The Private Hell of Holidays in a Neurodiverse Marriage

Winter holidays often come with many expectations in our culture. Cozy togetherness, matching pajamas, gatherings with family, parties with co-workers and friends. It’s a season of preparation. We plan, we shop, we bake, we select gifts, we wrap them carefully. We look forward with anticipation to sharing love and connection within our most special relationships.

Most people acknowledge that holidays aren’t perfect, even in the most ideal of circumstances. While some may struggle with accepting that a flawless holiday isn’t attainable, most of my neurotypical clients aren’t seeking an illusion. They often just want the barest modicum of normalcy for their holiday. They would love some joy, mutuality, and cooperation with their spouse – and a day without meltdowns, shutdowns, arguments, opposition, or broken hearts.

An autistic dad may seem very solitary or disconnected on a holiday, evoking an angry or despairing grief in his wife and children.

Autistic behavior on holidays is often unpredictable. Many potential triggers exist – the anticipatory anxiety in the days ahead, apprehension over non-preferred activities, tolerating the expectations of others, disruption to predictable routine, gift-giving and gift-receiving, timelines for gathering or travel, socializing outside the family, handling visitors, various sensory overwhelms, unexpected occurrences, or the lack of structure. If foresight and coping strategies are not planned and employed, then autistic family members may have a very difficult time with maintaining emotional regulation and connected behavior.

How might the above triggers manifest in holiday scenarios for a neurodiverse marriage, particularly in a heterosexual marriage with an autistic husband and neurotypical wife?**

As an autistic father:

  • Avoidance or procrastination of responsibilities, causing the NT spouse to wonder and worry whether she can depend upon completion of tasks, and often compensating by taking on the labor last minute to avoid a catastrophe
  • Breaking agreements about shared responsibility
    • Example: ASD spouses might agree in a regulated moment to stay up and help wrap presents for children, only to find justification for not doing so – necessitating the NT spouse to make up the deficit at her expense 
  • Refusals to get out of bed when it’s time to open presents
    • Insisting he’s too tired, and everyone just needs to wait a few more hours
    • Depending on the age of children, this may be merely frustrating – or devastating, resulting in young children kept waiting and eventually dysregulated
    • Mom may try to buffer and diffuse, but children might be inconsolable, noisy and angry. Dad may insist that children need a consequence for their behavior – or that he simply will not leave the bed until everyone else is calm. This is an impossibility for children feeling highly betrayed, and the reversal of victim and offender is terribly impactful for both the children and NT wife
    • Mom may allow children to unwrap presents without Dad (in desperation), and then Dad blames her for proceeding without him
    • Dad may have an angry, grumpy attitude when grudgingly joining the family
    • Dad may join with distance and disinterest
    • Dad may pretend none of the above ever happened, but is successful in the children avoiding him for the rest of the day, allowing him to do his own thing
  • If participating without refusals, Dad may still have a short fuse for the excitement of children
  • Dad may get up and be quite jolly, and take undue credit for Mom’s efforts
    • He may have had conflict with Mom the night before about his refusals to help or finish tasks, and ignore her – while exclusively directing cheerful, positive attention to the children

As an autistic husband:

  • Failing to purchase any present for his spouse
  • Choosing to not acknowledge the lack of gift for his wife
  • If a gift is purchased, choosing something hastily, cheap, miniscule, impersonal – or something that would interest him
  • Possibly passing off a purchase that he wants for himself as a generous gift for her
  • Belittling a hurt wife who has not received recognition of her efforts, or inclusion in receiving a gift (or more) to open
  • Reversing victim and offender by using her hurt as a reason to justify stonewalling, or storming off in anger
  • Easily finding offense at various moments, and storming off in anger or silence
  • Possibly throwing out an, “Okay, kids, lets all thank Mom for putting together the holiday,” as a generic and impersonal acknowledgement of her labor – not even directly spoken to her from him
  • Threatening to not attend holiday gatherings at the last minute (instead of just planning not to), or threatening not to dress or behave appropriately within typical expectation
  • Threatening to embarrass the spouse in front of extended family, friends or guests
  • Attempting to guilt, shame, prevent or thwart a spouse from attending a gathering when he does not want to attend
  • Disappearing for long naps or self-isolating without explanation
  • Meltdowns with screaming, cursing, throwing objects, slamming doors, raging, blaming
  • Extreme castigating of a spouse, usually to release anxious tension and gain control (she takes on an equal share of his miserable feelings)
  • Criticizing various elements of the day
  • Moping or pouting or bringing a sullen energy to the household
  • Performative masking at gatherings
    • The ASD husband may treat his wife angrily and oppositionally for the full day, but moments later put on his mask when guests arrive
    • He may appear to be a kind, gracious, cooperative co-host in front of others
    • He may appear to be a happy party participant, as if none of his poor behavior ever happened
    • He may speak to his wife with deference and kindness in front of others, never privately acknowledging to her that his earlier treatment was unacceptable
    • He may appear to be surprised or offended if she confronts the discrepancy
    • He may be quite cuddly and eagerly involved with the children, despite avoiding and refusing in private
    • The NT wife may feel compelled to pretend alongside him, or if she cannot successfully hide her feelings at being gaslighted, appear to be churlish to others observing the dynamic
    • If she tries to confide in a family member or friend, she may be disbelieved since his performative masking is so seemingly above reproach
  • Non-masking behavior at gatherings
    • He may follow through on his threat to embarrass her in front of others, speaking condescendingly, critically, or provoking an argument
    • Vindictively, or out of genuine need to cope, he may do things like go lay down and sleep on a couch in the middle of a party
    • He may sit silently and scroll on his phone, unable to be drawn into conversation by anyone
    • He may abdicate any shared parenting role, refusing to monitor children and necessitating his wife to over-function while she tries to enjoy the gathering (possibly her only positive holiday experience)
  • Imposing inflexible standards and expectations: expecting all family members to participate in religious observance to the same extent and devotion level; extolling the virtues of simplicity to serve his financial goals and/or absolve him of gift-giving; using his mother’s manner of doing things as the litmus test for his wife

** A note about gender: I tend to observe that ASD men in heterosexual marriages struggle the most with the above holiday behavior being a stacked phenomenon. (Meaning, multiple characteristics vs. a few.) While autistic wives certainly deal with overwhelm, and can be quite high-conflict with their same-sex partner or male partner on a holiday, it appears that their overwhelm does not quite manifest in the totality of what is described above. Autistic wives, from my discussions with clients, tend to mask at a higher level through the holiday, participating with children and responsibilities of the day (not always prior) – and then have a crash afterwards. Their spouse may be treated as a scapegoat, and they may be left out of receiving gifts, but the autistic wife is not abandoning total participation in the holiday (to the degree that autistic husbands often do). I try to be very inclusive on the blog with my language, but this is an acknowledgement of my intentional choice to reference that these behaviors tend to be shared in coaching from NT wives and ASD husbands, despite the fact that I work with all manner of neurotype pairings. This does not minimize the deprivation or harmful impact on neurotypical spouses of autistic women, but to offer a means in which to voice the different manifestations of autism in marriage and holidays.

The isolating perspective from others around the NT spouse, who fail to understand the chronic nature of deprivation, is that it isn’t just one random, odd holiday that is couched in misery. Depending on the family’s culture – it’s EVERY Diwali, Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Solstice or the New Year that are spent in high conflict and disappointment. It’s her birthday, the kids’ birthdays, Mother’s Day, the 4th of July, Thanksgiving, Ramadan, Easter, Passover, Eid al-Adha. It’s any special holiday that creates a bucket of potential triggers for the autistic partner. For the neurotypical spouse, with neurotypical needs, it is a pervasive lack of joy on sacred days that the rest of the world experiences as connected, relational, attuned and memory-making.

The relentless absence of gift-giving is an often private shame and sadness for neurotypical spouses. For one, it may compound childhood traumas of being ignored or neglected on holidays. The hope of a generous husband who sees and values his wife in a tangible way, never quite dies. It may feel embarrassing to disclose to others, wondering if they will conclude it’s somehow deserved to be deprived. It may even feel humiliating in front of children, as forgetting mom becomes normalized, and trickles down into Mother’s Day and her birthday as children grow up. Other times, children may be put in the position of surrogate spouse, feeling an inappropriate obligation to make up for Mom’s lack of presents since Dad is unbothered. Lastly, women who are routinely ignored on holidays tend to chastise themselves internally, thinking they must seem materialistic to expect a present on holidays. Husbands may say, “just buy yourself something,” or “just buy it, wrap it, and put your name on it.” (The relational aspect of gift-giving is not grasped.) Conversely, with the frequent co-occurrence of financially controlling behavior, the autistic husband may behave in a miserly way toward his wife in the area of gifting. Neurotypical wives in these dynamics are almost never in hope of extravagance – just acknowledgement that they are valued. Trinkets from the dollar store, or presents that are impersonally bizarre, are more hurtful than nothing at all. 

Autistic husbands may experience shame or dread about their inadequacy in the area of gifting, or they may also be angry that their efforts aren’t “good enough.” Some may consider the intent behind the gift to matter more than the actual gift, imposing an expectation of unending altruism from his wife. Mindblindness may prevent the autistic husband’s imagination of what she would like to receive, even when he is well-meaning and striving to be thoughtful. Gifts from spiteful ASD spouses (possibly lost in the adversarial dynamic), might be intentionally paltry. The justification in his mind stems from her responses to previous efforts. (It’s also less painful for him to hear that his gift is terrible when he knows he didn’t try, and he places blame on her expectations.) Other autistic men will not purchase anything out of anxiety, distraction, avoidance or disinterest. Despite their struggles with intimate, thoughtful gift-giving – autistic husbands often have firm expectations for receiving gifts.

Aside from spending the holiday feeling personally disappointed, over-worked, hypervigilant and forgotten – a neurotypical wife often despairs for her children. She so desperately wants happy childhood memories of holidays, for them. She may wear herself out in trying to masquerade normalcy for her children. Bright smiles, corralling kids through holiday traditions that she’s implemented – hoping children don’t notice that Dad has disappeared, refused to participate, or made his presence an angry or uncomfortable one. She often grieves behind her own mask, wanting to just get through the day, trying to not imagine that her children will suffer lasting impact from relentlessly dysfunctional holidays. 

As often discussed on this blog, there is no doubt that autistic limitations are real. There is also no doubt that neurotypical needs don’t simply disappear in neurodiverse marriage. A middle ground does exist, one in which mutual personal responsibility is resolutely undertaken. The neurotypical spouse may be equally lacking emotional resources on a holiday, though for different reasons. She is likely masking through the holiday in order to get through it. The effort expended in doing most of the shopping, wrapping, baking, meal-planning, house-cleaning, and preparation for gatherings is certainly not without impact. Years of “doing it all,” in hopes of enjoying a holiday that isn’t marred by ruination takes an emotional toll. Yet, most of the time, especially with children involved, neurotypical wives hold it together. They don’t permit themselves to further devolve the holiday by contributing to dysregulation. Others may become reactive, and then drown in shame (or be blamed) that they couldn’t endure another holiday with deprivational abuse.

Autistic spouses who are willing to self-confront, acknowledge the holiday pattern, and actively seek to correct the course through coping ahead – have much different experiential and relational outcomes. It is possible to handle triggers, honor marital agreements, and take on the necessary self-management to get through a day that is highly meaningful to their spouses and children. The act of integrity in doing so is often the best family gift that a wife could imagine the family receiving, and has a positive generational impact on children – who have the emotional nurturing of healthy, holiday memories being modeled by Mom and Dad.

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15 thoughts on “The Private Hell of Holidays in a Neurodiverse Marriage

  1. Hi and thanks.
    Bah humbug. No gift for me, again. I hace given up expecting or hoping for one. His is under the tree. He will not notice there is nothing for me. If asked, he will have an arsenal of excuses and wave it off with a promise to get something later….. what’s the big deal? 41 Christmases, There is no Santa coming for me, Charlie Brown. Ever.

    Wishing you peace and gratitude for your insights, and I thank you for that generous gift. . 🙏

    1. You deserve a visit from Santa, Myriam!
      If he fails to remember you, and pretends not to notice – sounds like a Plan B is necessary. As unfamiliar as it might feel, and as second-best as it is – I hope you will consider buying a beautiful present for yourself this week. 🙂

  2. You.are.brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. My husband isn’t quite as bad as some of what is described above but he certainly has many of the characteristics you write about. He has always given gifts but they are never good gifts because he doesn’t really know me so while he ‘thinks’ he’s choosing something I will enjoy, the truth is, he hastily picks something last minute and it’s a ‘good enough’. Like everything. We were talking about Christmas gifts for the kids and in general and I just blurted out, “You’re a terrible gift giver you know. Terrible. I’ve merely been polite for 20 years.’ As my therapist put it, ‘perhaps it’s time for certain things where you’ve been holding the rope need to be let go of”. Exactly. Want to sleep in AND take multiple naps instead of doing something that might be important to me (i.e. a house project or whatnot), then don’t come down asking what’s for breakfast/lunch/dinner. He has a college degree, I’m more than certain he can figure it out. Keep these posts coming. They absolutely make my day.

  3. Thank you for this. You write that it’s not just one holiday in the family but maybe every year.

    Is it typical for a ND husband to expect the family to abide by claims like, “The meaning of this holiday has been lost. This should be celebrated much more simply.” “We don’t make a big deal of gift-giving for X holiday, right?”

    It feel like a manipulation that requires empathy and foresight, which is not typical for MY asd husband.

    You provide a great resourve. Thank you.


    Sent from my iPhone

    1. YES, funnily enough that you bring it up – a couple hours after I pushed published, I realized I had forgotten to specify the imposing of standards. I’ll add something above, but to answer you here – the imposing of standards might be a variety of things. Hyper-religious observance, with judgement for those who don’t share his level of extreme devotion. Shaming children for being more excited about presents than religious observance. Another imposition of standard could be exactly what you shared – setting a standard in a way that soothes his anxiety (perhaps he doesn’t want to spend money on gifts because he leans toward the miserly side, or it helps keep him off the hook for being a terrible gift-giver). Another scenario is that ASD men might be very rigid and inflexible about the holiday plan in general – referencing his family of origin, by expecting his wife to replicate what his mother did. His standard may be a large disparity of time spent with his family vs. her family or their nuclear family.

      And of course, with inflexible standards being imposed – it sets an unfortunate foundation for the day being spent with tension, an undercurrent of disapproval, or outright shaming – potentially followed by stonewalling or exploding. Definitely not happy, celebratory, or fun – and can feel like a double bind.

  4. Since we got married in 2003, I took over all the Christmas responsibilities like a good wife. I started shopping for his family in June. I wrapped and labelled all of the presents before Thanksgiving so they can be sent away to his family members in different locations. I took care of all 3 kid’s presents. I designed and created family photo books & calendars as gifts for him and all the grandparents. We only traveled to his family because my family lives abroad so we never have which family to go problem. I gave him up 5 years ago because he is too passive, lazy, clueless, unmotivated, non-driven, selfish, messy, lacks of social and communication skills…just all kinds of strange behaviors. I had been trying to keep up my bargain but he never honors my requests. My requests of stepping up for the boys (i.e. other dads think I am a single mom), maintaining the house, keeping up the lawn, going on a family vacation to make memories are never met. We haven’t spoken to each other for 5 years. He controls all the finance so he has upper hand (he even forges my signature on the e-joint tax return). Kids love him because he doesn’t parent, discipline and teach. He is like an uncle in the house. The kids are teenagers and he still treats them like toddlers, such as pushing them in shopping cart at Sam’s Club. He let the older teen drive without a license and surf the net without restriction all day. When I try to stop the kid, my kid just ignores me because he has his dad’s backing. For the last several Thansgiving and/or Christmas, he took the kids to his elderly parents for a week (without telling me anything), leaving me home alone for the holidays. When he’s there, he simple dumps all the kids to his old mom while he sits back and relaxes with his old dad. Now, I get used to have a week to myself. I clean the house and enjoy my peace of quiet. I am quite disappointed that they come back because they all treat me like a servant.

  5. Mine didn’t want to celebrate Christmas, even though I’ve always loved it. He insisted celebrating solstice was a better option. In retrospect, it feels like a strange attempt at being nonconformist and/or dodging responsibilities attached to holidays that were too much for him. He liked being able to define the rules of his own celebration- even though we miss out on the connectedness of Christmas because of it.

    1. As an autistic person I like the solstice more because I’m not Christian, and it makes more personal sense, because if I’m celebrating the season then that’s the most appropriate day? This isn’t excusing your husbands behavior, it’s just my own opinion.

  6. Anyone else ever have your autistic spouse forget Valentine’s Day repeatedly and hide behind the cliche’ that “every day should be Valentine’s Day”….but do nothing on those other days either???

    I have experienced every single one of the scenarios you listed above.

    I listened to the elder women in my life when they would tell me that I would have to teach him how I want to be treated for holidays. I will never say that to my daughter. Put that guy back on the shelf for he is not ripe for a relationship! Something is wrong if a man has existed in front of a TV as much as my spouse has, seen a jewelry commercial or a movie with gift giving context, or walked past the displays in the store of holiday items for sale, and he finds it acceptable to choose to do nothing.

    I used to love the gift-giving holidays. Now I just cope by going through them robotically, fulfilling my duties to make things normal as possible for everyone else. Inside, I am filled with disappointment, humiliation, exhaustion, and unbearable hurt. I have anticipatory anxiety and dread a few days before which causes irritability and tearful moods. At gift opening time, I feel like the saying “a penny waiting for change“. Then he feels something is off, and turns angry toward ME for being expectant and hurt, and I get punished all over again. It’s just lovely.

    Thank you for sharing your blog. I hope you know the gift in the validation of your words. It is the only thing some of us will receive today. Thank you.

  7. Thank you for these affirming words to acknowledge these situations are real and exist even when others can’t see them, can’t begin to imagine this actually happens and can’t know the complex, multi-layered reverberations of neurodiverse holidays as it impacts marriage, children and family relations.

  8. All of your words describe so accurately my experience, the sense of validation is a life saver! We spent a week with my asd partner’s family before Christmas. He was sociable, led family sing a longs, hugged me in family photos (usually NEVER touches me and sleeps separately), shared a bed with me, was engaging, charming & empathetic with his extended family……all while torturing me and our children at every private moment. I tried incredibly hard not to play the part of emotional/churlish daughter in law. We got home on Christmas Eve for him to announce to me that he thought our gift of money to our children this year was not feasible. So they would have no gifts for Christmas. He then became increasingly unhinged and left our home that night, leaving us alone on Christmas Day and with very little money (to me, it was an autistic meltdown based on masking for a week and the fact that his family don’t believe in “labels” such as asd). We’ve been together for 17 years, and that was the absolute end of our relationship. Now to start re building my life and healing.

  9. My Holiday hell lasted two WHOLE weeks away on vacation and I’m still so drained. Cussing at hotel staff or Uber drivers. Sending text messages like “it’s been real and see you on the other side to my sister”. Wow I’m glad you have written this down as it feels like I’m drowning and no one understands. Only to come back to reorganized home by the in-laws where my air fryer is out in the cupboard in the spare bedroom… I’m so far from my home, my family and people I can’t sum it up how it is being with an ASD husband but I’ve read to articles that pertain to what’s happened. So from the bottom of my heart thank you for this

  10. You are so eloquent and able to hit the nail on the head so beautifully, in a way the heals my heart and helps me understand the dynamics of our relationship well. FINALLY somebody gets me, and gets me deeply!

    After years of me getting him lots of presents and me not getting any I got to the point where I asked if I could use my (ex) BF’s credit card to buy what I wanted and he said yes. This was after I emailed him links where he could buy a couple things that I wanted and agreed to do so, but never did, the year previous. This last time, after agreeing to let me use his card to buy a couple things, he reneged, and a responded by saying “you Christians” are so materialistic. He’s Jewish, but did partake in gift exchanges, or agreeing to year after year. Yet he just took. This last time was the beginning of the end for us. He kept complaining about how this issue kept showing up in his marriages, yet he was unable to fix it.

  11. You mean like when it’s time to decorate the tree and your husband decides to spend 4 hrs on the lights? My ASD kids who have the attention span of fleas are long-gone. I’m long gone. And he doesn’t notice. Then I have to try to corral them back to decorate tree w ornaments.

    Don’t even get me started on extended-family stress. His family just brings more ASD “quirkiness” into my house that sends me into deep despair because they don’t value anything I value. So even if someone decides to help with thanksgiving dinner, it’s not viewed as relational. it’s seen as a series of tasks that have to be done as perfectly and efficiently as possible. No talking allowed. Hallmark movies (or brainless holiday entertainment) are mocked. It’s so unbearable I usually just kick everyone out. Which means of course I do it all. A no-win situation for sure. Then when I do lose it, which eventually happens bc I can’t keep it together, I’m the bad guy and everyone wonders why I’m ruining the holiday for everyone else.

    Or when we went to visit in laws for 4th of July and FIL decided to make jello for kids for dessert. First night: cherry. Next night, he asks kids what kind they want. Kids: cherry!!! Him: nope Tuesday is orange night. I look in pantry and the jello boxes are stacked in order: cherry, orange, lime, raspberry, strawberry. Then he starts over. So he refused to make kids cherry jello a second night in a row. Any pleading to husband to remedy the situation went unnoticed and unheeded.

    It takes us 8 hrs to get through gifts bc too overstimulating for kids. We severely limit presents. So the pain from anticipating and not receiving gifts from hubby just gets prolonged all day instead of an hour. I don’t expect anything but the pain of not receiving something still hurts.

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