding.
- Due to alexithymia, the ASD husband may not recognize his true sexual orientation. It may not be until his wife suggests that his lack of physical desire is perhaps due to a non-heterosexual orientation, that he considers the possibility of asexuality or homosexuality.
Hypersexuality & Sexual Obsession:
- The neurotypical wife’s need for pairing emotional connection and physical intimacy may be lost on an autistic husband. With mind-blindness, he struggles to understand why an emotional sense of safety is important for his wife. She may feel it is an act of self-betrayal to be physically intimate with her husband when he ignores her emotional needs. He does not require emotional connection prior to sex, so her request for it is easily dismissed since it isn’t his own perspective.
- If porn is a habit or special interest, the ASD husband may believe it to be an accurate portrayal of female responsiveness and sexual desires of a neurotypical wife. He may expect that she respond instantaneously to a mere touch, or be theatrically passionate from the most minor effort on his part. He may be confused on how to initiate conversation about special sexual interests, and neglect the importance of consent before introducing atypical activities into the marriage bed. He may assume, due to mind-blindness, that she is equally experiencing sexual pleasure parallel to his own sensation.
- When an autistic spouse is hypersexual and experiences arousal, his mind-blindness may prevent him from understanding that she is not similarly aroused. He may view his arousal as her job to relieve at every interval, especially if his definition of sexual partnership is especially literal. If she is feeling used, and describes this to him, it may not be a feeling he can access inside his own emotional experience due to alexithymia.
- An ASD man may consider all affection to be a lead-in to sex. Hugs or kisses or touching have an expectation of intercourse immediately following. He is frustrated or confused when his wife asks for “just a hug.” His mind-blindness fails to see that she might be interested in cuddling without sex. He’s unable to understand that physical bonding that is emotionally important to his wife outside of the sexual act. For him, sex might be an event that begins and ends in specific fashion.
- His mind-blindness may prevent any understanding of why sex is NOT transactional for his wife, and he may fail to see why renewing basic participation in family life does not “earn” him sex.
- Groping without consent or in socially-inappropriate contexts is not uncommon. An ASD man may feel entitled to his wife’s body, and view it as touchable at all times and never off-limits. Due to mind-blindness, he may not notice her non-verbal cues of dislike or disgust. If she verbalizes how encroaching or disrespectful this feels, his alexithymia may limit his ability to perceive the depth of her reaction.
- Porn is a self-focused withholding of intimacy in a sexless marriage, and an alexithymic ASD husband may dismiss the sense of betrayal a wife feels. The pervasive rejection and visceral reaction to discovering that he prefers to watch strangers, instead of experiencing connection with her, is powerfully devastating. His alexithymic response can add to her trauma. He may not acknowledge her distinction between not having sex, and not having sex because he sexually deprives her in favor of porn.
What feelings might the neurotypical wife experience in a sexually-disordered marriage, where she is either discarded and ignored, or used as a sex doll to fulfill one-sided expectations?
With sexual discard, she usually feels deprived beyond measure, emptied of value, devoid of desirability, and thwarted from accessing the sole outlet for a primary need. She feels cheated of satisfaction and affection. She grieves the loss of emotional intimacy paired with physical intimacy. She feels sentenced to a prison of no sex, or terrible sex, and of blame and shame. She feels powerless to stop the betrayal and sexual abandonment. She’s humiliated by the rejection, and carries it as a degrading secret. She feels victimized by his unilateral decision to exclude her from any hope of physical intimacy. She feels voiceless at the lack of conversation nor accountability for improving their physical intimacy. She’s terribly disappointed that sex requires so much ignoring of his awkwardness. She feels so defeated that he requires reminders and explicit instructions just for sex to happen, and even then he rarely follows through. She feels gutted at missing out on the shared joy of physically loving one another, as perhaps she now only associates fury, heartbreak or revulsion at the thought of sex with him.
With sexual obsession, the neurotypical wife feels oppressed by her husband’s sexual expectations. She feels an ever-present responsibility to either satisfy him, or face the pouting, anger or punishment. She may struggle to feel emotionally safe in her own bed, knowing the expectations that come along with laying next to him. She feels dread at being sick, knowing he will have very little accommodation for her limitations. Sometimes she feels like a sex worker. No care for her emotional needs, just for her body to be present and available. She feels ashamed when he oversteps social boundaries in public, touching her as if she’s an object instead of a person. She feels worried her kids will pick up his phone and see the texting between himself and a random girl wearing a bikini, on Instagram. She feels fear over anyone in the family using his computer, worried impressionable children might see pornographic images. She feels hypervigilant in wondering how much she should resist checking his phone, trying to balance not managing him, but wondering if she’s being betrayed. If he’s a serial cheater, she wonders if “trusting him again” may physically risk her body. She never feels safe or as if her personhood matters to him.
The unfortunate reaction to neurotypical women expressing her feelings and needs to an alexithymic, mind-blind ASD spouse is that she is often met with minimizing, dismissal, invalidation, denial, silence, or argument. His inclination may be to resist considering her perspective, since it differs from his own. However, alexithymia, mind-blindness and autism are not excuses for a neurotypical wife’s needs to remain unmet. If an autistic husband is informed of a need, then it is his personal responsibility to cooperatively problem-solve with his wife. Skills can be built when one is willing to learn, and the act of prioritizing each other’s feelings as real and worthy of attention is necessary for mutuality in marriage. Physical intimacy and emotional consideration are reasonable expectations of marital relationships.