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Aspie-NT Marriage

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He Said-She Said

There are many complexities involved in what is referred to as an Aspie-NT marriage, so I struggled with what angle or aspect to cover as a marital counselor who specializes in this complex marriage issue. My intention is to bring light to the situation without overgeneralizing, yet not marginalizing the complexities experienced in this marital dynamic; as well as represent both halves of the marital equation as equally and respectfully as possible. With this motivation in mind, I surveyed husbands with Asperger’s (Aspies) and neurotypical (NT) wives to let them share some of the challenges experienced in an Aspie-NT marriage. (I also surveyed Aspie wives, but found some differences and further complexities that were beyond the scope of this article.)

Weekly I receive a call, text, or blog comment inquiring about some dynamic of Aspie-NT marriages. The term Asperger’s syndrome came on the mental health scene in 1994 as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-IV (DSM-IV) was published. Then for a decade, the research and publications focused on the syndrome as it affects children and pre-teens. Knowledge exploded but stayed limited to childhood issues for the longest time. If we were just to consider those diagnosed since 1994, even the youngest of those diagnosed are in late adolescence and early adulthood.

What about those who fit the criteria before the criteria had a name? What has become commonplace in my counseling practice is that a child has received a formal diagnosis of AS/ASD and when research is being done as to what this entails or means, the call or email to me is, “Can you help me? I think I am married to an Aspie!”

The second type of call I receive is after children have been launched from home, the couple is entering the retirement years and the NT wife expects to connect better and enjoy the final stage of marriage. Nothing changes. Why can’t we connect? Is he an Aspie?

The third type of call I receive is more rare, but it is the Aspie male who reaches out and says, “My wife thinks (or I have found out) I have Asperger’s and without help I think we are heading for divorce. Can you help me?” Often times, I am the fourth or fifth marriage counselor this type of couple has worked with during marriage. Counselors who failed to understand the complexities of the marriage have been reported by my couple to have done more harm than good. Without a diagnosis or understanding of the diagnosis, a counselor might mistake his behaviors as NPD (Narcissism), mere anxiety or selfishness. If the husband is more quiet in session and the wife is more demonstrative—explaining her hurts and how lack of connection and intimacy for years has compounded her feeling needs have not been met, a counselor might say that the issues are co-dependency, high expectations, or maybe a mood disorder or HPD (Histrionic). In either case, spouses walk away feeling ignored, blamed, placated, or misunderstood and usually drop out of counseling. They are left wondering what, if anything, can help them in their marital struggles.

When Aspie-NT spouses reach out to me for counseling (either in my office or online) they are weary, exacerbated, feel misunderstood, and are both hopeless and hopeful as to the prognosis of happiness and satisfaction in marriage. Asperger’s as a label offers hope but also feels like a third wheel to the marriage. My first question to my couples is, “While dating, what were the qualities you admired in your partner?”

A compilation of NT wives answers include:

  • His boyish charm/naivety/social immaturity/awkwardness around me
  • He was quiet/shy/aloof/mysterious/reserved/stable/honest
  • He was interested in me/went out of his way to show me he liked me/almost obsessed with me
  • He wasn’t like the other guys
  • Intelligent/smart/kind of geeky in a cute way/felt he would go far in his line of work
  • Felt he would would be stable/a good provider/a good father because he got along with children

Aspie husbands said:

  • She was kind, sweet, praised/encouraged me
  • She saw potential or things in me I did not see
  • She accepted me for who/how I was
  • She is bright/intelligent/could carry –on heady or substantive conversations
  • She was fun and liked some of the same things I liked (but with less intensity)

Interestingly, by the time a couple comes in for counseling after a few years of marriage, they have a different view of those qualities.

NT wives say:

  • He is rude/cold/aloof/He only cares about himself/selfish
  • He is often embarrassing in social situations and does not seem to care
    • I feel like it was “bait and switch”; he was interested in me while dating, but he ignores me now
    • He is so smart, but cannot seem to progress at work and never seems to understand what I am communicating.
    • He is stuck in a rut at work or cannot keep a job.
    • He is not attached as a spouseor parent
    • He has stupid obsessions/interests/hobbies he would rather spend money and time on
    • I don’t feel like I can rely on him or respect him
    • I feel alone/isolated/rejected/de-valued/unimportant to him
    • Whenever I try to have a conversation he gets combative/he hammers me/he shuts me out/he says I am nagging/criticizing

    Aspie husbands say:

    • I thought she was kind/sweet, but now I can do nothing to please her
    • Why can’t she say what she means? Why does she expect me to guess her thoughts? Why is my being direct/honest wrong?
    • She says we “don’t connect”/”have intimacy.” I have no clue what she means by these words

      • I thought she knew my quirks/eccentricities/nuances/differences and accepted them. 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
      • I wonder why bother trying, nothing is right

      How can a couple, who seemingly fell for each other based on the other’s Aspie or NT traits, now feel so differently about those same traits?

      One of the first things I address is that NT’s enter a marriage with expectations of an NT-NT marriage. When the wife hears about Asperger’s, she may first feel elated that “this was not in her head” or that “I’ve tried everything and thought it was all me.” She may have to grieve the loss of the marriage she thought she was getting (NT-NT).

      But I make it clear that our goal is not to meet expectations of an NT-NT marriage; this is not what we have. The goals are to re-examine the expectations and goals in light of an Aspie-NT marriage and strive to reach a relationship both can feel marital satisfaction. Depending on his age, the Aspie has mixed emotions. At first, older gentlemen may feel like, “I cannot have that. I was a successful career person and went far in this area etc., I cannot possibly have that.” Yet, once we look at patterns of relationships, we see a pattern that fit Aspie traits. Others, upon hearing the criteria/traits say, “That explains so much of my life and makes so much sense.” Often times these couples are already on a second or third marriage.

      My approach to counseling has several phases:

      Phase one: AS awareness and education

      It is important for me to explain that counseling will not fix or cure the AS person. The AS person is neurologically wired differently and although Asperger’s can cause challenges to a relationship, the goal is not to “fix” or “change” the AS individual. The wiring that makes this individual exceptional in a career/field of study is only part of the reason relationships can be difficult to navigate. We have many inventions and advances in our arts, sciences and technologies because of this neurodiversity/wiring. The marital issues/challenges are not solely the result of Asperger’s. It is important to dismiss/dispel myths about what AS is and is not.

      Phase two: Examine marital expectations from both the NT and Aspie side of the equation

      What does each person want or expect from the relationship? Where has each person felt hurt or been wounded by expectations/lack of connection/harsh words? The NT spouses have valid hurts and wounds—experiencing what some call Cassandra Phenomenon or Ongoing Traumatic Relationship Syndrome (OTRS) (FAAAS, 1997).

      This phase also examines the criteria/traits of Asperger’s and its impact on the marital relationship. Some common issues are: lack of reciprocity, not showing empathy, communication issues, lack of shared enjoyment, parenting together, and feeling a marital bond/teamwork. Since AS is by definition an emotional/relationship/communication issue, these elements will exist in a marital relationship. In this phase we must look at expectations in the light of Aspie-NT challenges.

      When Aspie spouses were asked about living with/marriage to an NT and how it affects them, they admitted:

      • constant conflict/arguments make me shut down or walk away
      • being blamed for our marital issues/problems/conflicts is not accurate
      • depression/anxiety/anger/frustration
      • spouses threatening to leave/separate/divorce causes feelings of inadequacy or rejection
      • not everything is my fault 100% of the time
      • sometimes I think she uses the AS label to dismiss/ignore/reject my ideas/wishes/desires/thoughts

      The final phase: Long-term counseling

      Often times Aspie-NT marriages will require long-term care. A common complaint from an NT wife: “He starts off doing what we agreed upon, but within weeks is back to his old pattern and nothing has really changed.” Or “In the office with you he agrees to do this and that, but follow through at home is lacking. When I remind him of our agreements he says I am nagging.” There are many complex issues and goals the NT spouse may wish to implement, but I find ordering the goals and working on one at a time (although slow and tedious) will yield the best results long-term.

      To me, there is no question that partners in an Aspie-NT marriage require solid cognitive-behavioral marriage counseling; however, it is just as crucial to have a therapist who understands Asperger’s and its impact on the relationship. It has been a long time coming, but there are a few great resources I refer to often by Maxine Ashford and Ashley Stanford, specifically, as well as others. I advise couples to be careful of blogs, as many paint a bleak picture of marriage to an Aspie and yield more discouragement than encouragement.

      Frequently, I am asked if having an official diagnosis matters. In 2013 the DSM-5 was published and the same manual that introduced us to the term Asperger’s Syndrome has deleted it. Now we only have the label autism spectrum disorder (ASD), which many adults are reluctant to have placed upon them. Does Asperger’s still exist? Yes. The DSM is an American manual. The International Classification of Diseases (ICD) is widely used around the world and its most recent edition slated for publishing in 2016 still includes the term Asperger’s Syndrome. As I work with couples and see “traits” of Asperger’s, I do not insist on an official diagnosis unless it is important to the individual. If the spouse recognizes these qualities and is willing to work on the challenging areas, we move forward in counseling. Sometimes there is an official diagnosis received from a health care provider, but often we work on clinical impressions.

      It is possible to have marital satisfaction in an Aspie-NT marriage; but it will take dedication, endurance, and modifications from both spouses once the couple has an awareness of their issues and realistic expectations in which they are trying to achieve together.

      Stephanie Holmes is an ordained minister and Credentialed Christian Counselor with the Board of Examiners for Georgia Christian Counselors and Therapists. She specializes in Aspie-NT marriage therapy and has a national client base. Her book Confessions of a Christian Counselor: How Infertility and Autism Grew My Faith will be released September 2015.

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