Is It Still Gaslighting If My Partner Has Asperger’s?

Young couple sitting in coffee shop in disagreementAuthor’s note: It is always a challenge to choose genders when writing about neurodiverse couples. Here I use the example of an autistic man and a neurotypical woman. I don’t mean to imply there are no cases in which this is reversed. It’s just that at this time, men are diagnosed at a 4:1 ratio to women, and in my practice, it is the majority of men who are the autistic partners. This could reflect the higher frequency of autism among men, or it could mean more couples like this present for counseling than couples in which the autistic partner is female. It is also important to note that individuals on the spectrum can be susceptible to gaslighting from others, and I will address this in a separate article.

In my work with neurodiverse couples in which one partner is autistic, one of the words I hear most often is “gaslighting.” Here’s an example:

“It would be one thing if we just fought like other couples who eventually make up. But that’s not how it is with us. Instead, we argue about something, and he tells me I’m being irrational. Or childish. Or critical. Then he shuts down. Often, he storms out of the room. If I try to bring it up later, he tells me I’m imagining things, that he didn’t say that, or if he did say it, he didn’t mean it the way I took it. He says I’m being too sensitive. And he shuts down again. I’m left feeling as if I’ll explode with frustration. I’m furious. And I have nowhere to go with it. I start to wonder if he’s right about me. I don’t know what to believe anymore. Is this gaslighting?”

Gaslighting Defined

In brief, gaslighting is a term that derives from the 1944 movie called Gaslight in which a husband successfully manipulates his wife into doubting her own reality. The husband in the story has a dark secret which is at the root of everything he says and does to his wife. To him, she is not a person with her own interior life. She is a pawn in his selfish game, which until the end he plays shrewdly enough to cause her to doubt her own version of reality.

“Instead, we argue about something, and he tells me I’m being irrational. Or childish. Or critical. Then he shuts down. Often, he storms out of the room. If I try to bring it up later, he tells me I’m imagining things, that he didn’t say that, or if he did say it, he didn’t mean it the way I took it.”

In reference to the flickering gaslights in the story, this effect has become known as gaslighting: intentionally treating a person in such a way as to cause confusion and cognitive dissonance, which eventually lead to collapse into self-doubt.

Of note is that at the heart of the husband’s motivation is a desire for riches, symbolized by jewels. This part of the story is often overlooked, but it is worth consideration when we are talking about autistic behavior.

Questioning Reality in Neurodiverse Relationships

First, let’s return to the comments of the neurotypical partner I quoted above. One way to view her statement is in terms of gaslighting, just as it is laid out in the movie.

In this model, time after time, incident after incident, she is cajoled into questioning what her own eyes, ears, and heart are telling her. Finally, she gives up. She begins to believe the mirror her partner holds up to her reflects an accurate representation of who she is. In order to believe that, she has been forced to discount any impulse of her own that contradicts such an image. She collapses into self-doubt. His manipulation has succeeded. Does this make him right? His smugness suggests that he believes so. He feels clever. He has won.

What would motivate someone to treat another person this way? Such manipulation may be observable in certain personality disorders, such as narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), antisocial personality disorder, and borderline personality disorder (BPD). In short, it is not healthy to intentionally set out to dominate someone else by negating that person’s reality. Such individuals leave a trail of emotional wreckage in the lives of others. Shelves full of books and countless hours of therapy are devoted to helping those victimized by such manipulators.

Looking Beyond the Behavior: Self-Protection

Behind the behavior of the personality disordered, there is an unconscious drive to protect that which feels threatened, which is usually the person’s self-worth. In twisted logic, anything that might compromise such fragile emotional integrity must be extinguished at all costs before it can extinguish the very life of the manipulator. This may be felt as desperation.

As a result, manipulation can be rationalized. It may not be viewed as a choice but rather as a necessity for survival. Incidentally, there is no respect for someone who can be manipulated, which makes further mistreatment easier and may even be viewed as what the person deserves.

But this is not the motivation of someone with autism.

The Tragic Dance of the Neurodiverse Couple

The jewels an autistic person guards could best be described as personal integration and a sense of security in who he is. Threats may come from feeling overwhelmed emotionally in the face of what seems like unmanageable ambiguity and uncertainty, which often lead to untenably high anxiety. Reducing that anxiety, consciously or not, is the most likely driver for behavior that appears to be gaslighting in someone with Asperger’s.

Reducing that anxiety, consciously or not, is the most likely driver for behavior that appears to be gaslighting in someone with Asperger’s.

Often, this person is oblivious to the harmful effects of his behavior and doubts the validity of someone’s observation that it might be gaslighting. The fact is that I have never met an autistic person whose conscious intent is to manipulate his partner.

But the key phrase is “conscious intent.” Because even though a person with Asperger’s may not mean to manipulate (gaslight) his partner, her actual experience is the same as it would be if intent were there.

In short, we have a couple in which one partner feels as if he is fighting for survival and another partner who feels as if she is fighting for survival, and in a two-way charge, one person’s means of doing so obliterates the reality of the other. It is what I call the tragic dance of the neurodiverse couple.

Addressing the Tragic Dance in Couples Counseling

The autistic person can learn in counseling that his behavior has the effect of invalidating his partner’s emotional life. He can come to understand that even though he does not intend to inflict such pain, the effect is real. Her dismayed and perhaps argumentative behavior is how a neurotypical person might justifiably respond to what feels like manipulative behavior from someone else. She is not trying to criticize him. She is trying to express her pain.

More often than not, this realization is met with deep remorse and often guilt. In time, he can learn to understand his own way of being in the world without judging himself harshly as being wrong or defective, because that is not the correct metric. Emotional support for him is key to his growth in this area.

The neurotypical partner can learn, first and foremost, that her response to feeling manipulated is normal. Her pain and confusion are normal. They are valid. She must be allowed to acknowledge and heal her wounds, because it doesn’t matter whether she was stabbed intentionally or inadvertently: she is still bleeding.

The second step, though, is to begin to understand that her autistic partner is not trying to hurt her; instead, what she experiences as manipulation is his way of trying to reduce omnipresent anxiety, which usually derives from a lifelong experience of not quite getting things right when it comes to understanding someone else’s emotions. She needs emotional support in order to move forward. At the same time, she also has to come to terms with the fact that her partner’s way of offering this support may not align with her idea of what that support must look like.

The way to view communication in a neurodiverse couple, or any couple, is in terms of its effectiveness. This is the only metric that matters. It’s not a matter of who is right or who is wrong. The goal of communication is mutual understanding. In order to improve communication skills and strategies, recognizing differences with an effort to respect them without judgment becomes the foundation for growth in the relationship.

When I work with couples, we concentrate on slowing down conversational speed, considering linguistics and the formal logic of argument, and identifying the emotional subtext and context inherent in communication. It takes time. It takes practice. It is not always successful. When it is, it can be described as a process of two steps forward and one step back as two parallel lives learn to build bridges between two lines that will never completely merge.

Learning to trust deeply after years of being hurt, having the faith that being vulnerable one more time might be worth the risk, accepting that one’s interpretation of another’s behavior may not be the same as that person’s intent: these are the challenges.

It can’t be gaslighting without the intent to manipulate. Regardless, it can feel like gaslighting. Education about neurodiversity, skilled counseling, and communication in renewed mutual respect create the tools for interrupting this revolving door.

Reference:

Gaslight (1944). (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0036855

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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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  • Jsnnette k.

    Jsnnette k.

    March 11th, 2019 at 8:37 AM

    I found your discussion on neurodiverse and neurotypical partners very relevant. As a sibling of a brother on the spectrum I witnessed the tragic demise of my brothers marriage as he and his partner aged . Aging was extremely hard on their marriage .

  • Sarah Swenson

    Sarah Swenson

    March 11th, 2019 at 10:08 AM

    I’m glad you found this helpful. Aging can be very difficult in a neurodiverse marriage for many reasons. I send warm regards to you.

  • Lisa M.

    Lisa M.

    March 13th, 2019 at 8:53 PM

    Very good and enlightening article

  • Sarah Swenson

    Sarah Swenson

    March 19th, 2019 at 7:18 AM

    Thank you, Lisa. I’m glad you found it supportive. All the best to you.

  • DJW

    DJW

    May 5th, 2019 at 7:28 AM

    As a wife of a yet undiagnosed person living with what I believe is Aspergers, it’s a double whammy ; not only is he the one who causes the hurt, even if he sees it, he is unable to give any comfort at all. It’s a lonely place to be – 31yrs on, my options are still open for me….

  • KTK

    KTK

    May 21st, 2019 at 8:20 PM

    I, too, found this quite helpful. It doesn’t help to suspect or accuse my companion of gaslighting if he is unaware he’s doing it. I had already noticed he does the same thing to himself. When he recounts a story of a situation in which he felt judged or uncomfortable, he rewrites it to cast himself in a better light. His distressful experiences don’t seem to imprint as clearly as do mine, so he’s forgotten the many times he’s been inconsiderate, rude, or deliberately (in the moment) hurtful. I’m trying to forgive, but can’t forget.

  • Katherine U.

    Katherine U.

    May 27th, 2019 at 5:11 AM

    I am a psychotherapist with Asperger’s and I felt this article was a bit one-sided. I noted that the autistic person can learn how their behavior is hurtful and it is “normal” for people to respond in an argumentative way, while the NT can learn her behavior is normal. Personally, I have had my experience discredited by NT men (as well as perhaps the general population growing up), and it has really caused me to struggle with my ability to self validate. I don’t know if you have worked with couples where it is the autistic person’s perspective being missed, perhaps you need to amend this article to include those examples. I’m always a little weary when NTs try to write about people on the spectrum. It’s a little like a man writing about women’s issues, a straight person writing about the LBGT+ community, or a Caucasian person describing the strife of the African person. There are plenty of therapists, researchers, and writers on the spectrum. With respect, it would be more appropriate if you let us write for ourselves. We are a minority but we are quite capable and don’t need a NT to speak for us.

  • Elaina

    Elaina

    June 8th, 2019 at 12:10 AM

    Katherine, the focus of the article is not the Asperger person but his/her neurotypical partner. So please let the partner’s side to be listened to. There are plenty of websites and articles to support autistic people and not enough to support NTs who are stuck and gaslit by AS partners. Please, make your comments and observations on AS platform and let us NTs have peace and understanding here. Thank you.

  • Katherine U

    Katherine U

    August 10th, 2019 at 6:08 AM

    “Please, make your comments and observations on AS platform and let us NTs have peace and understanding here.”
    Do you really think it’s appropriate (or even legal) to ask a certain group of people to stay out of a public area? I don’t know you, but I find that quite shocking.

  • Beth

    Beth

    June 9th, 2019 at 9:58 PM

    This is the closest anyone has come to describing or understanding the dynamics in my 25-year marriage, despite many years of individual and couples counseling. I think we may both be aspie.

  • Tammy L

    Tammy L

    June 20th, 2019 at 9:46 AM

    It appears Katherine U has just validated what neurotypicals have been expressing about people on the spectrum. Her own mindblindness and inability to empathize was a huge validation for what neurotypicals experience when dealing with people on the Autistic Spectrum. Katherine’s comments support that even education in the field of psychotherapy cannot overcome the mindblindness, lack of empathy and the need to be right. She does not have a clue what a neurotypical spouse goes through on a daily basis. She is unable to grasp the dynamic or empathize due to the nature of her own Autism if she were able to, she would not have expressed the unempathetic comments that she did.

  • Katherine U

    Katherine U

    August 10th, 2019 at 5:47 AM

    The comments about “mindblindness” are ugly stereotypes. Today people talk about a “double empathy problem” meaning that it’s not autistics who are just missing the NT perspective but NTs who are missing the autistic perspective. Because I am expressing my views which challenge this article does not mean I don’t understand the perspective of partners who feel missed by their other half. To say that I must have “mindblindness” because I’m autistic and all my education can’t change that is simply prejudice.

    Another user suggested I shouldn’t comment on articles meant for Nts. This is like saying we should have separate water fountains. This isn’t someone’s personal right wing blog that I have decided to comment on, this is a public mental health web site that publishes articles for all.

    I don’t want to argue or set myself up for being insulted further, I would just like for people to consider that it may not be as simple as one perspective is right and the other is wrong.

    My complaint about this article is that it claims autistic partners (who have a different perspective to their NT partners) are “gaslighting” their partners. It worries me that people (especially clinicians) still think like this. It’s not helpful for either partner actually. In my opinion, the article misuses the term “gaslighting”. Gaslighting is something done to purposefully mislead others, but the author writes that when the autistic partner realizes they are doing this (implying it wasn’t on purpose) they have “remorse and guilt.” A healthy relationship is one where both people make an effort to understand how the other works. I think we are all on the honour system. Part of that means trying our best to be good to each other, but also not using unfair words to describe the actions of others, and being mindful of what might be prejudice.

  • Athena

    Athena

    September 30th, 2019 at 1:12 PM

    The article says the exact opposite of what you think. The NT wife wants to know if she is being gas-lighted and, after much explanation, the answer is, no, because gas-lighting is something that someone does intentionally and with a harmful intent. I was very relieved to read the article because I have struggled with just this issue and used the same expression not even knowing that it was a regular issue for NTs in a relationship with an AS. So now I know it’s not gas-lighting and he’s not a psychopath and he doesn’t hate me and, now that I am emotionally validated and soothed, I can put my newly calmed energies into being supportive and understanding. Honestly, I don’t mean this to be upsetting, but I really needed the NT perspective and was just overloaded with guilt when you added your comments.

  • Katherine U

    Katherine U

    August 10th, 2019 at 1:07 PM

    I felt, in order to be fair, I needed to acknowledge that I got it wrong about the author claiming that Autistics gaslight their partners. I responded to your comment before re-reading the article (which I originally read months ago) She is really clear that there is no intent and I accept that.

    I only came back to this page because I’m doing a study on Neurodiversity and how people (mainly clinicians) view people with a-typical neurologies. I can hear that you have strong feelings about autistic people. I am sad that you seem to have drawn a lot of conclusions about what I personally know and don’t know and my levels of empathy based on a single critique of an article.

    I experienced your comments as being unempathic to my perspective, but it didn’t occur to me that you would lack the ability to empathize at all.

  • CS

    CS

    September 3rd, 2019 at 3:20 AM

    As an NT in a relationship with an un-diagnosed hfa boyfriend, I find this discussion confounding. Honestly, I have no agenda here, I am speaking from the heart. I have spent years researching, listening to YouTube vids, and reading to educate myself about Autism, so I can support my boyfriend and have a happy relationship. I have made changes, compromised, sympathized and supported him through countless personal and professional challenges. And been delighted by his perspective and learned so much from him. He has also supported and loved me and I believe would do whatever he could to make me happy. He is a brilliant musician who teaches young kids and turns them into highly talented players, who find professional work in their field and are accepted to some of the best graduate music programs in the country. I understand that he processes the world differently than I do and have made every effort to make our home a place where he can feel safe. He deals with an immense amount of hurt and confusion in his daily interactions, much of which I think would be helped by an official diagnosis, but that’s another post entirely. And I listen to all of it, I do so gladly (most of the time) because I want to be a good partner.
    He has 3-5 topics that he feels safe talking with me about: the cat, house projects, current events, etc… But when it goes deeper to an emotional level, it all goes haywire. And I know why and understand that, from his point of view, emotion is overrated and complicates things unnecessarily. I do my best to understand.
    And, he gaslights me. every. single. day. Multiple times a day. He denies, changes the version of events to save face that there is no truth left. And I am often the brunt of that thought pattern. He tells me that my experience is not real.
    I know his intention is not to harm me, but he does. Over and over again. So to say it’s not gaslighting, to say that it’s not manipulation – it’s like I’m being gaslighted. To say that I need to accept a partner that uses lies and distortion of the facts to deal with his disorder, and that I need to accept that is the most insane, confounding idea I can think of. To say that he has learned the social graces of work and outside life, so when he comes home to me he needs to feel safe, and part of that is by trying to constantly control and manipulate me is for crazy making. And I’m coming to terms with that maybe I’m not cut out for a relationship with an HFA. It’s me that needs to look for a different partner, so he can find someone who won’t take all of this personally and keep things light and emotionally detached – so he does not feel misunderstood and they don’t feel emotionally abused, which is my reality and what I am experiencing. For me, in this relationship. Just as he has the right to experience the world away from the demands of the NT schemas, I also get to have my own experience. I don’t mean to offend. I have so much love and respect for him in many ways, and for the Asperger’s community. But I can’t live it anymore.

  • Athena

    Athena

    September 30th, 2019 at 1:45 PM

    CS,
    I wish I could give you a big hug. I completely understand because I am going through a very similar process. We were going to try an intensive couples retreat, but it fell through because we couldn’t stick it out long enough to attend. I love him dearly but he has no idea when he causes me pain and, when I use my “I” sentences (I feel ___ when ___ and I would love it if ___ instead), I get no response, like null/void, and then we just spiral downward. I try not to “flood” him with my emotions, which are usually stirred up because my emotions are ignored. I wanted to fix myself to be a better partner but it’s all a total loss now. I forgot to mention the story-changing: one day he seeks sympathy for some terrible thing that happened and the next day he’s telling me what a great thing happened and how much he enjoyed it, and I’m like, huh? It’s really too bad, because I was starting to understand and appreciate his way of expressing or distancing from things. But then all sorts of betrayals happened and it all fell apart. Oh, dear, I’ve lost my boundaries in all of this. Sorry.

  • Jen

    Jen

    October 14th, 2019 at 7:56 PM

    I am not sure they don’t know they are doing it. I tell my aspergers husband over and over that his denying having said something he said literally said seconds ago like the speech bubble is still attached to his mouth ago drives me completely insane. Recently he told me we had to turn at 86th Street several times then he drove past. I said you missed the turn. He said no, it is 92nd. I said you said 86th. He denied it. We looped around that a few times. I said I was tired of his lying about what was said, that he had said 86th several times, he had never said 92nd ever. I knew he knew he had. He said he meant 92nd and in his head it was 92nd. He did not know he said 86. I fell he just could not admit the mistake. He cannot ever admit a mistake and when caught out cannot admit it nor apologize. It is exhausting.

  • An Autistic Person

    An Autistic Person

    October 14th, 2019 at 1:12 AM

    Autistic people can’t be manipulative, because they lack the social skills needed in order to manipulate.

  • Jen

    Jen

    October 14th, 2019 at 7:42 PM

    I disagree. I think there many on the spectrum who can manipulate.

  • An Autistic Person

    An Autistic Person

    October 15th, 2019 at 11:55 PM

    Well, perhaps that’s true.
    However I don’t think it’s a common trait.

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