Before You Blow Up Your ASD/Neurotypical Marriage, Read This

Man works on computer inside while sad woman sits on porchPartnerships between individuals who have the traits or diagnosis of autism spectrum (previously including Asperger’s syndrome) and individuals who do not (often called neurotypical) are often challenging from the outset, based on numerous reports from such couples with whom I work in my psychotherapy practice. Over time, say 15 to 20 years, these couples typically become emotionally disengaged, spar constantly, and have long since stopped having sex or any other kind of intimate touch or even conversation. Communication has become transactional. The business of daily life is all there is.

It is not satisfying to either partner. It is frustrating. It feels as if there is no way to turn things around.

The person on the spectrum (ASD) increasingly feels judged, unappreciated, and anxious. The neurotypical (NT) partner feels dismissed, undervalued, and starved for intimacy. It is more often than not the NT partner who will have the urge to bolt. And bolt it is, because at this point, it feels more like running out of a house on fire than running toward a more fulfilling life. Leaving means stopping the pain. The ASD partner is likely to acknowledge not being happy but is unlikely to suggest or initiate separation.

When couples come in for counseling at this point, the greatest challenge is to help both partners see that each is feeling isolated and hurt; that there is a mutual experience of being judged (even condemned) without the intent to do harm; and that these very real emotions can bring on serious depression. Usually, I see a profound sense of futility in the words of the NT partner, such as, “I just can’t do this anymore because you never listen to me.” The ASD partner is likely to respond with something like, “That’s what you always say.” It is an immediate object lesson for me in what it is like for this couple when they are at home. They may as well exist on parallel—but never converging—planes. They both respond from within their guarded “under attack” position—once again, as usual, with no prospect for change.

If you see yourself in this brief sketch, there are three important things I would suggest for your consideration before you hire an attorney:

1. It Is Likely Neither of You Is Thinking Clearly at This Point

Years of living at crossed purposes has created patterns of defensiveness and hurt in both of you. This is an excellent point for remembering the wisdom in Einstein’s notion that we don’t solve a problem by using the same kind of thinking that created it. These hardened positions of isolation are unlikely to provide either of you with the ability to see your relationship in a new light.

Understanding that you are both confused and hurt, and that neither of you will immediately see a path for healing, is key. Acknowledge the pain. Feel the sorrow, the frustration, the anger. And give yourselves permission to take a hiatus, defined as a period during which you do your best to be mutually respectful. Take a break from even trying to communicate. Rest. Determine in advance how much time you both need before you come back together, renewed, to make a plan for the future.

2. Divorce Is Not the Only Option to Remaining Married

While it may make sense to want to run from pain and start over by rushing to divorce, it is important to understand the unique composition of this relationship. It is likely there is still real love between you, though it may seem deeply buried in wreckage by this time. It is likely you are aligned philosophically on many things, such as child-rearing principles. Regardless of all the pain, there have also been good times, and you are the repository of each other’s memories. You may feel that you speak different languages when it comes to intimate communication, and to getting your emotional needs met within your marriage, but there may also be a great deal about your marriage that is working well. Do you want to throw away everything before considering alternatives?

Understanding that you are both confused and hurt, and that neither of you will immediately see a path for healing, is key. Acknowledge the pain.

And there are alternatives. Each couple I know works on a plan that provides for transitional phases between the marriage as it is and the future. For example, some couples move into separate bedrooms and create schedules for interacting. Some add a condominium to their housing, and create a plan for who lives where and what the terms are for sharing meals, vacations, and space. Some agree to see others during this time. Others need to know they are both being monogamous for the duration, which is defined clearly to both. At a certain point, once a new kind of equilibrium is reached, couples come together again to define the next phase. Maybe they will keep two residences permanently. Maybe they are ready to discuss divorce. Maybe they need to extend this period of transition until they feel more sure of themselves.

3. Counseling Can Help When You Acknowledge the Role of ASD in Your Communication Problems

Because an ASD/NT couple has unique challenges and characteristics, finding a counselor who understands the experience of the individual on the spectrum as well as the experience of the neurotypical partner in this marriage is a tremendous gift you can give to yourselves. You will have the opportunity to have mediated conversations about the things most important in your lives, and for the first time may begin to understand each other’s perspectives.

The NT partner can see that while the pain is great, there has never been an intention to inflict harm: what has always felt like judgment and rejection actually comes from the ASD partner’s drive to tell the truth and to see fairness. The ASD partner can learn that the NT partner’s needs for intimacy and emotional support are valid and that they are not signs of weakness or a demanding nature.

Counseling may not help any particular couple stay together. Sometimes, however, the great gift of counseling is an understanding that there is tragic loss at the heart of this often ill-fated partnership and that respecting each other and loving each other can develop and survive even if the couple eventually decides to divorce.

This can be done with love, with honor, and in good health.

© Copyright 2016 All rights reserved.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • seth r

    May 25th, 2016 at 8:44 AM

    These are things that every couple should have to consider.

  • Corley

    May 25th, 2016 at 10:34 AM

    How do you got to this point where divorce feels like the only option? You must not have always felt this way about your spouse or otherwise you would not have married him or her in the first place. I think that this is something that probably brews over the course of many years and that when someone finally has enough they think that there is nothing left to do besides end the marriage.

  • Glen

    May 27th, 2016 at 9:41 AM

    I encourage anyone to refrain from making a decision that is potentially life altering like this in the heat of the moment. Step away from the situation, let things calm down a little and then decide where you would like to go from here. There is pretty much nothing that has to be decided today, anything can wait until you are cool headed again and in the right frame of mind to make a better choice for you and your spouse.

  • Mia

    May 27th, 2016 at 1:43 PM

    I would definitely recommend couples counseling for any couple who finds themselves in these situations.

  • Anne

    May 28th, 2016 at 10:06 AM

    My guess is that in many of these relationships it would be the Neurotypical person who would feel the most frustrated and challenged. You feel like you are carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders and that there would be non one who could really understand the pain and all of the emotions that you are feeling.

  • CDG

    May 28th, 2016 at 6:00 PM

    maybe the marriage has run its course and it could actually be time to call it quits

  • Misty

    May 29th, 2016 at 8:32 PM

    My husband is the ASD and I am the NT. It’s not easy. As we read this article together, we easily saw ourselves.

    We do have what we call “blow-outs” because he feels slighted/offended by something I have said or done. I will stay and talk to him, which leads to yelling, crying, anger, frustration, etc., etc.. I will repeat a question to him in several tones, with different phrasing, until I see that he has “heard” what I am saying.

    After 18 years, I know and understand the man I love, and I know that a switch clicked on that froze his thinking in place. This switch tells him what I said was bad, but won’t let him hear why it’s not. I have to say the same thing to him in different ways and tones, and if I find the right wording and tone one time, it won’t work the next, so it’s a never ending cycle that starts all over again.

    I know my husband loves me, and I love him. This wasn’t something either of us knew when we met, his ASD, it’s actually something we recently discovered about him, and for the longest time I had people telling me he was emotionally abusive and that I needed to take my kids and leave. I never felt as though I was being abused by him though, and even though we’d fight so loudly, and I would be emotionally drained, I knew something deeper was going on. It wasn’t until five years ago that we figured out that he landed somewhere on the ASD.

    We did research it, well I did at first as it was an assignment for my Psych 100 class, and I brought the findings to him. As soon as he recognized his traits, he did more extensive research. Now he recognizes what’s happening and we’re learning different ways to deal with it. We still have “blow-outs”, we might always have those, but we don’t want to end our marriage over it.

    This article really spoke to me and my husband. We were at a point in our relationship where we had separate rooms, and we had no intimacy. We still don’t have sex, but we do share a room again, and have our own type of intimacy that is mutually satisfactory for us.

    We did this without counseling, but if you can see yourself in this article, I highly recommend counseling. You may be able to reach the same results faster and with the right tools. We sure wish we had had the right tools and this article a long time ago.

    Thank you, Sarah Swenson, for writing this article, I hope it reaches more couples like my husband and I.

  • Ella

    May 30th, 2016 at 6:57 AM

    I somewhat agree with CDG. I mean why should you have to sacrifice your own happiness to stay in a marriage that is very clearly not fulfilling your wishes and dream?

    that is forcing you to give up something that is too important to you just to make someone else happy. You will never find true happiness for yourself that way.

  • Kiersten

    June 1st, 2016 at 3:11 AM

    Way cool! Sⲟme very valid points! Iappreciate you penning thios article and the rest of
    the sitee is really gοod.

  • Montrell

    June 1st, 2016 at 2:19 PM

    Every marriage at least deserves to be given the old college try.

  • 0000

    October 11th, 2018 at 9:16 PM

    Why is everyone so focused on happiness? I think it can get as pathological as chronic sadness. It’s something you find yourself always striving for and suddenly you feel deficient if you don’t have it. It’s a cultural addiction. What you should be looking for is contentment. No, that does not mean you should stay in unhealthy relationship, if you’re having problems then get help but stop acting like you’re all entitled to happiness 100% of the time. How ironic that in the pursuit of happiness you become unhappy, and as a byproduct you treat your spouse as a disposable thing.

  • Marie

    February 1st, 2019 at 11:47 AM

    Sarah, you talk a lot about separate rooms, houses, lives. Do you see any NT/ASD relationships that work when they live together? Is a close intimate relationship impossible?

  • ks

    February 9th, 2021 at 2:16 PM

    I would like to know this too.

  • Mia

    October 7th, 2021 at 1:13 PM

    as someone in an NT-ND relationship, I feel like I am the one who has to do all the changing to accommodate my ND partner. I have to set aside my need to be wanted by someone – the hopes that they will approach me and love me without having to say anything. But the solution to effective communication and a ‘happy relationship’ is that I always have to state how I am feeling matter-of-factly. What if I just don’t know how I am feeling? What if I feel generally lousy and confused and simply need comfort? I have to comfort myself to be able to tell them to come comfort me because they don’t know how to without being asked to. It’s frustrating and I am growing more resentful. When do they change their behaviors and meet me halfway? I’m in an equal partnership, right?

Leave a Comment

By commenting you acknowledge acceptance of's Terms and Conditions of Use.

* Indicates required field.

GoodTherapy uses cookies to personalize content and ads to provide better services for our users and to analyze our traffic. By continuing to use this site you consent to our cookies.