When the neurotypical wife marries her autistic husband after a dating period that was likely spent basking (unknowingly) in the role of his special interest, the attention of those early months or years is deeply imprinted upon her heart and mind. She is built for tenderness, connection and reciprocity. Having received such devotion for an extended period time is very bonding for her, and it creates an incredible feeling of emotional safety. When his hyper-focus all but disappears (usually after marriage), she is rightfully disoriented. She is driven to regain his attention, engagement and reassurance of love. She wants more than anything to feel the safety of his attachment again.
In the early months and years after his focus has shifted, the neurotypical wife feels essentially abandoned on an island by herself. Consider, if you will: she sees her autistic husband in the distance, on his boat, motoring around, perhaps lounging in the sun, exploring sea life and totally oblivious to her waving, jumping, shouting and begging from shore to be noticed. He occasionally comes close and perhaps gets out of the boat to fish alongside her (to meet his need for food). She collapses upon him in relief and joy, perhaps tinged with some anger that it took him so long. She might fall asleep next to him, clinging on for dear life in the comfort of his presence. But, he feels trapped by her desperation. She awakens to notice that he and his boat have gone again, in the middle of the night, and without a word. The disappointment is crushing. She thought, momentarily, that perhaps she was no longer alone. Instead, the connection with him has slipped through her fingers – and she’s abandoned, along again on an island.
Living with a partner who regularly ignores her need for connection reinforces a deep insecurity within the neurotypical wife. The chronic nature of deprivation – with intermittent and inadequate attention sprinkled in – creates a frenetic desire and preoccupation with striving for more. When she experiences a little bit of notice from him, it re-doubles her belief that perhaps he can give more – again? Like he used to? Because she is starved for the tenderness, warmth, mutuality and gentleness that she was once accustomed to in great supply from him. She is built for reciprocal nurturing. Yet, the relentless rollercoaster ride of unmet needs persistently unfulfilled creates an ever-present sense of danger. Her body exists in fight or flight mode as she’s busily trying to gain and keep his attention to quiet the fear. Even when he’s with her, she might have difficulty feeling safe because she’s anticipating the discard to come. It wears out her adrenals over time, and it alienates her autistic husband who wants nothing to do with pressure, demands, expectations and feeling thwarted from his personal agenda, interests and goals. Meltdowns and shutdowns ensue to gain the distance he needs from the engulfment of her emotions that confuse and frustrate him. He experiences his wife’s insecurity as anger, blame, and criticism. It is difficult for him to see beneath the surface and recognize that her outward anger is propelled from fear due to ever-looming danger of emotional abandonment.
Safety is the antidote to danger and fear. Those who have undergone trauma need to feel safe. The concept of “felt safety” is abstract in nature, but it can be built in a neurodiverse marriage when both partners are willing to equally contribute to the shared responsibility of maintaining a safe relationship.
One point of reflection for NT women is building awareness of self-abandonment. We must believe someone when they show us who they are. When we place our worth and needs in the hands of someone unwilling to do the work in which to meet a reasonable portion our needs, we activate a sense of danger for ourselves. If the well of compassion is dry, not just by nature of his limitations – but his choices – we must begin to detach from waiting for what he chooses to not learn nor provide. We must not compound emotional abandonment from the autistic spouse with self-abandonment. In the metaphor of an island, we must remember that we can build our own boat, we can jerry-rig a raft, we can swim into unknown waters – if that’s what it takes. The path to safety is not just through his actions or skills, but the boundaries and self-care we can provide for ourselves.