The role of fear in the neurodiverse relationship

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.

The harm of minimizing neglect in a neurodiverse marriage

In our society, the concept of physical abuse is perceived as more egregious than other forms of abuse, and certainly more heinous than the idea of neglect. If a woman has been physically harmed, it is more universally accepted as intolerable behavior from an intimate partner. Outsiders to the marriage have an easier time imagining how destructive the experience of physical abuse is – such as hitting, kicking, punching, choking, beating, etc. It’s worth noting that verbal, emotional, and financial abuse – and even the idea of rape within marriage – are often minimized by our culture, too. However, generally speaking, the word abuse signifies extremely unacceptable mistreatment. An abuse victim is largely met with care, compassion and support. Seeking separation or divorce is met with less judgment from outsiders when domestic violence of a physical nature has occurred.

A NT wife struggles to impart the devastating impact of chronic neglect within her marriage to a neurodiverse husband.

Neglect is minimized in our culture. It is recognized as an issue primarily between parents and children. Babies who aren’t fed, children who are left dangerously unsupervised. Neglect is much wider in scope than the bare minimum of food and safety, yet consideration for the emotional needs of others is a more abstract concept. It is often a somewhat indefinable grey area for many to distinguish. How much nurturing and attention does a baby, child or adult need from others, in order to flourish?

It’s challenging for most neurotypical women to articulate what neglect looks like inside their marriages. It’s also a struggle for those around her to understand the cumulative effect and impact. When she tries to say, he sleeps so very much, every weekend. She might be met with, “well, he works hard! He’s just tired! Let him have some rest!” She is put in the position of trying to justify why it isn’t a surface problem – it isn’t merely the act of sleep. It’s the chronic deprivation of time, attention and bonding with him that is not prioritized. She might try to enumerate other issues that, when picked apart, can look very petty and small. Her support system, and even a marriage counselor unfamiliar with neurodiverse relationships, might view her as unreasonable in her expectations.

It is traumatizing for a neurotypical woman to find herself needing to be understood, but unable to convince others of her profound aloneness. Trauma is not just what happens to us, but being alone or disbelieved in our experience. Often, others are quite dismissive of anecdotal behaviors that a neurotypical wife might desperately draw upon to convey her experience. Outsiders to the neurodiverse marriage cannot conceptualize the storm that converges from daily acts of neglectful behaviors which lead to neurotypical despair. When an autistic husband is excessively sleeping, and absorbed in his special interest, and ignoring the household, and ignoring parenting duties, and avoiding conversation, and avoiding recreation and avoiding intimacy with his wife – on a daily basis – it is a combination of devastating neglect.

When she is unsupported in the reality of neglect within her marriage, the neurotypical wife questions her experience and options. She is confused by how invisible she is to her husband. Frequently, she has lost confidence in her own self worth. A marriage is only two people, and it is only him who can be her husband within the relationship. Yet the more she begs him for time, attention and help, the more he resists, perhaps denies, and avoids her. He may be genuinely anxious and perplexed as to why she is so dissatisfied with the relationship, when he is perfectly content (other than her complaints and demands). If she begins to contemplate divorce, she might be met with shock or derision from her friends and family. How can she justify ending the marriage when there isn’t abuse……….?

Because of our cultural understanding of abuse and underdeveloped comprehension of how severe and damaging neglect can be, terming it as deprivational abuse is sometimes helpful in the pursuit of understanding from others. Additionally, it can help the ASD spouse put his behavior in appropriate context if he chooses to persist in ignoring her reasonable request for improvement.

What makes chronic emotional neglect fairly termed as abuse? Again, it is important to understand that neglect is merely the flip side of abuse, whether it is fully distinguished as such, or not, by the average person. The murky area in a relationship with an autistic spouse is that he may not intend to neglect, abuse or deprive his wife. He may be genuinely without the skills in which to meet or even discern her needs. How can it be abuse, or even neglect, if he doesn’t understand what he is supposed to do?

Problematic and harmful behaviors within a marriage become abusive when a partner is unwilling to improve and change behavior. Being “sorry” is useless if an apology does not come with a commitment to do better. When he is informed of her needs and the harmful impact of his behaviors, he has a duty to repair and progress forward. If he is unwilling to learn how to adjust his behavior and strive to meet her needs, then that is an egregious withholding of care for his partner. Failing to take action and make changes is neglectful, and can be termed deprivational abuse (for those who need help comprehending how grievous his indifference is for her). While it is not his fault that he is unable to intuitively meet or understand her needs, it is his choice and responsibility to build skills and seek consultation if necessary. The opposite of love is not hate, it is apathy.

Why does a neurotypical wife choose an ASD husband?

Many neurotypical wives struggle with understanding how they were drawn to choose their ASD partner, when so much of the marriage has been spent longing for emotional engagement. With highly empathic natures – how did they not recognize his difficulty with emotional reciprocity?

A neurotypical wife was once a little girl who likely experienced love as a sense of longing.

Masking during the dating phase is very real, and certainly a significant component that greatly blurs the social-emotional deficits of an ASD man. Still, masking cannot happen 100% of time time, even if just dating and not living together. So what happens when those glimmers of autism peek through during the dating phase? How can autism draw in an emotionally intelligent, neurotypical woman?

When we examine the word “autism,” it is comprised of two parts: aut, which is from the Greek word “autos,” meaning – “self;” and “ism,” which is also from Greek, and means “a state of being or underlying condition.” This definition can be connotated in a negative way, but it is important to focus on the denotation. Autism is the state of self-focus. Autism is selfism. Autistic individuals struggle to see beyond their own perspective, and are unintentionally oblivious to the feelings and experience of those around them.

The origin of autism’s self-focus is neurological and developmental in type. The inability to intuitively understand another person’s thoughts, feelings, motivations and intentions is a deficit that stems from nature, not nurture. While emotional empathy is involuntary for a neurotypical, it is a cognitive skill that must be developed for an ASD husband. He is capable of learning, with practice, how to take his wife’s perspective through imagination and drawing upon his own experiences. However, it is not neurologically possible for emotional empathy to be an intuitive or involuntary process for him.

Although quite different in origin, other disorders of pervasive self-focus exist. Often, a neurotypical wife was once a little girl who learned that love is a feeling of longing – to be recognized as a person with needs, feelings and value. The adults around her were self-absorbed, instead of attuned to her needs.

It’s unusual for a neurotypical wife to be from a family of origin who met her emotional needs consistently, handled conflict with open communication, and valued her authentic personhood. Instead, usually the neurotypical wife shares one or more of these attributes:

  • adult child of an alcoholic or addict
  • adult child of a Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) parent, or another personality disorder (Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder (OCPD) & Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) are common)
  • adult child of a very chaotic, abusive environment
  • parentified at a young age with a sense of over-responsibility
  • early loss of a parent or sibling in childhood
  • experienced pervasive childhood emotional neglect or other trauma
  • has a diagnosis of PTSD, anxiety or depression
  • unresolved sexual, physical, verbal or emotional abuse in her history
  • adult child of a father or mother with ADHD or ASD (usually undiagnosed)

When we consider the above disorders and the description of autism as selfism, we see a theme that overlaps between them all: self-absorption.

Self-absorption is certainly part of addiction and personality disorders. Addicts are obsessed with abusing their substance, which is essentially a special interest. Parents with a personality disorder are inherently turned inward. They view their children as an extension of themselves, not an individual with their own personhood. There is little tolerance or curiosity about the child, just expectations for them to fulfill. A child surviving abuse, neglect or trauma is accustomed to deprivation of safety, and also an attachment to her abusers in some cases. Obviously, individuals who chronically neglect or abuse children demonstrate a profound disregard for others. A little girl who is subjected to mistreatment, and left alone to handle her trauma without support, is sadly primed to accept emotional abandonment as normal.

The neurotypical wife may have developed her high emotional intelligence through the necessity of reading the self-absorbed adults around her. Whether it was to keep herself safe (avoid abuse or wrath), earn love and attention, or caretake destructive parents – the neurotypical wife learned to quickly anticipate the needs of self-focused others (and ignore herself). She may struggle with feeling worthy of love and attention, since it was scarcely offered and not sustained by those who were supposed to be devoted to her.

We can begin to understand why a NT wife with a certain history might be vulnerable to a dynamic that hinted of longing, while simultaneously feeling very fulfilling – at first. Those moments with her boyfriend that perhaps allowed a glimpse into his poor theory of mind skills, or lack of emotional engagement – were easily pushed aside when his hyper-focus returned. (Nothing is more powerful than intermittent reinforcement to keep a child or a vulnerable woman doggedly “trying” to connect with someone they love.) We also see why a NT woman is apt to run herself into the ground, contorting herself in accommodation of her ASD spouse, in hopes he might awaken to her inherent value and personhood. She learned in childhood that to be loved, she must become indispensable and never-needy to those who are entirely focused on themselves. We are not allowed to have needs as a child if our parent is an addict or inherently disordered in personality or character. Unconsciously choosing a partner who does not allow her to have needs, either, is very understandable. We recognize love in what feels familiar. A partner’s selfism feels familiar to the neurotypical wife.

It’s important for the NT wife to understand her history in connection with her relationship. If she has been conditioned through childhood to find a state of longing both familiar and excruciating, it helps her to deepen self-awareness and enact change.

Why do ASD husbands experience neurotypical feelings as an attack?

The communication difficulties between NT/ASD partners is usually a primary source of conflict, hurt and misunderstanding. The neurotypical wife feels very isolated and hopeless when the ASD husband is unable to receive her feelings and perspective. A neurotypical woman needs her intimate partner to be her softest place to land, the primary spot where she is received with empathy, kindness, warmth and understanding. Unfortunately, the autistic husband is often overwhelmed by her feelings and this makes it very difficult for him to hold space.

Honest communication is an inherent part of any healthy marital relationship. Spouses should be able to both give and receive honest feedback to one another. Unfortunately, this can function like a minefield in a NT/ASD relationship. Many neurotypical women report that their husbands perceive her feelings universally as criticism, and a personal attack. Sharing her feelings can quickly escalate to a serious conflict with her Asperger’s Syndrome husband.

DARVO is an an acronym that stands for DENY, ARGUE, REVERSE VICTIM & OFFENDER. Unfortunately, this is a common communication pattern in ASD marriages when the neurotypical wife brings her feelings to a discussion. The autistic husband might view her feelings in black and white, right or wrong terms. This might be reflected in him denying the content of what she is sharing. He might say – no, that didn’t happen, because he disagrees from a perspective of literalism. Or, her feelings are “wrong,” because his behavior isn’t inappropriate (by his estimation). He didn’t intend to be hurtful, so she shouldn’t feel hurt. This is terribly invalidating to the NT wife, who is yet again experiencing deprivation of empathic engagement. An argument ensues, and the husband is now angry – he insists that she apologize for being so critical, negative and accusatory toward him. He may spiral into all or nothing statements, like “he can’t do anything right, she always attacks him.” The neurotypical wife is possibly further villainized if she doesn’t swiftly jump to apologizing and reassuring the ASD spouse. Yet………………………………………………this conversation was supposed to be about HER grievances.

Many circumstances contribute to the autistic partner’s perception of criticism when his wife shares her feelings, such as:

  1. Autistic individuals often think in black and white terms. If he is judged as doing something “wrong,” then he feels irredeemably “ALL” wrong in his mind. Holding two opposing thoughts is difficult for the ASD husband. He has difficulty knowing that his strengths and good points still exist – simultaneously – with her disappointment in other aspects of his behavior.
  2. Feeling inherently bad, wrong, unlikeable, etc., is usually very triggering for the ASD spouse. Most autistic individuals have experienced a great deal of bullying in life, especially in childhood. He can perceive his wife’s feelings as her presenting evidence of his innately flawed self. Her dissatisfaction over his behavior is perceived as a rejection of him vs. his actions. (Example: “my behavior is disappointing” vs. “I am disappointing.”)
  3. His poor theory of mind skills (also called “mind-blindness,” or lacking intuitive empathy) present difficulty in imagining her intention in approaching him, or what pain is motivating it. He is consumed by his own engulfing feelings of shame and defensiveness, possibly crowded out by anger. The autistic spouse places value on his intent, and struggles to see that his intention does not minimize the harmful impact upon her.

When the conversation about her feelings is turned upside down, the neurotypical wife is left feeling outraged (and broken-hearted) that she cannot communicate her honest feelings and be heard by her husband, Her feelings that were the original point of the conversation are no longer the focus – she must repair his feelings, accept his perspective of her intent and perhaps be treated to his silence, anger, shutdown or meltdown.

Sometimes, an ASD husband will ask me, “why should I listen to her feelings when they’re really just complaints about me? She just wants to treat me like a punching bag.” I will tell him, “the way that a neurotypical wife solves a problem is to communicate. Her sharing hurt feelings about your behavior in the relationship is an attempt to be understood. She hopes that if you understand her pain, then you will modify your behavior. Bringing her “complaints” directly to you is a hopeful thing, because she is inviting you to help solve the problem, and it also means she believes you are capable of solving it.” This is often a mind-blowing revelation for an ASD spouse, because his experience with hearing negative things about himself is usually in the context of bullies who get a thrill out of hurting him. To realize that his wife is actually trying to problem-solve at heart is helpful and concrete to him. The more abstract concepts that a neurotypical wife wants – of being heard, seen, understood intuitively, and met with remorse – are difficult to convey. But we can start with problem-solving. If he can “see” her need to change the problem behavior and not personalize it as hatred for him – but actually confidence in his potential – then he’s less flooded with anxiety and defensiveness. This helps increase the likelihood of the NT wife having her needs met to a certain degree, instead of not at all.

Autism & Grief for the NT wife

The autism community is frequently vocal about how marginalized they feel when neurotypicals share their personal experience of marriage with ASD partners. They often express that neurotypicals have a lack of tolerance for autistic behaviors, that we perpetuate negative stereotypes of autism, that we are ableist and discriminatory and infantalizing (by merely voicing our perspective). Essentially, it seems to be a common perception that our neurotypical needs and expectations within an intimate partnership shamelessly promote disdain or contempt for autism.

Sometimes a neurotypical wife feels shut out from truly connecting with her ASD husband, as if a wall of glass separates them.

It’s my experience and observation that neurotypical women married to autistic men, and often raising neurodiverse children, feel anything BUT hatred toward autism. What I notice in NT wives and mothers is a deep grief toward autism sometimes. Grief includes many difficult feelings, some of which might be anger and frustration, yes. Autism can feel like a window of glass separating us from true connection with the ones that we love most in the world. We see our beloved spouse and children on the other side; we can hear them and try our best to communicate with them through the glass – but there is no ability to truly touch one another, or to easily hear each other. And the glass makes it difficult to understand the nuances of our tone, to make out of every single word or the complexities of our meaning. Sometimes we have to truncate our speech and swallow the words we wish we could share, just to convey the most basic and concrete message. But we are built to be wordy, to share freely and fully, and that is simply too much to be understood through a thick wall of glass. The neurotypical is left perpetually yearning to embrace and be embraced by the ones we love so fiercely. But all we can do is place our hand on the glass and look inside at their inner world, never fully belonging. Knowing that usually they are most content in that inner world (without us). It’s a wound in our neurotypical hearts. Grief is all the love we desire to give, knowing it cannot be received to the fullest extent we hope to impart.

There is no hatred for autism. There is frustration, and longing and even fury sometimes. There is a protective fear when we witness the unique vulnerabilities of autism in our husbands and children, many of which are invisible to the world around us but so fully displayed in our homes. There is a feeling of obligation toward autism, because we worry for our children and how they will navigate adulthood without our care and supervision. We worry when our husbands have burnout or shutdowns and seemingly need to escape us and the world. It is sometimes a misplaced sense of worry and responsibility, but it exists. We puzzle over how our family members can be so brilliant, perhaps very academically and professional successful, yet struggle with fundamental executive functioning. We know if they forget to eat, or can’t get up on time, or get overwhelmed by noise, or didn’t sleep well or are exhausted from masking – a spiral might happen. We feel like a one-woman crisis prevention team – out of love, though sometimes misplaced responsibility. Trying to protect our autistic loved ones from the very symptoms of autism that make their lives so hard sometimes. Does autism have extraordinary gifts and talents? Yes. And also extraordinary vulnerabilities that break our empathic, neurotypical hearts.

I witness the way that neurotypical wives and mothers give until they are spent, nearly always unseen, not needing recognition but wishing for some sense of understanding from their family members. They dig deep to continue giving at their own expense. Neurotypical women carry a profound sense of over-responsibility. They over-function because their autistic loved ones need caretaking and accommodating.

Grief for autism includes all the stages. I see when women try to bargain with their spouses. We have all done it. Please, please, please. I will do this, if you will do that. I will do this even if you don’t do that! Because it has to be done! The desperate, frazzled begging and pleading for change. Forgetting that there is a ceiling from neurological limitation, and that light switch can’t happen. The ASD partner needs structure, accountability, concrete and specific instructions – preferably from someone who is NOT her, because he doesn’t want to feel controlled. And he feels controlled when she requests that he finds someone to help fix this enormous disconnect between them. So she keeps trying to bargain, increasing the grief, which increases his anxiety, and drives him further into avoidance and resentment. There is denial when perhaps he goes through a season of having energy to try really, really hard (usually after she’s threatened to leave or he realizes there is a point of no return approaching). She thinks perhaps all the difficulty is behind them. The depression, another part of grief, starts to lift. But he can only mask for so long, and then it becomes hard again, and she is crushed. Because autism is hard in an intimate relationship for a neurotypical woman. It just is. And stating it is not hatred for autism, it is not being ableist, it is not discriminatory.

Perhaps some are still offended to know that autism causes feelings of grief in neurotypical women. And that’s okay. Feelings are not wrong, they just exist. Acceptance is also a stage of grief, and I find that when both partners can strive to accept each other’s feelings and differing needs as simply existing vs. being right or wrong, there is a lessening of sorrow.

The Impact of Porn Use on a Neurodiverse Marriage

Many neurodiverse marriages are sexless. Quite often, the neurotypical wife is deeply grief-stricken at the lack of sexual intimacy in her marriage. She mourns the physical connection she hoped to have with her ASD husband. It’s too embarrassing to confide in any of her friends that her husband won’t have sex with her, so she’s very alone with her pain and confusion.

The neurotypical wife is often heartbroken to realize that her ASD husband has an easier time with porn vs. marital sexual intimacy.

The autistic spouse might not fully understand nor articulate why he avoids intimacy with her, and may even offer explanations that seem unlikely, or offer false hope and shift blame to her. He may tell her that he DOES want to have sex with her. A circular conversation ensues, where she points out that he doesn’t initiate and when she initiates, he turns her down. He may then say such things like, “I don’t like how you smell,” which is of course a function of his sensory difficulties – but is excruciating for the neurotypical wife to hear. Other things my clients have been told: “I thought your vagina would smell like strawberries, but it doesn’t.” “I can’t stand having to touch your vulva. It’s too squishy.” “It feels awful to be inside of you.” “Your pubic hair reminds me of worms crawling on your skin.” “Touching your clitoris makes me feel like my finger is drowning.”

Some of the above statements are probably shocking to read, but trust me when I say it is the tip of the iceberg. I don’t fault ASD partners for struggling to express their sensory experience in a way that is not hurtful, but I will say that intention does not diminish impact. As much as I can reassure a neurotypical wife that these comments from her autistic spouse are said in this manner because of his concrete, literal brain and fueled by his distress over the sensory aspects – it does not lessen the harm this imposes on her sense of worth, value and desirability.

Conversations about the lack of sex produce anxiety in both partners. Feeling blamed for the lack of sex, he may lean hard into the narrative about her natural body state being intolerable to him, perhaps lacking insight that his sensitivities are quite high. Feeling hurt, she may offer honest feedback to him about how robotic his lovemaking is and that she wishes he could read her cues better about what feels good. This offends him, which further pushes him away, and she is left hurt and reeling to know that he is so repelled by things she cannot change about herself.

As months or years stretch on, the neurotypical wife becomes curious to know how her husband is coping with his lack of sex. Is he asexual? Has he sought out a new partner? How can he possibly live without the touch that she craves?

In my coaching practice, I have heard from many ASD men that they were introduced to porn at quite a young age. As we can imagine, a young boy with social confusion and poor abstract thinking would find porn to be a goldmine of information. Gone is the wondering of how sex works! Unfortunately, a young boy also lacks context and does not understand that porn rarely depicts realistic intimacy between a man and a woman. Additionally, porn is a mesmerizing dopamine hit for his brain, making it quite addictive. However, the most damaging aspects of porn for a specifically autistic husband are these things:

  1. He conditions himself to experience sex as an observer, not as a participant
  2. He associates sexual feelings with sensory deprivation of a woman’s scent, touch, taste, feel
  3. He does not have to practice considering the feelings or needs of any partner

Porn is problematic for many relationships, not just mixed-neurological connections. For an ASD husband, when porn is used at the exclusion of his neurotypical spouse and further entrenches him into habits that are counterproductive for his primary intimate relationship, his use of porn is rightfully experienced as a very grave betrayal for his neurotypical wife.

Sensory Issues & Sex in a Neurodiverse Marriage

Sensory issues can be the root of much heartbreak in the sexual dynamics of a marital relationship between a neurotypical wife and her ASD husband.

A neurotypical wife often feels terribly rejected by her autistic husband who avoids having sex with her.

Neurotypical wives often come to me with a deep sense of shame, despair and sorrow that they have not had sex with their autistic husbands in years. Some will share that kissing no longer happens either, and that the affection is limited to hugs or basic pecks on the cheek. She is heartbroken by the rejection, and lost in confusion as to how this happened. Early on in their dating life, sex seemed amazing and connected. How could it have been so great, and now – he avoids it? Or perhaps due to religious beliefs, the couple waited until after marriage to be physically intimate. Despite so much anticipation while dating, their sex life never really went past the awkward stage, and then quickly became very infrequent.

Aside from her shame at feeling undesired by her husband, the neurotypical wife feels very isolated in her experience. Most of her friends talk about their husbands wanting more sex, not less. She certainly does not know anyone who is routinely rejected by her husband, and after exhaustively trying to discuss it, entice him or otherwise change course – the NT wife turns inward, blaming herself. He must not be attracted to her anymore. right? Additionally, perhaps the NT wife has discovered that her ASD husband is an avid porn user while avoiding sex with her. Her heart is broken at the betrayal that he would rather deal with his sexual energy in a way that excludes her, despite the begging and pleading for intimacy with him. It is soul-crushing to realize that he certainly does have a sex drive, it just isn’t one that craves her. (More about this in a follow-up post.)

While many ASD marriages between a neurotypical partner and autistic spouse are sexless, sometimes it is present but infrequent. Many NT women have shared with me that sex can sometimes be mired in rituals and rules. He may require that she she shower and dry her hair before sex, each and every time, immediately prior to their intimacy. Only one sexual position is permitted. His eyes might be tightly shut the entire time. Activities happen in a certain sequence. She must have a towel underneath her at all times. After the act is finished, he hops up and gets in the shower alone. There is no afterglow of cuddling or closeness. Why does her hair have to be dry? Why is he worried about the bed being damp? Why is only one position acceptable?

It may seem arbitrary, but the sensory input of wet hair is too overwhelming, and the same situation with the sheets. Some ASD men have difficulty conceptualizing and feeling their bodies in space, due to sensory integration issues. A sexual position that provides too much pressure, or not enough, during intercourse can impact arousal and ability to orgasm. The result is an inflexible lovemaking routine that is confusing for the NT wife (and sometimes feels shameful to the ASD husband, who understands to some degree that she is not pleased and his preferences differ from other men).

It’s helpful for the neurotypical wife to think about sex in the manner their ASD partner experiences it, as we can begin to see that his avoidance of sex is not personal toward her. (This does not minimize the hurt, harm, or impact of deprivation.) Understanding that taste, touch, scents and sounds can be engulfing for him helps her to stop turning the blame inward for a lack of marital intimacy. It is not her fault that body fluid is repellant to him, and nor is it his fault that he can’t handle it. Sexual aids like oil or lube or vibrating toys might bring sensations he doesn’t enjoy. It’s important to note that autists often experience sensory input to a much greater or lesser degree than neurotypicals – what feels like a nice backrub to her might feel like being pummeled to him.

Articulating these sensitivities can be challenging for the autistic husband. He might be very distracted by negative sensory input and have difficulty maintaining an erection. He may also know that reading her sexual responses and cues is a struggle for him, which adds to his anxiety level that is already high due to the overwhelm of sensory input.

As to why sex was perhaps quite satisfying and more flexible in the beginning of the relationship – it seems that the hyper-focus of his girlfriend or wife being a consuming special interest can override the sensory engulfment of sex. As the special interest or “newness” starts to wear off the relationship, he may be much more distracted by the sensory difficulties. Learning this, and in combination with what is often his diminishing interest in her beyond sex as well, can feel very devastating for the NT wife. It feels like a bait and switch, even though the ASD husband was likely unaware of why his sensory difficulties abated early on in their relationship. As I affirm to wives repeatedly, his good intention does not minimize the harmful impact to her.

Occasionally, I will hear that a neurotypical wife is drowning in her husband’s sexual needs. His desire for it is daily, if not multiple times a day. She might be puking from the stomach flu, but he’s still sure to tell her that he really needs sex tonight. She feels overwhelmed by his expectations and inability to read when it’s appropriate or not to be requesting sexual time with her. He tells her that sex feels really good and calms him down. In this case, sex is a sensory pleasure and something he wants to experience repeatedly, often for the calming effect it has on him.

The impact of sensory deluge is very important for the neurotypical wife to conceptualize, and for the ASD husband to begin recognizing within himself. Understanding his struggle helps the neurotypical wife de-personalize the absence of sex. His avoidance of intimacy is about his sensory issues, not a reflection of her. While his difficulties do not make her sexual deprivation acceptable, it at least offers explanation as to why she is being subjected to his avoidance. If the ASD husband is able to recognize his sensory overwhelm, problem-solving can begin happening and sexual intimacy can be potentially restored.

The Life Cycle of a Neurodiverse Relationship

Why does the neurodiverse marriage seem to worsen over time, and what does that do to the neurotypical wife?

A neurotypical wife marries her ASD husband thinking that their life together will be as joyfully connected as their dating period.

One of the biggest sources of confusion for the neurotypical wife is why and how the dating period was so amazing, but everything seemed to change shortly after moving in together. She goes through the various stages of grief, desperately trying to understand what she can do to return the relationship to a satisfying connection.

When an Asperger’s Syndrome husband falls in love, usually his girlfriend quickly becomes his special interest. He is extraordinarily attentive, and his hyper-focus helps him read her cues. The couple might have shared interests that brought them together, so time during dating is spent on that shared interest (like running, or music, or church, golf, etc.) which feels very bonding. The ASD boyfriend might call to mind relationship scripts – perhaps from movies he’s seen, or books he’s read, or discussions with a helpful mother, sister or friend – about what men should do in relationships. He is more apt to think of flowers, or classic romantic gestures. He’s flooded by her reciprocal attention, and as someone who was often bullied, excluded or actively disliked by peers in his childhood – her warmth, love, acceptance and attraction is mesmerizing.

Dating differs from cohabitation in many ways, but the biggest issue for the autistic partner is the increased expectation from the neurotypical for time and conversation. The autistic partner loses his solo space and experiences disruption to his routine and preferences, such as time for his coping and other interests. He might start to feel encroached upon and this causes anxiety and withdrawal.

The neurotypical wife or girlfriend is puzzled as to why her boyfriend or husband seems to avoid her in the same house. Why does he sleep so much? Why would he rather play video games or read astronomy books instead of going out on a date together? She searches for fault within herself and experiences various stages of grief as time goes on.

Eventually, she likely confronts her ASD husband with anger. Why does he ignore her? She needs love, attention, conversation, fun. Why is he so busy and disinterested in her? Why doesn’t he care how she feels or how their relationship used to be? Her emotions cause further anxiety and withdrawal in him, leading to more anger, hurt and resentment for her – and the cycle continues.

Over time, she is no longer the special interest. She is the source of his anxiety. He does all he can to avoid the very conversations and time that she craves from him. He buries himself in his life-long special interests, which are his abiding passion. His need for sleep increases, further isolating her as he tries to cope with the expectations and confusion from her. Instead of the positive feelings he felt for her at the beginning, contempt grows toward her neediness. She once valued how kind and gentle he seemed, but now he seems to have little of those former qualities. She senses that he no longer values or cherishes her the way he once did.

The neurotypical wife may find herself at a crossroads when the marital or cohabitation dynamic has reached an adversarial stand-off. She may embark on a larger effort to understand “why,” especially if autism is undiagnosed or not known to the couple yet. She will often seek out coaching or counseling as a last ditch effort to see if her marriage can be saved.

Why do NT wives minimize their needs?

A neurotypical wife is usually responsible for the emotional labor and practicalities in the neurodiverse family. She is the one who looks at the big picture and makes life happen. She picks up on the nuances – the sensitivities and vulnerabilities of her ASD spouse, her autistic or ADHD children, and all the special considerations that go into diffusing emotional dysregulation to keep everyone on an even keel.

A neurotypical wife is usually juggling nearly every aspect of her neurodiverse family’s needs.

Aside from walking on eggshells in hopes of avoiding her autistic husband having distress that leads to meltdowns or shutdowns, the neurotypical wife is also often the schedule keeper, medicine distributor, grocery shopper, meal-maker, chores & household do-er. She does bedtime and wake time and makes the lunches and is up all night with the baby and consoles the big feelings of her children and spouse. If there is fun to be had, usually she is the one thinking and planning holidays or outings. She’s the one getting children off of screen time to go outside, or visit the park, or do something besides isolate at home. If she wants any semblance of special time with her husband, she’s planning the dates and the anniversaries and getting the babysitter. She might even be buying her own Christmas present so as to avoid the children seeing the lack of anything for her. Often, any sort of normal family life or marital intimacy takes a lot of convincing, justifying, explaining and defending to her neurodiverse family members. While doing everything at home, she is quite likely working a full-time job as well. If she asks for help from her ASD spouse, who simply does not intuit what needs to be done, it may take further time and emotional energy to remind, plead or beg for him to follow through. She may learn that asking for anything from him leads to emotional dysregulation, which starts to feel like more trouble than it’s worth.

Conflict avoidance becomes a default manner of operating for the NT wife. Her life is so full of managing “all the things.” Emotional dysregulation + executive dysfunction are such pervasive parts of autism that taking up any space in the home is an exhausting endeavor. Avoiding meltdowns, shutdowns, vindictive behavior and competing with autistic special interests is an impossible task, but she persists anyway. Asking for help often leads to resentful reactions from her Asperger’s husband, who does not prioritize needs of others in the same way that she is able to intuit. He may find it perfectly reasonable to let chores go undone, and he perhaps may not value the same standard of upkeep that his NT wife prefers. When he agrees to a chore or to help, he may find a timeline to be unnecessarily ‘controlling’ from his wife. This can devolve into an argument and again starts to defeat the purpose of her even asking.

When the neurotypical partner starts to wear out from doing everything, she may seek out therapy and insist her husband go with her. Unfortunately, the dynamic is often misunderstood in traditional marriage counseling. Feeling overwhelmed by the sheer volume of responsibility, the NT wife may unload on the therapist while her Asperger’s husband sits calmly beside her. She finishes listing every aspect of how much she does and how angry she is to not have a partner in helping. He may comment, “see what I have to deal with? She can’t be pleased, she keeps score of what I do or don’t do, she is constantly stressed out and creating work for herself, she criticizes when I don’t do something the second she asks me. All she does is try to control me and argue with me about what is and isn’t fair. She views me as the sole problem, but she’s so mean to me that I would rather do my hobby than have to deal with her.” The therapist may start thinking that perhaps the NT wife is narcissistic or borderline, due to the depth of her emotionalism spilling out, and believe that she is the one who needs the most behavior modification. This leads to the neurotypical wife feeling even more isolated in her chronic deprivation of empathy, while the ASD husband may dig in to his resistant responses to her.

As one might imagine, being told at every turn that she is nothing but a controlling complainer might start to shut down any persistence in voicing her needs. Being routinely ignored, having to constantly explain and justify what needs to be done to keep the family afloat, needing to convince her ASD husband to help while his resentment level has skyrocketed due to the demands on his time – the neurotypical wife learns that the path to least resistance is ceasing to stop asking for anything. Her personhood gets smashed down, because there is only so much time in the day to do it all and try to convince someone that she matters, too. The conflict created with her autistic spouse is worth avoiding more than it is worth fighting for her needs to be met.

Where do we draw the line in a Neurodiverse Marriage?

We know that ASD partners have different neurology. They are more susceptible to overwhelm from daily life in a world of neurotypical expectations. How do we integrate this awareness into our marriages and families, while still holding boundaries of what is and is not acceptable behavior?

Neurotypical wives do not have to be held hostage to their autistic husband’s meltdowns.

Examples of reasons an ASD husband may feel burdened by daily life, that are not usually shared by neurotypicals universally:

  • dysregulated sleep patterns
  • masking autistic behaviors while at work
  • sensory overload
  • social confusion or isolation
  • co-morbid mental health issues
  • difficulty with changes to routine
  • executive functioning challenges

Knowing these are legitimate challenges, to what standard is it reasonable to hold our Asperger’s Syndrome / Autism Spectrum Disorder husband to when he’s angry or frustrated? Should we accept his behavior when it devolves into explosive rages, meltdowns, or shutdowns? Can he just not help it? He may not be able to prevent it, but there are certainly ways to manage his meltdowns that allow him to have them without harming his family members and their deserved sense of safety.

First, let’s examine the idea of boundaries and rules. Rules are what we set for other people to follow, and boundaries are what we set for ourselves.

Some rules that we set when I work with neurodiverse couples are usually the following, in regard to what the autistic spouse can do to both have his meltdown and take responsibility for managing it:

  1. When either spouse notices that the ASD partner is becoming dysregulated (i.e. overwhelmed by sensory input, emotional misunderstanding, conversational triggers, etc), they offer that observation to one another – if the NT wife is initiating that statement, she does her best to say so in a neutral tone.
  2. The ASD partner is responsible for removing himself to a pre-agreed location. Perhaps a bedroom, a small or private place within the home, or – quite often, even leaving the house. This is viewed as an act of love for his wife and family, because sparing them from from witnessing (or hearing) a rage or meltdown is very important. It prevents damage to his relationship with them, and it prevents stress and fear from developing (especially important as a consideration for the harm this imparts to children).
  3. The ASD partner uses coping skills (discussed in coaching) to help calm himself, or work through the meltdown. He agrees to wait until his heart rate has returned to a measurable normal before rejoining his wife or family members. He maintains awareness that a problem cannot be solved through verbal discussion while feeling flooded by emotion (anger, sadness, rage, fury, frustration, etc).
  4. If the issue is a communication problem, the spouses will resume discussion through a different means than verbal dialogue. The conversation will not resume in any capacity until the spouses are a minimum of one hour past the husband’s heart rate returning to normal.

For the neurotypical wife, of course it is also her responsibility to not react to her ASD partner by mirroring his dysregulation. She must practice her own self control. This prevents any further escalation and also models calm for her children. Since she also cannot force her ASD partner to follow the rules that have been set forth in the marriage, she sets boundaries for herself.

It is worth noting that even if her autistic husband is not working with me in coaching, it is highly reasonable to request that he follow the above protocol. However, we must recognize that she cannot force her ASD husband to be compliant, respectful or considerate.

Because of this, boundaries are necessary and important. Boundaries are different than rules because it is what we enforce for ourselves, vs. being dependent on someone else’s cooperation.

Some boundaries that we might set when I work with a neurotypical wife:

  1. If her autistic husband chooses to not remove himself from her presence when emotionally dysregulated, then she will remove herself from his presence. Along with any children witnessing their father having a meltdown.
  2. If his meltdown lasts for hours or otherwise infringes on her ability to safely be present in the home, or return to the home, then the neurotypical wife will have a plan in place. This plan may include going to the home of a family member or friend, the park or other outing, or even procuring a hotel room or calling the police. The neurotypical wife’s boundary is that emotional and physical safety is 100% her priority. She will not tolerate being unsafe in her home. She will not tolerate her children witnessing a scary event by the other parent. If the police have to be called and even if her husband is removed from the home temporarily, that is a consequence of him choosing to not follow reasonable rules and be a safe person at that time. It is not her fault for holding the boundary. She and her children are entitled to safety. Her husband is NOT entitled to inflict his meltdown upon his family.
  3. If the ASD husband returns to the environment and tries to insist on talking while still in meltdown mode, the NT wife will remind her spouse that they cannot solve a problem when either partner is dysregulated. She will not be baited into any further discussion. She will remove herself as needed.

It’s worth nothing that sometimes the expense involved in acquiring hotel rooms, etc., serve as a motivator for an Autism Spectrum spouse to reconsider his resistance to self-removal during a meltdown or rage. The important thing for the NT wife to remember is that SHE MUST FOLLOW THROUGH WITH HER BOUNDARIES. Otherwise she teaches her spouse that she is merely threatening and not willing to hold him accountable nor keep herself safe.

While NT wives can have understanding for the emotional dysregulation issues caused by ASD neurology, they do not have to be victimized or held hostage by autistic meltdowns. The Asperger’s Syndrome husband can follow the reasonable rules in place to allow himself to experience the needed release of a meltdown, while not infringing upon the emotional or physical safety of others in the home. The NT wife recognizing that she cannot force him to be considerate, cooperative or agreeable is part of her growth in upholding boundaries. She must choose to put herself and the needs of her children ahead of accommodating the ASD husband’s meltdown. This is often VERY painful for her, because it is so unfamiliar. She is so used to simply enduring the meltdown, his possibly throwing things, destroying things, the screaming, the accusations, the looming physical presence.

Sometimes a coaching client will say, “it’s too hard to leave the room! I can’t just corral everyone into my bedroom and lock the door while in the middle of cooking breakfast!” Well yes, you can! It’s a mindset shift. She can practice what is called “coping ahead,” and have a storage bin full of snacks, toys, clothes, diapers – even noise muffling headphones for herself and the kids – if or when escaping her autistic spouse’s meltdown is necessary. She can have a duffle bag packed and kept in the car if she needs to load up kids and leave the house. Changing the NT wife’s mindset of allowing herself to have needs that matter, when she has so long been overlooked and worn down by the overbearing needs of the ASD partner, is where her work toward freedom and personhood lay. Is it inconvenient, infuriating, and a betrayal that he won’t follow the rules? ABSOLUTELY. (And the larger relationship issue is certainly worth evaluating, but this is a strategy for surviving a moment vs. a lifetime.) She chooses to set boundaries and uphold them. She learns to prioritize herself even if he won’t. And if she can’t leave? Then that’s when the police should be utilized. Not for the sole intention of a criminal arrest, but a transport to the hospital. He can meltdown under professional supervision, or law enforcement, instead of subjecting his family to scary behavior.

The accommodation we give the ASD spouse is this: “Okay, these meltdowns are going to happen because it is part of your neurological response to overwhelm. I acknowledge that you cannot prevent or stop or change the fact that they will exist. What I can do is control my exposure to them, and the way you treat me and our children during a meltdown. I am allowed to set boundaries. I will not rescue you from consequences when you are unwilling to contain the meltdown in a safe place.”