Partnerships 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.
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