It’s such a paradox when the neurotypical wife gets to the point where she has numerous unresolved issues that relate to her ASD husband that she feels compelled (for good reason) to complain loudly and angrily in a desperate attempt to simply get her point across and to get him connected to her - and to be a team player in the relationship! There was a “team spirit” back in the day in the early going of the relationship, but through the years, the team spirit got lost. Now it’s like, “I’m here, and you are over there. What happened to ‘us’?”
But here is where it becomes a paradox: The more she expresses emotion, especially troubling emotions, and gets loud, assertive - and even aggressive and demanding, the more he shuts down and withdraws both cognitively and emotionally. This, in turn, exacerbates the problem and extends the period of time that any resolve to the relationship problems can occur.
The wife, by nature, is the nurturer and wants the relationship to grow and deepen with increasing intimacy and bonding over time. The ASD husband, who is not as interested in a deeper social and emotional connection due to his developmental disorder, and whose social-emotional brain is less developed compared to his logical brain, often finds that “going deeper” into the relationship requires skills that he does not have.
I hear this phrase so often from these men: “I really try to make her happy, but it doesn’t matter what I do, it’s never enough. I’m always in trouble with her.” This mind-set creates a negative cycle that looks similar to this:
- he feels like he is always in the doghouse
- this causes him to feel highly unsafe in the relationship
- this in turn raises his anxiety
- which then increases his search for anxiety-reduction techniques
- and unfortunately, the techniques include disconnection, detachment, and often isolation; in many cases, his wife has become his major source of stress
Of course, this cycle results in the neurotypical wife feeling unloved and abandoned, which then increases her sense of desperation - and an even stronger drive to reestablish the connection and bond with her husband. And it’s at this point the cycle just starts all over again.
So now the question becomes, “What can be done?”
In working with couples over the years, I’m finding that there is no “magic bullet” when the division between the two parties has reached this level of severity. However, a good “first start” in healing the relationship involves teaching the husband on the spectrum some simple social skills, as well as devising a tailored communication strategy for the couple that is (a) sensitive to the ASD husband’s anxiety, and (b) sensitive to the NT wife’s need for emotional reciprocity. Every couple is unique though, and as such, there is no “one-size-fits-all” when it comes to creating an effective communication style or problem-solving method.
Examples of some simple, yet super effective social skills that can be taught include:
- The art of paraphrasing what was heard
- Reflective listening
- Non-verbal communication
- Learning how to pay attention to body language
- Identifying and replacing negative thoughts and self-talk
- Asking open-ended questions
- and other general conversation skills …just to name a few.
Resources for Neurodiverse Couples:==> Online Group Therapy for Men with ASD