Marriage stressors reach a whole new level if one spouse is on the autism spectrum — and the couple isn’t even aware of it. If one spouse has ASD and the other does not, the two have significant differences in the way their brains are wired.
For Kenda, marriage to her husband was so emotionally painful that after twenty years of marriage, she said she “couldn’t continue to live this way.”
“Mark couldn’t connect to my pain,” she told me, “And he often responded to my emotions with a blank stare. He wasn’t explosive, but he shut down like a wet noodle. So, I’d rant and rave for hours, trying to get a response. Then we’d both go silent for days, which he probably enjoyed.”
It was 20 years before they finally discovered the root of the issues. Mark scored a level 1 on the autism spectrum disorder (ASD) scale. This fact explained Mark’s emotional disconnection that underpinned most of their conflict. The combination of autism and marriage can cause major misunderstandings.
Marriage stressors challenge most couples, but those stressors reach a whole new level if one spouse has autism spectrum disorder — and the couple isn’t even aware of it. If one spouse has ASD and the other does not, the two have significant differences in the way their brains are wired. Their brains are what’s called neurodiverse. This reality causes deep pain and confusion for both people in the marriage.
By the time a couple with this problem contacts me for counseling, they’re weary, exasperated, and feel misunderstood. They wonder if identifying autism spectrum disorder as the issue will explain years of conflict and help them move toward a healthier marriage.
Are you wondering the same thing? If typical marriage counseling hasn’t helped you, you may want to consider the signs of ASD. If you discover that one of you has ASD as Mark and Kenda did, you can seek appropriate counseling and support meant specifically for neurodiverse Christian couples dealing with autism and marriage. Such support will help you process your misunderstandings and take steps toward a marriage with less drama and more grace.
Keep in mind that more men are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder than women. In fact, ASD is four times more common in men than in women. When counseling neurodiverse couples, I usually see neurotypical wives and husbands with ASD, but women are being identified on the autism spectrum later in life.
Signs that one spouse is on the autism spectrum
Typical marriage counseling hasn’t helped
When a couple seeks marital help from a professional, too often the therapist or counselor assumes that the husband and wife each contribute the same level of relational skills needed to solve relational problems.
But what if they don’t?
For nearly 10 years, I’ve worked with couples experiencing neurodiversity and am often the fourth or fifth marriage counselor a couple has tried. Standard approaches to therapy have not only failed these couples, but they’ve also caused harm. This happens because marriage helpers of all kinds have not considered how neurology affects counseling.
In addition, typical Christian marriage books address the majority of couples who walk into a Christian bookstore. But they’re not intended to address the complexities and nuances of a neurodiverse couple.
Couples dealing with autism spectrum disorder need special resources. People with ASD relate transactionally, taking things at face value without reading between the lines, while a neurotypical person’s communication involves more complex subtleties and nuances. This difference can lead to miscommunication and unintentional harm in a neurodiverse marriage.
Couples need to understand how the neurodiversity will impact their relationship and communication styles before restorative counseling can be effective.
A ‘switch flipped’ after the honeymoon
Many wives tell me that during the courting phase, their husband was very attentive and an excellent boyfriend. But when the honeymoon ended or their first child was born, a switch flipped, and she was put on the shelf.
For the person on the autism spectrum, pursuit of the spouse was a “special interest.” Fixating on special interests is a common characteristic of ASD. Once a man on the spectrum is married, he may not feel the need to pursue or cherish his wife. Many women feel as if her husband “checked the box” after accomplishing the task of finding a wife.
Because of this, how the husband and wife view each other changes dramatically from the time they were dating to a few years into the marriage.
When couples first come to me wondering if autism in their marriage could be a problem, I ask, “While dating, what were the qualities you admired in your partner?”
The neurotypical wives’ answers include:
- He showed a boyish charm, naivety, social immaturity or awkwardness around me.
- He was quiet, shy, aloof, mysterious, reserved, stable or honest.
- He was interested in me and went out of his way to show me he liked me, almost obsessed with me.
- He wasn’t like the other guys.
- He seemed intelligent, smart or kind of geeky in a cute way.
- I felt he would go far in his line of work.
- I thought he would be stable, a good provider or a good father because he got along with children.
The neurodiverse husbands on the autism spectrum respond:
- She was kind or sweet.
- She praised or encouraged me.
- She saw potential or things in me I did not see.
- She accepted me for who and how I was.
- She is bright and intelligent. She could carry on heady or substantive conversations.
- She was fun and liked some of the same things I liked (but with less intensity).
After a few years of marriage
Note the differences in the answers when I asked these couples who had been married a few years, “How do you feel about your spouse now?”
The wives say:
- He is rude, cold or aloof.
- He only cares about himself. He’s selfish.
- He is often embarrassing in social situations and does not seem to care.
- I feel as if it were a bait and switch. As interested as he was in me while dating, he ignores me now.
- He is so smart but cannot seem to progress at work. He is stuck in a rut at work or cannot keep a job.
- He never seems to understand what I am communicating.
- He would rather spend time with his obsessions, interests or hobbies than with me.
- I don’t feel as if I can rely on him or respect him.
- I feel alone, isolated, rejected, devalued or unimportant to him.
- Whenever I try to have a conversation, he becomes combative, shuts me out or says I am nagging or criticizing. He accuses me of attacking him.
The husbands say:
- I thought she was kind and sweet, but now nothing I do can please her.
- Why can’t she say what she means? Why does she expect me to guess her thoughts? Why is my being direct and honest wrong?
- She says we “don’t connect” or “have intimacy.” I have no clue what she means by these words.
- I thought she knew and accepted my quirks, eccentricities, nuances and differences. Now all she brings up is how I need to change and how terrible of a person I am.
- She says, “Why can’t you do this or that like so-and-so’s spouse?”
- I feel nagged, bullied, criticized or attacked.
- I wonder, Why bother trying — nothing is right.
A spouse has these characteristics
What these couples have missed is the fact that the husband’s brain is wired in a different way. Janice Rodden, in an article titled “What Does Autism Spectrum Disorder Look Like in Adults?“ lists “common symptoms of autism in adults”:
- Difficulty interpreting what others are thinking or feeling
- Trouble interpreting facial expressions, body language or social cues
- Difficulty regulating emotion
- Trouble keeping up a conversation
- Inflection that does not reflect feelings
- Difficulty maintaining the natural give-and-take of a conversation; prone to monologues on a favorite subject
- Tendency to engage in repetitive or routine behaviors
- Only participates in a restricted range of activities
- Strict consistency to daily routines; outbursts when changes occur
- Exhibiting strong, special interests
What to do if your spouse is on the autism spectrum
Accept the differences
First, you’ll have to accept that counseling will not “fix” the person on the autism spectrum. We shouldn’t see that person as needing to be fixed or made to be like a neurotypical person anyway. And even though autism spectrum disorder can cause challenges to a relationship, not all marital issues stem from it. Getting appropriate professional counseling is important so you can become aware of what ASD is and what it is not.
Both spouses need to understand each other’s capabilities, issues and cognitive profiles. They also need to be committed to learning about what it means to be a neurodiverse couple and put aside unrealistic expectations.
It’s also important to examine your expectations for your relationship and reset them in light of the new information about how your brains function.
I ask my clients, “What do you want or expect from the relationship? Where have you felt hurt or been wounded?” Then, together, we assess personal abilities and work on better communication skills while also examining the traits of ASD and its effect on the marital relationship.
You’ll also need to address those past hurts. A neurotypical spouse has valid wounds from experiencing what some call Cassandra Phenomenon or Ongoing Traumatic Relationship Syndrome. The spouse with ASD will also feel hurt by his intentions being misunderstood. Yet it’s important for him to know that unintentional hurt still impacts a person. Unintentional hurt, neglect, indifference or abusive behaviors (that may come during a meltdown or shutdown) still cause relational damage.
Kenda remembers dealing with her and Mark’s past hurts and resetting their expectations once they realized that they were dealing with autism and marriage issues. It wasn’t a fast process. “It took nine months of therapy for Mark and me to find new footing,” she says. “I’d meet with the counselor one week. Mark the next. Then, we’d meet together. She helped bridge our communication gap while educating us on how his brain worked. I learned I had to grow in grace. And I needed a lot of grace since understanding was just the first step of many.”
Those other steps include more typical marital work where the couple learns to reduce hurtful, neglectful or indifferent behaviors and establish healthy communication.
Kenda and Mark have come a long way. “Before working with an AS-aware counselor, I had no hope,” Kenda says. “I often struggled with who I’d become as a person and Christian. I was angry and confused. But I have learned not to hold on to the hard moments. They happen. But I can now separate the momentary frustrations from thoughts about our future. I trust that the miscommunication will pass. So, we’re able to go back to what draws us close: Bible study, action movies and even computer games where we fight evil together.”
Kenda and Mark continue to share their journey in hopes of helping others find their way. Mark and Kenda, as well as other couples, have contributed to a counseling course for The International Association of Neurodiverse Christian Marriages.
Finding good resources can be challenging, but here are some places to start looking:
Wendy Brown, a licensed marriage and family therapist, recommends that couples ask potential therapists about their experience and therapeutic approach concerning ASD-neurotypical couples. “If they require only joint therapy sessions without other support for individuals in the relationship, move on,” she says.
Also, while the Asperger/Autism Network is not a Christian organization, it does provide some useful information.
© 2022 Stephanie C. Holmes. All rights reserved. Originally published on FocusOnTheFamily.com.
STEPHANIE C. HOLMES
Dr. Stephanie C. Holmes holds a doctorate in education. Her dissertation was on best practices for the inclusion of students with autism. She is a national speaker, author and podcaster on the topic of autism, neurodiverse Christian couples and special needs advocacy.