The Barren Desert of Emotional Reciprocity

Of all the various categories that require reciprocity in marriage, emotional reciprocity is at the heart of intimacy for a neurotypical wife. She is inherently drawn toward connection, and she desires the mutuality of synchrony with her husband. Since warm, loving, intimate relationships are a necessity for her neurology,  the presence of chronic impassivity from her spouse is a primary factor in the development of Cassandra Syndrome (also called Emotional Deprivation Disorder, Affective Deprivation Disorder or, most recently – Ongoing Traumatic Relationship Syndrome).

As human beings, we never lose our need for attunement. We see across our life span the need for empathic response. A crying baby needs the affective support of a concerned expression and soothing voice. A delighted toddler looks expectantly at our face to recognize the reflected joy in our smile and eyes. As adults, we still need empathy. No matter how many other close relationships we have, emotional reciprocity from our spouse is a fundamental need for the health and wellness of a neurotypical individual.

The absence of emotional reciprocity in a marriage to an autistic partner can feel like a barren desert. A neurotypical wife’s emotions are often unseen, ignored, mishandled or mistreated.

What is emotional reciprocity?

In marriage, we practice emotional reciprocity through empathic response. We remain cognizant of our spouse’s affect, understanding it is an outward indication of their inner emotional experience. We notice when our partner needs attentiveness, and we respond or initiate as necessary. We nurture with generosity, soothing our spouse with connected words, actions and affective demeanor. As emotional needs surface on either side, partners turn toward one another for sustenance, providing the feeling of being “felt.” A sacred trust develops between spouses as they cultivate the emotional intimacy of empathic exchange. We meet our spouse in their emotional experience, whether it’s reflecting our affective notice of a simple pleasure, tiny disappointment, or life-changing event. It is found within our greetings and goodbyes, our pillow talk before bed, our conversation over dinner, our mundane and milestone parenting moments, our serious conversations, and lighthearted humor. Emotional reciprocity is the circle of communication between spouses who respond congruently to one another’s affect. 

Our affect is a tremendous source of information for our spouse. We are able to convey nuanced emotion just through the micro-movements of our face, body, expression and tone. It is the leaning in toward our spouse, the tilt of our head to show our engagement. Our gaze locked into their eyes, waiting with measured anticipation of what they might say. Affect includes our smiles and grins and frowns and quivering lips. It is the edge to our voice, or the softness. It is the rise of an eyebrow, the furrow of a brow, the exclamation punctuating our words. The note in our voice that breaks from heartache. The surprise evidenced by our open mouth that gapes in shock. Our wrinkled nose of disgust, the squint of disbelief. Our hands clasped with hope. A shake of our head, a sneer on our face, the pain behind our lips pressed tightly together. So much of our mind and heart is conveyed through our face and body.

Emotional reciprocity is a reflection of the influence that develops from intimacy. The feelings of those we love matter to us! We may not agree with their feelings, we may not share their perspective. But when we see our spouse’s outer reflection of an inner emotion, we are moved. Our partner’s feelings influence our behavior. Their emotion elicits our empathetic response, and affective support, which creates emotional reciprocity in a relationship. 

What elements of autism contribute to a lack of emotional reciprocity in a neurodiverse marriage?

– Language and auditory processing delays

– Literal thinking that limits abstract language comprehension

– Challenges with registering facial expressions of partner

– Lacking awareness of his own facial expression

– Incongruence between his facial expression and inner feeling

– Alexithymia and poor capacity to verbalize emotional language

– Misinterpretation of his partner’s tone, and difficulty with his own voice modulation

– Impaired interactional perspective-taking and/or mind-blindness

– Impaired ability to store and apply information about other people

– Restricted topics of interest that hold his attention 

– Repetitive behaviors from him that distract either partner (motor movements, vocal tics, echolalia, palilalia) 

– Difficulty noticing and interpreting non-verbal cues correctly

– Difficulty with turn-taking in conversation

– Difficulty staying on topic and not shifting to his preferred topic

– Emotional dysregulation and poor distress tolerance

– Social anxiety reducing communication skills

– Anticipatory anxiety due to outcome from past conversations

– Executive functioning deficits (working memory, self-monitoring, organizing thoughts)

– Poor sustained attention and in-attentional blindness 

Do these neurological attributes remove the possibility of emotional reciprocity?

No. The biggest block to emotional reciprocity, intimacy and attunement is a lack of willingness, agreeability and conscientiousness. When two partners are equally oriented toward the goal of empathic response, then the difficulties that arise from neurology are endurable. A blip in memory, a distracted response, a robotic tone, a missed non-verbal cue – it doesn’t add up in the manner that problematic behavior patterns do over time. A neurotypical wife often has an abundance of compassion and kindness for a good-hearted husband who acknowledges his challenges, addresses the impact upon his wife, and endeavors to sustain learning and change.

What behavior in a neurodiverse marriage thwarts emotional reciprocity?

Impassivity is the antithesis of emotional reciprocity, and the autistic spouse might often present as detached or indifferent to his wife. Her daily initiation of interaction with him might be rarely met with more than a blip of acknowledgement. Sometimes, the most heartbreaking appearance of impassivity is when the neurotypical wife has something to share that is especially important. Maybe she’s gotten wonderful news, or perhaps something tragic has happened. I’ve met countless women who have shared any number of life-altering disclosures with their ASD husband (cancer diagnosis, death of a parent, catastrophic incidents involving children, severe injuries sustained from car accidents, job loss or work transfers across the country, ruined financial investments, a house fire, pregnancy loss or stillbirth, a variety of health crises) – only to be met with minimal response. A blank expression, flat voice, absent eye contact. “Ok,” is a common response (especially over text). Neurotypical wives frequently carry the grief of having spoken their most intimate words into a vast void of silence, instead of into their husband’s heart.

An autistic husband’s flat affect is equally devastating when a neurotypical wife attempts to problem-solve her pain with him. She has likely voiced her catastrophic despair on a regular basis to her husband. Yet, his impassivity only seems to increase as her emotions escalate. No matter how much primal sobbing, begging and pleading for a response that acknowledges her devastation – he is seemingly unmoved. Maybe mildly annoyed, or yawning with somatic symptoms of anxiety, but certainly not responding with emotional reciprocity. His eyes are not filled with tears of shame and horror upon learning of his wife’s daily deprivational ruination. Instead, he may view himself as being abused by her emotions, when they have escalated to a point that involves hysteria. He likely doesn’t connect any personal responsibility toward the antecedent of her desolation – not his years of neglect toward her, nor the repeated ignoring of her requests for emotional attentiveness, and not even his stony face and silence during the immediate conversation. I’ve heard stories of some impassive husbands who whistle or hum to themselves during their wife’s breakdowns. This serves as a self-soothing stim, but to his neurotypical wife – the impact is a sense of monstrous cruelty. Impassive men also tend to run away, back out of the room or otherwise “abandon” when their wife reaches a certain level of panic – typically triggering her original wounds from childhood.

For some autistic men, they fall on the more reactive side of engagement. They have difficulty regulating their emotions. An autistic spouse might become explosive or angry when hearing about the feelings of his wife. He may respond in ways that are not only unattuned, but designed to shut down the experience so that he is not exposed to her feelings. He may admonish, shame, blame, mock or behave with a sense of irritation or boredom (or even project smug amusement at what he considers absurdity). If his anxiety is triggered by her emotions, then he may be disruptive in his insistence that she stop crying, stop speaking, etc. He may diminish her feelings by demeaning validity. If she escalates in response, then he escalates more.

Staying on topic is often an enormous difficulty for an autistic husband when his neurotypical wife is experience-sharing. Most topic-switching behaviors are an effective avoidance tool, which destroys any opportunity for emotional reciprocity.

The autistic husband may classify his wife’s feelings as being either right, or wrong. When his wife shares a perspective that differs from his own, he may feel compelled to argue about her feelings and insist they aren’t justified. He misses that it isn’t his job to grant permission for her feelings to exist, but that she simply needs to be heard with empathic support. Even when prompted as to the response she needs, he might perseverate on his insistence that feelings cannot be supported if they are wrong.

He may become stuck on certain words or language that she uses, choosing to argue about semantics instead of addressing her topic. Hey may choose to debate her experience, negating the informational content of her sharing. When she pushes back on her right to assert her experience in the words that she chooses, he categorically denies her reality and the conflict escalates. The discussion is no longer about her feelings in regard to an occurrence, but about “what actually happened.” Feelings go unaddressed because the factual component is too distracting to him, and the idea that her perspective differs is too unacceptable. Truth is objective, so therefore only one correct interpretation can exist.

When she shares her feelings, he may echo them as his own and shift the topic away from her experience. This is especially likely if she shares hurt or discomfort, and can take on a competitive edge. She says she feels sick, and he asserts that he feels worse. He may take it a step further and go straight to bed in order to recover, despite not having mentioned a word until she spoke up about her own ill feeling. Often there is zero recognition that she, too, might need to rest. The focus becomes his suffering, and not hers. If it’s a matter of her addressing a hurtful occurrence, he may not waste a word of acknowledgement toward anything she shared. Instead, he swiftly launches into a list of his grievances about her behavior.

Stonewalling is an all too common occurrence in neurodiverse marriages, and akin to murdering any possibility of emotional reciprocity. Her feelings are not just invalidated, shut down, argued with, flipped or otherwise denigrated. Instead, the neurotypical wife and her emotions are ignored and neglected into oblivion. When her feelings appear to be sufficiently extinguished from the weight of his silent punishment, then the autistic husband might re-engage with his wife – but not with emotional reciprocity. If he views himself victimized by the audacity of her emotional experience sharing, he may believe she owes him an apology before permitting her to exist in his universe again.

Autistic men who exhibit a larger degree of delayed language processing may seem to ignore conversational initiation. Yet, the intention is not usually to be avoidant. It is more reflective of genuine interactive impairment. Conversation requires verbal and auditory sequencing skills, and the autistic man who is a very slow processor will also struggle to predict purpose or intended outcome of the language exchange. She may nervously share about an upcoming meeting with her boss, or express excitement over a child’s new milestone. While allistic individuals would respond with congruent affect, men who are especially slow processors frequently do not. He may respond to questions, as those are more concrete. But her commentary seemingly floats past him. Feeling ignored in everyday acknowledgement of basic conversation is impactful for the neurotypical wife – not just on a daily basis, but over the course of time. One does not expect to be unseen and unheard in one’s own home. A neurotypical wife has the need and expectation of daily conversational connection. She may interpret his chronic silence as disdain, disinterest or a lack of love.

Transactional mindset is often an issue. The neurotypical woman is a connective communicator, while her autistic husband is likely an informational communicator. He has his preferred topics of interest to discuss, which usually revolve around his special interest or work. He may also consider his information-sharing to be instructive, and beneficial to his wife. His favorite topics hold his attention for long periods of time, unlike conversation matters that she might bring up to him. If his speaking pattern veers toward compulsively over-talking, his wife’s strained affect might go unnoticed. He may be offended when she makes boundaries around the restrictive and repetitive information-sharing, and conflate it with her need for emotional connection on a daily basis. If she doesn’t want to hear about astronomy every day, then he doesn’t want to discuss her feelings. His limited perspective and different priorities cloud insight into the mutual benefit of cultivating emotional intimacy – without transaction.

Over time, disinterest is sometimes his primary response to her distressed affect or experience-sharing. Not confusion, not anger. Possibly annoyance, but minimal arguing and not angry stonewalling. Just disinterest. “Are you done crying yet?” may be asked with a polite or slightly irritated tone. Her despair is status quo for him.

How does the absence of emotional reciprocity hinder emotional intimacy in the marriage?

Emotional intimacy is simply the feeling of being deeply known and seen by our spouse. It is difficult for a neurotypical wife to be deeply known or seen, because the autistic partner is inherently self-focused through the default of his neurology. She finds herself having to explain and defend herself, and her needs, very frequently. She may be cast by her husband as too emotional, too needy, too demanding, too critical. It’s a heartbreaking barrier to ever being truly emotionally intimate when one is gravely misunderstood, or criminalized for having emotional needs, by their intimate partner.

Sometimes, the neurotypical wife receives a glimmer of understanding and accountability from him. The respite from emotional starvation feels almost intoxicating – she wants to believe that this can be the new normal. It affirms his capability and brightens her hope for the future dramatically. She may likely suggest that they attend counseling, coaching or receive some sort of consultation to maintain momentum. It can be a new season for the couple in which emotional intimacy and reciprocity begin to bloom. Alternatively, it can be exponentially crazy-making to receive acknowledgement of her emotions, confirmation of his role, promises for change – and then have it stripped away when it cannot be sustained with support. Her glimpse of emotional intimacy is even more desperately desired, and her belief that she can convince him if she just tries hard enough is reinforced.

Does the autistic husband have any expectation of emotional reciprocity for himself?

Yes, the paradox of autism is how aware individuals are of their own sense of deprivation, but of course has vast difficulty identifying the deprivation that partners experience. An autistic husband can become quite hurt and feel angrily slighted when his wife does not reciprocate through affect, or action, an acknowledgement of distress that he is experiencing. Additionally, he may misread his wife’s affect when she is genuinely trying to attune herself to him. He may find fault with her words, her tone or her body language. Other times, he looks to his wife as a maternal source of comfort when he’s ill or sad or otherwise feeling hurt or stressed. He may feel envious when children require her attentiveness, and believe she is neglecting him.

There are times in which empathic response is triggering for an autistic individual. A reactive husband with poor distress tolerance may displace anger upon his wife when she responds with concern. He may attempt to escalate the situation to goad her into negative reciprocity, which in turn releases anxiety and tension for him – but creates harm through scapegoating her and blame-shifting. 

The neurotypical wife voluntarily turns toward him as his emotional needs arise. She sees and intuitively reads the cues of her husband. Part of her empathic nature (and neurological skill) includes the ability to place herself within his experience, and her response is driven by recognizing his inner actuality. The autistic husband enjoys the benefit of her nurturing, yet does not necessarily recognize it for what it is, nor precisely what he fails to provide for his wife in this area.

Given all the social-emotional-interactional deficits, what is reasonable to emotionally expect from an autistic husband?

While an autistic husband may be uncertain about how to provide affective support or conversational response, the neurotypical wife has often repeatedly scripted for her husband exactly what she would like to hear. She has largely accepted that his face and body are not going to reflect congruent affect, but she still longs for some measure of reciprocity in word or action. 

It’s heartbreaking for the neurotypical wife when she has shortened her expectations of emotional reciprocity to the bare minimum of sustaining emotional survival. It is a never-ending grief that she is reduced to pleading for what sometimes feels like breadcrumbs for her neurological needs. “If you can ask me how my day was at dinner every night, and ask a follow-up question – that would really help me feel connected.” “Can we have a plan that whenever I start to cry, you’ll ask me what’s wrong?” 

Despite her high level of accommodation, she may notice that her husband does not respond to agreed-upon cues, or may resist her prompts. She may still be often told, “I don’t know what you want me to say.” A neurotypical wife may suspect that his confusion has become weaponized in order to avoid engaging in non-preferred conversation. While memorizing phrases to use in certain situations might genuinely be challenging to generalize, an autistic spouse without intellectual deficit is still capable of asking his wife if she needs a hug when she’s crying. Just as he learns other scripts within the broader social world, so too can he build his repertoire of scripts and rules in responding to his wife.

It is unquestionably a challenge to have emotional reciprocity in a marriage when one partner intrinsically struggles with social awareness, relationship skills, affect congruence, and emotional regulation. However, it is not impossible for improvement to be made. The volume of helping professionals in the field of autism, and the success that is achieved with repetition and engagement, is evidence that skills can be built and strategies employed. It takes a willing partner to do the very hard work of learning and implementing strategies with his wife in a manner that better meets her neurological needs. It IS difficult to build skills that are not intuitive, and to engage in interaction that is often non-preferred. Yet it is a reciprocal endeavor. She, too, has largely existed outside of preference for the majority of the marriage. Both partners must meet within a middle path to have some hope for a measure of contentment. 

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16 thoughts on “The Barren Desert of Emotional Reciprocity

  1. You always take my breath away with your words and actuality. Your words are succinct and easy to read
    Kindest appreciation and amazement of your understanding

  2. Your depth of insight and understanding are unequivocal – truly an oasis in a barren desert of neuro-diversity. Thank you for this website of winsome words and emotional enlightenment!

    1. I agree. So accurate. I’m in my 50th year of marriage to my autistic husband and living day to day, like you, realising I have no way out. Although I wouldn’t wish this torment on anyone, it is a relief to know I am not alone. Emotional loneliness is devastating. Please contact me if you want to share.

      1. Hi there, bad bad day. I’m hoping you have some emotional space for me to share my bad day with. My husband keeps secrets, although he first see it that way, of course. Today I learned he’s been receiving photos of our daughter and her newborn for 6 MONTHS through social media, and decided that since I was upset with her at the time, I would NEVER AGAIN be interested in my only grandchild. WHAT??? C”MON??? NEVER???
        Can you believe that? I am absolutely devastated at missing out. My poor daughter probably thinks I’m a monster, when I didn’t even know he had them. Her whole extended family, who are on this application list, including her in laws probably think I’m a jerk by now. I missed on all the first days from the hospital, yes, all the firsts.

      2. So so sorry for that blow to your heart and the pain you are experiencing, understandably so!!! Glad you posted, expressing is a release. I hope it relieves some pressure for you.

        Just a practical thought. Are you able to access the social media of this group thru your own credentials rather than your husbands? If so, I’d go on it and just say…I’m sorry I’ve not commented on any of these pictures. I only became aware of this group today. Then I’d post like crazy all the comments you would’ve been saying had you known.

        You don’t have to mention that your husband didn’t share it with you. They will figure that out. You’re not blaming him at all. You’re just “finding your voice”, stating the truth.

        Disregard if your husband is a violent type and this will endanger you. Or if it doesn’t apply in your situation. Heart hugs, Karen

      3. If you had been upset with your daughter your husband probably can see only that – black and white thinking. No shades of grey and no room for a change of heart. He clearly thinks he’s protecting you from more upset. I know that seems weird to us neurotypicals but the only way he will l know that you want to reconnect with your daughter and grandchild is if you tell him so. He can’t second guess you.

      4. He’s a black and white thinker, he can’t understand that your feelings towards your daughter may have changed. If you are not in touch with your daughter he will think that’s the way you want it. Maybe I don’t have the full picture here but you need to tell him what you want, he can’t guess your feelings.

    2. 50 years and counting. The loneliness is everlasting. It would be good to share with someone who understands how it feels.

  3. Many thanks for the lovely support. I’m still learning about the literal thinking and it trips me up every time. You are so right, he thinks he’s protecting me, and is unable to understand the ripple effect it has created that I now have to address. It’s so hard to rewire my understanding of his information processing. I try to look at things from a scientific perspective so it takes the subjectivity out of the equation. It helps, but can’t see how this will create any type of intimacy which I seem to crave, but at least it helps control the shutdowns which is all I can dare to hope for at this point. Thanks for listening.

    1. I’m afraid I’m no better at understanding the literal, black and white thinking with my own husband than you are it seems with yours. My husband shuts the world out by watching science lectures all the time on You Tube with ear pods in so he never hears anything I say to him. Then I get blamed when he doesn’t know the day to day events. He’s just told me the reason he never responds when I speak to him is because I talk to myself all the time ! Cant beat that logic can you?

  4. During any complex task, such as following a recipe to cook a meal, my ASD husband will become overwhelmed and emotionally disregulated. If others are present, he becomes short with them and makes rude or cruel comments.
    This can happen to an NT as well. We’ve all lost emotional control, to some extent, when presented with more than we can handle.
    However, in an NT-NT relationship, the situation can be revisited after things have calmed down, apologies and reparations can be made, and the relationship can find its balance.
    In my relationship with my autistic husband, his meltdown is often followed by a complete mood shift toward being overly happy or personable. For example, the meltdown might happen during the meal prep, but once the meal is on the table, he is “happy dad” and acts as if nothing happened.
    Meanwhile, the kids and I are stunned at this sudden reversal. When confronted about his prior behavior, he becomes confused and upset. He has no idea how his angry, rude, belittling behavior affected us and he expects us to go on as a happy family.
    Unlike a relationship between NT spouses, the transgression of the autistic spouse is never acknowledged. No apologies or reparations are made, and the emotional balance is never restored.
    I think this is why women married to men on the spectrum describe their marriage as a “death by a thousand cuts.”
    His words and actions may seem trivial in the moment, but each time he fails to provide emotional reciprocity, it throws the relationship more and more out of balance until the wife is forced to shut him out completely in order to protect her own emotions and sanity.

  5. This all rings so true for what I experience with my husband, BUT I am frustrated with the description of the wife as nuerotypical, because I myself am on the spectrum. I believe many intimate partnerships are with two in the spectrum.
    I have done much personal work, he refuses, so this blog describes my pain.
    It worked be beneficial to utilize wording that includes a nuerodiverse slide ensuring this abuse. But, that may bring on confusion (?).

  6. Its very sad that in most cases we are unaware that he has ASD.

    My „relationship” started like a fairytale and ended after 1 year (half of this was a totally horror which caused my depression, mental breakdown, loss of hair, anxiety, and 1 year later Im still dammaged/ he didnt hurted at all…)

    He is programming engineer (44yo) and Im a lawyer (37) We were totally in love, many plans for future, he was loving, gentle and caring and suddenly after ca. 5 months he started to show really weird and hurtfull behaviours. He blamed me and punished me for really everything, small things were problematic like mountains.

    He was very judgemental but he reacted almost HISTERICAL for even small innocent critique. Once I stated that he’s shoes are dirty (even cleaned them for him) he took it as big insult (!) remembered it and was vindictive about it many times.

    But he had No problem to insult me with HORRIFIC bad words (w@ore, stupid idiot, „disgusting fraud, etc) for really small disagreements. His behaviours turned suddenly and quickly in to heavy emotional abuse.

    Examples: he SPITTED on me !!!! Just because I was bit sulky and offended after some disagreement we had and we went to his friends for a party, I scrolled most of the time on my phone and was sad and sulky (he ignored me) his friend took it as Im negative, after party he said that I showed big disrespect for him and his friends (…) and spitted at me in big rage.

    He often ran away and left me alone crying after he done or said something hurtfull. Ev. he just stared at me and waited for me to just stop crying. No emotions, NO PROPER REACTION, nothing. When I started calling him out, why he is so cruel while im crying, he stated that „the fact that I stopped crying and calling him out on his behaviour is an evidence that I faked crying just to manipulate him” (…)

    He is very succesful programmist but in emotional& life area behaved like someone who starts learning basics (he is 44 yo!). Often he searched in Google for „knowledge” about daily situations or „rules” and showed me that something is right even if that was a quote and I could easilly find similar quotes for opposite opinion (…) delusional

    Despite of the fact that Ive done everything in his house (cooking, cleaning, decorating) he refused to help me by Putting heavy vacuum cleaner in the closet as I wanted to dry my hair (!!!) He said he will not do such things and leaved my house, I cried… DEMAND AVOIDANCE? In this time I was shocked to the core, that man can refuse such basic minimal help for a woman who did everything in his house.

    He GASLIGHTED me and reinterpreted facts in crazy ways. He was always right even after insulting me, he still saw himself as authority in area of good behaviour and mannerism, just because he was extreme nice to other people (that was evidence that he is respected and right). He leaved me in really hurtfull situations (looked like abandoning or even breaking up) and then came after 1 day without any remorse expecting that I will „not talk about the past” and „be positive” ( he was positive and calm…)

    My first idea was Asperger but I excluded it because of his high competence to gain friends and contacts, so I „diagnosed” heavy NPD. All traits from Narcisstic disorder matched ….. I refused his 4months„hoover” thinking that he is a narcisst.

    He claimed that he loves me all the time, milion words about love and told me that we should reingage to sory things out but he didnt changed his behaviours. at all. He stalked me and send many hurtfull vindictive mails , even throwed my belongings in front of my door (I cried till getting fever). As I was devastated for many months he started to partying and „recruited” new girlfriend in a 1 month (….) without any remorse, nothing.

    Im still trying to recover since 9 months and still feel depressed after all the hurt he caused. My therapist suspects it was 99% ASD because of his weird blindfull behaviours. I regret that I didnt stayed by my first „diagnosis” and thought he is a narcissist.

    His behaviours were often weird inadequate and really cruel and it looked really intentional, sometimes it looked like he doesnt know What he is doing. I loved him so much and now Im killing myself with thoughts that it could work out if I would react differently (I was hyperemotional cried loudly etc).

    The thought, that he will not hurt the next partner (that I was some kind of „training girl” for him and now he will behave properly with next one is killing me inside.
    I feel used and abused.

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