Part 2: The Antithetical Nature of “Partnership” with a PDA Spouse

Our introductory post regarding Pathological Demand Avoidance can be found here.

As a behavioral profile of autism, PDA is exceptionally challenging to navigate in a neurodiverse relationship. By its nature, marriage intrinsically necessitates collaboration – which requires reasonable agreeability on the part of both spouses. If a PDA partner chronically pursues autonomy at the expense of a spouse’s needs, a high-conflict neurodiverse marriage often evolves. Reflexively resisting cooperation is incompatible to any lifelong partnership.

A reflexive “no” is common with Pathological Demand Avoidance.

What are the “routine demands” of marriage & family life that a PDA spouse may use extraordinary measures to resist?

 A “demand” is a direct or indirect request, expectation, desire, or obligation. The term “demand” is misleading if it’s interpreted as an adjective instead of a noun. The spouse making requests is not inherently “demanding” (i.e. difficult to please). “Demand” just encompasses any matter necessitating a response from the PDA individual. PDA is not characterized by tasks that require skill, excessive time, or specialized ability; it is most associated with “routine” demands. 

Routine demands of daily married life include: Household responsibilities, such as cleaning, cooking, budgeting, paying bills, shopping, house or car maintenance, lawn care, pet care, financial contribution, etc. Intimate relationship responsibilities, such as  communication, affection, companionship, emotional attunement, sexual connection, acts of service, date nights, etc. Parenting responsibilities, such as feeding, bathing, calming, overnight duties, interacting, nurturing, playing, schooling, chauffeuring children to activities, medical appointments, etc.

How do “routine demands” become a power struggle in marriage?

Often, the PDA partner has a high tolerance for incomplete responsibilities, since resisting the obligation provides a sense of control. Over time, the neurotypical partner becomes increasingly urgent and hypervigilant in managing the needs of the home, children and relationship. The NT spouse feels overwhelmed with both the practicalities of daily life, but also the invisible labor of strategizing how and when to bid for cooperation with the PDA spouse. Given the variety of strategies that a PDA spouse might use to maintain control and avoid demands, and how relentless the nature of PDA is – the neurotypical spouse is frequently caught in a maze of resentment, fury, devastation and desperation.

PDA is exacerbated as the volume of demands multiply in life. NT spouses notice this elevated resistance after marriage, and especially upon having children. While the NT spouse may previously have been fairly accommodating early on in the relationship, it is impossible and unsustainable to relinquish all “asks” in marriage. The autistic PDA spouse may come to associate the NT partner with a perception of threat at all times, due to the level of imperative demand in daily life – and possibly use this perception to justify increased avoidant behavior. 

The interaction between a PDA spouse and a NT spouse often turns adversarial, with various high-conflict patterns. A neurotypical spouse may vacillate between a variety of approaches to gain cooperation, and the PDA partner may grow more resolutely resistant. Most bids for cooperation turn into a Pursue-Evade dynamic, but expressed in different ways. The PDA spouse may view themselves as victimized by the NT partner, who is desperate for understanding, assistance, collaboration, agreement, reliability, security, and predictability. The PDA partner interprets the desperation and persistence with negative connotations. 

The despondent neurotypical spouse may approach requests with the PDA partner using the following strategies: 

  1. Logically Persuading: the NT spouse repeatedly initiates discussion to convince the PDA partner of the wisdom and benefit of a request being accepted. “Proof” from third-party input (articles, experts, opinions from friends or family) may be shared to bolster the rationale behind whatever request a NT spouse is making. Conversations may become circular, and devolve into “right” fighting, which may then lead to angry or anxious confronting. Stalemates often occur; partners exist in one power struggle after another. Logical persuaders are viewed as domineering, obsessive, and coercive. 
  2. Angrily Confronting: the NT spouse vehemently challenges the demand avoidant behavior, and may escalate to yelling, shouting, or other explosiveness. Threats to end the relationship might regularly occur, along with insults, and generalized accusatory language. Angry confronters tend to be called abusive, aggressive, and bullying. The PDA spouse is unmoved by threats regarding the relationship, as the avoidance-anger pattern continues without any actual withdrawal.
  3. Reactively Confronting: the neurotypical partner may use sarcasm, passive aggressive comments, or contemptuous remarks to point out the lack of cooperation. This is often the aftermath of angrily confronting for years and getting nowhere; the NT spouse is embittered and powerless, which creates an edge to every conversation. The PDA partner tends to justify the continued demand avoidance as being necessary and deserved due to the NT spouse’s “mean” behavior. 
  4. Anxiously Pleading: the NT spouse may present concern that escalates to tears, panic attacks, and regularly conveying a frantic urgency to convince the PDA partner of the imperative need for cooperation. Over time, the bid for cooperation may get more and more dysregulated. Anxious pleaders tend to be the most dismissed as “crazy” by PDA spouses, who cannot connect with the emotional experience of the NT spouse, and views it as catastrophizing, unnecessary hysteria, and melodrama.
  5. Silently Suppressing: to minimize conflict, the NT spouse stops mentioning the routine demands that need agreement and acceptance. The PDA spouse may assume that the NT partner has forgotten the demand discussion, or has accepted the non-cooperation. When the neurotypical partner can no longer ignore the issue and brings it up again, the PDAer may characterize the NT spouse as confusing, “negative,” sending “mixed signals,” determined to create conflict, etc. 
  6. Passively Withdrawing: when the neurotypical spouse believes all avenues have been exhausted to obtain agreement, disengagement from all non-essential conversation may occur. The secret hope is that disengaging could spark regret, remorse and changed behavior in the PDA spouse (which is unlikely). The PDA partner is either relieved to have all expectations of interaction lifted, or characterizes the NT partner’s withdrawal as hurtful, unfair, and hypocritical (likening it to stonewalling).

Occasionally, some of these approaches might elicit a response from the PDA partner, which creates an intermittent reinforcement pattern. A NT spouse may find themselves escalating to extraordinary proportions in hopes of being responded to with agreement by the otherwise impervious PDA spouse.

What methods of resistance might a PDA partner use to avoid demands in the marital relationship and household? 

Demand avoidant spouses may employ various strategies to maintain a sense of control within their daily life, and by extension the marriage and spouse. The common perception of autism in society, and as depicted in most accessible literature on Asperger’s Syndrome,  does not often include characteristics of PDA behavior. Neurotypical partners are often in turmoil at what seems like socially manipulative, antagonistic, callous, and indifferent behavior from their ASD spouse.  Because how could those attributes be consistent with autism? Yet, as we explored in our introduction to PDA, those traits are consistent with the PDA behavioral profile of autism. To quote the original post, “research tells us that PDA is characterized by an obsessive need for control; non-compliance with routine demands; socially manipulative and shocking behavior; unpredictable shifts in mood; extreme outbursts when requests increase; passive avoidance; domineering behavior; comfort in pretending; lack of cooperation.”

Demand avoidance can take many forms, and the following are strategies that may be used to evade demands: 

Outright Refusal – verbalizing an unwillingness to comply with a request

Trivializing – minimizing the necessity of a request

Countering – dismissing the perspective behind a request

Negotiating – debating terms and requirements of a request

Swindling – changing the terms of compliance after agreed-upon conditions are met

Bargaining – proposing a transactional exchange for cooperation with a request

Blindsiding – last minute reversal of support or cooperation

Deflection – insisting the demand is someone else’s responsibility

Distraction – changing the subject away from the request topic

Defending – arguing about whether avoidance is occurring, or a pattern

Defying – intentionally acting in opposition to the request

Blocking – disallowing any discussion about the request

Stonewalling – refusing to communicate about a request for extended periods of time

Delaying – prioritizing other tasks that were unimportant prior to a request

Humiliation – outbursts in public

Procrastination – postponing cooperation until the request is urgent

Aggression – any form of intimidation that is intended to coerce rescinding the request

Triangulation – seeking input from others about the validity of the request before complying

Shaming – characterizing the request negatively, or insulting the need behind a request

Blaming – finding fault in the requester to justify avoiding

Passivity – refraining from confirming or denying cooperation

Ghosting – refusing to respond or engage over text, email or phone to discuss a request

Escape – physically leaving so as to avoid proximity to the discussion or obligation

Fabrication – inventing plausible excuses to disguise avoidance

False Agreements – agreeing to honor the request without a sincere commitment

Martyrdom – conveying an exaggerated sense of suffering over the imposition of a request

Withholding – restricting affection, communication or interaction in response to a request

Penalization – punitive measures when requests are made, to discourage further requests

Escalation – increasing anger, explosiveness, or mood shifting to avoid a request

Pretending – feigning an inability to hear, or other faux impairments

Thwarting – sabotaging circumstances to avoid the ability to complete a request

Parentification – shifting responsibility to a child for undesirable demands

Weaponized Confusion – pretending to not understand the request itself, or components of fulfilling it

Weaponized Incompetence – intentionally failing to complete the request skillfully 

Weaponized Sleep or Illness – sudden onset of fatigue or symptoms which prevent cooperation

Weaponized Dependence – demanding control, while also demanding assistance (because the PDA partner resists cooperation, but insists on supportive accommodation)

What is the impact of living with a demand avoidant spouse who routinely resists meeting needs?

  1. Despair: the absence of hope to ever influence the PDA spouse and gain collaboration
  2. Outrage: fury at being denied essential help, cooperation, and partnership
  3. Bitterness: brimming with resentment at the PDA partner’s control–seeking
  4. Degradation: embarrassment when PDA behavior escalates around others
  5. Isolation: feeling alone in the marriage, and unable to confide about PDA elsewhere
  6. Fatigue: over-functioning in the home, parenting & relationship due to lack of help
  7. Fear: hypervigilance of wondering when PDA will unpredictably surface
  8. Shame: feeling devalued from the PDA spouse’s deprivational behavior
  9. Devastation: grief at the reality of PDA and  exposing children to high-conflict marriage
  10. Powerlessness: subjected to control tactics at every turn from the PDA spouse

When does PDA become traumatic for the neurotypical spouse?

Putting aside the baseline trauma of deprivational abuse that comes along with PDA refusals on a daily basis, there are often pivotal events in neurodiverse marriages with PDA that take on an elevated trauma level for the NT spouse. Experiences of demand avoidant behavior such as: indifferently withholding caretaking after medical events (childbirth, post-partum, disease treatment or recovery); restricting consolation for a spouse’s grief (death of loved ones, miscarriage, terminal diagnosis, etc); reneging on agreements to support the neurotypical spouse’s commitments (work trips, doctor appointments, gatherings); sabotaging once-in-a-lifetime events through minimal cooperation, or refusal to participate at the last moment after lots of mood-shifting (family weddings, children’s religious ceremonies, funerals).

In addition to event-based trauma for the NT spouse, the relentless nature of pathological demand avoidance is a compounded trauma in daily life. The PDA spouse protects personal autonomy by seeking control instead of connection or cooperation. Chronic experiences of demand avoidance that become traumatic for the neurotypical spouse would be: defiant co-parenting (imperiling children by resisting instructions, arguing against reasonable standards of care, chronic delay of responsiveness to children’s needs, inconsistent adherence to necessary routines); endangering stability (refusals to get up on time for work, restricting money or spending, delaying payments on important financial obligations – bills or mortgage, etc); withholding important information (financial transparency, child-based matters, employment considerations); thwarting intimacy (neglecting personal hygiene, inventing reasons to decline, “forgetting” to initiate, intentionally being discovered with porn to create conflict, routinely masturbating to minimize arousal, prioritizing rest over sex, scapegoating the NT spouse as unattractive for various faux reasons, etc); avoiding quality time (prioritizing work, neglecting dates, avoiding evening time together); neglecting chores (using various tactics that result in inequitable division of responsibility upon the NT partner); evading any firm commitments (scheduling household repairs, making important decisions, plans or vacations for the family); basic communication (ignoring texts or emails or conversational attempts, talking over and interrupting, using argument strategies to resist); last-minute refusal to support neurotypical spouse’s obligations that may have been planned well in advance (work trips, gatherings with friends, extended family events); avoiding participation or preparation for special days (celebrations, holidays, parties).

The compounded nature of demand avoidance in marriage is inherently traumatic and exhausting for the neurotypical spouse. It is a voiceless experience to be denied requests, needs, and cooperation when two people have made an inherent commitment to partnership.

If a couple is aware of PDA, it is also incredibly demoralizing to read the limited literature about PDA – which highly trends toward accommodation vs. accountability. While we can all highly empathize with the threat perception of demands in a PDA behavior profile, we must equally empathize with the threat perception ignited in a NT spouse who lives with chronic disregard. 

Is PDA ever manageable in marital relationships?

Research is already heavily lacking in regard to neurodiverse marriages, and even more so with adult PDA. Anecdotally, PDA is manageable in marital relationships when the following occurs: 

  1. The PDA spouse is willing to self-confront in regard to PDA behaviors.
  2. The PDA spouse is willing to learn strategies for coping with demands.
  3. The PDA spouse is willing to be conscientious in implementing PDA management.
  4. The PDA spouse accepts personal responsibility for self-regulation, instead of expecting excessive accommodation from others to reduce triggers and accept avoidance.
  5. The NT spouse is willing to adjust unhelpful communication patterns.
  6. The NT spouse develops or maintains a realistic viewpoint of neurotype differences.
  7. Both partners are willing to equally prioritize each other’s needs.

Outside the above framework, in my anecdotal experience, neurodiverse marriages with PDA will otherwise often be a continuous battleground for power and control. Additionally, there is often work to do around trauma, repair, and improving communication practices. 

The introductory post in regard to PDA shared the research regarding similarities between antisocial behavior and PDA. While the conditions are distinct, it bears reiterating that living with a PDA spouse (in particular, one who will not acknowledge nor change problematic behaviors), can feel like a sociopathic experience. Callous disregard, unemotional indifference, negative affect, emotional lability, strategic manipulation, aggressive behavior, and antagonistic demeanor have a substantially cumulative impact. The relationship might often feel devoid of care or compassion, and alarmingly tyrannical with the level of control exerted. Often what is most hurtful is not just the demand avoidance, but the unswerving prioritization of autonomy, at the expense of a NT spouse’s suffering. 

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6 thoughts on “Part 2: The Antithetical Nature of “Partnership” with a PDA Spouse

  1. Once again you have given words to my experience. I have endured every type of demand avoidance you list and made every kid of attempt to get cooperation that you described. Your last sentence is something I told my former spouse repeatedly. We’ve now been separated for four years, and there will be no reconciliation because my hard boundary that he take responsibility for his behavior is, of course, a demand. And he will continue to prioritize his autonomy over the marriage he claims he “wants to work.”
    This would be a wonderful article to have in my purse for those who might still ask me, “What happened?” It says it all without me having to.

  2. This is, quite simply, brilliant. Utterly spot on, useful, compassionate, insightful to the max. Moreover direct, frank, real. NT wives: read and no longer weep. Someone understands.
    Thank you for writing this.

  3. “The PDA spouse protects personal autonomy by seeking control instead of connection or cooperation.” Thank you is not enough for your perfect words that speak for us all. I am no longer in this relationship and prioritizing my own happiness because of your brilliant articles.

  4. Every single one of your blog posts is brilliant and incredibly validating! Thank you!
    Maybe you’ve already covered this in a previous blog post, but I would love to see an update on the cycle of abuse model that was created by Lenoir Walker. What does the cycle of abuse look like in these neurodiverse relationships?

  5. This post explains so much! Thank you for speaking out and being so brave and providing so much validation to all of us!

  6. It’s nice to know I’m not alone, but when I read this to my husband, who has diagnosed high functioning autism, and has all the PDA characteristics in spades, he angerly demanded, “Where is the PDA’s side of the story?” and “No one ever discusses the other side of the equation” and demanded I find it in the article. All the while dismissing the the devastating impact his PDA has on the NT wife. And because I could not find words in the article blaming the NT spouse to his satisfaction, is yelling and screaming that it’s all my fault …. if not so tragic, would be funny… and is still yelling and demanding this article blame the NT spouse….. AND is making me ask you this…and further demands I blame myself for it all…. Word to the wise, if you can escape a marriage like this, do it, before it’s too late. I tried everything and failed, despite being a trained domestic abuse advocate….he’s used every trick in the book… drained our bank account, cut me off from telling anyone and cut me off from ANY AND ALL means of help, including therapy, by harassing the therapist to blame me instead, and to the point she had to stop seeing me. OTRS-CP is a fate worse than death… so get away while you still can. I had a successful career as director of a major non-profit, but he put a stop to my employment and has made sure I have no income for 20 plus years… I’m 62 now, and he’s 65 …and I just found out he’s squandered all our retirement, and even cashed out my 401K … I’ve started a licenced home bakery, and people love my goods, but he pockets every penny…. I could not escape, because I kept trying and hoping….it’s too late for me…but maybe you can ….if you can and do, that is one small comfort.

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