How to Deal with Loneliness in a Relationship When One Partner Is Autistic

Woman sitting in the driver's seat of her car, cryingAuthor’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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The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • mentsh

    mentsh

    November 3rd, 2019 at 8:32 AM

    I have a friend dealing with this, and I have tons of sympathy for her situation. However, I wish there were more articles and resources available that discussed variations, like where the wife is neurodiverse and trying desperately to be what her husband needs but always coming up short. What about autistic loneliness? There’s so much emphasis on the neurotypical’s loneliness, and I get that’s the more visible perspective because NT wives talk to their friends and social media and therapists about their pain because they understand how to go about seeking that kind of support. But those of us on the spectrum, we don’t have those kinds of support systems. Even when we do reach out for support, people typically don’t understand us or we can’t connect emotionally or the blame gets placed on us. But our loneliness is real, too. The pain from the constant disconnect and misunderstandings and ableism is often intolerable, but rarely acknowledged. Where are the resources for us? Where is the compassion? Where is the understanding that helps us figure all this out? It’s not that we don’t have empathy for NT pain, it’s that the empathy so rarely goes both ways in relationships between NT and ND. Especially in the ND population, you find such a high prevalence of variations on gender and pairings and types of relationships (friendships, families, work) that are confusing and painful or just plain impossible. Please talk more about those. Please stop taking the easy way out with the emphasis on the stereotype and engage with us where are, in all those many diverse variations. I’m reading because I’m looking for answers and trying to contribute to finding solutions. I’m not some cold, distant, empathy-less monoton with no compassion for how hard it can be to be in relationship with me. I care too. But I don’t have viable solutions, partly because most of the effort goes into the one scenario people think of…the clueless autie husband with the lonely NT wife.

  • Anonymous

    Anonymous

    November 13th, 2019 at 10:13 PM

    I am suffering from trauma can u provide me ? and Which type of Therapy ?

  • Beth

    Beth

    February 2nd, 2020 at 6:21 PM

    Yes, yes yes! You nailed this problem in two parts: where are the neurodiverse wife stories, and where is the empathy for aspies’ equally valid ways of being in the world?!

  • lotus

    lotus

    November 4th, 2019 at 5:09 AM

    I am dealing with this stark reality now and quite confused and feels defeated in the amount of effort to understand, and just at the point of self-diagnosis and trying to figure out what to do in the mixed emotional state of guilt, shame, wanting to hold on to self sanity, he just disappeared. Trying to reach out for help so we can figure out if a NT spouse is even the best option to support him through his self discivery before figuring out if staying as a couple is even a viable option after this.

  • Nohope

    Nohope

    November 12th, 2019 at 2:30 AM

    Great article.This is my reality. Eight years and it doesn’t get much better. Loads of neurodiverse counseling. Lots of strategies. It’s a hard and lonely path and I wouldn’t wish this life on anyone. I know it could be worse though, so I am grateful that at least I can get away even though sometimes I wish I could rest and be at peace. I wish I didn’t have to live such a restless life to escape the agonizing ever present loneliness, isolation, miscommunication, object obsessions and gaslighting. My soul is exhausted.

  • JJ

    JJ

    November 25th, 2019 at 10:38 AM

    I completely understand. After years of seeking, 2 out of 3 of my children were diagnosed with Aspergers/Autism. I’ve known for a long time my husband is Aspergers- although he refuses diagnosis and is not willing to discuss it. It is heartbreakingly lonely. The emotional pain being surpassed only by my family who was abusive in every way imaginable. I cut off ties to my family 26 years ago and can see why I chose the husband I did- he seemed emotionally “level”. I had not idea what that would play out like…a NT/ND marriage that is terribly painful and lonely. I completely understand.

  • Nohope

    Nohope

    December 4th, 2019 at 3:03 AM

    I’m so sorry that you have three aspies in your life after growing up in an impossibly abusive home. I will pray for you for strength and hope. We need hope. We need to believe that God cares and there is hope.

  • NANI

    NANI

    November 15th, 2019 at 8:34 AM

    LOVE IS HEAVEN, THERE IS NO EXCHANGE EACH OTHER.

  • Rose

    Rose

    February 7th, 2020 at 7:42 PM

    I have been dating a man that was just diagnosed with autism. He always made good conversation with me and was very kind. Over time I noticed certain habits, routines, and hid his anxiety that seemed to rule him. Our arguing got so bad I don’t even know how they started sometimes. If I said a certain word that threatened him, he would focus on the one word and attack me verballey to the point I thought I was with a crazy person. I started to feel lonely even when I was around him and I would try to express this but he could not understand why I would say that. I always was there for him and who would continuely abandan me or not answer his phone etc. I tried so hard to understand. I always felt he lost interest in me.

  • s.

    s.

    May 14th, 2020 at 8:43 AM

    Hi-i need help at least tell me im not going crazy or so overly sensitive or so needy
    im 50 yo successful professional. smart , athletic, close family , i raised my 4 children after i got divorced who are all now grown and successful and happy , im actually an empath in all liklihood , and i love and need deep connection and also have adhd which has been diagnosed forever and i take vyvanse which changed my life and took away much of my depression and anxiety . everything seems great on surface , then i met pam. i feel so hard for her. she seemed great, warm, kind, wanted some deep level of intimate communication, family around us ,our children ,, future grandchildren, etc. we were giddy and planning our future life. when i met pam she was going through a divorce and i helped her emotionally and through many other aspects. she was also a high level executive and we traveled a ton together we traveled everywhere and loved traveling and being together . i love and am so use to having deep meaningful conversation as i have 3 highly highly successful sisters who also are close to empaths, deep communication including why we do things, fight, about our parents. all these converations were have as main tpoics or factors our unconscious , early relationships with our parents , freud, etc. high level, deep, multidimensional discussions always which i love. little by little my relationshIp w pam started to show funny things. she had a ton of work friends but no real friends which she complained about, she was constantly on late. not 5 minutes but 30 -45 minutes, was always on her social media, which was part of her biz, but i mean always and obsseively like her phone. 1000s of intagram and facebook followers/ friends but really no close friends. she had traveled so much when her kids were growing up she had strained relationshps with them, and couldnt understand why. they were also semi empaths and would tell her how she was selfish and and never around and how they hold it against her, but she never got it and defended her position saying i made play dates, i was at their schools for events, i was home alot, etc, the kids were smart as was she so their was a disconnect. also, i slowly started to piece together the few relationships she had in her life with “best friends.” they all worked for her and in each case the relationship blew up and ended badly and the friends turned on her and ended up hating her with vitrolance. also, and this was where things really fell apart was her traveling. she travelled non stop and when she was away i would never here from her or sporadically, even though she was always on er fone and social media. when she would come home she was happy to see me but never any excitement in meeting or anticpatory excitement in talking about seeing each other when she came back in fact somtimes we would wait 3, 4 5 days to first get together bc she had plans for work, each night, which was also a constant thing. we discussed all of this many many many times, but nothing helped and it seemed like although she listened and got it, in the end it was if we never had the coversations and the actions would always continue on the next trip… no or limited communication. we had huge fights. i told her that i had never met anyone as selfish as her and she was so self centered it was destroying us. i began to get so lonely and isolated. i talked to a few friends and my sisters and and started to feel i was going crazy, i wasnt strong bc i should be able to deal with this better and not be a baby , i was so insecure,and on and on..somtimes in a 3- 4 week period i would see her 4 days sporadically and talk maybe 2x a week on the phone. the phone was another huge problem. from the beginning of our relationshp we could barely speak on the phone bc she was so awkward on the phone. calls were stilted and i had to carry the entire conversation. she asked the same questions each time and time asked questions of any depth or to me showed any interest other then cursory interest of me , my family, our or my or her family dynamics or otherise. the fights continued and carried over into our in person lives together bc i was angry due to feeling so isolated, her consistent refusal to see any of her actions , me feeling gulty about blaming her always and getting mad, on and on. i use to ask her point blank things such as the following
    – why are you dating me you dont seem to like me or miss me ?
    – are you dating somebody else bc you never want to see me or appear interested in this relationship?
    but her actions many times didnt match the meaness, selfishness, cruelty of a narcissist , who i began to read about almost obssessively. she actually was a kind and seet person in many ways. she planned great trips together, had a great engagment dinner for my oldest ( voluntarily ) , always told people i was her boyfriend ( i know it sounds childish but it was so swwt), we would always hold hands, sit next to each other at bars and restuarants wherever we went, sleep so close and hold each other and the sex which was crazy good at the beginning morphed into being really good but also very intimate and loving ( more by me in the loving department).. i used to joke that i was the “girl” and “touchy feely “one in the relationship. im 6 feet, 185 lbs, rugged and “tough”by any standard. i lowered my standards of what level of intimacy and communication we would have and things got better but not so much. i was always alone and underneath it still angry at times and felt i couldnt talk to people a but it bc it was embarrassing and i was a baby or that one might think she was having affairs and i wasnt seeing it. she was not . i also started to become in the bigger picture much less self confident, more insecure and my interests started to fade .i actually developed so much doubt i asked a friend of mine i am missing something, is there something so wrong with me either in intelligence, looks anything that i have missed and is staring me in the face for years and noone would tell me . also bc pam didnt get along with my sister and her w pam, it led to a huge blow up with one of my sister who was my best friend and who i confided in for most of my life to the point we no longer talk. pam hated her and i took pams side, pam was very jealous of her and my sister felt pam took me away from her. everything generally in my life became weird and relationships strained. CO-19 (“CO”) hits and pam and i are seperated as shes with her kids and and my kids come home and im with them. we dont see each other but talk on the phone. i begin though to think more about my relationship with pam and questioning things and start to pull away from her in my mind. i start to speak to her less on the phone and a few thing s happen that because of the time on my hands i start to really focus those items by themselves and in terms of pams prior actions and our relationship. 1. my mom dies, we have a fi=uneral on zoom and pam does say shes so sorry and is rthere anything she can do. but all of this seemed very perfunctory and cold and she didnt bother to ask if she could sign into the funeral. she never discussed after that how i felt or anything with any meaning or depth how my moms death effected me, which was ok bc i didnt expectit from her and i had other friends who fled my emotional intimacy needs pam couldnt. ugh. 2. one night she called me and we talk for 2 minutes and i say, im so upset worried and sad about x, y and x and z and havent been this down in so long. pam is silent for a minute, and then says oh its 858pm and the ___ news show starts now can i go/ i can call you after. all in a childlike seeking permission way without meaness. i say sure problem. and she goes. i didnt get upset though bc im use to this and being at home with a slower than normal work pace which has has really calmed me down. but that was typical of her. nothing mean whats everi n her motiveor actions, just pam. i start to think that most things and resposes to emotional questios from mr=e to her and her emotional responses to events seem almost canned, rehearsed and very surface level and fake in a way. duing this time pam makes efforts to call me etc and asks to meet me in the city which i nicely say no and tell her essentially im worried about getting CO 19, but its really bc i dnt want to see her. Then pams business implodes and she goes into a deep depression and out of blue says “i need time” “im going in a different direction” a few texts or emails which were clipped and to the point but as usual stilted., and that was that.all conact cut. an email or text that she was evaluating her life and who she was and she loved me so much but that was. i was pretty upset and felt hurt and couldnt believed after all this time, and energy and care, love etc i put into this relationship and the enerrgy she seemed to put in to it and all of the times and plans we made for the future it was over and she could vanish like that. poof. looking for an answer i started to read on the internet more about narcs but as i indicated earler while it seemed at first she was a narc bc of what i percieved to be her extreme selfishness and self centeredness, the more i read about narcs it didnt feel that she was one. she really wasnt mean and was in many times very sweet and kind. then remembered my friends sister, who had been diagnosed as having asp and she was highly successful at a large fortune 500 co and was such a smart and kind person. so i typed in are there similarites btw symptoms of asp and narcissism and boom…omg. i started reading obsessively for 2 days everything on line and talking to people who know this are. it was an epiphany. it explained pam and so much of her actions and my reactions. a few major themes
    1. i realized how amazing pam was. she had risen to the top of her field and was lauded as an industry leader .but the effort and hiding and imitating it had taken her to accomplish this was beyond comprehension. its so hard to believe. i dont think anyone really knows in her business that she may have asp. she must have studied people to see how to react in a myriad of situations which also explained her responses to my very personal over the years emails to her expressing love or other deep messages and her response of ” i read your email dozens of times and it means the world to me” she didnt get it but knew in a odd way how to respond ( sort of)
    2. the world had been very cruel to her. it expained her depression and anger and feeling of going home to her snooty home town for HS reunion and feeling vindicated at having a better life ($$$$) than the mean hs click group of girls who tormented her, but at the same time still feeling alone and isolated as she couldnt fit in then or now
    3. it was liberating to me. i feel free now of really bad thoughts discussed above abt myslf and her, but also like an idiot for not seeing this for years and sort of wasting my time , but not really bc she was great in so many ways and we had so many fun times and much closeness in a way, which she might have “faked” for my benefit. but either way it all made sense now.

    4. i realized she was not mean nor selfish . i was asking her to be the girlfriend and person “I” needed. she tried so hard to please me . its heartbreaking to think of, but she couldnt. she must have been so frustrated and felt no matter what she did she couldnt get it right. it is so beyond sad i am constantly on the verge of tears for the last few days. i was so mad and wanted her to love me the way i needed to be loved that i totally missed the way she showed me her love. ie planning trips, giving a party for my daughter, getting to know my children, planning a honeymoon for my daughter.
    i feel so bad i feel. i just never knew….
    4.i want to talk to her , hug her, apologize to her , tell her i just didnt understand and i was the selfish one not her and that i understand so much now about her , her life our relationship etc but i dont think that will ever happen as shes gone and gone totally silent on me and im pretty sure i will never see or speak to her speak her again as i feel she said its over in her mind and thats it, done fini. logical and reasonable. i will not show up at her home nor call or email again because i want to respect her wishes for space and time and clearly dont want to harass her. in my last ea]mail though, i did without specifically mentioning asp say explain how i now understood so much, that she was not selfish and was very kind and nice , that i loved her and now understood how really remarkable of a person she was ( which she knew anyway i thought she was remarkable as i told her many times) and how i got so much more now how difficult her life must have been and really cruel people were to her. in response she emailed me that she recieved it, shes read it dozens of time, no words in them goes unheard and they mean the worlds to her. ‘ all sweet but canned responses which someone else could have told her what to say. i have no idea.futher i dont know if she understood what i was saying. so im thinking that is the way we will end things and thats it. sad but no choice. i have no idea but guess by going dark, she feel better bc she settled things in er mind and has already moved on and forgoten stuff and has no pain, which if that is the case thats good enough. but its pretty much a puzzle and so strange and a bit confusing and hurtful after 3 years to end our relationshp like this w no goodbyes finality just done…
    4. in any event bc i am sensitive and after reading articles about relationships btw aspis and neuro – typical people, it sounds as if even if we were to get back together and worked really hard in therapy it would still feel very lonely and emotionally unfufilling for me and probably not good for her. is this scenario common?
    5. does she know she may have asp? could she not know? do her kids know that this may have caused the problems in their relationship and she is not selfish?
    .6. should i say anything to anyone or even her explicitly as it may help herand give her some peace and explanation for much of the harder parts of her life and help her navigate going fwd?? she sees a therapist but says that she never understands what the therapist means
    7. anyway, the “breakup” and my even reading about asp has all occured in the last 4 days or so, and im glad it happened and its best that it did but leaves alot of open questions and i am wodering does this story sound off the wall? can anyone relate to this? im so at a loss for answers and not even sure im asking the right questions just totally confused including maybe my entire thought process is wrong andf that there is no connection w pam and and asp and its all a rationalization by me. can anyone provide any thoughts?

    thank you
    please note if the reference to asp or a person ” having it” or anything like that is offensive know it was not meant to be and i am not sure of the proper way to d=say things as its all so know to me

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