When Your Partner is on the Autism Spectrum
Many of us have fallen in love with someone on the autism spectrum. We may only realize later, when we share children who become diagnosed as being on the spectrum, that our partner’s idiosyncrasies, amazing abilities, and literal interpretations actually are spectrum traits.
Many adults who live regular lives, excelling in areas of math, science, or the arts, have challenges brought by undiagnosed autism. They have adjusted and managed their lives, but at times their marriages/relationships suffer due to the typical challenges we see with those on the spectrum: difficulties with communication, difficulty with reciprocity in relationships, and heavy reliance on rituals and routines to soothe anxiety.
Many “normal” life responsibilities end up falling to the neurotypical partner, leaving allistic partners feeling the brunt of what has been termed “emotional labor.”
The life partners of those with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) often feel like they are living on a different planet. In my practice where I see neurodiverse couples, I hear complaints of loneliness, role overload, and anger at perceived unrequited love. This makes sense as individuals on the spectrum often have limitations in developing and maintaining relationships.
Yet they are often extraordinarily loyal, creative, reliable partners and many do manage to have successful relationships. However, living in unison with different brain styles can bring feelings of loneliness and isolation for either partner if spouses do not understand and embrace this diversity in their relationship. Let’s take a look at why this is…
Many folks on the autism spectrum have difficulty with expressive communication and language. Individuals with autism focus on the denotative meaning (i.e. literal) meaning in communication, not the connotative. One wife described how her husband gave her earrings for her birthday. But then she learned he had actually purchased the earrings for his first wife, but never got around to giving them to her. They were lovely earrings, so he assumed his present wife would be thrilled with them.
He was completely stymied as to why she was angry and felt she was being unreasonable and ungrateful when she complained. Additionally, when someone is focused on the literal interpretation of events in a metaphorical world, he/she can believe his/her spouse is “wrong.” Arguments ensue where the autistic spouse insists he/she is right; the neurotypical spouse feels hurt when it seems his/her spouse is taking a “one-up” position and not taking the time to understand his/her feelings. The brain styles clash.
One allistic spouse complained: “She can’t see that we can both be right or both be wrong. It’s just me that is wrong because she is all facts and can’t understand my perspective. I can’t do anything right.” This couple, and others like them, can greatly enhance their relationship by understanding how the autistic spouse manages brain input and organizes his/her thinking and behavior. Understanding these differences is the key to putting their marital puzzle together.
Lack of Emotional Reciprocity
An individual on the autism spectrum will often have difficulty communicating that they understand the needs of others, and partners often feel like their partner not only doesn’t “get them” but complain their spouse doesn’t seem to make the effort to understand them. This leaves feelings of disconnect and resentment.
The partner on the spectrum indeed may find he/she is focused on himself/herself in order to deal with the anxiety of daily life, and sometimes don’t understand daily “small talk” is a ritual of connection that helps people feel close to each other. While initially the allistic spouse may be attracted to his/her partner due to his/her keen intellect and reasoned decision making, these same traits can eventually wear thin if the couple has very different ways of expressing affection and don’t figure out how to bridge that gap in needs.
Overreliance on Routines and Rituals
In order to manage overstimulation, individuals on the spectrum utilize routines and rituals to cope; deviating from them can elevate anxiety. However, being married to someone who needs routines in all areas of their life can be exasperating. Rituals and routines around food, daily chores, and even physical intimacy can make the neurotypical spouse feel constrained and that his/her needs don’t count. Both partners need to understand the soothing function of rituals and routines and that they are not done in an effort to undermine the allistic partner.
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Overburdened by Emotional Labor
We find that in neurodiverse couples, “emotional labor” often falls to the allistic partner, meaning the allistic spouse is responsible for relationships and often ends up planning social events, remembering birthdays, making sure family members are doing okay, and so on. Additionally, there may be executive functioning issues for his/her spouse, leading him/her to organize the tasks of the couple’s daily living such as chores, shopping, and so on.
Between the added emotional labor and lack of reciprocity, neurotypical spouses often complain of feeling burnt out and depleted. Likewise, the spouse on the spectrum can be exasperated with what he/she perceive to be never-ending demands on his/her time and energy, or be met with criticism by the allistic spouse who grows wearing of taking on executive functioning tasks in the home.
So why do it? The things that can repel us from our partners also attract us! The flip side of these limitations is that as partners, those with ASD can be loyal, reliable, honest (to a fault), and committed. While they may love differently, they often love deeply. Neurotypical spouses can find solace in knowing these differences are organic, typically not deliberate affronts, and the results of neurological differences.
We tend to think our neurotypical world is the “right” one and that our spouses need to change. Successful relationships include both acceptance and challenges of our spouses and ourselves.
Don’t compare your spouse to the spouse of your friends—your situation is unique! Speak up for what your needs are in the relationship, though it may take consistent education and reminders. Visual reminders of what you want or need may be helpful. Taking the perspective of your spouse and trying to understand how he/she thinks is also useful. When the symmetry of a mixed relationship can be balanced, these relationships can work well. Understand these differences, and if needed get help from a qualified professional who both understands relationships and neurodivergence.
This article was featured in Issue 99 – Navigating Relationships With Autism