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Living with a Spouse Who Has Asperger’s Syndrome: the Cloud of Secrecy

Living with a spouse who has Asperger's syndrome

We seek out romantic love desperately in our culture regardless of our differences. In relationships, we often look for a synchronized response from our partners to feel validated, anchored and held in the relationship. John Bowlby coined the phrase” attachment”.  Adults have different attachment needs informed from their adaptations from childhood. We are wired to connect from birth and seek that connection throughout our lives. These adaptations necessary as a child still maintain a powerful influence into adulthood.  Along with these dynamics, we often seek partners who compliment us, and with whom we reenact familiar patterns of being in the world in our dating, relationships, and marriage. Asperger’s is a neurodevelopmental disorder. Spouses with Asperger’s can initially meet a need within the relationships and these traits can often be seen as attractive.

For the adult with Asperger’s relationships offer their own emotional bond

Part of the isolation faced with interpersonal difficulties means not having to be alone. Though their behaviors may undermine the fabric of their partnerships. People with Asperger’s still want connection in their lives. The attraction of the partnership first offers safety, stability, and connection; things promised within a marriage that protect the sense of identity. Some people living with Asperger’s, on the other hand, may seek a life where they can be left to their own areas of pursuits.

Men are usually diagnosed more than women with Asperger’s

Within a society that holds different social expectations for men and women in marriage, the dynamics within each partnership would have its own individual presentation. Additionally, with other layers of unions that involve, interracial, same-sex, physical or mental abilities would present with their own layers of challenges and strengths. Other tensions within a marriage such as finances and children can add other layers of stress.

Living with a spouse who has some different abilities necessitates acceptance

We all have expectations of our values as an individual and part of the union of a marriage. When a partner has Asperger’s also known as High Functioning Autism this can present with invisible dynamics within the relationship that press outward and or against the individual partners cloaked in a cloud of shame and secrecy.  The interactions between spouses can have a long-term impact leading to ongoing stress cycles, domestic violence, affairs, mental illness, poor physical health, feelings of stigma, shame, grief, and loss. Making room to talk about the issues: getting a diagnosis, understanding and accepting the diagnosis, creating safe spaces to acknowledge the social dispositions and personal impact within these relationships is often missing in intersection areas of private and public life of relationships.  

Every relationship is unique

There can also be a spectrum of the level of severity of symptoms. Every spouse and marriage will be unique. But the general areas of thoughts, emotions, and behaviors affecting family, work and community are: emotional hyperarousal states, interpersonal difficulties, social awkwardness, empathy, physical intimacy, hygiene, grooming, higher risks for OCD, ADHD and anxiety. The overarching areas of focus are in areas of specialized interests. They can focus for hours striving to master their giftedness. This gift can lead them to become experts in their fields of study. But may lead to spouses feeling lonely and unsafe within the marriage. They may enjoy talking about their interests without considering the nuances of reciprocal communication; social cues, facial cues, body language. Understanding concrete mental abilities is preferred to a vague understanding of emotions: the language of connections. Lack of intimacy and invalidating responses experienced in a marriage can feel like a disconnection of voids needing desperately to be filled. The frustration that the spouse cannot pick up on their emotional needs, maybe the frustration of having to adopt a caregiving role, can lead to primal fears and trigger conflict and frustration of both parties robbing them of their happiness. Without the space to disclose the lived dynamics and connect with other spouses with similar experiences it can often feel like the experience of thwarted love.

The willingness to share your emotional and personal history of the reality of having a spouse with Asperger’s is paramount to being able to reduce the tension of isolation. If the expression of your feelings has not been shared it is wise to do so in compassionate supportive environments where you can experience the reciprocity and connection of your emotions. You are not alone and the dynamics you live with are real.  Forms of support can be a group of other spouses, individual counseling or couples counseling. Safety must always be the first area of assessment in treatment. If things have escalated to the point that professional help is sought, doing your homework to find the right therapist is important. I cannot say enough about this point. Having a therapist who specializes in offering support to couples where a spouse has an Asperger’s diagnosis, who is also grounded makes the difference of how the strengths that already exist are built upon and the challenges worked through in a structured and concrete way.

If the relationship has not come to the point that you feel the need to leave the relationship then there is help available. Making the space to hear how you can find each other again and understand each partner’s inner world also means setting reasonable concrete expectations, finding ways to establish routines, individual responsibilities of practical everyday life, activities to maintain emotional connections, self-determination, managing conflict, understanding  the barriers to Asperger’s communication, build in your own self-soothing and self-care, find ways to turn towards each other and to facilitate creative pathways. Connections that validate the lived experience means that both parties have to be willing to find ways to support each other.

  VERIFIED EXPERT
Rennet Wong-Gates, MSW, RSW, RP is a therapist who supports individuals and families in her private practice. Her role as a therapist is to support and assist individuals and families to look for ways to resolve personal challenges that impact their daily lives and ability to cope. She enhances my clinical skills with respectful curiosity about your strengths and resilience, all the while adhering to my professional code of conduct.
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