Author’s note: I write as if the couple here is an autistic man and a neurotypical woman. Sometimes, however, it is the woman who is autistic. Some couples I work with are gay, and some are lesbian. Some are polyamorous. In the interest of streamlining my language in this article, I have chosen to describe the couple most frequently represented in my counseling and coaching practices: the man, who is autistic, and the woman, who is not.
If there is one word I hear more than any other in my work as a therapist with women whose partners are or may be autistic, it is this: loneliness. I realize that many people experience a kind of loneliness in relationships that are strained. In fact, when these women try to describe their loneliness to their friends, they often hear comments that can be summed up this way: “that’s life.”
To an extent, that is true. The problem is that true or not, it dismisses the unique characteristics of the loneliness in a neurodiverse marriage. As a result, the woman in this marriage feels several things at once.
How Much Loneliness Is ‘Normal’ in a Relationship?
First of all, of course, she recognizes marriage is a challenge for everyone at times, and that feeling lonely when partners are disconnected makes perfect sense. She feels her friends are trying to be supportive to her by pointing this out, though she also struggles with the deep sense that there must be a better word, a more accurate way to describe what she’s going through, because in her heart she knows her loneliness and the broader kind of loneliness experienced in other relationships are somehow significantly different.
She feels a little guilty. She’s a little embarrassed. She wonders what’s wrong with her. Maybe she’s making too big a deal out of this. Maybe she should just grow up a little and realize that overall, things are pretty good. I mean, aren’t they?
Still, hungry for connection, she tries to explain. But she finds no traction as her friends repeat variations of the theme: What did you expect? Marriage can be hard. Sometimes, you’re angry. Sometimes, you want to tear your hair out. You might even want to leave. But then, with time, the clouds lift. Everything gets back to normal and you forget about this. You’ll see. It will all turn out okay.
And there it is. There’s the assumption she knows may be true for her friends, but is simply not true for her—at least not in the way they mean it. She knows that in her case, things will not get back to “normal.” Because for her, deep loneliness is normal. It is her baseline. It is as much a part of her relationship as the ring on her finger, and it accompanies her in her every waking moment. It can wax and wane as life’s demands come and go, but it is always there. Sometimes, she cries when she’s alone in her car, and she doesn’t know why.
Because for her, deep loneliness is normal. It is her baseline. It is as much a part of her relationship as the ring on her finger, and it accompanies her in her every waking moment.
How Any Relationship Can Cause Loneliness
There are many reasons why she is right that her loneliness has unique characteristics and causes that her friends will likely never understand. This is because most of them have neurotypical partners like themselves. They know that neurotypical marriages are difficult. Divorce rates are not to be taken lightly. There is real pain and struggle in the best of relationships. Sometimes, couples find ways to secure the bonds between them, and this allows them to weather strong storms. Sometimes, even with the best of efforts, relationships just don’t last.
This is the stuff of relationship self-help books, it is the foundational thinking of couples therapy methods, and it is woven constantly into conversations among women everywhere. That’s why many people think the word “loneliness” means the same thing to everyone else. They assume, justifiably, that their experience and the experience of other women is similar, even if different in the small details.
What does loneliness mean to most people? Generally speaking, it means disconnection when connection is desired. In this way, it is differentiated from the solitude of choosing to be alone. It is a frustrated state related to not feeling heard, seen, and understood. Usually, this is a transient feeling, and once conditions change, the feelings of loneliness diminish.
For example, in a heated argument between two neurotypical partners, both are likely to feel separated from one another and not heard. Loneliness can come of this. When the partners reconcile, feelings of connection are re-established. This is also the mechanism for missing someone and then being reunited. Part of transient loneliness is knowing that it is not permanent, but in the moment, not being able to overcome the emotional component that derives from not feeling connected. However, a belief in the wave nature of this kind of loneliness is part of what makes it tolerable, though painful.
Things will get better. This feeling will not last forever.
Loneliness in a Neurodiverse Relationship
Another kind of loneliness can be thought of as a state, or chronic loneliness. This describes the feelings of a person cut off from social encounters for one reason or another beyond personal control, such as illness, incarceration, moving to a new environment without social connections, or coming to terms with the death of a personally significant person. These are deep challenges. There is no quick fix for any of them, and loneliness that derives from feeling isolated is a societal problem particularly among the elderly, but also among all age groups, including social media savvy youth.
There are many ways loneliness is understood, described, and experienced. But to someone whose partner is autistic, they describe only part of the story. There is much more to tell.
The very nature of the neurodiverse relationship is difference, which is neither choice nor mental illness. It is linked to neurological variations in the structure of the brain, which lead to different ways of experiencing, interpreting, and responding to reality. It is not about one being right and the other, wrong. They are simply different. However, this is a neurotypically designed and oriented world, so it is the autistic person who generally feels more out of step much of the time.
The very nature of the neurodiverse relationship is difference, which is neither choice nor mental illness. It is linked to neurological variations in the structure of the brain, which lead to different ways of experiencing, interpreting, and responding to reality.
When women talk to me about their loneliness, though, they are talking about the deep awareness that the intimate connection they sought when they married, which in fact was the main reason they married, has not only not come to be, but is not possible. Arriving at this understanding is an existential shock with complex and conflicting emotional components.
What Causes Loneliness in Neurodiverse Relationships?
Most of the women I work with love their partners. They are shattered to describe their sense of isolation from the man they love so much. Yet the pain of loneliness has begun to take both mental and physical tolls. They describe feelings of depression. Deep fatigue. Self-recrimination and other negative self-talk. Profound confusion about what paths are open to them now.
One of the main differences between a person who is what we call neurotypical and someone who is autistic lies in the realm of understanding the implicit emotional and cognitive experience of another person. Because someone else’s experience differs from his own, a person on the autistic spectrum is not likely to intuit accurately what it is like to be someone else. As a result, his partner’s attempts at expressing her feelings or asking for emotional support can be met with a desire to comply, yet no ability to assess what to do or how to do it. Also, it can appear to be dismissed, as the autistic person responds more with cognitive empathy than with the affective empathy the neurotypical partner craves and expects from another person, particularly from her partner. He offers what she considers to be a solution to what she describes, but she is seeking understanding instead.
Over time, a history of these mismatched needs and responses creates a sense of isolation in the neurotypical partner. She is deeply frustrated by her repeated feelings of being rejected or minimized by a partner who seems not to understand or value what she says. She’s angry. Hurt. Confused. She gets to the point where she can’t bury it any longer. Sometimes, she blows up. Sometimes, she walks away. Or drinks. Or starts an affair. At the bottom of these choices is always a feeling of being severed from what she believed would be her primary source of emotional support: her husband.
One important thing to acknowledge in this conversation, however, is the extreme isolation experienced also by the autistic partner, who has come to see that no matter what he says or does, no matter how hard he tries to get it right, his partner repeatedly reminds him that he doesn’t get it, that her needs are going unmet, and that she is at her wits’ end. So is he, by this point. And he, too, is blaming himself.
What can this couple do?
Bridging the Understanding Gap in a Neurodiverse Relationship
Understanding what can change and what cannot is key to growth in the neurodiverse relationship. When I work with couples, we start with foundational psychoeducation. We not only explore the neurology, meaning, and presentation of autism, but we also do the same analysis of what it is to be neurotypical.
Understanding what can change and what cannot is key to growth in the neurodiverse relationship.
Our goal is to highlight not one over the other, but rather to identify similarities and differences. This is the path toward release of blame as well as feelings of being judged as inadequate. We focus intensely on the very human tendency to misattribute the intentions of another person based on what something would mean if we ourselves said or did it. In the neurodiverse relationship specifically, but also in all relationships, this is a critical issue.
Once these differences are accounted for, we can move into development of communication strategies and skills that have the potential to build bridges between partners. This results not only in an increase in mutual trust, but also in increased intimacy, as partners explore without judgment their differences and how to navigate them. This includes discussion of language, nonverbal communication, and the formal structure of logical argument.
Loneliness can abate with time when couples learn the value of and develop the skills to bring the implicit (their expectations) into the explicit (clearly identified and stated information about their own interior experiences). Like two parallel lines, the partners in a neurodiverse relationship will never merge. They can come closer together, however, and like base pairs that connect the two strands of a DNA molecule’s double helix and hold them together, new communication skills can secure a stronger connection between the partners in a neurodiverse couple. Compassion is the vehicle, and acceptance is the goal.
Will this ever be a neurotypical relationship, meeting all the needs of the neurotypical partner? No. Will it ever be an autistic relationship, meeting the all the needs of the autistic partner? No. It will always be neurodiverse, and in managing the differences, it is possible for two deeply lonely individuals to explore increased intimacy and refine their understanding of what it means for the two of them to remain together and move forward as a couple. A neurodiverse couple.
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