Asperger Marriage: Viewing Partnerships Through a Different Lens

Grace Myhill, LICSW and Dania Jekel, MSW
Article

The excerpts below focus on interventions and suggestions for relationships in which a man with Asperger Syndrome (AS) is partnered with a woman who does not have AS (or a non-AS woman). The article in its entirety may be found at NASWMA.org. (AANE can also assist non-AS men partnered with women with AS.)

Several times a year AANE offers support groups for non-AS spouses/partners of people with AS. The six week group gives the [non-AS partner/spouse] increased knowledge of AS and how it is affecting their relationships, improved self-awareness of their part in the relational issues, as well as new techniques for coping and communication. Still, many need follow up or ongoing support beyond the six week group. Group members are invited to continue to meet monthly and/or seek support from a moderated online group.

What else can be helpful to non-AS partners of people with AS? When it comes to AS, thinking outside the box is usually beneficial. It is important to hold on to and present to the group members the hope that AS + non-AS marriages can work—but probably not as traditional partnerships. The outcomes are best when both members of the couple learn about AS and communicate with each other about how it affects their relationship, recognize where their individual needs differ, and are open to working out alternative solutions—arrangements that may be original or unique to them, rather than meeting conventional expectations.

Even in marriages where neither partner has AS, couples may marry expecting an unrealistically high level of togetherness— that they will do everything together—and it is important as the partners mature to let go of that fantasy. It is even more important for AS + non-AS couples to let go of such unrealistic expectations. Some AS + non-AS couples have separate bedrooms, separate sections of a house, or even separate houses. Women should be encouraged to have their own work, social networks, and places to turn to get their own needs met—needs which the partner with AS is not meeting, and may not be able to meet. On the other hand, it is important for a couple to continue to share their mutual interests as a means of connection or reconnection, even when raising children.

Because of executive function problems, the partner with AS may have trouble completing tasks or doing chores. Whenever possible, it is advisable to hire childcare or household help on a regular basis, to take some of the workload off of both partners and to minimize anger and resentment. In couples where the man with AS has difficulty managing money, if his partner cannot or does not want to take on this task, the couple should seek help in this area.

Getting a formal diagnosis for a man with AS can make a difference. Working with the diagnosis—coming to understand that AS is the root cause of some behaviors, difficulties, or past misunderstandings—can help the couple to forgive and reconnect with each other. Similarly, disclosing the AS to extended family or community members may help heal other important relationships. A diagnosis may lead to making changes at home or at work to reduce stress for the man with AS. Men with AS who are motivated and willing are able to learn behavioral and communication skills that can improve their marriage. Some people with AS learn these skills from books but often they need private or group tutorials from a professional who knows about AS and how to teach social communication pragmatics. From these experts men with AS can learn about conversational hierarchy and social rules, such as how to ask people questions about themselves, and they can use this knowledge in their relationships with their partners.

Even with the similarities described by group members, all people with AS are unique individuals, with different capacities and strengths. Some men with AS can be cognizant of the other person and can be quite helpful in certain ways— or they may respond well if asked directly to do something specific…

Other interventions that have worked with group members’ relationships are:

  • Making lists
  • Accommodating sensory needs, both positive and negative sensory feelings
  • Resisting the temptation for both partners to make assumptions about the other’s feelings
  • Making suggestions to each other without being critical
  • Taking time to talk about issues and ideas looking for possible changes to old unhelpful patterns

In some cases, prescription medication may improve executive functioning, or lessen anxiety or depression for a man with AS. Medications should be prescribed and monitored by a psychiatrist or psychopharmacologist who has expertise treating AS. Prescription medication or individual psychotherapy may also be helpful for a non-AS wife until she is able to get more of her needs met, and is no longer overly stressed or depressed.

Recommended books

  • An Asperger Marriage by Gisela and Christopher Slater-Walkter
  • Asperger Syndrome: A Love Story by Keith Newton & Sarah Hendrickx
  • Love, Sex & Long-Term Relationships, What People with Asperger Syndrome Really Really Want by Sarah Hendrickx & Stephen Shore
  • Asperger Syndrome and Long-Term Relationships by Ashley Stanford
  • Alone Together: Making an Asperger Marriage Work by Katrin Bentley & Tony Attwood
  • Solutions for Adults with Asperger’s Syndrome: Maximizing the Benefits, Minimizing the Drawbacks to Achieve Success by Juanita Lovett
  • Loving Mr. Spock by Barbara Jacobs

To learn about AANE spouse support groups, including our online group, please contact Grace Myhill at (617) 504-3116 or grace.myhill@aane.org