The Deprivation of Sense-Making for Cassandra

As human beings, we have a desire to understand our experiences, our relationships, our world and ourselves. When events occur that are surprising, unusual, or substantially outside of our expectations, we are driven to consider what factors influence the occurrence. We often don’t realize that sense-making is automated until we are confronted with a disruption. Prolonged confusion from an inability to label, identify or otherwise understand the circumstances we are confronted with can deeply impact our sense of well-being.

Women married to men on the spectrum are often chronically disoriented within their relationships, in both broad and narrow dimensions. When the autistic partner’s mask comes off, it is highly startling for his neurotypical wife. His conduct and treatment of her is bewildering, as it isn’t congruent to the man she dated. Over the course of time, various aspects of his behavior, and the marriage itself, are far outside the predicted course of what the neurotypical wife expected from her relationship. She experiences turmoil in trying to make sense of her husband, who seems so utterly different from the person she originally married. The absence of expected experiences and interactions from her spouse are equally baffling and hurtful. She is habitually preoccupied with trying to make sense of his demeanor, intent and conduct. Equally strange to her is that he seems to be his best self when around other people.

The search for sense-making is often arduous for the neurotypical wife of an undiagnosed ASD husband.

When she discovers autism as a probability, some sense-making can begin for the neurotypical wife. However, neurodiverse marriages have not been abundantly studied. We have relatively little relationship research nor literature available for women who urgently need to make sense of their marital dynamic. Autism presents differently (and sometimes diametrically) from one adult individual to the next, and there are frequently additional, co-occurring issues happening. The result is that even as the neurotypical wife is encountering a glimmer of sense-making from uncovering autism, she is impeded by lack of information and few resources. Some Cassandras will seek out individual consultation from mental health practitioners in hopes of acquiring more sense-making. Sadly, adult autism is not widely understood by the average therapist, especially in the context of marital relationships. This can be another door shut in the pursuit of sense-making.

Making sense of her husband is an imperative factor in aiding Cassandra’s peace, health and wellness. Her mind and body have experienced persistent turmoil for often the entire duration of their marriage. The consequence of her years and years of bewilderment (along with the impact of his conduct toward her) is destructive for her emotional and physical welfare. If the identification of autism has long eluded her, she may have succumbed to blaming herself for the treatment she receives – perhaps she is deserving of emotional neglect, deprivation, and behaviors that seem intentionally cruel. Her autistic husband may seemingly ignore her pleas for problem-solving in hopes of sustainable change. If he goes to couples therapy with her, he may do so reluctantly, or not implement suggestions from the therapist. The therapist may minimize or dismiss Cassandra’s notion that neurodiversity is a possibility in the marriage (compounding the feeling of being disbelieved, and unable to convey the complexities of the marriage to anyone at all).

Unfortunately, many neurodiverse marriages are lacking in equal desire to make sense of marital dynamics. The neurotypical wife’s effort to initiate sense-making for the marriage might often be met with resistance, avoidance or disinterest. Her broaching of neurodiversity as a topic to explore may be viewed as an attack upon him, and perceived as a negative attribution of his behavior and idiosyncrasies. He may refuse any shared investigation into the possibility of autism as a factor applicable to their marital difficulties. He may frequently respond with self-righteous indignation when she points out unintelligible behavior. He may find it silly that she spends such a great deal of time attempting to understand him. He may express contempt for her desire to make sense of his conduct, and what motivates it. In addition to the status quo of emotional deprivation from him, she is deprived of the well-being associated with collaborative sense-making. His disinterest is also a rejection of her – she is eager to understand her husband, but that curiosity is not reciprocal. He is not interested in decoding his wife. He is not endlessly researching to understand why he and his wife have such discord, nor why his wife expresses such hurt and discontent.

The adversarial withholding of sense-making is a significant emotional deprivation for Cassandra. Connected couples make sense of their difficulties alongside one another. Healthy, allied partners thoughtfully communicate perspectives, and they receive one another’s narrative with care and consideration. Reciprocal sharing, and open-mindedness toward one another, allows for integrating a mutual understanding of events, behaviors and experiences. It permits collaborative sense-making. Most importantly, the neurotypical wife feels less alone.

Men who are willing to consider the presence of autism, and especially those who are able to see themselves within the symptoms – effectively open the door to the relief of sense-making for Cassandra. When he consents to ASD evaluation, participates with honest self-disclosure, allows his wife to provide input if asked, and is open to accepting the diagnosis if one is given – he provides his marriage an opportunity for growth and insight. Using the lens of neurology to understand one another is a much more helpful way to make sense of each other’s needs and behaviors. Implementing strategies that take neurology differences into consideration are also more productive in building marital satisfaction.

A second tier of sense-making is when the husband (who is perhaps reluctant to accept the label of autism), is still willing to acknowledge that foundational differences exist between them. If he is agreeable to labeling their patterns in similar fashion to his wife, this provides a reference point for both of them, and aids sense-making. Any admission of intrinsic difference is powerful, as it removes the denial that anything identifiable exists. It helps the couple turn toward each other, instead of away. (The neurotypical wife might be used to hearing that if she wasn’t so critical, demanding, unhappy, depressed, emotional… THEN they wouldn’t have any marital conflict.) The challenges of autism still exist for the neurotypical wife – but it is no longer an unmentionable. When discord happens, there is a shared context for safe reference in problem-solving.

Circumstances listed below are commonly a source of confusion for a neurotypical wife married to an autistic man. As one can imagine, the cumulative effect of multiple disruptions to her expectations of a typical relationship is immensely disturbing for her well-being. Marriages are not a source of fulfillment, love, trust or safety when a chronic deprivation from sense-making exists.

The following list is certainly not comprehensive, but here are many issues of which Cassandra might try to make sense of within her marriage:

  • why the relationship shifted so dramatically after marriage
  • why the meltdowns, shutdowns and shut-outs
  • why the rigid and repetitive behaviors
  • why the avoidance when she seeks to positively engage
  • why the social-emotional interaction deficits
  • why the lack of reciprocity or mutuality
  • why the lack of perspective-taking
  • why the poor theory of mind
  • why the explosiveness
  • why the false marital agreements
  • why the defensiveness and denials
  • why the rejection sensitive dysphoria
  • why the executive functioning challenges
  • why the excessive sleep
  • why the longevity of stonewalling
  • why the lack of conflict resolution
  • why the authoritarian exerting of control
  • why the pretending conflict never happened
  • why the refusal to admit wrongdoing
  • why the lack of adequate apologies
  • why the making of amends doesn’t happen
  • why the ‘sorry’ without contrition or changed behavior
  • why the delayed language processing
  • why the differences in auditory processing
  • why the sensory sensitivities
  • why the need for sameness and predictability
  • why the dichotomy of his brilliance + absence of basic life skills
  • why the relationship maintenance seems to fall to her
  • why the co-workers receive his best self, but not her
  • why the adversarial dynamic
  • why the expectation for her to mother him
  • why the reliance on prompts to fulfill obligations
  • why the entitlement to prompts from her
  • why the refusal to implement strategies to fade prompts
  • why the passive disengagement
  • why the passive aggressive punishments
  • why the sullen demeanor
  • why the defensive demeanor
  • why the inflexible demeanor
  • why the angry demeanor
  • why the pretend-everything-is-okay demeanor
  • why the child-like demeanor
  • why the hypomanic demeanor
  • why the lack of empathy for her feelings
  • why the blunt or tactless comments
  • why the negative regard for her
  • why the porn addiction
  • why the seeming lack of libido or hyper-libido
  • why the inability to follow or remember sexual preferences
  • why the secretive sexual behaviors individually
  • why the aversion to aspects of her body
  • why the stimming behaviors
  • why the refusal to seek consultation
  • why the demand avoidance in small requests
  • why the demand avoidance in all matters
  • why the difficulty with compromise
  • why the lack of cooperative problem-solving
  • why the financial secrets or financial control
  • why the financial resources withheld from her
  • why the financial irresponsibility
  • why the lack of consideration for her needs
  • why the requests for change are ignored
  • why the absence of celebration or gifts
  • why the missing recall of basic facts about her life
  • why the variety of struggles with parenting
  • why the inability to anticipate needs for her or the children
  • why the detachment from obligation to meet needs
  • why the household division of labor isn’t equitable
  • why the lack of initiation within their relationship or household
  • why the blame is put upon her for his emotions
  • why the conversational deficits in daily communication
  • why the unresponsiveness to her communication
  • why the endless semantics about words and word meaning
  • why the literal interpretation of her words
  • why the black and white thinking
  • why the ignoring of her feelings in favor of his agenda
  • why her angry or hurt feelings ignite his own angry or hurt feelings
  • why the reversal of victim and offender during grievance sharing
  • why the non-committal answers when attempting to problem-solve
  • why the limited repertoire of emotional language
  • why the expressionless face when she is sobbing
  • why the conclusion that her emotions indicate an intellectual deficit
  • why the emotional affairs when he avoids emotions with her
  • why the physical affairs when he avoids sex with her
  • why there are so many rules
  • why the rules never apply to him
  • why the insisting that his intention matters more than the impact upon her
  • why the refusal to change behavior until she’s almost out the door
  • why the promise to change is never sustained
  • why the special interest deserves more time than the marriage or family
  • why the hours of video games or phone scrolling
  • why the lack of couple friends
  • why the disinterest in socializing together
  • why the workaholic behavior
  • why the shirking of work behavior
  • why the inability to prioritize
  • why the susceptibility to distraction
  • why the enmeshed relationship with his family (or no relationship)
  • why the inability for him to predict outcomes of his behavior
  • why the inability for him to see cause and effect
  • why the desire to stay married despite mutual dissatisfaction

The list could probably go on and on, especially if we were to consider the amount of micro sense-making necessary for daily interactions. It is no surprise that the emotional labor of sense-making is an extraordinarily taxing endeavor, and not always one that is satisfied in the short nor long-term.

Sense-making of the marital dynamic is not an all-encompassing problem solver for Cassandra, nor the neurodiverse marriage. But, it eliminates one piece of the overall deprivation that she faces on a regular basis. Her husband’s willingness to develop mutual understanding helps reduce her feeling of being adrift. The diagnosis and/or acceptance of autism is not a light switch moment for the ASD husband, either – it still takes time to develop insight into himself. He must self-confront and take ownership of his behaviors that confuse and sometimes hurt or harm her. When both partners accept the existence of autism, spouses can begin to make sense of one another through the perspective of neurology.

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2 thoughts on “The Deprivation of Sense-Making for Cassandra

  1. This is so incredibly spot on!!! I have lived this for 12 years (wife diagnosed a few years back, but the struggles are still very present and constant). Thank you for sharing.

  2. I want to cry because of how accurate this is. I cannot believe that people out there understand exactly how my 11 year marriage has been! Thank you.

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