The challenge of a Neurodivergent marriage
Neurodivergent marriage is a challenging problem, even for otherwise skilled couples therapists. Several years ago, Dr. K was participating in a high-level training seminar for couples therapists.
A therapist was presenting a case involving a husband who she described as self-absorbed, blunt, hyper-focused on his own narrow interests, highly intelligent, but completely unwilling to entertain his wife’s point of view.
In concluding her case presentation, this therapist summarily diagnosed the husband as suffering from a narcissistic personality disorder.
Dr. K was concerned.
The husband sounded like he was Neurodivergent, formerly Asperger’s Syndrome, which is a high functioning form of autism. Neurodivergents often have an above-average IQ, and are often, (but not always), highly successful scientists, engineers, mathematicians, and technology workers.
According to Asperger’s thought leader Tony Atwood, the profession with the highest concentration of Neurodivergents is physicians.
What is Neurodivergence?
According to the DSM-5, Neurodivergence, formerly Asperger’s Syndrome (AS), is a developmental disorder characterized by significant difficulties in social interaction and nonverbal communication, along with restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior and interests.
Neurodivergents experience the world differently than neurotypical (NT) people. It is believed that a hyper-sensitivity to sensory stimuli necessitates the Neurodivergents withdrawal from an onslaught of oppressive stimulation.
From a couples therapy context, it’s important to note how a conventional neuro-typical perspective dwells on the external conflicts between the NT and the Neurodivergent, and not the root cause…the Neurodivergent and NT partner’s fundamentally different neurology.
If you’re a Neurodivergent, you will always be a Neurodivergent. It’s not a personality disorder or illness. It is a variation in how your brain is wired. And it is, in fact, a core aspect of your identity.
Neurodivergent is typically perceived by NT’s as sensory sensitivity, rigid and concrete thinking, and challenges in mirroring functional NT communication and social skills.
Gender in Neurodivergence is often a crucial issue in couples therapy because it’s believed that for every Neurodivergent woman, there are anywhere from 3 or more Neurodivergent men. Most neurodiverse couples who wind up on my couch are a high-functioning, successful Neurodivergent man, and his NT wife.
Although it is perceived as an Autism Spectrum Disorder, early development for Neurodivergence is usually healthy, and there is no delay in acquiring language skills. It’s also not unusual for Neurodivergents to have co-occurring learning disabilities and attention deficit issues.
Many Neurodivergents struggle with anxiety, depression and GI issues. It’s hard for NT’s to understand the daily stress of being neurodiverse.
Neurodivergence is a Well Kept Secret
Neurodivergence is often missed in early childhood, and many individuals do not receive a diagnosis until adulthood…if ever. Often Neurodivergents are aware that their brains are different and try to mimic neurotypical behavior (NT) as best they can.
Many parents don’t realize that they are Neurodivergent until one of their children is diagnosed. Recognizing that a partner is on the spectrum is often a huge relief for struggling couples. It explains the concrete thought processes that are such a problematic aspect of intimate family life.
Neurodivergents face particular challenges in couples therapy because most therapists do not understand the notion of a Neurodivergent Marriage. Peter Thiel once said that secrets about people are under-appreciated. He also said that you can’t find secrets without looking for them.
Neurodivergent Marriages are stressed in two distinct ways. First, the challenges of a Neurodivergent Marriage are often hidden. Couples can go for decades without fully understanding why their communication problems are so intractable.
Secondly, most Neurodivergent Couples who enter couples therapy find themselves on the couch of a therapist with neither the training or awareness of how to work with a Neurodivergent Marriage.
I believe in standardizing automobiles. I do not believe in standardizing human beings. Albert Einstein
A few common ways to recognize neurodivergence
Communication and social cues
Perhaps the most universally recognized problem areas for Neurodivergents are NT communication and social cues. Neurodivergents can be utterly perplexed by the nuances of body language, facial expressions, and gestures. Their confusion results in an inability to discern what is socially appropriate in the NT world. Neurodivergents also are well known for their difficulty in making and holding eye contact. They can also appear anxious and awkward in social settings.
On the other hand, Some Neurodivergents make eye contact and cultivate some degree of social skill. Spotting clients on the spectrum isn’t always an easy task for a couple’s therapist.
Limited social comprehension
Small talk with NTs is awkward for a Neurodivergent. Adults that are Neurodivergent may have difficulties in group situations. They might not choose appropriate topics to discuss and find small talk and chatting very difficult. They may take what people say very literally and have problems understanding teasing, double entendre, irony, and sarcasm.
Theory of mind and working imagination
Neurodivergents are often brilliant and original thinkers. However, they are frequently burdened with anxiety and depression because they have a hard time imagining alternative options or predictable outcomes.
Many Neurodivergents take comfort in rigid routines and may become highly agitated with their NT partner if changes occur on the fly.
However, they may have trouble imagining alternative outcomes to given situations and find it hard to guess what will happen next.
This often leads to anxiety and can result in obsessions with rigid routines, and severe distress can arise if routines are disrupted.
These cognitive difficulties often cause problems with NT spouses. Differences in making plans for the future, and prioritizing life tasks are shared. Much to the dismay of their neurotypical partners, many Neurodivergents approach mundane daily tasks with rigid and highly detailed checklists.
It is also true that many NT spouses have an opposite complaint. They’re frustrated because their partner will not accept their influence by following or making a to-do list. Rigidity is the common denominator.
Neurodivergent marriages are not that uncommon
It’s now estimated that 1 in 50- 60 Americans are on the Autism Spectrum. That’s a lot of marriages.
Fo the most part, couples therapy is failing Neurodivergent Marriages. A European study estimated that 80% of Neurodivergent Marriages end in divorce. If true, that’s nearly double the divorce rate for neurotypical (NT) couples.
Dr. John Gottman is the dean of science-based couples therapy and has been studying couples for well over 40 years.
He has famously stated that emotionally intelligent husbands who the capacity to accept influence from their wives are the bedrock of happy marriages.
While Gottman admits that while a husband may not express emotions, in the same way as his spouse, the ability to listen non-defensively, validating their point of view, and show empathy while understanding their partner’s needs is fundamental.
All of this depends on having a Theory of Mind, (or as some would argue, a theory of the NT mind) which is perhaps the most challenging deficit in the Neurodiverse Marriage.
Theory of mind and the Neurotypical bias of modern couples therapy
By neurotypical standards, Neurodivergents have an unusually weak Theory of Mind. The ability to have a felt sense of their partner’s feelings, emotions, or intentions is often severely limited. When Neurodivergents are talking to their spouses, they only have their own profoundly different emotional blueprint to work from, and it differs significantly from their NT partner.
By autistic standards, the ‘normal’ human brain is easily distractible, obsessively social, and suffers from a deficit of attention to detail. Peter Thiel
Neurodivergents often find it incredibly difficult to imagine what their partner may be thinking or feeling. Because their Theory of the NT Mind is so different, Neurodivergents often say and do things that ostensibly appear insensitive, self-involved, and even cruel. If a couple goes undiagnosed over time, the accumulated attachment injuries of the NT spouse take their toll.
The tragic paradox is rarely is this apparent insensitivity is intentional. Neurodivergents are often keenly focused on fairness and social justice, and they more often than not struggle to speak the truth the best way they can.
It’s not that Neurodivergents are incapable of being false and dissembling. It’s more that they lack the necessary skill set, and prefer not to. While their bluntness can sometimes be off-putting, it’s often refreshing as well.
The clinical challenge for science-based clinicians is adapting and expanding Gottman Couples Therapy for Neurodivergent Marriages. The time has come to develop a post-modern science-based couples therapy that can create new interventions to help the Neurodivergent and their NT spouse understand and manage the perpetual problem of their neurological differences.
A neuroscience-informed couples therapist acts as a good-faith translator between the Neurodivergent and their NT spouse. Assessing the anxiety and depression of the Neurodivergent partner as well as the communication burden of being a Neurodivergent Couple is the first step.
7 principles for making marriage work and 7 challenges for Neurodivergent couples
Gottman’s most famous book is the Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. It will be interesting to compare Gottman’s 7 principles for making marriage work with the inherent challenges of a Neurodivergent Marriage.
Enhance Your Love Maps. Neurotypical Couples (NT) have an ongoing awareness of each other’s world. They master the little details of life (favorite foods, best friends, favorite movie, least favorite relative, etc.) This presents a serious challenge for Neurodivergents with a Theory of the NT Mind deficit.
Neurodivergents usually have a laser-like focus on their own “special interests.” These interests offer a soothing respite from the overwhelming stimulation of the NT world. They may dismiss the idea of having a Love Map of their partner’s world as silly and inconsequential. Furthermore, they would have no problem saying so directly.
Nurture Fondness and Admiration System. NT couples understand the value of admiring their partner and demonstrating fondness. While Neurodivergents may aspire to show fondness admiration, they cannot read facial expressions and non-verbal cues that sustain this skill for NT spouses.
Turning Toward Your Partner Instead of Away During Times of Stress. One of the cornerstones of Gottman Couples Therapy is the notion of “small things often.” He describes this process as making deposits in an emotional bank account. Little acts of kindness and small courtesies require a Theory of the NT Mind which is capable of valuing and noticing. When the Theory of Mind is weak, so is their capacity for Turning Towards.
Let Your Partner Influence You. I mentioned this earlier. Gottman’s research emphasizes that men who accept influence from their wives have happier marriages. The ability to accept influence implies a constellation of social skills that the NT world of couples therapy takes for granted.
Neurodivergents and their NT spouses endure profound difficulties in communication. Neurodivergents often perceive their spouses as irrational and contradictory when they give voice to complicated feelings.
Solve Your Solvable Problems The capacity to successfully deal with “solvable” problems obviously requires some ability to see the problem from your spouse’s point of view, be able to accept influence, and be flexible.
Neurodivergents struggle to understand their spouse’s point of view, and being rigid and inflexible is an obvious obstacle to problem-solving.
Overcome Gridlock. One of the essential skills taught in Gottman Method Couples Therapy is meaningful dialogue. The famous Gottman intervention, Dreams Within Conflict, is a structured approach to holding meaningful dialogues, particularly about “unsolvable problems.”
Unfortunately, because of rigid thinking and Theory of Mind issues, emotional gridlock between a Neurodivergent and their NT partner is a common problem.
Gottman couples therapy relies heavily on the assumption of a shared capacity to be curious about one’s partner. This is a neurotypical bias that science-based couples therapists will need to compensate for with Neurodivergent Couples. Once again, the challenge of an Neurodivergents Theory of the NT Mind difference requires their couples therapist to work with them in a completely different way.
Create Shared Meaning. Shared meaning requires an interlocking sensibility of shared values and goals. Dialogue, accepting influence, and communication skills are once again essential, and a presenting challenge for the Neurodivergent and their NT partner.
The Neurodivergent challenge for science-based couples therapy
There is an emerging Neurodiversity rights movement that demands that we notice that a “hegemony of normalcy” has pervaded our culture. This critique obviously includes modern couples therapy.
Some thought leaders seek to move Neurodivergence from the medical realm entirely. They invite clinicians to see Neurodivergence not as a sort of pathology, but instead as more like an ethnicity.
Couples Therapy Inc. intends to push the field of couples therapy forward to do that.
Neurodivergents are often neurologically different from their partners. These differences can be assets, deficits, or a little of both. Their couples therapy must be different as well. Science-based couples therapy must become an advocate for neurological pluralism.
Back to my original story about Dr. K
The seminar trainer was intrigued by Dr. K’s comments and invited her to formally present to her group on Neurodivergent Couples. It was troubling to see a large group of other-wise sophisticated therapists learn about Neurodivergence…for the first time.
But that was nearly a decade ago. Dr. K has gone on to be a thought leader in couples therapy in more ways than one. But she is particularly well known for her couples therapy intensives with Neurodivergents and NT partners.
Fortunately, more therapists than ever have an opportunity to learn more about this poorly understood and inadequately served neurological minority because of the Aspergers/Autism Network (AANE).
The Aspergers and Autism Network… Teaching professionals about Neurodivergent couples
The good news is that neuroscience is, once again, informing couples therapy.
Dr. K and I, along with new CTI member, Catherine Pfuntner were delighted to participate in the recent AANE Neurology Matters Couples Therapy Training.
This exciting training is allowing us to deepen our understanding of how to work with Neurodivergent Couples even more effectively. AANE (Asperger/Autism Network), is perhaps the first Neurodivergent-focused organizations of its kind in the United States.
It was founded in 1996 by a small group of concerned parents and professionals, shortly after the diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome (AS) first appeared in the U.S. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, edition IV (DSM-IV).
Their headquarters is in Watertown Massachusetts, not far from our new CTI corporate office in Boston.
AANE is building a thriving and supportive community. They offer education, information, and referrals to individuals with Neurodivergence, their extended families, and the professionals who work with them. That’s how we got involved.
I will be writing more about Neurodivergent Marriages, and innovative new couples therapy interventions for Neurodivergent Couples in future posts.
Are you in a Neurodivergent marriage?
Originally published January 28, 2020