In our intensive couples therapy intake process, we sometimes hear about long-term relationships with a partner who was never diagnosed as Neurodivergent (formerly Asperger's Syndrome). These spouses call us because they have noticed that their partner has meltdowns, difficulty with social communication, or problematic social skills.
They sometimes also ask if Neurodivergent is an appropriate diagnosis, and if so, whether they should join a support group, enter marriage counseling, or even start the divorce process.
Some have suspected that they are living in a Neurodivergent Marriage after reading books by Tony Attwood or Stephen Shore. And they have read heartbreaking stories, particularly written by women, who have accepted their husband's controlling nature around money, travel, or how to keep the home.
Clinically, these marriages suffer from many of the issues found in neurotypical marriage... only more so.
And while it's important to highlight the challenges in these marriages. I've written about the topic of in a previous post, and I've found so many vitriolic rants of hatred or hopelessness in the comments (149 in all...), that I wanted to discuss it further.
Communication issues in a Neurodivergent marriage
Communication problems are often present, with sometimes an absent of tonal variation, an over-expression of inappropriate affect, or trouble with describing or reflecting emotions (called "Alexithymia".)
Therefore, spouses who have Aspergers may come off as very pedantic, disinterested in emotional nuance, or absorbed by their own interests.
It can make these men and women very boring conversationalists. They can also become immediately defensive at perceived criticism and can be rigid in their perspective.
A Neurodivergent marriage enhanced
It has been my clinical experience, however, that these issues need to be both identified and worked with head-on.
Instead of being "impossible challenges," they are clear social skills that John Gottman, Ph.D. has spent a lifetime perfecting in remarkably detailed and practical ways.
- Alexithymia has effective treatment.
- Bores can be helped to notice that they have lost their audience by watching facial expression and posture.
- Neurofeedback has, in my experience, been effective in helping people increase tonal variations in speech.
Communication can be improved by having daily conversations (called "Stress Reducing Conversations" by researcher John Gottman, Ph.D.). Most of the men I've worked with having neurotypical features are fascinated by Dr. Gottman's research on The Four Horsemen. These include "Defensiveness", or the reactive, whiny, response to spousal complaints. Once these men understand the pragmatics behind the approach, they often become advocates for this work, and apply the principles diligently. in their married life.
Bodily issues enhanced
Dancing is a great place to start not as an end point, but as an avenue to help those with bodily issues connect their body in space with their capacity to move it more easily.
But the neurodivergents' history with being humiliated by their awkwardness is important to explore.
Dancing in the living room, individually, or simply swaying to the music is a better step than coordinated movements.
Sex and Neurodivergents
Sex has to also be re-contextualized, and the unspoken must become spoken. One of the reasons why I find working with those in a Neurodivergent Marriage rewarding is that so much of the intense hurt and resentment on the part of the neurotypical fades when they recognize that they need to be specific and directive, and not take "no" for an answer.
They come to learn that automatic "no's" from their neurotypical spouse are often defensiveness at being told they are "wrong." One Neurodivergent man refused to kiss his wife. Kissing was her avenue to arousal, so the sex had stopped.
He refused to kiss her because he hated her bad breath and the moisture of her mouth.
It was important for both to realize that yogurt with fresh lemon could help the first problem, and a glass of red wine would assist with the second, as it dries up mucus membranes.
But what becomes dry in one place is a problem for another! Lubricant would also be needed. And he would have to work at overcoming his mouth aversion that had built up over many years.
Instead of being offended, many pragmatic solutions are available to the couple that is willing to discard the nightmare rhetoric of hopelessness and misery that is rampant on the internet.
Lack of empathy in a Neurodivergent marriage
But the greatest complaints about a Neurodivergent Marriage that comes from wives is their husband's "lack of empathy." Often, they'll recall painful situations with some crucial life event. They'll recall that their husband's response to it, was cold, unsympathetic, or simply disinterested.
Empathy in Neurodivergent relationships
This is one of the most hurtful and pervasive myths about neurotypicals: That they lack empathy.
Research has demonstrated that most neurotypicals will focus on the mouth of the speaker, missing vital cues that come from eyes, eyebrows, and the nose, so vital to communication. Spending an hour or two in professional training to read micro expressions can enhance the effectiveness of communication in a Neurodivergent marriage.
Paul Ekman, Ph.D. is a psychologist who has spent his professional life studying micro expressions and developed this training, that the popular television show "Lie to Me" made famous.
Equally important is a neurotypical spouse who is willing to take the time to identify inappropriate responses to highly charged emotional topics, like the death of a parent.
Meta-communication mismatches are also highly prevalent in these problematic marriages. As Neurodivergents husbands frequently have Neurodivergent mothers or fathers, it is not surprising that they've not learned how to respond in socially acceptable ways to displays of grief, anger, depressive sadness, or joy.
How to survive a Neurodivergent marriage
It remains an important part of my work to help those in a Neurodivergent marriage, because I see so much senseless heartache in a marriage that could otherwise be "good enough" to provide safety, warmth, and love.
While the public might think that the challenge in changing these marriages would lay with the neurotypical, in truth I see that both spouses play a pivotal role. Many wives discover later in life that their Neurodivergent husbands aren't "selfish" or "narcissistic" or "cruel" but are instead simply born "different." And learning to work together to make things better is key.
Honestnquestion: Why is it that Gottman is the standard for many… when he has been divorced 3 times?
Also, where is the input from a neurodivergint? The spectrum is greatly diverse. How can we all be lumped in the same statistic?
Lastly, does sharing the percentages of predictability of divorce affect the results via variations of different biases? I mean, Outlook is key. Sharing end results affects results. Rather, the better reveal of data is what is needed to make it work where both spouses are happy and growing closer.
I concede that Gottmans results have validity, bit I question the purpose of the results of the analysis. Is it to show what the data proves, or is it to impact for positive results? If you have 2 in marriage counseling, then isn't it because there is a desire to make it work? Why focus on end result stats before even trying?
You raise several important points. First, I believe that the divorce statistic will lower as time goes on. Before 1997, there was no widespread understanding of high-functioning autism, so if you were married or an adult before this time, you may not even know you have autism. Your second point is that neurodivergence is a very broad catch-all.
It is, and it’s also being (appropriately, I think) depathologized. We’re also getting better at treating neurodiverse relationships. Your next point has to do with the harmful impact of sharing discouraging statistics. I think that can go both ways: You can be dedicated to beating the odds or discouraged by them. I believe it is the responsibility of the therapeutic community to both offer hope and be candid about where we are right now.
The odds for the neurodiverse couples that I have seen are still much better than those odds, and the longer I practice, the better those odds are.
Finally, although Gottman himself has been married several times, he went into the field specifically BECAUSE we was such a failure at relationships. He jokes that it is difficult to both study relationships and be in one, although his 30+ years of marriage to his psychologist wife Julie may be an indication that learning can contribute to success.
Thanks for your comments.
Thank you for this article. I wish we'd had a diagnosis and some guidance and support like this a year or two ago. Without either of those, neither of us understood why we seemed to be mis-connecting with each other when we were both trying so hard. With the pandemic & a couple of other major external stressors, he (ND) got overwhelmed and abruptly dissolved the relationship entirely without a word. With the right tools and support, I'm confident we could have made it for the long haul and been better even than "good enough". Much appreciation for the work you are doing.
What a breath of fresh air this is. My partner and I believe in the “good enough” construct and are not quite there yet, but we’ve lived long lives and have a lot to work out.
Finding and using the resources that work is what it’s all about. I can do without neurodiversity. We’ve been with a trauma-informed counselor for three years who uses Gottman and the EFT counseling model with us. Individually Schema therapy keeps me together and my Apergian is loosening up via RO-DBT.
I support the work you are doing yet I did feel emotionally abandoned and unseen by my wife of over a decade and divorce was the outcome. I’m unusual in that it was the wife that was diagnosed late as an adult. There were other incompatibilities at work. Ah well. It’s sad but it’s over and that’s a relief in itself. She’s a good person, fine co-parent. I’m very cautious about future relationships. I’ll give the next one more time before building the castles in the air, if I’m blessed to have a second chance.