What is Cassandra Syndrome?

Denial of the neurotypical wife’s experience in her neurodiverse marriage is traumatic.

Something often misunderstood about the formation of trauma is that it does not just develop from a single event, or a complex set of ongoing events. Trauma occurs when we are left alone with our hurt, and subjected to disbelief from others. There is nothing more isolating and further traumatizing to a survivor than being dismissed, minimized, or invalidated. How does this relate to neurotypical wives married to ASD men? First, we must look at the dynamic of neurodiverse marriage.

Autistic individuals are capable of masking for certain periods of time. (Masking is a way in which ASD people try to adopt neurotypical behaviors in social settings, to cope or fit in better with neurotypical counterparts.) At work, with extended family, outside in the neighborhood, at church, at special interest gatherings – the ASD husband might appear to outsiders as a fully-functioning-like-a-neurotypical person. Reserved, perhaps a little introverted, a tiny bit endearingly quirky. But certainly participatory, awake and present. While this leaves a positive impression socially, masking is an exhausting endeavor for the autistic person. Once at home, the autistic spouse needs recovery time, which might include sleeping, isolating, focusing on special interests, and having little tolerance for the needs or expectations of his family members. This ongoing recovery cycle often creates burnout for both spouses – but for differing reasons. The ASD husband exists in defense mode from navigating social expectations inside of his relationship, and outside of the home. The neurotypical wife strives to give her husband all the down time he needs, but this has her shouldering the household and parenting obligations alone – and desperately missing emotional engagement with her husband.

Before the term “Ongoing Traumatic Relationship Syndrome” was coined by Families of Adults Affected by Autism, a few different descriptors were in rotation to describe the chronic emotional deprivation experienced by neurotypical wives married to autistic men. Many might be familiar with the term “Cassandra Syndrome,” which references the Greek Mythology character, Cassandra. When she does not return Apollo’s love interest, he curses her – she is allowed foresight into the future, but she is unable to share it with anyone. Cassandra is left alone with her burden of truth – unheard, and unable to convince anyone of of what she knows to be true. Neurotypical wives are thought of as “Cassandras,” because nobody believes what they say about their experience in a neurodiverse marriage. She is often met with, “but he’s so nice!”

Doubt from others when we share our pain is crushing, especially because it’s so difficult to characterize invisibility within our marriages. Anecdotes rarely work, since it isn’t just the one-off weekend when he slept from Friday night until Sunday evening. (While waking up to pee and correcting your characterization by saying that he is NOT sleeping all weekend, he’s in the bathroom right this second!) How do we explain big picture concepts? That his excessive sleeping habits are really an underlying inability to SEE that we have needs on the weekends, too. It’s the cumulative effect of being unrelentingly deprived of intuitive empathy and having our personhood not just ignored, but literally unseen by our spouse. How does a neurotypical meet her need for emotional intimacy with her husband, if she’s invisible to him?

Denial of someone’s reality is toxic. Being left alone with hurt is harmful. It is traumatic. We all need others to see our perspective. It’s also important to keep the social confusion of the autistic partner in context. While he may not intend to ignore, or under-respond to his wife, intention does not minimize impact. Trauma still happens for a neurotypical wife even if her husband does not intend to be hurtful.

Why do neurotypical wives need support for their neurodiverse marital experience?

Neurotypical wives are expected to stay silent about their marriage struggles, or face a number of intolerant reactions.

“Why do neurotypical wives need support? It’s a neurotypical world! Shouldn’t the focus be on the autistic spouse and how neurotypical expectations are so unfair to him?”

All we have to do is look at social media responses from #actuallyautistic individuals to know that neurotypical wives are highly unwelcome to share their experience of being married to an autistic partner. Neurotypical wives are denigrated as being hateful for voicing that their emotional needs go unmet in their neurodiverse relationship. As a result, very little support is available for neurotypical partners and they are often shamed into silence. Mental health professionals frequently fail to grasp what chronic emotional deprivation is like for a neurotypical spouse, unless they have personally experienced it. Traditional marriage counseling is rarely an effective source of help for neurodiverse couples, unless the therapist is very familiar with the dynamic specific to ASD (formerly Asperger’s Syndrome) + Neurotypical partnerships.

FAAAS (Families of Adults Affected by Asperger’s Syndrome) has termed the phenomenon experienced by children or marital partners of autistic individuals as “ongoing traumatic relationship syndrome.” The truth is that neurotypical spouses have neurotypical needs, which shouldn’t be demonized or minimized, even if the autistic partner has a challenge in meeting them (through no fault of their own). The world that matters in this case is the interior dynamic of a singular marriage, not the construct of society at large. A marriage is intended to be our most emotionally intimate relationship. The marriage is supposed to be the place we are seen, heard, understood, validated and cherished. When neurotypicals are deprived of those fundamental needs – even if it is due to genuine neurological limitations from the other spouse – it is experienced as ongoing trauma.

While the defensiveness of autistic partners is understandable, it’s also very disappointing. Terming the truth shared from neurotypical wives as “hate speech,” “ableism” or otherwise villainizing their experience is only illustrative of our point: there is a distinct lack of reciprocal empathy. The sarcasm and victim posturing of autistics – when confronted with neurotypical feedback of their intimate relationships – is unkind, unproductive and an interesting double standard. Neurotypical wives are to forgo their needs, silence their hurt and pretend to be fulfilled – or risk shame, blame and accusations of discrimination. Yet the autistic partner still expects his neurotypical wife to fully understand his challenges and accommodate his feelings, preferences and limitations (which most neurotypical wives do to an astoundingly empathic degree). Why is it not fair and correct to expect a measure of effort in the same vein from her autistic spouse?

Fortunately, social media is only a microcosm of the full picture. There are many neurodiverse husbands who love their wives and are humble enough to accept feedback. While intuitive empathy is a challenge, cognitive empathy is certainly possible – and as the autistic spouse begins to grow in understanding of his wife’s experience, he is often very motivated to build skills in support of her. Learning to sit with the distress of feeling criticized because of his wife’s unhappiness IS part of the process. His wife sharing her experience is not an attack, nor is it a fact to be disproved. It is merely her experience, and a husband willing to listen and truly hear her is half the battle of improving the dynamic.

Autism advocacy in our society is thankfully growing each and every day. Neurotypicals do not need advocacy for acceptance in the world at large, but they need support in order to thrive within their intimate relationships to ASD spouses. Both partners in a neurodiverse marriage deserve to have their individual needs and considerations equally prioritized.