Surviving an Aspergers Marriage

Marriage to someone with Aspergers (high functioning autism) is challenging to say the least. Characteristics of Aspergers (e.g., difficulty reading body language and facial expression, struggling to perceive emotions in a spouse and in oneself) create significant communication hurdles for the Aspergers individual and his spouse. In addition, the neurotypical (non-Aspergers) partner may not truly understand how much the Aspergers spouse is struggling, and that his behavior causing him to fall short of expectations is not intentional.

Repeated communication errors may lead to frustration and tension. Instead of supporting each other, resentments can build to the point of apathy. The heartbreaking conclusion is the loss of the relationship.

Grown-ups and kids with Aspergers are often “rubber banding” (i.e., they have a natural social and physical state that may be lower, and a “stretched” state where they are able to push forward and achieve more). An adult with Aspergers may need to stretch far beyond his natural comfort level in order to meet the social expectations required in the workplace. He may need the quiet and solace of home to recover. However, like all grown-ups with a spouse or family, he may be further met with complex familial needs requiring deciphering and action.

Everyone is less flexible when tired or stressed (e.g., all of us are less able to maintain focus and accomplish tasks when ill). We aren't at our best, and consequently we aren't able to achieve our best results.

For people with Aspergers, the flexibility required just to be a functional adult may be extremely taxing. He may be especially likely, when tired or overwhelmed, to return to a less functional level, or “snap back” and be less capable of flexibility or stretching to meet expectations.

Like all of us when stressed, the Aspergers adult may also react with unintentional irritability, frustration or anger. The neurotypical partner, however, may take it quite personally, not understanding how her spouse can be insensitive to her needs and so clueless as to how to meet needs in the relationship.

The first step to resolving this perpetual conflict is to examine the specific characteristics that apply to an Aspergers individual and look for the specific ways they impact his life and relationships. Awareness alone can provide a relief to the Aspergers spouse and diffuse a great deal of the resentment in the neurotypical partner.

The next important step is willingness from both spouses to work toward changing expectations of each other, and to create new ground rules for the relationship. This requires both renewed commitment to the partnership, a mutual desire to improve the quality of life together, and a willingness to try to be compassionate with each other through the learning process.

The following are a few examples of effective communications strategies for the neurotypical spouse to use in an Asperger marriage:

1. Many people with Aspergers can be neurologically disturbed by such things as loud noises or different kinds of noises; smells; colors; fabric texture; food; types of touch; social situations that are too demanding or that have too many people; and so on. These things actually trigger a flight, fright or freeze reaction in the person's autonomic nervous system. If you are the partner who does not have Aspergers, you might have to play detective - start paying attention to those times when your partner seems to withdraw, "zone out" or otherwise escape the situation. Is your partner suddenly nervously wiggling legs or arms, or playing obsessively with keys or jewelry? Has he or she suddenly pulled out a book and begun reading in the middle of a party? Are there other soothing/stimulating behaviors that may seem repetitive or out of place?

Try to figure out what has triggered these reactions and notice how long it takes for your partner to feel comfortable again. Better yet, both of you get a notebook and begin to keep track, on a daily basis, of what you notice as bothersome or disturbing. The Aspergers partner should feel encouraged to notice as much as possible, knowing that the other partner is also taking this seriously. Be sure to make the necessary changes after you both discover the things which are irritating and disruptive. Sensory integration issues can even interfere with sexual pleasure, and both partners should become aware of tastes, touch, fabrics and other things which can suddenly cause a partner to switch off and retreat from intimacy.

2. Many grown-ups with Aspergers are very organized, whereas others struggle with organizational skills. The neurotypical partner can help the Aspergers spouse by providing organizational help. A simple example of this is perhaps providing a central location for specific items. “I bought you this eyeglass holder for the table next to your chair.”

3. Let's not forget the spark that caused us to fall in love in the first place. Did you find your husband's nerdiness quite endearing when you met him? Did you make a little extra effort to push beyond your comfort level and shyness to get to know your wife, but now that you have her, you've forgotten the importance of that? What little rituals did you have in the early days, what small sweet gestures did you make? It might be something as small as bringing her a cup of tea, or greeting him at the door when he comes home. Remember, this is the person you love, remind him/her that you do.

4. Instead of finding fault, at least temporarily both spouses attempt to ignore shortcomings and point out positive actions the partner is taking and praise them for it. For example: Instead of finding fault with HOW the spouse completed a household duty, the focus is on being thankful the task was completed. “Thanks for doing the laundry! I appreciate it.”

5. Exercise is one of the few ways to naturally boost serotonin levels in the brain therefore helping to reduce depression. Allow each spouse exercise time can provide needed alone time for de-stressing. When frustrated it is an effective way to burn off some negative energy and diffuse tension. Instead of having a fight, allowing either spouse the option to walk away and “walk it off” can nip an argument in the bud before it becomes a full-fledged fight. Allowing time to self-calm allows the issue to be resolved in non-confrontational manner later.

6. Don't assume he knows. The neurotypical partner walks to the door arms heavy laden with groceries, and struggles to open the door. She takes note that the Aspergers partner who is within line of vision doesn't rise or offer to help her. She sighs with frustration as she returns to the car for another armload. Her irritation rises as her spouse continues to ignore what she believes to be obvious struggling. Finally she yells in frustration, “Why don't you help me!” The Aspergers partner reacts with shock and hurt, and yells back, “I didn't know you needed help!” Why didn't the Aspergers partner recognize that his partner needed help? He may not have read what would have been obvious body language as she struggled to carry the heavy groceries, he didn't catch her frustrated sighs and as she didn't verbally ask for help, he may have assumed she didn't need it.

Rewind. How could they have done this differently? The neurotypical partner could have simply said, “Can you help me honey?” Or at a later time (when calm), the neurotypical spouse could say, “When I come home with the groceries, it would really help me if you could bring them in for me, and then I'll put them away.” Over time the Aspergers/ neurotypical spouses establish a routine of clearly outlined expectations.

7. Although many spouses are overwhelmed with work and family obligations and it seems impossible to find time to renew ourselves, it is extremely important to take care of oneself in order to be our best in the world and in our relationships. It might mean encouraging your partner to go out with friends a couple of times a month for girls or guys night out. It might be something small such as making the decision that on Sunday morning it is important to allow time to lay around reading the paper, than it is to clean up the house. Or that one spouse recognizes the other really needs a nap and watches a movie or plays a game with the kids so they'll be quiet.

It is allowing time for both yourself and your partner to relax without pressure. In the case of the NT partner it may be necessary for him/her to clearly state, “I need to take a nap.” Or, “I need a break, please watch the kids for an hour.”

8. Allow for processing time. People with Aspergers may need longer processing time, particularly for verbal instruction, and cannot instantly react to a request. For example, the neurotypical partner comes home and says to his Aspergers wife, “I've decided I'm taking you out to dinner.” Instead of being pleased because now she doesn't have to cook dinner, she may react with frustration and say, “No!” The neurotypical spouse is hurt because he was making a kind gesture. But for the Aspergers spouse, although she hasn't already cooked dinner, in her mind she had already decided what it will be and too instantly change her internal plans is not something she may be able to easily do. Instead of springing a last minute change on an Aspergers partner, a better strategy could be for the neurotypical spouse to call her at work earlier in the day saying, ‘What would you think about us going out to eat dinner tonight?”

The Aspergers partner might need to adjust to the idea, and by the time the neurotypical partner meets her at home she has warmed to the idea. She simply needed that adjustment time. This is even more crucial when it comes to more serious decisions, such as those related to kids or money. An effective strategy is to approach the spouse with Aspergers, suggest an idea and then “leave it there” and wait for him or her to reply back, perhaps even days later. This allows both spouses to carefully consider the implications. Over time both spouses can learn to trust they will not be pressured into making a decision they do not feel comfortable with. Taking the extra time eliminates the tension often resulting in arguments.

9. After being married awhile we may no longer make the effort to care for ourselves in the manner we previously did before catching our mate. Water means taking that little extra effort to be attractive to our partner. Perhaps this means that although we're tired we take a quick shower after work to freshen up just as we would have before marriage.

10. “What, do you want me to draw you a picture?!” Yes! People with Aspergers are generally visual learners and verbal instruction may be difficult to follow. For example, when sending an Aspergers spouse to the store to pick up a specific item, the neurotypical spouse may become frustrated when trying to explain the item or its location on the aisle. Sara recently sent her husband, Michael, to the store to pick up sliced turkey. This request was meant with puzzlement. Michael said, “What is sliced turkey?” Sara, tired herself, became frustrated thinking the direction was pretty self-descriptive. Simply saying, “SLICED TURKEY” over again was not helpful, and nor was giving the general location of where it could be found in the store, because Michael came home with turkey bologna, which is not what she requested.

As there was an imminent need, Sara made a quick trip to the store to purchase the item herself. When returning she showed him the item, providing him with a concrete example. She herself took note of the product name and location in the store where she purchased it. The next time she sent Michael to the store for an item that was needed in a hurry she quickly scrawled a map and wrote down the name of the product. He proudly returned with the correct item. Although to outside eyes it may seem cumbersome and time consuming to draw a store map, it is actually time and energy saver because it eliminates extra trips and increased frustration between spouses. Aspergers/neurotypical spouses may find using visual shorthand with quickly drawn examples saves a great deal of time and energy in the long run.

11. Speaker-Listener Technique: This communication technique helps spouses to take turns (1) actively listening to what their husband/wife is actually saying and (2) limiting their own communication to a series of short "sound bites" that don't overwhelm the listener. This is particularly important in a relationship where one or both spouses present symptoms of Aspergers. The Aspergers spouse particularly needs unemotional, clear, concise communication using direct language. Here's how it works:
  • Each spouse takes turns holding "the floor" - a scrap piece of carpet, fabric, or even a tile, to indicate she/he is the speaker.
  • The speaker will limit his/her turn to one or two main points, stating the problem. Keep it brief and keep it simple. Also, stay in the present moment. Do not bring up "old business."
  • The listener will listen without interrupting. When the speaker is done speaking, the listener will repeat back or paraphrase what he/she heard the listener say. This enables the listener to really "get" the message, while the speaker feels heard.
  • Then trade. The former listener is now the speaker and vice versa.

You'll see how keeping your speech short and simple will make it easier for the listener to repeat back your main points. If the discussion becomes too emotional, and either of you need a time out - take it! But be sure to agree on a time and place to come back to the issue and then make sure you keep the agreement.

12. Safe Space and Time for Intimacy: Couples should create a schedule for intimate time together, with a clear beginning, middle and end as well as "transition time" before and after. The Aspergers spouse often finds it very difficult to leave the computer or a special hobby, leaving a fuming spouse wondering if there will ever be any time for "just them." Aside from scheduling time, you can do these things in advance:
  • Agree that there will be no arguments or difficult discussions in your "safe space and time."
  • Create a scenario of what will happen, and then stick to it. Will this be a movie date with sex afterward? Or are you just setting a half hour aside for a cuddle and massage. The more you can create routine and stick to it, the easier it will be for the Aspergers spouse to transition into the activity with you.
  • Make sure that any sensory irritations are removed from the intimate setting. 
  • Build in time for the Aspergers spouse to take care of personal hygiene or anything else that may be of importance for the intimate occasion.
  • Beware of incorporating the Aspergers spouse's interests into these special, intimate times. Otherwise, you run the risk of losing the focus on your togetherness.

==> Living With An Aspergers Partner: Help for Couples

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