By Eva Mendes, M.A., Psychotherapist & Couple’s Counselor
The excerpts below focus on interventions for relationships in which an individual with Asperger Syndrome (AS) is partnered with a spouse or partner who does not have AS (a neurotypical). The article in its entirety may be found at www.evmendes.com.
The Asperger’s Association of New England (AANE) has been offering the Partner/Spouse Support Groups and the Couples’ Support Groups for about ten years. Since most of the couples we see consist of a neurotypical woman married to or partnered with a man with AS, in this article I will often speak of “the wife” (understood to be NT) and “the husband” (understood to have AS). The principles below still apply whether or not the couple is married, whether the wife or the husband is the partner with AS, and in same sex couples. (Similar dynamics may present in couples where both partners have AS.)
In my groups and couple’s counseling sessions, we have observed recurring issues or challenges, and recurring strategies for addressing them, which I am calling here the fourteen practical strategies for facilitating an AS marriage, namely:
- Pursuing a diagnosis;
- Accepting the diagnosis;
- Staying motivated;
- Understanding how AS impacts the individual;
- Managing depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder;
- Self-exploration and self-awareness;
- Creating a Relationship Schedule;
- Meeting each other’s sexual needs;
- Bridging parallel play;
- Coping with sensory overload and meltdowns;
- Expanding Theory of Mind;
- Improving communication;
- Co-parenting strategies;
- Managing expectations and suspending judgment.
1. Pursuing a diagnosis
Diagnosis is an important step in starting to work through issues in an AS marriage. Even if the diagnosis isn’t formal, but the couple is able to acknowledge the characteristics and traits of AS that might be causing marital discord, it is very helpful tool to lessen or remove the blame, frustration, shame, depression, pain and isolation felt by one or both partners. In some cases, even if the husband refuses to get an evaluation, the wife may be able to use her understanding of his probable AS to reframe her understanding of her husband and change how she relates to him.
A diagnosis of AS can be obtained from a clinician (a clinical social worker/LICSW, licensed mental health counselor/LMHC, a psychiatrist/MD or a psychologist/neuropsychologist/PhD or PsyD) experienced in identifying AS in adults. It is especially helpful if the clinician’s procedure includes interviewing the spouse or partner and/or other family members. Diagnosis can also help with finding an appropriate couple’s counselor who can work within the AS framework. Many couples report that working with a couple’s counselor who is not experienced in working with adults with AS can often harm rather than help the AS marriage.
2. Accepting the AS diagnosis
While re-evaluating the relationship in light of the new diagnosis, and striving to achieve acceptance, it is helpful for both partners to continue to seek information about AS, see a clinician experienced with adult AS, and/or join support groups focused on AS marriages or relationships. A detailed understanding of AS—both the challenging and also the positive traits—is important. Individuals with AS can have some highly desirable traits such as loyalty, honesty, intelligence, strong values, flexibility with gender roles, the ability to work hard, generosity, innocence, humor and good looks. Enumerating all the positive and challenging traits of both partners can give the couple a more balanced picture of their marriage.
3. Staying motivated
It is helpful if both partners are motived to address the issues in their marriage and commit to its long-term success. Otherwise, any attempts to improve the marriage may be short-lived.
In some cases, however, the NT partner may be depressed, angry, lonely, and disconnected from her AS partner, that salvaging the marriage is not an option. In such a situation, the couple can work with a couple’s counselor or mediator towards an amicable divorce (and resolution of co-parenting issues if they have children involved).
4. Understanding how AS impacts the individual
Psycho-education is an important part of sorting out the challenges in an AS marriages. There are many books on AS marriage written from the point of view of the NT partner. Reading such personal relationship narratives can help the NT partner by validating her experience and feelings within the marriage. Some narratives paint a painfully negative picture; while it may still be helpful to read these accounts, it is good to keep in mind that every marriage and relationship is unique.
Psycho-education can be a lifelong process, because AS is a rather complex. Traits and behaviors evolve and change through the lifespan of each individual. It’s helpful to stay motivated to keep learning about one’s partner through the lifespan; there is always more to discover about one another. Similarly, neurotypical traits and behaviors are mysterious and surprising to the partner with AS, and merit continued study and attention. It helps to stay motivated to keep learning about one’s partner throughout the lifespan; there is always more to discover about one another.
5. Managing depression, anxiety, OCD, and ADHD
People with AS are at increased risk for depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), or attention deficit disorder/attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADD/ADHD). Undiagnosed and untreated anxiety is a major problem for individuals with AS, and can lead to a deeper manifestation of the negative AS traits like impulsivity, melt-downs, rage, and withdrawal, all negatively impacting the marriage. It is vital to diagnose and treat depression, anxiety, OCD, or ADD/ADHD either with medications or/and with therapy.
Another helpful form of intervention can be provided by a life coach who specializes in AS, such as AANE’s LifeMAP coaches. Coaches can help adults with AS resolve practical problems that are draining their emotionally or causing friction with their spouses, such as employment issues, or difficulty with time management, staying organized, or social skills.
NT spouses can often experience their own mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, affective deprivation disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder, as a result of being in a relationship with an undiagnosed and untreated partner with AS for an extended period of time. In these cases, the NT partner should also receive treatment.
6. Self-exploration and self-awareness
In many AS marriages the NT partner may be a super nurture, manager, and organizer, who entered the relationship motivated by a desire to help and nurture the partner with AS. Understanding why she chose her partner with AS is an important step toward becoming self-aware and making changes in her own behavior. Many of the women in AANE’s spouse groups report having at least one parent with AS; their experiences in their family of origin may have led them to seek out a spouse with AS because he felt familiar. Some of the NT partners also say that, when they were going through a vulnerable time in their lives, the strong, quiet, gentle, highly intelligent, and loyal presence of the AS partner provided a sense of emotional security.
Another aspect of self-exploration and self-awareness for the NT spouse is to rebuild her self-esteem and reintroduce activities and interests into her life that she may have given up in order to shoulder majority of the responsibility for maintaining the household. The NT spouse may also need to look for emotional support outside the marriage, so that she is not solely reliant on her husband for emotional fulfillment—as that may not always be a realistic expectation.
7. Creating a Relationship Schedule
An online and/or paper calendar for important weekly, monthly and yearly events such as holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, family visits, and doctors’ appointments is a useful tool for any marriage or relationship. In an AS marriage, adding to this calendar quiet time, times for conversation, sex, shared leisure activities, exercise, and meditation/prayer can be very beneficial to keeping the partners connected on a day to day basis. Based on this calendaring system, couples might want to work on a Relationship Schedule for their marriage.
For example, having daily scheduled conversations between the spouses can serve to keep the couple connected and in-sync with each other on a daily basis, despite the challenges and many activities of everyday life. In addition to scheduling conversation time, it can be beneficial to also schedule sex in order to meet the needs of both partners.
8. Meeting each other’s sexual needs
Adults with AS tend to either want a lot of sexual activity or too little; so having a discussion on which days and times to have sex eliminates the guess work for both partners. It is helpful for both partners to communicate their sexual needs verbally, in a clear and detailed manner. Putting sex on the Relationship Schedule isn’t enough. Neurological differences apart, people have major differences in how much sex they need, how often, and how they want to be intimate with their partners. Some individuals with AS can be very robotic or technically perfect in bed without paying attention to their partner’s need for an emotional connection and foreplay before intercourse. Some individuals with AS also don’t enjoy sex due to their sensory issues and/or low sex drive.
It is important for the partner with AS to understand that their partner’s sexual needs are different than their own, and that both partners need to work at the keeping emotional connection going on a daily basis, both inside and outside the bedroom. Understanding each other’s “love language” as described by Gary Chapman in his book The Five Love Languages, might be a useful tool for partners to act in ways that meets each partner’s individual emotional needs.
9. Bridging parallel play
Many couples tell us that common interests and activities is what first brought them together: long walks, boat rides, hikes, picnics, dance events and exercise classes, travel. After getting married, however, many of these joint activities tend to fall off the couple’s schedule due to life obligations. Many couples in an AS marriage tend to engage in what is known as “parallel play,” where one partner engages in a preferred activity or hobby alone, rather than seeking out his or her partner to enjoy these activities together. Individuals with AS struggle with social/communication initiation and reciprocity. A husband with AS can literally go days, weeks, or even months without spending quality time with his NT partner, leaving the NT partner feeling abandoned, isolated and terribly lonely.
Research has shown that couples that play together stay together. Playing together—participating in joint leisure activities—can help bridge the physical/emotional distance that is oftentimes is characteristic of an AS marriage. Integrating each other back into the activities that both partners enjoy is beneficial. Once the couple works on creating new memories through shared activities and interests, they can then begin to experience more closeness and togetherness.
10. Coping with sensory overload and meltdowns
Individuals with AS oftentimes have sensory issues. That is, one or more of the person’s five senses may be either hypersensitive (overly sensitive) or hyposensitive (with low or diminished sensitivity). For some people with AS, a light caress of the skin can feel like burning fire. Fluorescent lighting can induce an immediate migraine. The noise at a train station, or too many people talking at once at a party, can feel like the loud hammering of metal on metal. Smells at the grocery store can feel nauseating and overwhelming. On the other hand, a hard prick by a needle can have no effect, or, one could have a diminished sense of smell or taste.
A self-aware and motivated adult with AS can succeed in avoiding meltdowns by learning to avoid the triggers and recognize the early warning signs of stress and sensory overload. Developing strategies to act in response to the early manifestations of an oncoming meltdown can help the spouse with AS.
The NT spouse can assist her spouse with AS on his journey to self-awareness. For example, the NT partner may be able to bring attention to the AS spouse’s rising stress level, and suggest that each of them take some time alone to alleviate some of the stress and overstimulation.
11. Expanding Theory of Mind
Individuals with AS tend to have weak Theory of Mind, meaning a relatively limited ability to “read” another person’s thoughts, feelings, or intentions. While relating to another person, NTs are able to hypothesize more or less what that person is thinking or feeling based on a mental map of their own emotions, and an intuitive knowing of the feelings of other people. Those with AS find it harder to formulate theories or hypotheses about another person’s mental or emotional state. Weak Theory of Mind leads to individuals with AS unintentionally and unknowingly saying and doing things in a relationship that can come across as insensitive and be unintentionally hurtful. Over time, the hurt feelings, pain, and suffering of the NT spouse can cause some serious tears or lacerations in the marriage.
It is important that both the NT and AS spouse become curious and learn about each other’s thinking processes, inner worlds, and life experiences, rather than making assumptions or judgments about how the other partner thinks and feels. For meaningful conversation and dialogue to occur, open minds are needed. Verbalizing details about their inner and outer worlds, in a non-judgmental atmosphere, gives partners an opportunity to understand each other better and to bond.
12. Improving communication
Working towards better communication is an ongoing task in any relationship. Within an AS marriage, the importance of communication cannot be stressed enough, since AS is in part characterized as a social-communication deficit. Studies show that 90% of human interaction is based on non-verbal communication. Individuals with AS have difficulties in being able to pick up and interpret facial cues, vocal intonations, and body language, and hence a miss out on a significant amount of communication.
In some cases, the disconnect in an AS marriage is due to the fact that the partner with AS has great difficulty initiating conversations and keeping them flowing. The NT spouse feels abandoned and isolated by her AS partner’s lack of initiation of connection. The NT spouse needs to communicate in clear words everything she would like her AS spouse to know or do on a daily basis. Otherwise, chances are that the AS spouse will not be able to read his partner’s mind, due to his somewhat limited Theory of Mind and ability to read non-verbal cues. For both the NT partner and the AS partner, verbalizing one’s emotional, mental, physical, sexual, spiritual, and social needs in the relationship is the only way to insure that those needs will be met.
The partner with AS is often willing to meet the needs of his partner once he understand exactly what he needs to do. Merely knowing what the NT partner’s needs are is not sufficient for him to know how to meet them. He can, however, learn what to do if he is given concrete, step-by-step actions through which he can offer loving support to his NT partner. For example, some spouses may say, “I’m unhappy because we don’t talk anymore.” It would be more helpful to something like: “I would like for us to have a conversation for about an hour tonight after we put the kids to bed. I’ll put the tea kettle on, and then I’d like to tell you about how rough my week at work has been. I don’t want you to solve my work problems, I just want you to listen, agree and validate me by saying things like, ‘I’m sorry that those things happened. You’re brilliant at your job and your company is lucky to have you.'” The more detailed and step-by-step instructions the individual with AS gets, the better he can meet his partner’s needs, and the more satisfied she will feel.
13. Co-Parenting Strategies
Individuals with AS can be very good parents when it comes to concrete tasks such as helping the children with their homework, teaching them new skills, playing with them, and taking them on outdoor adventures. When it comes to meeting their children’s emotional needs, they might need some coaching and cues from their NT partner. The NT partner might even have to help their partner with AS to say complimentary things to their children and to schedule one on one quality time with each of the children as well as the entire family on the calendar on a daily and weekly basis. Also, the NT parent can help facilitate opportunities for the child to bond with their parent with AS.
Given the complexity and extra challenges of an AS marriage, neuro-diverse couples who do not yet have children may want to think carefully before deciding to become parents. They should assess the strength of their own economic, physical, and emotional resources, and of their additional support networks (extended family, people or services in the wider community). In may neuro-diverse couples, it is probable that the majority of the work of caring for and raising children will fall on the NT spouse, as the husband with AS may have executive function difficulties, or may have enough on his plate just managing his other responsibilities, such as holding down a job and keeping himself on an even keel.
14. Managing expectations and suspending judgment
Adjusting one’s expectations to accommodate one’s partner is important for both the NT and the AS partner. Understanding that there are fundamental neurological differences between NTs and individuals with AS is important while trying to manage expectations between the partners.
For motivated couples, working hard to improve the marriage with the various tools listed here can bring about real change and made the marriage more comfortable and rewarding for both partners. It is important to note that change and growth is a slow and painful process for any couple or individual wanting to work on their marriage. For any marriage to succeed and thrive long-term, both partners have to make the daily effort to do things differently than they have before. It is also important to understand that growth and change happens in spurts, and that maintaining a high quality and happy marriage is a lifelong commitment.
Couple’s counseling for AS marriage
All of the steps and strategies described in this article can be addressed in couple’s counseling. With a skilled counselor, experienced in AS, both spouses in the AS marriage will be able to gain awareness of their own individual patterns of behavior, and learn how they can make both attitudinal and behavioral adjustments to get the more out of their relationship. A counselor can also facilitate conversations, and help both partners learn better communication skills. The counselor can also help the couple brainstorm, strategize, connect emotionally, and problem-solve around sensory integration issues, meltdowns, and co-morbid conditions such as anxiety and depression.
If you’ve met one person with Asperger’s, you’ve met one person with Asperger’s.
This quote of Stephen Shore, Ed.D., an author and professor with AS, says it all. While many of the issues and challenges that some couples in an AS marriage face can seem similar, it is important to remember that every individual with AS is different, and each marriage unique.
Not all of these strategies will be equally effective for or apply to everyone. Each couple has to brainstorm and trouble-shoot their marriage based on what works for their unique situation and needs. As in any marriage, the key practices for anyone seeking a happy and loving relationship are awareness, understanding, compassion, connection, respect, passion, and trust.
Eva Mendes, M.A. leads Spouse, Couples, and Women’s Support Groups at AANE. She is a psychotherapist seeing individuals ( adults with AS and/or their family members) and couples (where one or both have AS) for counseling. She may be reached at 617-669-3040 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Her website is: www.evmendes.com.