When a husband’s autism isn’t diagnosed, there are bound to be struggles. One wife shares what she’s learned about neurodiverse marriages.
I could see the pain in the women’s faces as we connected on a video call. I knew all about the hidden distress that can build from living with an autistic spouse in a neurodiverse marriage.
When the moment felt right, I shared what I’d recently observed, “Losing my first husband to cancer was easier than living with a man who had undiagnosed autism.”
They looked surprised, so I elaborated. “People understand cancer. Or at least they have a sympathetic response. You feel their concern,” I said. “But our marital struggle was hidden. Our church community didn’t see it. That’s why I felt like a failure in their eyes.”
Even as I type those words, a twinge of guilt hampers my confidence. I don’t like comparing my marriages, especially since my first husband died long ago and memories of tough times with him have faded. Regardless, my faith community had respected me for how I navigated losing the father of my children. So when my second marriage to a church elder sent me spiralling, they were confused. I grew depressed and withdrawn — much like the women in my support group.
Through Bible study and encouragement, the ladies in my group found greater emotional freedom. They also found that freedom by redefining the standard beliefs about how married couples should relate to each other. Those standards are meant for neurotypical couples — couples who aren’t dealing with autism.
It’s taken me more than a decade to accept that my husband’s notion of togetherness will rarely align with mine. This kind of relationship is difficult to understand. That’s why I continue to care for women struggling to comprehend their neurodiverse marriages. If you’re in the same situation, read on to see what I’ve learned over the years and what’s helped in my marriage.
Neurodiverse marriage vs. neurotypical marriage
A neurodiverse marriage, where one spouse has autism and one does not, is not like a neurotypical marriage. For instance, while my first husband (who was neurotypical) and I argued, we easily reached compromises. We were able to share individual needs and honour them without strain. We also parented together in a way I took for granted. But within days of my second wedding to a man with undiagnosed autism, confusion grabbed hold and, in some ways, still reigns. I’ve just become more comfortable with it.
In a 2022 blog post, Leslie Vernick (a licensed clinical social worker and author) explained how neurodiverse people think: “Neurodiverse individuals are handicapped in certain ways. They are incapable of understanding nuanced emotions and differences in people. They are self-referencing. Meaning that they don’t naturally see other people’s needs, feelings, or problems. If they don’t have that need, feeling, or problem, then you don’t or shouldn’t. If he feels fine with the way things are in your marriage, then you should feel fine too.”
Since the autistic brain struggles with compromise, it’s easier to live in separate lanes in my marriage, merging on occasion. While I’ve attempted to communicate my love language to my husband, I have low expectations that he will remember and meet them. Even so, I try to value his heartfelt attempts to communicate love. They are real, though more his style than mine.
Learning about autism
By the time I learned about autism, I was five years into my second marriage. Unable to feel like the loving, Christian wife I wanted to be, I became a shell of the strong, independent woman who’d emerged after the father of my children died. While I’d loved my first spouse through cancer well, none of my former marital skills applied to my second marriage. None.
So what helped? Three main things: redefining the past in view of my husband’s autism, finding a good counsellor and learning to accept our neurodiverse marriage.
Redefine the past
After I randomly picked up a book on autism and realised the list of behavioural traits matched my current spouse, it slowly changed how I viewed past events in our marriage. When I understood how my spouse’s neurological wiring contributed to his autocratic decisions, which were hurtful to me, it eased my pain. My traumatic memories slowly unraveled and settled into a new filing system in my brain.
For example, almost a year into our marriage, my new spouse told me we wouldn’t relocate due to other financial commitments he’d made. Since agreeing to move had been an important part of our pre-marriage discussion, his decision stung. I couldn’t extract an ounce of empathy from him. After eight months of confusing arguments, I shouted, “You can’t love me.”
My emotional confusion only began to diminish when I read that list of autistic traits:
- A struggle to communicate affective empathy which involves the ability to understand another person’s emotions and respond appropriately.
- A need for strict routine.
- A strong defensive nature.
- Short-term memory issues.
The list went on. But on that day, I began to understand that my husband’s love was sincere. It was just hidden behind a brain that processes and demonstrates love much differently than mine does.
It took years for his expressions of love to thaw my hurting heart. But as I logically accepted that his choices had more to do with how he was neurologically wired than a lack of love for me, I was able to redefine the past in ways that made the present more palatable.
Here’s another example: I’d been looking forward to having a father figure to support my children, but his work often kept him from events. Yet when our church offered a weekly couple’s group, he was somehow able to show up early three weeks in a row. I didn’t understand why he couldn’t make it to the children’s events, so I grew angry. Why did the structured appointment matter more to him than supporting my children’s activities? But after reading about autism, I realised the weekly meeting slid right into his structure paradigm, while randomly scheduled games and performances demanded an attention to detail he struggled to maintain.
It took a long time, but these difficult memories began to settle. I had felt rejected by my husband’s decisions and actions, but his choices had more to do with how his brain is wired than how he felt about me.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s still hard to deal with the way my husband’s brain works. But due to the new mental filing method, the hard stuff doesn’t control me anymore. And that’s a beautiful thing.
Find the right counsellor
About 10 years into our marriage, a series of hard life events hampered improvement in our relationship. So after a friend mentioned a counsellor who specialises in neurodiverse marriages, I made an appointment. Dr. Stephanie Holmes’ insight and understanding have proved invaluable. Here are a few things we learned from her:
Traditional Christian marriage counselling has limits
Early in our marriage, someone gave me a book that many Christians find useful and insightful. While the book has helped many marriages, I was paralysed by the notion that if I could just respect my husband enough, he would be free to love me. Our problems were so much deeper than that. Still, that one Christian marriage ideal made me feel like a failure for years, because no matter how hard I tried, I could never get my husband to express love in neurotypical ways I understood.
Holmes affirmed that respect alone wouldn’t solve our problems. Letting go of that idea set me free to find new paths to emotional freedom.
Wives like me can gain confidence
As a strong believer, I felt that since my marriage wasn’t OK, my walk with God must not be OK. But thankfully, Holmes redirected the false premise. I learned that I don’t have to feel sidelined or unusable if my marriage doesn’t look like others.
As I accepted our neurodiverse marriage as an unsolvable problem to be managed, not overcome, I was able to have conflict with my spouse without being triggered and blowing up. No longer undone by circular arguments, I began to heal and like myself again.
In time, I found creative pursuits and connected with others who struggle. As I comfort others who feel as lost as I once did, I’m empowered.
Tools can improve your communication
A God-honouring marriage between neurologically diverse people can work, but you need some tools.
I learned from the book Emotionally Healthy Relationships by Peter and Geri Scazzero. While there’s much to say about Peter and Geri’s journey from despair to a stronger marriage, one of my favourite takeaways involves using the words, “I’m puzzled,” instead of a blame-inciting phrase.
Instead of saying, “Why do you always leave the basement door open?” I can gently say, “I’m puzzled by how you forget to close the basement door.” (My husband knows that the open door makes my allergies worse.)
My husband and I have chuckled over several sticky situations in the past year instead of getting upset, thanks to those words. If I don’t blame and shame him, he is less defensive and tries to stay on topic.
Another technique involves writing and sharing the answers to questions posed in the Ladder of Integrity, which comes from the Emotionally Healthy ministry. We’ve gained much insight from answering, “What’s going on inside me? What do I value? What do I hope?”
My spouse recently used this technique on a long-standing issue in our neurodiverse marriage. I learned a lot about what he was feeling and what he valued. We haven’t solved the problem yet, but now I feel much more empathy for his point of view. These tools are helping us learn, change and grow. And we owe a lot of that growth to our counsellor’s insights.
I’m sure there are many well-meaning Christian counsellors. But without proper training, they may do more harm than good when working with a neurodiverse couple. That’s why you’ll need to do some research and find someone trained for your situation.
Accept the diversity
No marriage is easy. Blending our lives with another requires an against-the-grain sacrifice we all fight. But having been married to both a neurotypical man and a man with autism, I can state with confidence that the fight is more intensified in a neurodiverse marriage.
Even so, my struggle has led to a lot of personal growth. For instance, I now stand my ground on many decisions. Honestly, I needed that growth.
In the past, when I fought to be heard, I became angry, which only triggered my husband’s defensiveness. We were lost in unresolvable fights. But as I grew more confident and controlled my anger, he began to recognise his defensiveness. I now realise how much I tried to fix things that were never mine to fix.
Deep down, my spouse wants me to be assured of his love. Yes, there will always be a unique individuality in our coupledom, but we still share a bond that honours God and ourselves. And that determined devotion tethers us despite our diversity.
Your spouse can make an effort
Not all autistic spouses choose to do the work necessary to bridge the diversity gap. Some never face their disability, choosing to deny any fault. Others may occasionally use their disability as an excuse to avoid change. Yet there are also spouses with autism who dive in, try to understand and attempt to connect in ways that aren’t comfortable to them.
Obviously, if an autistic spouse chooses to acknowledge their uniqueness, the couple has a better chance of finding a path through their differences.
Take a step
If you find yourself identifying with my story, take a step. Find a counsellor who understands neurodiverse marriages. Or pursue testing. If your spouse won’t go to counselling, go yourself. It only takes one person to slow the arguing and redirect the conversation.
God truly honours marriage, but He also loves every person He created and longs for us to live in an abiding awareness of Christ’s sacrificial love. He doesn’t want you to feel like a failure. Don’t give in to shame like I did.
Find your way back to an empowered life in God. I did. It was a slow process, but worth every painful step.
#######© 2022 Mary Gable. All rights reserved. Used with permission. Originally published at focusonthefamily.com.