The Authoritarian Father & Stupid Child in a ND marriage

In some neurodiverse marriages, a father-daughter dynamic develops early on in the relationship. The ASD partner appoints himself as the authority figure, devolving over time into micromanaging his wife.

It’s important to note that this type of parental interplay is highly different from the mother-son dynamic in ND marriages.

The neurotypical wife finds herself feeling imprisoned by her ASD husband’s efforts to parent her into compliance.

What factors contribute to the father-daughter construct within a ND marriage?

  • The initial and mutual perception of his wisdom

ASD men are often brilliant, logical, analytical thinkers. Their gifts and talents serve them well in professions such as a science, technology, software, engineering, medicine, finance, business, military, law, academia, mechanics, etc. Autistic men often pursue careers that are related to their special interests, which creates a relentless work ethic and a level of expertise often unmatched by their colleagues. Unlike their growing up years with limited social success, professional life is sometimes the first place that an autistic individual feels accepted for his strengths. Often, the ASD man is openly admired in his career, with peers recognizing his contributions and achievements, and it feels very validating to him. The ASD man’s intellectual strength is an aspect about himself that he implicitly trusts. A lifetime’s worth of unswerving confidence in his mental acuity, alongside the workplace admiration, can develop a sense of superior judgment within himself.

(Note: While there are ASD men who struggle with employment due to poor executive functioning and/or co-occurring mental health issues, a large percentage of men with Asperger’s Syndrome are successful and confident in their professional life.)

From an early stage in the relationship, neurotypical women admire the ASD boyfriend’s professional success and aptitude. She feels trusting of the confident strength projected from his unwavering decisiveness. When it comes to decision-making for the marriage or relationship in specific areas (like finances), he speaks with an absolutism that conveys his utter certainty of the path forward. His style is different from hers, as she is much more likely to seek out input from other sources while thoughtfully formulating an opinion or preference. He seems to know exactly what he wants – without deliberation, consultation or discussion. The wife may not share his self-assuredness. She may hesitate to disrupt his assumption of being the primary and wisest decision maker.

  • The NT wife’s preference for marital harmony

The neurotypical wife usually notices that her ASD husband feels very, very strongly about his opinions. She may sense an impatience from him to “hurry up” and agree with his plan, or even an unspoken disposition from him that discussion is not welcomed. She may very well have ideas that she would like for him to consider more carefully, but her priority is connection with him. She values their unity much more so than she values pushing her own preferences (and creating conflict), so she is flexible with acquiescing to her husband’s inclinations. He begins to expect her full and total cooperation, reacting in ways that withdraw his love and approval when she voices feedback he doesn’t like. This is painful to her, and she doubles her effort to preserve their mutual agreeability – especially in the earlier stages of the marriage. She might also be in the midst of discardment as the special interest, so she is also very vulnerable to trying to please him.

  • The NT wife’s conditioning from childhood

The neurotypical wife likely has extensive familiarity with suppression of her personhood. She was possibly taught in childhood that differentiating is selfish, but ignoring herself is an act of love. Perhaps her caregivers were under-protective or over-protective. Her caregivers possibly withheld love, approval or nurturing if she expressed needs, so she quickly learned to mute herself, and defer to others. She may also have experienced a chronic lack of safety due to abuse, neglect, trauma or chaos. Without any refuge or context as a child, she developed a misplaced sense of having failed to keep herself safe. As an adult, she doubts her capability to make wise decisions, due to an underlying lack of trust in herself. Her husband reinforces this poor self-concept with his determination to parent instead of partner with her.

  • The ASD husband’s black and white thinking

Autism is prone to rigid beliefs and inflexible thinking. When the ASD man forms a perspective or opinion, he also develops an implicit trust of the inherent ‘rightness’ of his judgment. If an alternative viewpoint is presented to him, the difficulty of accepting a grey area usually surfaces. Additionally, he’s unable to find context, or theory of mind, for a perspective that isn’t his own. A viewpoint is either right, or wrong. An opinion is either valid, or not valid. A feeling is either justified, or not justified. A decision is either correct, or incorrect. For him to see another perspective, he would naturally conclude (with his black and white thinking) that his own perspective is wrong – which is very distressing for him. It isn’t just his perspective that would be labeled as wrong – he merges himself with his opinion and finds the rejection of it (and himself) to be intolerable.

Additionally, ASD men are often very literal in their use of words. Semantics are a common source of discord and derision. Language has many nuances, but ASD men prefer exactitudes. When a wife paraphrases, recounts conversation and attributes synonyms to the speaker, he is compelled to correct her. When he asks questions, he wants answers conveyed with precision. He takes an attitude of correcting her frequently during conversation, and especially in the midst of conflict – with the assumption that it’s his job to instruct her.

  • The ASD husband valuing logical intelligence over emotional intelligence

The ASD husband considers his (visual-spatial and logical-mathematical) intellect as being far more valuable and desirable than any interpersonal (or intrapersonal) skillset. He believes his analytical manner of thinking provides an indisputable form of reliable intellect. He is factual and informational. Facts are right or wrong. Truth is objective. The social-emotional intelligence of his wife is far more subjective in his estimation. While she may be academically successful, equally accomplished in career, considered brilliant by peers in a competitive field – he views her social-emotional intelligence as a limitation, especially in their relationship. His perception is that her emotionalism clouds her judgment, rendering her mental intellect deficient.

He struggles to compartmentalize their marital discord in regard to her experience of emotional deprivation. When she is dysregulated during high conflict – emotional outburts with crying, begging, pleading, yelling, insisting – he generalizes a perception that she is irrational both in the moment, and in ALL areas of life. Her judgment can’t be trusted. He privately thinks that she, perhaps, is not as mentally ‘smart’ as she appears to others. He considers her perception of events and intention on his part to be wholly inaccurate most of the time, which reinforces his belief that she has an inferior reasoning ability. He concludes that she is not trustworthy to have input on decisions that impact him or his desired outcomes.

Since he struggles with introspection, the ASD husband does not view his own meltdowns or shutdowns as indicative of any intellectual lack – he is able to compartmentalize his own behaviors as being situationally specific. He trusts that his perceptions are accurate and his reaction (meltdown, shutdown, shut-out) is understandable.

  • The ASD partner’s need for control to self-soothe

Anxiety is a contributor to the authoritarian ASD husband’s desire to appoint himself as the primary force within the marriage and family. He feels very uncomfortable with decision-making being a collaborative process. Risking an outcome that differs from his preference feels threatening. He may not identify, recognize or define his anxiety due to alexithymia. Anxiety may be so ever-present that it is normalized for him as a baseline part of functioning. He is propelled by an urgency to eliminate any menace to his preference, and thereby relieve his anxiety through controlling behavior.

Exerting control to excessive levels is a means for the ASD partner to guard his sense of safety. Marriage to a spouse whom he struggles to comprehend is a source of constant disquiet. Compromise is threatening to him, as it may thwart his access to preferences, disrupt his agenda, or provoke uncomfortable change that will heighten his anxiety. When he can influence his wife through parental-type authority and exertion of control – then he can better predict outcomes. This reinforces his sense of competency, promotes confidence in his logical extrapolations, and thereby reduces his anxiety. Controlling her is soothing to him.

  • Potentially a traditional or religious worldview of marriage

Some neurodiverse marriages have a construct of traditional roles. The wife is considered the caretaker of the home and children, while the husband is the primary breadwinner. Because he is very black and white in his understanding of roles, he may view himself as a husband or father within the sole context of providership. He may interpret his paycheck literally, believing that his earnings belong solely to him. By extension, money should be accessed and distrubted according to his exclusive judgment. He may develop an extreme attachment to safeguarding money, especially as he struggles with theory of mind to understand expenditures for his wife or children that he doesn’t value. Confusingly, he may have a strong ideal to maintain his wife’s role at home, but he also may resent and denigrate it by treating her as less than his equal.

If the partners in a neurodiverse marriage adhere to a religion, such as Christianity, the ASD partner may take his headship role to a black and white extreme. The neurotypical wife’s faith ideals becomes a vulnerability that can be exploited by her husband, used as a means in which to maintain control. He may reference his spiritual authority in ways that are far outside reasonable expectation. When she voices her opinion, asks for him to meet a need, communicates a preference – he uses his headship as a means to exert compliance and shut down conversation. He may conveniently forgo reflection about Ephesians 5:25, choosing to not offer personal sacrifice in the manner he is specifically instructed to do. His focus is on parentally monitoring and chastising his wife’s level of submission, holding her to a standard of his own estimation.

In what ways does the autistic husband assert himself as a parental figure toward his neurotypical wife in the marriage?

  • Expecting her to ask and obtain permission before spending money, socializing, minor home repairs, acquiring help, scheduling activites, self-development, etc
  • Monitoring her spending and possibly requiring receipts for all purchases
  • Asking obsessive questions about every minor cash withdrawal or expense
  • Excluding her from financial decisions, investments and accounts
  • Not consulting her before quitting or taking a job
  • Making major purchases (like a car) without any conversation
  • Removing or limiting her access to financial information
  • Confiscating debit or credit cards without consent
  • Appointing himself the gatekeeper of all non-essential spending
  • Requiring her to convince him as to why ‘frivolous’ spending on vacations or date nights should be prioritized
  • Criticizing or shaming her for personal purchases, like new clothing
  • Correcting her manner of speech, word choice, summary of events
  • Scolding her on what he insists are factual inaccuracies from her
  • Accusing her of disrespect over a difference of opinion
  • Intruding upon her job or career and offering unsolicited input or criticism
  • Imposing his standards for household chores (though not participating in them)
  • Creating rules that he expects to be followed by her, but not by him
  • Inspecting for infractions to his rules
  • Instructing her on the ‘right’ way to do various tasks
  • Withholding ‘privileges,’ like marital intimacy or breaking marital agreements
  • Escalating to avoid discussion when she asserts herself
  • Instilling fear of retribution for ‘disobedience’
  • Punishing her through his behavior
  • Humiliating her in front of family with intentional disclosure of her ‘misbehavior’
  • Threatening to confiscate access (to car keys, money, information, etc.)
  • Pendantic questions that have no satisfactory answer
  • Nitpicking her choices
  • Insinuating she’s stupid or untrustworthy when any mistake is discovered
  • Investigating her personal belongings (reading journals, going through her desk, purse, computer, or phone without discussion)
  • Surveilling her whereabouts at all times, through an app or camera system
  • Examining her phone records or social media without cause
  • Weaponizing spiritual or religious beliefs
  • Seeking out a perceived higher authority (priest, pastor, parents ) to admonish her
  • Imposing one-sided moral or legalistic standards upon her behavior
  • Reprimanding any deviation from his instructions
  • Hovering over her to assure compliance to his directions
  • Withholding important disclosures under the guise of protecting her from having an emotional reaction

What is the effect on the neurotypical wife when her husband treats her as a stupid child that needs to be monitored, instructed and controlled?

Unlike the mother-son dynamic, which is often quite comfortable for the ASD partner with one-sided benefits, the neurotypical wife feels deeply oppressed over time. The dynamic begins as an investment in her relationship and trusting her spouse’s good intentions. It culminates in her world at home becoming a correctional facility. She develops a sense of hypervigilance, fearing that criticism, punishment, disapproval or control will be exerted.

Neurodiverse marriages with a father-daughter dynamic are usually among the highest experience of fear for the NT wife. When one lives under a smokescreen of tyranny, it starts to feel like a hostage situation. The neurotypical wife may forget her own freedom, because his assertion of power is so frightening and overpowering to her.

Infantalizing and controlling his ‘stupid’ wife becomes a special interest for the authoritarian ASD husband. It is terribly destructive – and imprisoning – for the smart, capable, competent woman he married.

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The Surrogate Mother & Defiant Child in a ND Marriage

Healthy spouses have no desire to parent each other. They want a reciprocal partner, lover, companion, and equal. Ideally, a marriage is complementary. Both partners bring different strengths and gifts to the relationship, contributing equally to the care and maintenance of the marriage – but not the upkeep, nor management, of the other person. Healthy husbands and wives do not want to supervise, monitor or attempt to control their spouse. Most importantly: a spouse should not be placed in the position of being tasked with acting as a surrogate parent.

In neurodiverse marriages, it’s not uncommon for a spouse to be parentified. Sometimes, it’s the ASD spouse who behaves in a fatherly way toward his wife. The circumstances of an autistic husband treating his NT wife in a parental manner are different from what occurs in reverse. For this discussion, we will focus on the occurrence of a mother-son dynamic between a neurotypical wife and her ASD spouse.

Initially, it might appear that her husband’s unmasking (and shedding of personal responsibility) is actually him ‘trusting her’ with his vulnerabilities. It can feel emotionally intimate to experience her stoic, intelligent, responsible, hard-working husband ‘needing’ her to ease certain aspects of life. She is likely a very natural caretaker, and it feels good to show her love through alleviating burdens from her husband.

The autistic husband is content to relinquish responsibility if it means more attention can be directed toward his special interest.

Does the neurodiverse husband want his wife to be a surrogate mother?

When her mothering provides comfort and relieves him of unwanted responsibility or duty – he is more than happy to be infantilized. It’s quite convenient for him to have a shield from aspects of adult life that he finds boring. When he’s hurt or sad, he likes that she’s consoling. But when his wife is parental in the sense of holding him accountable to obligations, expectations and agreements – he is often resentful, resistant and uncooperative. Due to his black and white thinking, he may struggle with viewing her reaction to his lack of personal responsibility as all good, or all bad, and extrapolate it to her value as a spouse. His good wife is a nurturing mother, or his bad wife is a rule-enforcing parent. The neurotypical wife experiences her husband as a child in two forms: the helpless little boy who is in need of rescuing, or an angry teenage boy, committed to defying his parent’s directions.

If the autistic spouse is demand-avoidant, then he can be particularly resistant to all cooperation, and ultra-protective of his ability to say no. He disregards the bigger picture of what is reasonable and beneficial for the higher good of the marriage and family. She becomes his nagging mother, pleading for him to wake up, get a shower, go to work, take his medicine, eat his meals, spend time with the kids (and keep them safe), pay the bills, do the dishes, etc. Even when it does not serve him to resist her, he is compelled to defy her ‘demands.’ He would rather put his job in jeopardy, have poor hygiene, stay hungry, skip his medicine, ignore the kids and stay up all night – if it means he doesn’t have to obey “mom.” It’s his family who bears the brunt of his resistance when he makes choices that result in personal dysregulation.

What does the mother-son dynamic look like in a neurodiverse marriage?

  • Time Management
    • Excessive or dysregulated sleep is an intertwined aspect of poor time management. He may struggle with getting up for work on time, creating fear in his wife that he could lose his job. She takes on the role of cajoling him out of bed and hurrying him along to get to work. When he returns home from work, he may expect a nap. After resting and leaving her to handle the night-time routine with children or be alone without companionship, he turns to his special interest. She points out to him the cycle of staying up too late and being tired the next day, but he resists a reasonable bed time. She may become obsessed with monitoring his bedtime in hopes of changing the cycle of conflict around his morning routine.
    • Time-blindness may occur throughout his day, which becomes disruptive on a number of levels – children cannot be forgotten at school, extra-curricular activities have certain time frames, dinner cannot wait until all hours. Even if they have agreed to a division of labor in regard to time management, she often finds herself reminding him through texts or phone calls to not neglect time restraint obligations.
  • Hygiene
    • Many ASD men are meticulous with their bodily self-care, but a good portion of men on the spectrum struggle with regular showering and tooth brushing. They may shower, but not wash their hair or body. They may brush their teeth, but less often than is necessary for a wife to feel like kissing her husband. She may simultaneously be dealing with a husband who refuses to improve his hygiene, yet also expects affection. Reminding him to shower regularly starts to feel like begging a pre-teen boy to take care of body odor. She takes on this responsibility both because it is difficult to tolerate as his companion, but she is also aware that he is harming himself socially at work (and thereby potentially risking his job).
  • Health
    • Many men with ASD receive treatment for co-occurring mental health issues, such as anxiety, explosive behavior, excessive irritability, ADHD, OCD, etc. Since she is the one who bears the brunt of his shutdowns, meltdowns, verbal assaults or other behaviors which hurt or harm the family environment, she is very invested in his continued treatment. However, the autistic husband may periodically resist consultation, struggle with making and attending his appointments, or taking his medication regularly.
    • Along with medication management, therapy is often a necessity and lifeline for the neurotypical wife. If her husband is inconsistent with appointments, non-compliant with instructions or otherwise refusing to participate on
  • Relationship Maintenance & Care
    • She is usually the one who must initiate, schedule, plan, remind and, at times, enforce dedicated couple time together that isn’t merely parallel play. (An example: he avoids an agreed upon date night by sleeping, or other distraction.) A wife does not want to be the sole pursuer in her marriage. She wants to feel desired, sought after, valued and cherished. Having to solely take charge of their emotional intimacy, and in many cases their physical intimacy, is demoralizing for her.
      • Most ASD men are content with what is essentially parallel play. They are happy to have their wife next to them as they watch their tv shows, scroll on their phone, play video games or otherwise engage in rest, relaxation or sometimes their special interest. The neurodiverse couple may do some shared activities together, such as exercising, gardening, attending church, etc. – but it is a side-by-side endeavor, not an interactive and connective experience for her.
  • Communication & Conflict Management
    • It is not uncommon for an explosive fight or bitter argument to end without resolution. In similar fashion, behavior that occurs during a meltdown will often go unacknowledged by the autistic husband. He will frequently expect his neurotypical wife to move on, without any repair. The NT wife needs and expects a follow-up discussion, but she will find herself approaching him first, much in the way a mother prompts a young child to apologize and take accountability for his actions. She may be met with an angry teenage boy who is unwilling to see his part in the conflict.
    • When the ASD husband has perceived a rejection from his wife, or a criticism, he may stonewall her or react with excessive anger and accusation. He expects profuse apologies and soothing from her in order to move past the event, even if his own actions were inappropriate and her intention was not to criticize. Just as a mother-child relationship is not reciprocal – because parents put aside their own feelings to help a child regulate – the NT wife puts aside her perspective to soothe his. Otherwise, she knows that he’s perfectly capable and happy to stonewall for days or weeks.
  • Co-Parenting
    • ASD men vary in their fathering, but it’s characteristic for an autistic husband to struggle with best practices of parenting. The NT wife often feels her children’s needs are poorly met by the ASD parent, unless he is meticulously instructed, especially during younger years when babies, toddlers and school-age children cannot care for themselves. The neurotypical wife takes on the task of instructing, directing, managing, prompting and correcting behavior that isn’t in the best interest of children. She may have safety concerns that require lots of vigilant planning on her part to prevent neglect.
      • Here is an example of what I commonly hear: “I have to do all the ‘thinking’ for everyone in this house. If he takes an aspirin, my mind has to consider if he put the bottle away. Because he’s left out bottles of medicine before, without lids, and our toddlers have grabbed them. If he decides to make dinner, I’m not even worrying about the mess. I’m thinking about the knives he forgets to put away. If he agrees to take them to the park, I have to remind him that he can’t sit on his phone and ignore their whereabouts. I have to remind him to bring water bottles. I know that it’s best if I pack them, because he may decide he won’t take them at all if he has to make one. If a kid has soccer practice and I have a work meeting, I know that I have to instruct him how to prioritize dinner and homework and showers around a 45 minute practice. I also know that the kids will likely be overtired the next day, because there’s no way he’s getting them to bed on time. He might decide it’s fine to skip homework, or even dinner. He cuts corners. He doesn’t seem to understand what can be cut, and what has to be prioritized. Another issue is that if he skips feeding them one night, it becomes a reasonable choice to him for other nights. He pushes the envelope of how much he can get away with not doing, or not remembering, all to save himself from effort or responsibility.”
  • Household & Meals
    • Some ASD men are hunger-blind, especially when absorbed in their work or special interest. They can forget to eat, forget to hydrate, etc. When he starts to get irritable and impatient, she’s the one who asks – have you eaten today?
    • Unless food or cooking is a special interest, it is often a challenge for an ASD man to put together meals. This can result in choosing not to eat if his wife isn’t available to make his meals. He may prefer the discomfort of hunger over the discomfort of providing food for himself.
    • Grocery shopping (or any errand-running) can be a challenge. If it isn’t an easy or familiar task, it can turn into excessive texting or calling her with questions. He isn’t sure where various things are located in the store, and finding them without her explicit instructions seems too overwhelming.
    • While some men with ASD are vigilant about cleaning (sometimes due to co-morbid OCD), many ASD spouses are resistant to contributing to household chores. The NT wife becomes the naggy mother, begging him to take on some contribution to the house. Sometimes she may notice him acting out – ruining her clothes in the laundry, parenting the children for a few hours but allowing them to trash the house, etc. This manipulation can effectively discourage her from pursuing his help, since it just creates more work.
  • Special Interests
    • Autistic partners have difficulty withdrawing from preferred activities. Special interests can be all-consuming, at the expense of time for the marriage and family. When he chooses to not abide by agreements for structuring time around the special interest, the neurotypical wife is in the position of either enforcing his cooperation, or accepting that he will not prioritize other obligations nor keep his agreements.
  • Money
    • Many men with ASD are quite frugal, and sometimes border on miserly. However, there are men on the spectrum who struggle with following a budget, paying bills on time, or having restraint in spending on their special interest. This can result in the neurotypical wife having to monitor spending and initiate confrontation when her husband acts in his own interest vs. the well-being of the family.
    • If a job loss occurs, unexpectedly or not, the ASD man might not prioritize job-seeking. Not having a routine usually devolves into an absence of any structure. Extra time for his special interest can result in a resistance toward seeking more employment. His wife takes on the parental role of prompting him to search for jobs, urgently explaining that they cannot survive without his income.

What is the impact on the neurotypical wife becoming her husband’s surrogate mother?

The neurotypical wife feels put in an impossible situation when her partner will not manage his time, sleep, job, special interest, self-care, health, obligations, parenting, finances or contribution to the marriage relationship. She begins to feel disdain, contempt, fear and resentment toward him. She also begins to loathe herself, as it harms her dignity as a woman to be mothering her husband. It feels emotionally incestuous to carry on a dual relationship of both mother and lover (though, often there is a significant sexual deficit in the marriage as well). A nuance that is especially crazy-making for a neurotypical wife, and different from the typical codependent marriage, is that she recalls her husband being competent prior to marriage. She wants and hopes for his responsibility to return.

Why does she participate in the mother-son dynamic?

The autistic husband rarely descends into avoiding all personal responsibility immediately. Before children are involved, it can be annoying, but not unendurable. Over time, and the addition of life milestones, she is more entrenched. His resistance increases proportionally. She is invested in trying to hold together a marriage while juggling multiple balls in the air. Sometimes it seems as though survival is at stake, if her husband is cavalier about his mental health, his employment, or is highly careless with the kids, or indiscriminate in his spending. It feels very frightening for her to consider the consequences of disengaging from parenting him.

Children add a complication and vulnerability to her time, resources and freedom. She can’t ignore their myriad of needs. She can’t bring herself to not be a buffer between his choices and their best interest. If they are neurodiverse like their father, that lends a multi-layered level of complication. Life is often spent in survival mode, and her options feel very few. The amount of energy poured into begging for cooperation and help is a chronic stress that diminishes her health and resiliency. She notices that he does not remember her instructions from day to day; she repeats herself endlessly. He is committed to helplessness. Her husband does not behave as a partner or an equal, but as a child in a man’s body who requires just as much mothering, if not more, than the actual children.

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The Special Interest of Every Neurotypical Wife

After being discarded as the special interest of her ASD husband, the neurotypical wife is desperate to understand what is happening. She becomes obsessed with decoding her autistic spouse, though ASD may not even be on her radar for months or even years. She tirelessly strives to understand his myriad of unfamiliar behaviors that ultimately feel like a bait and switch from their earlier relationship. As his neglect and emotional deprivation of her needs continues in duration, her effort to understand him becomes more and more frantic. The NT wife simultaneously blames herself for his discard, and searches for an underlying source of explanation. Additionally, so many of his behaviors – independent of the relationship, but limited to home life – seem baffling and not representative of anything previously experienced.

When she eventually seeks out consultation to make sense of her lonesome relationship, her insidious despair, her relentless anxiety, her physical symptoms from ongoing stress that will eventually be diagnosed as chronic illness – her topical focus always circles back to her husband. Every aspect of his behavior is reported to the therapist and her words tumble out at lightning speed – she has so much to get out, and isn’t easily diverted. She’s wholly focused on understanding him, longing for a returned connection, avoiding his meltdowns, and preventing his shutdowns. Although codependency isn’t a diagnosis, the therapist may use the term as a label for her. But is she truly a codependent individual who sought out a codependent relationship?

It’s my belief that the nuances of the neurotypical wife’s hyperfocus on her husband’s behavior is much broader than the traditional idea of what encompasses codependency. The term codependent is mired in misplaced shame for most women, despite the fact that codependency develops out of profound trauma, abuse or neglect – usually stemming from childhood. A child does not choose this type of upbringing, and there is no self-blame or shame necessary when an adult struggles with the effects of being poorly nurtured. The label can be unhelpful to a neurotypical wife because she is already dealing with the shame and confusion of being discarded, unseen and devalued in her marriage. She may frequently be told by her ASD husband that the problem is her, not him. Being termed “codependent” when seeking help from a therapist, even without negative insinuation, can feel criminalizing – even though it’s merely a matter of describing a behavior pattern. It also fails to truly see the big picture of neurodiverse marriages.

It’s true that someone raised in chaotic or controlling circumstances often has an under-developed sense of personhood, due to deficits of caregivers or circumstances. Adult children of these environments are vulnerable to codependent tendencies, having been conditioned to minimize their own needs and stay focused on others who demanded it. However, there is a key difference between the neurotypical wife and the ordinary codependent who is compelled to be a rescuer: the autistic husband masked during the early part of their relationship, before marriage. Why is this significant? Because it means that the neurotypical wife chose her marriage based on the dating dynamic of reciprocity. She did not get married with the notion of toxic selflessness on the agenda. She did not expect to spend her marital life obsessively researching psychology, neurology and developmental disorders, pouring energy exclusively into her husband – just to obtain basic insight and a modicum of mutuality from him.

She misses him.

Is this a universal phenomenon? Of course not. In some instances, the neurotypical wife WAS in the position of mothering and managing her ASD husband prior to marriage. Additionally, sometimes there were clues despite the masking, but childhood perceptions were still a blindspot – which is certainly understandable. However, a significant majority of neurotypical women did not establish a codependent relationship with their ASD husband prior to marriage, and symptoms did not develop until after she was dropped as the special interest.

What symptoms does a neurotypical wife exhibit which lend toward a codependent label from therapists or other helpers?

  • excessive focus on his behavior and desperately trying to change it
  • pleading and begging for him to adjust his behavior and cooperate with her
  • frequently ruminating about how to influence or convince him to change
  • needing acknowledgement of reality from him about his behavior
  • solely contributing to the care, concern and maintenance of the marriage
  • caregiving at the expense of herself
  • over-functioning in all aspects of parenting
  • over-functioning in all practical management of the household
  • acting as a buffer between him and their children or extended family
  • shielding or disguising his poor behavior to the children
  • managing his lack of executive function for daily life
  • accommodating his rules, preferences and moods
  • taking on blame to appease and avoid punishment
  • accepting excessive control to keep the peace or avoid conflict
  • sacrificing her feelings and needs
  • tolerating a sexual dynamic that is not aligned with her desires
  • having her own mood be impacted by his mood
  • her sense of peace being measured by the relationship’s well-being
  • taking on the prevention of his meltdowns and shutdowns
  • avoiding conflict for fear of his meltdown, shutdown, or shut out
  • walking on eggshells around his cognitive distortions
  • soothing his rejection sensitivity dysphoria
  • acting in the parent role of managing his access to poor choices
  • fear of ending the relationship prematurely (in case he changes)
  • difficulty setting firm boundaries
  • unreservedly loyal despite his poor treatment of her
  • taking on the sole responsibility of pursuing help for him
  • failing to trust her own perceptions of the marriage (or it’s direction)

(Some neurotypical wives may read this list with a feeling of shame. It’s important for every wife to practice self-compassion at recognizing how much she has tried her very best to change the course of her marriage. It’s especially important to know that she cannot do his work for him to change the relationship.)

Despite how consumed she is by her husband’s behavior, most NT wives lack a fundamental aspect of true codependency: the desire for her ASD husband to stay dysfunctional. The neurotypical wife deeply desires for his best self to return.

Frequently, NT wives were cognizant of the dynamics in their childhood that put them at greater risk for choosing a dysfunctional partner. Possessing the introspection of an emotionally intelligent person, NT wives often dated with this awareness in mind, looking for qualities in a partner that signaled reliability, responsibility, competency and mutuality. They were drawn to the intelligent man with a strong work ethic, professional success and principled nature. He seemed steady in life, work, and she was dazzled by his single-minded devotion to her. With good reason, she believed that marrying this man was a wise and safe decision, and would result in a continued mutuality.

Does such a thoughtful choice sound like someone who craves becoming enslaved to her partner’s turbulence? His savior, rescuer, mother and caretaker?

When the mask of her autistic husband is not only off, but flung aside and perhaps never to be worn inside the home ever again, the neurotypical wife is emotionally shattered. She reverts over time to the coping skills that were learned long ago in her first chaotic environment. If she is an adult child conditioned toward toxic selflessness (aka codependency), then it is her most primal adaptation toward survival. Neurodiverse marriages often exist in survival mode.

The neurotypical wife sought something very different from her childhood. The man behind the mask is her special interest, but he isn’t her husband.

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Is it an autistic shut down, or an ASD shut out?

What are the differences between an autistic shutdown, autistic burnout and a common (but less defined, and rarely discussed) dynamic in neurodiverse marriage – the autistic shut out?

What is an autistic shutdown?

An autistic shutdown in is a short-term reaction to overwhelm. Perhaps the autistic individual has masked for an extended period of time, been exposed to sensory overload, or experienced highly stressful circumstances (conflict, an exhaustive social engagement, aversive obligations, a high-demand work environment, relational difficulties, emotional deluge from shame or anxiety, etc.). It might be merely one factor or several stressors that culminate in an autistic shutdown. To cope, an ASD individual might retreat into sleep, withdraw from sensory stimulation (require reduced light and noise), seek out proprioceptive input (a weighted blanket with ‘deep pressure’ to joints and body), or be non-communicative. The duration of an autistic shutdown is brief – an ASD individual might be back to baseline functioning within hours, or possibly a few days at most.

An ASD individual may experience periods of overwhelm that lead to varying durations of withdrawal.

Autistic burnout is a long-term state of exhaustion, with significantly impacted daily functioning, loss of skills (cognition, speech, self-control, executive functioning), and heightened sensitivity to sensory stimulation. The ASD individual’s nervous system is overloaded, and their body and mind must reset (due to the cumulative effect of all the same reasons that lead to autistic shutdown). Autistic burnout can last for weeks or months. ASD individuals experiencing burnout often need a leave of absence from work or school in order to recover from the collective stressors of daily life in a neurotypical world. They struggle with basic self-care, exist in a constant state of fatigue, and rarely leave their bed. Their capacity for non-essential communication is severely limited, and stimming more often than usual may occur in hopes of self-soothing.

A third type of autistic withdrawal exists, and is frequently seen in neurodiverse marriages. Many times, neurotypical wives will misattribute autistic shutdown to their ASD spouse. In coaching, I will hear how about shutdowns that “last for months.” Yet their spouse is still successfully working, communicating with children and colleagues, practicing typical self-care (showering at their usual rate of frequency, eating regularly, etc.), engaging in their special interest, and capable of productivity – especially if it serves their own interest. There is no loss of cognitive skills. But, when it comes to communicating with his wife, cooperating with requests or routine expectations (especially those that benefit her directly), or spending time together – the ASD spouse is is absent, resistant, unwilling and uninterested.

What does an autistic shut out look like in a neurodiverse marriage?

I refer to long-term withdrawal in neurodiverse marriages as an “autistic shut out.” What might initially begin as a legitimate autistic shutdown (usually after marital conflict, or overwhelm from the expectations of family life and marriage), devolves into an intentional withholding of cooperation, communication and problem-solving. This is not to say there there is a total absence of overwhelm when he thinks about re-engaging, but other factors are present which remove his behavior from wholly being an issue of lacking capacity.

Essentially, an autistic shut out is long-term, sustained stonewalling. It is an intentional act of withholding communication and indulging in a posture of avoidance, neglect or punishment. The ASD spouse and his neurotypical wife may be at an impasse in one way or another, whether through conflict, disagreement, or a difference in expectations. It might even be that the neurotypical wife has no idea what precipitated the withdrawal. (Often, she eventually learns that there is a longstanding resentment on his part.)

Characteristics of an ASD shut out from an autistic husband in a ND marriage:

  • An antecedent: this can be one incident or a buildup of circumstances (typically, a disagreement or conflict with spouse, and/or anger and resentment toward family or marriage-related expectations)
  • Possibly an initial autistic shutdown (as described above), but a resuming of baseline functioning (with the exception of spousal interaction)
  • Sustained evasion of communication, cooperation or problem-solving
  • Attitude consisting of one or more of the following toward her: 1) detachment and disinterest 2) contempt and resentment 3) believing himself to be victimized by his wife 4) showing zero urgency to resolve the conflict or bend his position
  • Rigid inflexibility in his belief of being “right”
  • Resistant and/or withholding of perspective-taking, despite the wife repeatedly attempting to explain herself and her viewpoint
  • Oppositional and defiant toward communication attempts
  • Excessively demand avoidant to the requests of wife
  • Silence directed toward spouse, but not others
  • Purposely indulging his special interest to the neglect of family life
  • Ignoring his regular duties around the home or in regard to parenting
  • Partaking in extra rest or relaxation, especially if it’s apparent his wife is bothered
  • Seemingly content with the air of tension in the home, even as it stretches on for weeks or months
  • Might put on a show of being extra kind toward everyone but his neurotypical wife
  • May treat her as an object – avoiding eye contact, silently stepping around her, etc.

When a disagreement precipitates the autistic shut out, the neurotypical wife may naturally express her hurt or anger. If she is quiet in response to her hurt, then he may mirror her (though being quiet after conflict could be his natural inclination as well). Later, he may blame her for his sustained stonewalling by claiming “she started the silent treatment” – even if she has tried many times to communicate with him after the initial period of quiet. If she reacts to their disagreement with tears, a raised voice or other emotionalism, he may later blame her reaction as a means to justify his silence and stonewalling. She was “too crazy,” “too out of control.” Either way, from his perspective – usually she is to blame for his autistic shut out.

How does an autistic shut out impact the neurotypical wife?

It’s difficult for those not in a neurodiverse marriage to conceptualize what it is like to be stonewalled and withheld from for days or even months on end. To have her most intimate relationship be one of silence. Already existing in a baseline of daily emotional deprivation from her spouse’s mind-blindness, and possibly alexithymia, the neurotypical wife now has to contend with his purposeful neglect. His inability to connect with her intuitively is painful on a regular basis, but realizing that he is contentedly withholding from her – as a means to control, avoid and/or punish – is often a devastating emotional blow to the neurotypical wife. She may be conditioned to believe that his tendency to emotionally disengage is due to lack of capability, and struggle to accept that this stonewalling and inflexibility is not solely due to autistic confusion. Eventually, she may come to discover that he prefers to be in control more than he prefers to experience harmony with his wife. Maintaining a sense of control is empowering to him, soothes his anxiety and – withholding from her is often a dopamine hit of pleasure to his brain. He’s found a way to avoid difficult conversations that involve puzzling emotions, excuse his lack of involvement in family life (leaving more time for a special interest or relaxation), and punish his adversary in a passive aggressive manner. All while feeling quite justified due to his black and white, inflexible reasoning.

Additionally, autistic shut outs impact the neurotypical wife by setting off a frenzy of desperation to understand his behavior, especially if it’s one of the first occurrences. She takes on the tremendous emotional labor of trying to pin down exactly what went wrong and how it could have been handled differently, in addition to attempting repeated efforts at reconciling. Yet he resists, further confusing her and possibly sending her into despair. Wives will ask me – but how can they not want to resolve the conflict? Because the standoff creates his ideal environment! No emotional interaction until he decides to resume conversation – which is possibly being withheld until she gives up what she needs (thereby solving any need to compromise); suspension of his relationship obligations; more time for his special interest; avoidance of his participation in family life or chores with what he considers a legitimate excuse.

I am often asked – where is the line in marriage between merely autistic behavior, and abuse? Is an autistic shut out considered abusive? Is it neglectful? It’s my belief that autistic behavior becomes abusive when the ASD partner willfully persists in doing what he’s been made aware is harmful to his wife. Not just hurtful, but harmful. He is married to a neurotypical woman, and a neurotypical wife cannot thrive in a relationship where basic communication and tenderness is withheld. And neurodiverse or not, any relationship that has a vindictive pattern of intentionally punishing or harming the other person emotionally or otherwise is toxic. The NT wife naturally makes many, many accommodations for her ASD spouse. While he may find his autistic manner to be acceptable and justified, the reality is that marriage involves two people. Morally and ethically, intentional harm toward someone else is unacceptable – and should be even more so when directed toward a life partner.

Lastly, we have to consider what character and integrity issues are at play when a spouse’s requests for communication, cooperation, emotional regulation and problem-solving are routinely ignored. An autistic spouse must cultivate willingness. A willingness to practice flexibility in his thinking and behavior, even if it does not come naturally. A willingness to stay accountable to the commitment he entered into with his wife at the time of marriage.

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The Adversarial Dynamic of a neurodiverse marriage

When the neurodiverse marriage has spiraled into severe disenchantment, the ASD husband begins to view his neurotypical wife in an adversarial manner. The autistic partner is naturally self-focused, and his mind-blindness does not enable him to easily put context toward many of her expectations. He starts to regard his wife as an encumbrance to peace and pleasure in his life. It feels to him like she has an exhaustive list of instructions, obligations and tasks that he must fulfill. Over time, many of her expectations and requests are met with resistance, opposition or disregard. Why does the autistic husband feel justified in treating his wife as the enemy?

The ASD husband beings to view his wife as an adversary due to her expectations within the marriage, which erodes his consideration of her.

When the neurotypical wife has been discarded as the special interest, the ASD husband develops a certain sense of detachment from her. He is much less motivated to please her. While he was perhaps seemingly very helpful, reliable and eager to cooperate in the beginning of their relationship, this has been significantly decreased after cohabitation or marriage. Often, his resentment begins because of the disruption to his space and the cloud of expectation for connection that lingers near him at all times – her relational needs are no longer compartmentalized to their planned time together. Instead, her neurotypical nature anticipates conversation in the morning, after work, during dinner, before bedtime. She expects help with household labor, and quality time together. She awaits sex, and intimacy. She views their life together as one of collaboration and partnership. But the autistic husband’s nature is not designed for continuous interaction day and night, and nor is he able to anticipate any of these needs, despite the regularity in which they occur. The more she seeks connection, the further he withdraws.

When children have entered the picture and life is considerably more complicated, with many moving parts – the wife is quickly worn to the bone of doing it all, seemingly alone. At this juncture, the requests from her are not just relationship-oriented, they are much more practical in nature. If anything, she has to prioritize her requests, because pleading for relational intimacy has yielded few if any results. Now, she just needs HELP. Functional help with chores, kids, and overall juggling of adult marital life. This is when things tend to lean toward an exceptionally adversarial dynamic, if it has not already devolved into one earlier in the marriage.

The more that the neurotypical wife requests, the more resistant the ASD husband is to cooperation. He may go out of his way to avoid meeting her “demands.” He may even do the exact opposite of what she requests, so as to fully prevent her from receiving what she wants.

Why does an autistic husband withhold from his wife in this manner?

Seeking control to cope with anxiety, and perceived injustice, is often the underlying function of an ASD man’s resistance to cooperate with his wife’s reasonable expectations. Due to his mind-blindness, he has difficulty understanding “why” her requests – like taking out the trash, or doing the dishes, or putting a kid to bed, or cleaning up vomit, or transporting a kid from soccer practice to home – are a priority. Due to his selfism, he is focused on his own prerogatives and not internally juggling the needs and obligations of each family member. Instead, he views his wife as funneling responsibility, demands and work upon him that in his mind, are simply not his job nor within his agenda. This creates resentment, which turns into contempt, and then he acts out with passive aggressive punishment. He may also have a visceral distaste for being told what to do, causing an automatic avoidance of her instruction. He attributes her directives as intentionally designed to punish him (or keep him away from what he truly wants to be doing), and he is angered by the control he feels exerted over him. He views her as responsible for his miserable laundry list of responsibilities that are created from HER priorities, not his. She is the enemy of his agenda, not his partner or teammate.

The adversarial dynamic in a neurodiverse marriage can escalate to the point that he is withholding far more than just practical help. His brain may be hit with dopamine each time he feels the satisfaction of controlling a situation by withholding from his wife. This actually increases his interest in hearing her and he is listening to her needs more than ever – but with ill intent, using it as a means to punish by withholding, refusing and treating her as an enemy. However, he also genuinely – with his black and white thinking – believes himself to be correct. He has firmly concluded that his wife has earned this treatment from him through her demanding behavior. In his perception, her requests/demands are not reasonable and they do not consider his agenda, feelings or interests.

Other areas of life can also be drastically impacted by his belief that she is an enemy that must be contained and held at arm’s length. He may assert rigid boundaries with finances, knowing this is an exceptionally effective way to control her freedoms and security. Shutting her out of accounts, closing access to funds, doling out an allowance. Treating her as an opponent to control or thwart, instead of a partner to trust. The more she asks for transparency, the more he is given the opportunity to resist and withhold, which feels soothing to him and entrenches him further into the habit. He may extend this oppositional resistance into all areas of their life – breaking agreements about weekend plans, refusing to participate in fun outings, thwarting special occasions that she’s put effort into planning, reneging on commitments in all areas of life, etc.

Stonewalling is a common way in which the ASD husband effectively removes any chance at cooperation, by fully checking out and weaponizing his silence. Without any communication, his refusals and false promises cannot be discussed. It is an effective way to withhold partnership and punish his wife for her expectations that feel oppressive.

It’s worth noting that ASD often has blended features with other disorders that are certainly not “just” autism. It’s very important to know that some ASD men do not have oppositional or defiant tendencies – they sincerely desire to reduce conflict and communicate more effectively with their wives. They do not pursue control through withholding, refusing help or treating wives as adversaries to defeat. However, a great many men with autism DO have an underlying proclivity toward oppositional behavior, and it sometimes morphs into serious personality, integrity and character issues.

The impact of being treated as an opponent instead of a partner is yet another layer of emotional deprivation for the neurotypical partner. It is not just the lack of emotional intimacy and empathy, it is not just all the accommodations she must make for his inability to understand her needs, to account for his sensory preferences, his requirements for restoration and sleep, his minor control issues that quickly add up – it is being treated like an enemy on a day to day basis. It is noticing that he goes out of his way to deny her, to refuse her, to withhold from her. It is feeling like a mother with a rebellious teenage son whom she must beg, plead and cajole into cooperating on even the most fundamental of levels. She starts to realize that everyone else in his life receives a better version of him. If a stranger asked him to take out the trash, he probably would. But if it’s a request from her, then his reflexive response is a solid (or passive) “no.” It’s her, and solely her, that he seeks to resist. And that is soul-crushing for a neurotypical wife who married her husband in hopes of having a tender, connected and loyal marriage with mutuality and partnership. She vowed to love him above anyone else, and it seems that he has endeavored to do exactly the opposite – in all things, as usual.

Pathological Demand Avoidance (PDA) is a complex topic that will be defined and explored more in further posts to come.

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The secrets that Cassandra keeps

The concept behind the name of Cassandra Syndrome is that a NT wife is sharing her reality with others, and being doubted. But what do her disclosures about the neurodiverse marriage really look like? To what degree is a neurotypical wife able to fully reveal the extent of her marital dynamic to others?

It can be very difficult for the NT wife to convey the full reality of her marriage to loved ones, because she is often minimized or dismissed.

A neurotypical wife is usually very discretionary in regard to how much she divulges about her husband’s behavior. She instinctively knows that if she were to TRULY talk in specifics about the happenings within her marriage, people would be in utter disbelief… not just doubt. The behaviors of her husband are sometimes so starkly unusual in comparison to neurotypical husbands that it creates a sense of shame about fully revealing them. She may also unconsciously worry that his poor treatment of her is a reflection of her personal worth – and that perhaps other people will come to the same conclusion of her lack in value. Additionally, she is often protective of her autistic husband. She sees the vulnerabilities that drives some of his autistic behaviors, even as she struggles to explain it to herself. She also has hope that her ASD husband might improve the behaviors that are seemingly the most difficult, and she doesn’t want to ruin his reputation to loved ones. The NT wife may also be conditioned from childhood to believe it’s her job to keep his dysfunction or misbehavior a secret from others.

When the neurotypical wife tries to broach the topic of her marital dynamics with friends or family, it’s often shut down very quickly. Of course he doesn’t spend a lot of time with her after work – he’s tired! Of course he likes to do his [special interest] all weekend – it’s fun! Of course he has meltdowns on holidays – they’re a lot of pressure! She might also be treated to the common mentality in our culture of blaming the person who ‘complains’ – she must be doing something that elicits his problematic actions or avoidance of her.

When the sanitized version of their relationship problems are minimized or dismissed, the neurotypical wife may either ramp up the details – risking, of course, the possibility of looking histrionic, or being pitied because her husband is so “weird.” More often, she withdraws from trying to explain. She’s learned that other people will not validate her experience because they don’t understand it – and, they will blame her. His behavior becomes her secret.

What are the secrets that neurotypical wives keep? The following are all examples heard directly from coaching clients:

Secrets about daily life and parenting:

  • “After we were married, he treated our relationship as a task that had been completed. He didn’t understand the point of regular time together – we were already married. I spend every evening alone, while he’s playing video games or working on his motorcycle (a special interest).”
  • “He slept through my 20 hours of labor, and then left the hospital 10 minutes after she was born – to get himself something to eat. He said he didn’t think to bring me anything.”
  • “The noise of having a baby in the house unglues him. He’s thrown the baby monitor against the wall multiple times, and screamed at her to shut up. I obviously cannot leave the baby with him, because he could have a meltdown and risk her safety.”
  • “He bought a decibel meter to measure noise in the house. If the kids are too loud, then he punishes them. He blames me for not keeping them quiet.”
  • “We have three kids under age 5. He leaves out dangerous items like bleach spray, scissors, and single pills of substances like Adderall. He acts like I’m stupid to think this is risky for our little kids.”
  • “If I ask him to watch the kids while I go to the grocery store and he isn’t in the mood to get out of bed, then he refuses. If I point out he’s been in bed for a long time already, he still refuses. He’s threatened me that if the kids get hurt while I’m out and he’s resting, it will be my fault since I left them with him after he said no. But he always says no – he thinks I should be solely responsible for them at all times.”
  • “I come home from work frequently to find him in bed, and our two toddlers roaming the house unsupervised, making a mess and potentially getting in to dangerous things.”
  • “Nobody is allowed to touch the thermostat except him, because of the temperature, and the cost. If he’s hot, then it’s worth turning the air on. If we’re hot, then it’s not worth turning the air on.”
  • “He doesn’t help with the housework, but he lectures me continuously about the right way to do it. When he returns home from work, he doesn’t say hello first – he just announces what chores aren’t visibly done.”
  • “We both have full-time jobs, but he lays on the couch with his phone every night after work. I make dinner, feed everyone, bathe the kids and get them to bed. If I ask him to do something, like take out the trash, he refuses. He says I’m ordering him around.”
  • “He antagonizes the kids and doesn’t know how to diffuse conflict. He creates power struggles and then punishes them with consequences that aren’t fair or reasonable, like a six month grounding. He expects me to enforce his consequences.”
  • “Even though he has sensory issues himself, he has no patience with our son who eats very few foods. He expects our son to eat every bite of whatever is on his plate, even if our son has tears streaming from the discomfort. He tells me I’m undermining him when I insist we offer our son some alternatives rather than forcing a food he detests.”
  • “Meltdowns don’t just happen in person. When he’s angry, he ragefully texts me all day long, and the things he says to me are so hateful. And then as soon as he’s over it, expects me to pretend it didn’t happen.”
  • “Stonewalling is his way of punishing me. He has gone an entire month without uttering a word to me.”

Secrets about his abandonment during critical moments of life:

  • “When my mom was put in hospice, he stopped speaking to me over something minor – I didn’t make the dinner he liked, so he said it was evidence that I don’t care about him or anything else but my mom. Whenever I need support the most, he finds a reason to withhold it.”
  • “I had major surgery that required a six week recovery. I planned ahead and asked him to take off the first week to help me. Any request I made – just for food or medicine – was met with irritation from him. I cried for most of my recovery – both from the pain, and also how he treated me. He never inquired as to why I was crying.”
  • “I had an emergency c-section with our second baby. I had lifting restrictions and couldn’t care for our toddler while caring for the newborn. He resented my instructions, and wasn’t willing to play with or entertain our toddler. He felt that since his time off from work is technically vacation time, it should be treated as such – not taking care of us. So he did lots of resting and hobbies while I cried.”
  • “I was diagnosed with cancer. When I told him, he just said “okay.” I asked if he could come to my follow-up appointment to learn about the treatments, but he didn’t understand why he should come – they weren’t going to be his treatments.”

Secrets about their sex life:

  • “We haven’t had sex in years – he avoids it and prefers porn.”
  • “He says he wants….to want…. to have sex. But we don’t.”
  • “We waited until after marriage to have sex. He hasn’t learned how I like to be touched, even though I’ve repeatedly been very specific – which he finds hurtful. I didn’t realize our sex life would be so disappointing.”
  • “He won’t reciprocate oral sex, but he expects it from me on a daily basis.”
  • “He finds the sensory aspect of sexually touching me to be disgusting, so he won’t.”
  • “He expects me to be freshly waxed at all times, because he hates body hair. But that rule doesn’t apply to him.”
  • “He requires a full shower and dry hair from me directly before sex, a towel on the bed and then immediately hops up afterwards to go take a shower himself.”
  • “He has never made eye contact during sex. It feels very disconnected when he’s staring at a fixed spot instead of into my eyes.”
  • “He expects sex every day, even if I’m really sick or just had a 12 hour workday. He has a meltdown and accuses me of not caring about his needs if I decline. Post-partum was a nightmare – he expected attention every single night even when I couldn’t physically provide it, and had a newborn and toddler to take care of.”
  • “He’s very moralistic about sex. He only uses proper terms and views it more as a reproductive function instead of a pleasurable experience. If I use any language that isn’t a clinical term, he calls me vulgar.”
  • “I can wear my sexiest lingerie to bed in hopes of him initiating, but he won’t even notice.”
  • “He was very critical of my post-partum body. He’s a doctor, and told me my stretch marks remind him of what scabies look like.”

Secrets about finances:

  • “He won’t let me have any passwords or access to our financial accounts. He has private bank accounts that he won’t discuss.”
  • “His mom is the recipient listed on his life insurance policy.”
  • “Cars are his special interest. He’s bought brand-new cars without telling me.”
  • “He will not stick to a budget. He spent $12k on video game purchases and I had no idea.”
  • “He lost his job but refuses to look for a new one, and rages when I plead with him.”
  • “He buys whatever he wants for himself, but I have to justify every dollar I spend to him.”
  • “We have four kids and a two bedroom home. He refuses to move, even though we could afford something much bigger that would fit our family much more comfortably.”

Secrets about special occasions:

  • “He has a meltdown every single holiday. The tension starts a day or two before, and then the holiday itself is an explosion that ruins it for everyone.”
  • “If we ask him to get out of bed and open presents,
  • “He hasn’t celebrated (or remembered) my birthday in years. But if his birthday isn’t made special, then he’s hurt and angry.”
  • “He frequently doesn’t speak to me on my birthday or our anniversary. He routinely finds a reason to be angry at me around any celebration.”
  • “At the last minute, he will often threaten not to go somewhere that we’re expected. He seems to enjoy the chaos this causes, the control it gives him, and my reaction to it. Like being on the cusp of embarrassing me, or ruining a special occasion distracts him from his anxiety about it.”

Secrets about broken agreements:

  • “We have a child with a life-threatening allergy. His mom has accidentally exposed her several times, so we agreed to stop allowing his mom to feed her. But he won’t enforce this, so our daughter had another exposure. He would rather risk her safety then stand up to his mom.”
  • “He promised me that we could take a family vacation this year. I did all sorts of side jobs to save the money for it. But just before I booked it, he took the money and paid off his student loan debt with it – so we couldn’t go.”
  • “We agreed that he would stand up for me at family gatherings where his dad tends to say rude things to me. But my husband shows no reaction. He just sits there eating the holiday meal as if it nothing terrible happened. And then later, he’ll gaslight me and say he didn’t hear his dad call me a name.”

There are endless secrets and countless categories.

Sometimes, hearing about some of these experiences doesn’t seem too terrible. Others often think the neurotypical wife is speaking in hyperbole if it gets to the point where she is actually sharing specific details with close ones. She spends EVERY night alone? He has a meltdown EVERY holiday? She’s NEVER gotten a birthday present? They haven’t had sex in YEARS? He didn’t speak to her for the ENTIRE month of August? She really doesn’t have ANY passwords to their financial accounts? Yes, yes, yes, yes and yes. (And can anyone but a fellow NT wife imagine what it’s like to deal with not one, but ALL of these issues compounded?) But this seems unlikely to many people. Even a marriage counselor who is unfamiliar with the neurodiverse dynamic might listen to the wife describe these things and mistake her as being the one with black and white, all or nothing thinking. Using words like “always” and “never” are usually red flags for a therapist. The neurotypical wife is also usually desperate and urgent, which further creates a picture for the therapist that perhaps she is the underlying factor as to why the marriage is struggling. (An ASD man often presents in therapy as a calm, collected and a quiet sufferer of his wife’s tantrums.)

It is not just that her husband is emotionally unavailable to her, or that he isn’t capable of understanding her feelings. It’s that there are a million little ways that her relationship is deprivational (and stressful) in nature. Neurotypical women are wired for tenderness, mutuality, kindness, reciprocity, intimacy and companionship. NT wives who have been through trauma from childhood are also wired for safety – emotional safety (being heard, understood and valued) and relational security (a partner who demonstrates reliability, protectiveness and trustworthiness). She often has very few of those qualities in her marriage, and that creates a tremendous amount of trauma for her that is compounded by keeping what starts to feel like the secret reality of her marriage.

Secrets are especially triggering for neurotypical wives, as many have an extensive trauma history from childhood. Neurotypical wives were once little girls who kept their suffering a secret while enduring abuse, chaos, and neglect from parents with addiction, personality disorders, mental illness, or neurodiversity. Perhaps they had no one to turn to, perhaps they feared the unknown outcome of disclosing, perhaps they didn’t realize that life at home wasn’t normal. They most certainly did not think that marrying their brilliant, sweet and quirky husband would somehow result in a marriage fraught with difficulty, and nor did they anticipate the continued burden of keeping secrets.

Interested in coaching services? Contact me for more information here.

Secrets & Lies with ASD in neurodiverse marriages

One oddly pervasive misconception about autism is that individuals with ASD are unable to lie. It appears that the lack of tactfulness commonly associated with ASD has been frequently confused for an inability to be deceitful. Being “blunt” when his wife asks how she looks in a dress is certainly not the same thing as being “unable” to lie. While the abrasive observations that comes along with ASD can be problematic for an intimate relationship, it is small in comparison to the damage that dishonesty inflicts upon the neurodiverse marriage.

ASD individuals are certainly capable of lying, and many are quite resistant to sharing information with their spouses. Dishonesty in marriage certainly isn’t unique to autism – obviously, no one is questioning whether neurotypicals are capable of duplicitous behavior. But, it is worth examining the ‘myth’ of ASD absolute truthfulness, because so many NT wives feel stunned that her husband is dishonest with her in very significant ways.

The neurotypical wife often feels a deep sense of wrenching “aloneness” in a marriage with a dishonest ASD husband.

Why do ASD husbands have difficulty being honest with their neurotypical wives?

Mind-blindness is an underpin of secretive behavior from an ASD spouse. The autistic husband has difficulty understanding how his wife thinks or feels, and he also struggles to correctly predict how his wife will react to certain occurrences or situations that inevitably arise in marriage. He may not place value on the importance of transparency between spouses, and he struggles to see why the lack of it feels so betraying to her. The ASD husband often prioritizes autonomy over mutuality, and again cannot understand his wife’s insistence that she be privy to his personal decisions (even if they impact her).

Anxiety is also an underlying factor to consider when ASD husbands fail to be honest with their NT wives. He dreads any response whatsoever from his wife when she is made aware of his mistakes, poor choices or other decisions that impact herself and the family. (He generally predicts that she will react with rage and anger, and even if her reaction is quite moderate – he may experience it as overwhelmingly negative and catastrophic due to his anxiety.) Shame is also interwoven with anxiety, and ASD men often have a significant sense of shame due to long feeling inadequate in a neurotypical world. He also may seek to avoid any input from her, because he fears being engulfed by her emotions or diverted from his agenda.

Conversely, a lack of foresight can be an elemental issue of the ASD husband’s dishonesty, and is the opposite of an anxious ASD spouse – consequences aren’t real (or imagined) unless he’s currently enduring them. Some partners simply fail to consider nor care what the unintended outcome might be of his secretive choices. If a blip of concern regarding consequences happens to cross his mind, he dismisses it as something he’ll deal with later. His focus is on getting what he wants, not evaluating risk/reward. A lot of smaller lies fall into this mindset, too – reflexively lying because it’s the path of least resistance from his wife.

Control is by far the biggest factor in why ASD husbands choose to be secretive, outright lie or withhold information from their neurotypical wives. It’s worth clarifying that maintaining a sense of control is a generalized coping mechanism for ASD anxiety, not exclusive to secret-keeping. However, when control is the function of his secretive behavior, it is usually self-serving and in pursuit of his agenda. Those with autism are led by their rigid black and white thinking, which informs their notion that right and wrong is absolute. If he believes his secret reflects the right way to do something, then he will not risk being thwarted by consulting his wife! Black and white thinking also impacts his notion of what constitutes a “need to know basis,” and he can convince himself that his wife is not entitled to the privilege of information. Withholding information can also be a means in which to defy his wife’s expectation of honesty. In cases where he is intending to be vindictive, keeping information from her is a satisfying means in which to do so. He gets to control the output of information and thereby have a leg up from her, when he so often feels like her social-emotional skills provide an advantage in life. Additionally, many men with autism will argue that omitting the truth is certainly not a lie and nor is it dishonest. This makes perfect sense in their literal brain – a non-verbal inaction (withholding) cannot be a verbalized action (lie).

What sort of secrets do ASD men typically keep?

The most common issues of deception that I hear about in coaching are:

  • Financial: secret debt, undisclosed earnings, private bank accounts, hidden spending, unknown credit cards, lending money without agreement, neglecting bills, employment status change, business failure, major purchases without consultation
  • Sexual: extreme porn addictions, failure to disclose true orientation, betrayal, history
  • Relational: emotional attachments to other women, breaking marital agreements regarding other people (children, parents, in-laws, friends)

How does the ASD partner’s secret-keeping impact the neurotypical wife and marriage?

When dishonesty is a significant problem in a neurodiverse marriage, it often compounds the despair a neurotypical wife feels due to the baseline emotional deprivation that exists in their marriage. Neurotypical relationships tend to feel blindsided that such an emotionally intimate relationship could have such deceit, but neurodiverse marriages suffer from the sense of a double blow. The message to the neurotypical wife from her autistic husband is: “Not only do I not value emotional reciprocity with you on a daily basis in the ways that most married couples would expect and share, I am not interested in even telling you the truth. I am not interested in trusting you with any information that might change my access to what I want. I don’t value your input, and I see it as potentially thwarting my outcome. Nor do I think you deserve to have access to information that may impact you. I also fail to see how important trust is in our relationship and if you try to convince me otherwise, I will just view you as overly emotional, illogical and hypercritical.”

Secret-keeping, lies and withholding of information are crazy-making in any relationship, but it is extremely deleterious for a neurotypical wife in a neurodiverse marriage. It increases her trauma reaction that is likely already present, creates more hypervigilance, and usually she has physical symptoms from the stress of realizing how many miles apart she and her husband exist from even a modicum of reciprocity in their marriage. It also reinforces that deep, pervasive, devastating sense of “aloneness” in her “marriage.”

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The Extrapolation Mistake

Most of us notice qualities of character and integrity in those around us, and we feel comfortable in generalizing our observations. It seems reasonable to assume that if certain positive qualities are demonstrated in one setting, that those same positive qualities apply to other settings. For instance, when we observe someone being exceptionally kind to a child – we build a framework in our mind that informs us about that person’s tendencies.

When the neurotypical wife and ASD husband first begin dating, she is often initially attracted to many of his responsible qualities. Many neurotypical women endured childhoods that were filled with instability – abuse, neglect, trauma and/or caregivers who were mentally ill, personality-disordered, absent, or enslaved by addiction. Having survived tumultuous early years in life, the NT wife experiences the hard-working and intelligent ASD boyfriend as a calm from the storm. She can envision a future with him that feels safe. The ASD boyfriend seems to demonstrate so many qualities that would ensure a marriage and family built upon a solid foundation and partnership.

Because the ASD boyfriend is brilliant at work, there is an impression of his overall competence that is imprinted upon her perception of him. (While there are some ASD men who struggle to keep employment – for the purpose of this post, we are referring to the large percentage of Asperger’s Syndrome men who are very successful in their professional endeavors.) He appears dedicated, capable, focused and reliable. The framework in her mind is that this man has qualities which would lend to dependability in marriage.

NT women often have a history of childhood emotional neglect. As young girls, many were compelled to take on adult responsibilities far too early. The autistic boyfriend’s professional life is reassuring. It’s easy for her to generalize that he’s equally devoted and proficient in all aspects of adult life, especially when paired with the social-emotional masking that happens prior to the marriage. She believes he will be a partner whom she can rely upon to share responsibilities with, instead of taking on the over-functioning role of her childhood.

The autistic boyfriend is self-assured and well-respected for his authority and knowledge at work, but he is boyishly vulnerable with his neurotypical girlfriend during personal time. He may be far less confident when they are alone and in intimate moments. She’s charmed that such a professionally successful man is not sure-footed when he is trying to be close to her. It gives the impression that his feelings for her are sensitive and special. She believes he is gifting her with rare vulnerability, and it must be because his feelings for her are so strong.

The neurotypical girlfriend might also notice that unlike other men she’s dated, he is very respectful of her personal space. She does not feel threatened by his advances, because he’s reserved and cautious in initiating anything physical. He may even be a bit awkward. He might confess that he doesn’t have a lot of experience, which is endearing to his neurotypical girlfriend. This might make perfect sense to her, because he’s been so busy building his career – he didn’t have time for personal relationships until now. Many neurotypical women who marry autistic men have a history of sexual abuse, assault or trauma. As a result, neurotypical survivors are sometimes unconsciously avoidant of sexually assertive men. An autistic boyfriend is often lacking confidence, experience and skill in seducing his neurotypical girlfriend, so their intimate moments feel very safe – she can’t imagine being coerced by him.

The neurotypical woman is drawn to the dating experience of:

  • ASD attentiveness to her (she is often the special interest)
  • Observing his work ethic and professional success
  • His boyish charm & sexual inexperience or reservedness

She does not realize that after marriage or cohabitation, it often translates into:

  • ASD discard (losing her special interest status)
  • No energy put toward the household, family or marital relationship
  • Avoidance of sex, preference for porn, and sexual sensory overwhelm

The framework of his strengths and qualities as observed by her in his professional life, cannot be extrapolated to family life.

It is quite devastating for the neurotypical wife to realize that the strengths which drew her toward him initially, can in turn be the qualities which cause the most suffering for her in the long-term. It’s so painful for the neurotypical wife to observe that he can show up in the boardroom, or the science lab, or the tech conference and be fully present, engaged and dynamic. But at home, the relationship with his wife is not prioritized in the same way he has dedicated himself to professional success. He might be a corporate executive, but he lacks executive functioning in the home environment. He might have had very little intimate experience prior to meeting her, but perhaps that was not a lack of opportunity – and more so a lack of interest.

While the neurotypical wife usually maintains an admiration and sense of gratitude for her husband’s career achievement and dedication, she still anticipated a very different marital partnership. She expected his professional integrity to spill over into the same amount of energy and interest for his wife and family. She extrapolated that his professional passion, dedication and work ethic would be brought into the marriage with equal emphasis, and that is often not the case.

When do adult ASD meltdowns become manipulative?

Over the course of life, some ASD individuals might come to realize that emotional dysregulation can be used as a means in which to manipulate a desired outcome. While perhaps the majority of autistic meltdowns are sincerely the result of sensory and social-emotional overwhelm, it’s an unfortunate reality that sometimes ASD individuals use their frequent emotional dysregulation as a smokescreen in which to control or manipulate those around them. Generally speaking, manipulative meltdowns (and shutdowns) are borne out of desperation for the ASD partner to gain what they desire, or to act out against what they perceive as a wrongdoing ‘against’ them. (Neither fact lessens the impact nor damage of using maladaptive behaviors to gain control of results.)

How does an autistic individual learn that meltdowns are a means in which to meet their needs or preferences?

The longevity of ASD meltdowns often cannot be rivaled, whether in children or adults. Moms of autistic children struggle with feelings of powerlessness as they come to realize that the neurodiverse child is uniquely single-minded when distraught. Hearing the word “no” is often very aversive to a child with autism, and many also struggle with pathological demand avoidance. Both can be antecedents to meltdowns, along with sensory overload, social confusion, emotional overwhelm, etc. Distracting or diffusing an ASD child can be very challenging and sometimes impossible. The autistic toddler or child is often so immersed in distress that comfort is continuously resisted, and the only non-punitive measure a caregiver can take is to hold space until the child has fully released their meltdown. (Usually, punitive measures drastically increase the ASD child’s inconsolability and can then add trauma.) The volume, intensity, duration and frequency of ASD meltdowns may continuously increase as the child’s world gets bigger, more confusing and incontrollable. What is originally a toddler having age-appropriate tantrums becomes a furious teenager who is screaming, throwing things, threatening bodily harm to self and others when a boundary is set. It is understandable that many situations may arise in which a parent or caregiver cannot “wait out” a meltdown. Unfortunately, this lends to an ASD individual “learning” that if they persist in relentless meltdown mode – eventually the person withholding what they want will given in to their demands. (Again, there is no blame for exhausted caregivers in this scenario, it’s merely an explanation of what shapes the trajectory of social-emotional learning for ASD over time.)

What is the difference between an authentic meltdown (or shutdown) and a manipulative meltdown (or shutdown) in an autistic adult? (It is important to note we are discussing adults and not children at this juncture.)

Authentic meltdown in ASD adults have some or all of these characteristics – spontaneous occurrence, sometimes a slow work-up (called “rumbling,” plus a lack of insight into recognizing), reactive to sensory or social trigger, significant loss of body or behavioral control, may include stimming or bolting behaviors, happens with or without an audience, lack of rational thought, may have high occurrence of language that is uniquely characteristic of ASD (echolalia – repeating phrases, sounds, etc).

Manipulative meltdown in ASD adults (toward their partner) have some or all of these characteristics – threatened ahead of time, self-serving, possibly intended as a punishment or negatively impactful to the spouse, jeopardizes something important to the spouse, sometimes includes bargaining (claiming they will stop if they get what they want), transmits a message of defiance or adversarial opposition (vs. overwhelm), can serve to withhold help or invoke shame and embarrassment to partner (such as a looming social engagement), seems purposeful in timing and can often stop like a light switch. Verbally articulating blame towards his partner is common.

Both can include anger, rage, screaming, sobbing, throwing things, swearing, etc.

Many individuals with ASD strongly protest that a meltdown could ever be intentional or manipulative. This is black and white thinking, as of course it is not a universal issue for every autistic person. But, it DOES happen, and autistic adults are certainly cognitively capable of applying learned behavior to achieve their desired outcome. Tony Attwood, world-renowned autism expert, discusses this briefly in the book Neurodiverse Relationships by himself and Joanna Stevenson:

How would you know if the meltdown was intentional?

The difference is in the eyes. In a genuine meltdown there is a look of absolute panic and despair: ‘I have to get out of here, I am overwhelmed.’ That’s versus a glint in the eye and a feeling that this is under cognitive control in an intended meltdown. It is hard to define, but sometimes you know by the circumstances if the meltdown is a bid to control. A meltdown is a constitutional part of Asperger’s syndrome, but that does not always mean it is out of the person’s control…. That is the issue – the lack of control. Then there’s the punishment of the apparent perpetrator, ‘You must be punished for doing something wrong.’ This ‘punishment’ will affect both the partner and the children of the person with AS. Quite often the AS parent is a strict disciplinarian and expects obedience and learning by fear rather than by compassion, understanding and explanation. …satisfactory resolution and closure is retribution and punishment. This is where the NT partner has to adjust their management strategies in various situations according to the developmental level of their partner, which may range from two-year-old temper tantrums to adolescence, despite the fact that, intellectually, their partner may be superior to others.”

Tony Attwood says additionally, in the same discussion:

“…the AS person, throughout childhood, may have learned that throwing a wobbly means that you get what you want. This learned behaviour can subsequently be used as manipulation. With an NT fearing the anger attack, they will do anything to prevent it. The threat of a meltdown can be used by the AS partner to deliberately manipulate situations. Sometimes the meltdown is due to a build-up of being overwhelmed by social, conversational, sensory and cognitive aspects. There is a build-up of tension that is released in the meltdown – but then the AS partner can start to use that as emotional blackmail. We are used to the term ‘international terrorism’; I call this ‘domestic terrorism’ – it achieves control in the family environment. Controlling by fear is basically bullying – which is ironic, because the person with Asperger’s syndrome has often been the focus of bullies at school.”

When we have an ASD partner who also has a character issue – that is, an unwillingness to recognize, acknowledge nor change the practice of bullying his partner and family – the neurotypical wife is subjected to abusive practices and left feeling very confused. She has compassion for his legitimate overwhelm, but he has put her in the position of feeling suspicious, hurt and in disbelief each time he becomes emotionally dysregulated. She has to spend valuable time and energy attempting to discern what is real distress and what is manufactured. She’s subjected to the relentless longevity of meltdowns (and shutdowns) that will stretch on and on until she relinquishes her boundaries. Over time, this dynamic diminishes her tolerance and empathy for his legitimate challenges, as it is unclear when he’s truly struggling vs. just bullying her to get what he wants.

What are some example scenarios in which an autistic husband is manipulating his wife through the threat of meltdown/shutdown?

Perhaps the NT wife needs to prepare for a special occasion with guests coming to the home. The ASD partner is occupied by his hobby, and is resentful that she has expectations for him to help clean, cook, bathe children, etc. He may be wholly uninterested in helping with mundane tasks to accomplish an invasion of his home (by his perception). To sabotage, he may use emotional dysregulation to discourage her from persisting in her requests, as it simply creates more work for her in having to convince him to help, or deal with his meltdown. This effectively frees him to continue spending time on his special interest instead of assisting his wife, and he may feel some measure of satisfaction if the event is stressful for her and possibly unlikely to be repeated.

The ASD husband may want to make a significant purchase in regard to his special interest. The NT wife is concerned that his spending is not within the budget, or is disproportionate to other needs of the family that need financial attention. The ASD partner is single-minded and cannot be persuaded by compromise (a specific timeline, etc). He might stonewall her (a shutdown symptom, but purposeful tactic in this scenario) and cease any communication, as well as withhold practical help or parenting duties, until she is overwhelmed enough to acquiesce and ultimately not protest his purchase any further.

The NT wife may have plans to have dinner out with her girlfriends. This social time is important for her and a rare event. She secures agreement from her husband that he will parent the children while she is away for a few hours. On the day of her plans, he begins to act resentfully toward her. He seems to pick a fight, finding fault or criticism where there was none intended. Having been through this before, the wife is increasingly anxious that he will refuse to watch the children when it’s time for her to leave. Sure enough, he announces to her that because she’s been so ‘mean’ to him, he isn’t going to help, and he starts to escalate when she reminds him of their agreement. She feels caught between leaving anyway and triggering his meltdown – potentially subjecting her children to his rage while she isn’t present – or keeping the peace and missing out on socializing.

The ASD partner has lost his job. Because structure and routine is very important to his daily functioning, the absence of his usual activity quickly descends into executive dysfunction. He settles into staying up all night, playing video games, sleeping late into the day, and otherwise relaxing with his phone. He ignores household and parenting duties that could be prioritized with his extra time. When the wife becomes increasingly urgent about his need to look for more employment, he warns her repeatedly to not bring it up again, or he’s going to ‘freak out.’ If she persists, he treats her to the beginning of a meltdown, which effectively holds her hostage to the status quo – choosing between his anger and resistance, or calm at the price of income and employment for him.

As we can see, when one of the most difficult aspects of ASD behavior is weaponized by the autistic spouse, it can create a multitude of difficulties for the neurotypical wife who over time, will be continuously worn down (and have her trust in his good intentions eroded) by trying to avoid the threat of punishment in her marriage.

The tyranny of ASD rules in a neurodiverse marriage

ASD individuals are often very uncomfortable with change, and have a strong need for predictability. Black and white thinking that is common with autism also lends itself to narrow ideas about the way in which life should happen. In a marriage, rigid inflexibility can begin to feel like a dictatorship for the neurotypical wife when compromise has not been established. Compromise can be viewed in a negative manner for the ASD spouse, as he often has strongly developed opinions paired with all or nothing thinking, giving him the perception that opinions and preferences are either right or wrong. Finding a grey area can feel like “losing” to the autistic spouse, even if he is gaining a portion of his preference. He might view compromise as her attempt to withhold what he wants and create discord, even when her intent is to find common ground.

Black and white thinking is a highly challenging component of neurodiverse marriages.

The neurotypical wife is often very willing to “meet halfway” when negotiating with her autistic spouse. She is flexible with give and take, understanding we all need to make adjustments in life. She has the ability to take perspective, which means she can imagine the thoughts and feelings driving the inclination behind a request. Knowing her autistic husband’s preferences, the neurotypical wife is often quick to accommodate him – especially in the early years, as her hope to maintain or restore connection is still at the forefront. Her desire to please him and promote unity becomes a pattern of deferring to his wishes, which essentially becomes the status quo of the relationship. She notices that if she pushes back on his preferences, he may become emotionally dysregulated. Even after heartbreak has led to severe disillusionment, she may still defer to his wishes because she hopes to avoid meltdowns and shutdowns (and in cases of abuse – punishment). At this point, the NT wife often feels that she is walking on eggshells to avoid discord with her ASD husband. Breaking his rules elicits blame from him, which is very painful for a NT wife who strives so hard to be above reproach. He may feel entitled to her unswerving cooperation as he believes it to be simply the way in which their relationship functions. Additionally, he tends to strongly believe that his manner of preference is not just an opinion, but the only good, right and correct way to proceed.

Rules help create a framework for the ASD partner to feel safe. He feels more in control of his environment (and often his intimate relationships, which largely confuse him) when he can impose “the right way of doing things.” However, just as there cannot be a rule for every eventuality when teaching the ASD partner about social expectations, rules can also not be unequivocally followed. Marriage and family life require flexibility.

These are some examples of rules that I commonly hear, which perhaps someone outside of a neurodiverse relationship would find surprising (alongside the unspoken rule that follows it):

Spoken rule: There is a right way and a wrong way to load the dishwasher (or do any particular chore). Unspoken rule: Failing to load the dishwasher “correctly,” is an intentional slight meant to cause conflict and ignore his lesson on efficiency.

Spoken rule: Money should never be frivolously spent. Unspoken rule: the ASD partner is entitled to unilaterally decide what is worthy of expense.

Spoken rule: The husband works outside of the home. The wife is a stay at home mom. Unspoken rule: Mom takes care of the kids all day, every day, whether it’s the weekend or not, AND she’s responsible for all household chores since “she doesn’t have a job.” If she’s sick, busy or otherwise worn out – too bad, it’s the rule of her role. Expecting help or flexibility from him might be considered wildly imposing, unfair and deviating from “the rule.”

In households with ASD partners who are prone to significant meltdowns or shutdowns (including stonewalling), often the #1 Unspoken Rule is that the ASD partner’s preferences have to be followed in order to keep the peace. His expectations become the standard to which everyone in the family is held, because the ASD partner has difficulty understanding that other people have different and valid viewpoints. The wife and family want to avoid his reaction to rules not being followed at all costs – including at the price of autonomy and personhood.

ASD rules and expectations become a way of life in many neurodiverse homes. Often, a wife will come to coaching and share that agreements made with her husband are not being upheld by him. A common situation is that her husband agrees to complete a household project, such as installing an appliance. Perhaps she is capable of installing the appliance, but he insists she is not ‘permitted’ to do it. He may have reasons for it, most of which come down to her potentially not doing it “the right way.” He continuously promises to get to it, but time passes and still the family is living without a clothes dryer. When I suggest that she set one more deadline and inform him that if it is not installed by X date, she is hiring help – the NT wife might respond with lots of fear. “Oh, no. I can’t do that. He would be so angry at me for spending money on something he can do himself. He’ll also be mad that I just couldn’t wait for him to get to it.” She is sincerely afraid of setting and holding a boundary. (She may also have genuine budget concerns and it is very difficult to let go of the fact that her husband IS capable of doing it, but simply will not prioritize it.) However, she is clearly conditioned to accommodate his rules to avoid his anger. It has almost escaped her notice that following his rules has become a hostage situation, where she is forced to either 1) obey his rules and go without a needed appliance for an interminable amount of time 2) disobey his preference and face his reaction 3) disobey his preference, face his reaction AND feel guilty about spending money on what could have been saved, IF he followed through on agreements. She feels like there is no way to safely meet her needs. (It’s worth noting that boundaries are important and will feel very uncomfortable at first, but setting them is how we begin to change the dynamic within the marriage.)

Since there are so many aspects that go into managing ASD life due to sensory overload, social confusion, the need for routine and predictability – lots of little rules exist, too, even if they are followed unconsciously. The emotional labor of abiding by these rules takes a toll on the NT wife. I’ve had women tell me she “can’t”:

  • buy food for herself that her husband doesn’t like
  • bake cookies from a different recipe than the one he’s used to
  • deviate from the typical meal schedule, both in what is cooked and what time it is ready
  • have conversations with him in the car, listen to music or permit children to speak – too overwhelming for him to safely drive
  • touch the household thermostat and adjust the temperature to her liking
  • skip shaving because otherwise he’s disturbed by stubble on her legs
  • purchase any non-grocery item without his agreement
  • plan a typical family vacation because it’s too much disruption & stress for him
  • watch a movie with him that isn’t his choice
  • expect him to take turns with nighttime parenting – the impact of being tired is far too great on his daytime functioning, and she’s used to over-functioning
  • suggest anything spontaneous, like even a walk after dinner, or an impromptu date night
  • request him to do a chore immediately without prior notice – it doesn’t matter if a kid vomited all over the couch, it can wait until he’s ready on his timeline
  • have company or baby-sitters in the house
  • socialize without him – he resents her time outside of the home, because it’s stressful for him and outside of the family routine

…the list goes on and on.

The reality is that many accommodations the NT wife makes could be considered fair, just and loving – IF the ASD partner reciprocates with adjustments for things that are important to his wife. Or, at the very least – takes responsibility for his preferences that are within his own control. (Examples: wearing pajama pants to bed so he doesn’t have to feel her unshaven legs, if it bothers him. Skip eating the chocolate chip cookies, even if they aren’t his favorite. Wear noise muffling headphones in the car. Encourage her to meet her needs for practical help or personal time, even if it means spending money. Allow her to guide him into what is reasonable, and learn skills to tolerate the distress of practicing flexibility.)

The ASD partner doesn’t usually intend to be tyrannical. He is highly overwhelmed by the world around him, and making rules help him feel safe. He struggles to understand the impact of his rules on those around him. When an ASD partner comes to coaching and says, “it just seems so unfair that I have to learn all of these strategies to make her neurotypical brain happy” – it can be helpful to expand his theory of mind by examining ways in which his NT wife has been accommodating his autistic brain all along. Often, he is quite surprised to think about all of the ways she has silently shown him love by keeping his needs ever-present in her mind for the entirety of their marriage. Sometimes he has genuinely thought that she, too, prefers silent car rides and enjoys getting up with babies in the middle of the night while he sleeps. No, she endures many things that she prefers not to do, because she loves her husband and needs her family home to be peaceful and functional. He is often motivated by learning that her mood, energy and attitude toward him might greatly improve if there is effort on his part to build skills that will increase reciprocity in the marriage. While that may seem an obvious conclusion to a neurotypical, cause and effect is sometimes quite challenging for the ASD brain and abstract concepts like reciprocity and mutuality need to be broken down into specifics. As I tell him and all of my clients, there is always hope for a marriage when BOTH partners are willing to learn, bend and grow.

When a neurotypical wife has twisted herself into a pretzel with the cumulative effect of accommodating an ASD husband’s needs, the impact can be quite substantial. Knowing that a meltdown or shutdown is looming creates a sense of hypervigilance. This contributes to a sense of danger inside of her, instilling fear, and often resulting in outward expressions of anger. Chronic stress, heightened cortisol, adrenal overload – the long-term impact of “rules” in an ASD household have detrimental health implications for the NT wife. The one-sided nature of the neurodiverse household is certainly a contributing factor to Ongoing Traumatic Relationship Syndrome, and it manifests as mental health challenges and chronic health issues. Righting the balance in a neurodiverse marriage is essential for the neurotypical wife’s wellness.

(Also worth noting: A NT wife is often raising neurodiverse children. All of whom likely have their own unspoken rules, preferences and sensitivities. This post cannot begin to even delve into the complication of managing multiple ASD individuals who have a plethora of rules in regard to “how things should go” in daily life. It all contributes to overload for the neurotypical wife, who for the sake of survival must keep it all in mind, accommodate and then spend significant time diffusing the result from upset to routines and expectations.)