Cassandra Syndrome and Emotional Deprivation Disorder

The Cassandra Syndrome is another effort in the continuing attempt to describe the struggle of the neurotypical partner (NT) who too often can’t get validation from their neurodiverse (formerly Asperger’s Syndrome) partner, extended family, or helping professionals.

In Greek mythology, the God Apollo bestowed upon Cassandra the supernatural gift to foresee the future.  He did so in an effort to seduce her.

However, Cassandra was not interested in being the consort of a God, so she rejected his advances. Apollo allowed her to keep her prophetic gift…but cursed her with the burden of never being believed.

Although Cassandra could reliably predict the future and could warn of impending danger, no one believed her.  She was mocked and marginalized…seen as little more than crazed and delusional.

Cassandra’s life, after rejecting Apollo was never the same. Despite Cassandra’s predictive skill, her truth was never accepted.

Cassandra Syndrome has emerged as the term used to describe the psychological and emotional distress experienced by a neurotypical woman married to a neurodiverse man. Support for their truth is elusive as well.

Neurotypical spouses are often plagued by ambivalence, confusion, and turmoil. There are few social supports to help neurotypical spouses grapple with their experience of being married to a neurodiverse individual…and vice versa.

Complicating this issue is the poor understanding that friends, family, and even helping professionals have about the intimate life of the neurotypical spouse.

Several catch-all terms have been recruited to describe the neurotypical spousal experience. About 20 years ago, the name Cassandra Syndrome was floated.

Too many syndromes?

A challenge for the newly emerging Neurodiversity Rights Movement will be to reconcile their critique of the “hegemony of normalcy” with the real problems that present in an neurodiverse/neurotypical marriage, particularly for the neurotypical partner who is also a victim of the oppressive normative paradigm.

Many objected that we were already awash with too many “syndromes” and the alternate term Cassandra Phenomenon was proposed, but never gained traction.

Emotional Deprivation Disorder is another term that has been offered. EDD is a syndrome (a grouping of symptoms) that results from a lack of authentic affirmation and emotional strengthening by a significant other.

The reason this term is confusing is that it was initially coined by a Dutch Catholic psychiatrist in the 1950s, Dr. Anna Terruwe. She originally posited that emotional deprivation in early life fueled an adult anxiety disorder.

Since we’re talking about marriage and not early life, it’s not a useful term, although it was probably seized upon because it sure sounded like one.

Although if you’ve had an emotionally deprived childhood, resulting in an Anxious Attachment Style, and then married a neurodivergentyour early history could be a force-multiplier for marital problems.

Complex PTSD?

Some therapists feel that the undiagnosed neurodivergent relationship inadvertently creates conditions of an unusual variant of complex trauma (C-PTSD). The neurotypical partner does tend to meet some of the C-PTSD criteria:

  1. Trouble regulating emotions
  2. Developing a negative image of self
  3. Problems with interpersonal relationships

Some of the most critical trauma symptoms, nightmares, exaggerated startle reactions, and flashbacks may also be present in the undiagnosed Neurodiverse Marriage.

However, the issues of the neurotypical partner are sufficiently unique that it merits careful study independent of conventional classification. There is typically no singular “traumatic event.” There is, instead, an ongoing traumatic contextan ongoing poverty of intimacy coupled with poor communication. The struggle of the neurotypical partner is not one of being deliberately afflicted. It’s more like being inadvertently deprived.

Affective Deprivation Disorder?

I think neurodiverse thought leader Maxine Aston nailed it when she proposed the term Affective Deprivation Disorder (AfDD) with, as you can see, a nod to the Cassandra Syndrome (“the other half of Asperger’s Syndrome…the new Cassandra Workshop”). I like how Maxine describes her conception of AfDD:

Unlike other Axis and corresponding to the proposed category of Relational Disorders, AfDD is not an enduring disorder of the self stemming from childhood deprivation, emotional trauma, or congenital defect, but rather is a relationship-dependent condition generated by the operation of low emotional-intelligence or alexithymia (lack of emotional awareness) in one or both partners of a relationship.

Further, the symptoms of AfDD are more likely than individual disorders to be responsive to therapeutic intervention or a change in relationship status. In fact, the very knowledge of the primary condition underlying the relational imbalance can in and of itself be healing. Since AfDD is a consequence of individuals’ relational dynamics, it is possible to find ways to reduce the level of disorder by increasing awareness and interactional skills.

Relationships can work if both partners work together to understand their differences and develop a better way of communicating, showing emotional expression and loving that works for both of them. Maxine Aston.

Since Maxine concurs, and in the interest of not confusing our gentle readers, I will focus on the more user-friendly term Cassandra Syndrome. What’s one more little syndrome between friends?

Something important is going on with the frustrated neurotypical partner. As you will soon learn, it’s a two-pronged attachment injury. But I think our thought leaders are overthinking it a wee bit.

The uncomfortable core of the Cassandra Syndrome

I like Maxine’s core ideas, although Affective Deprivation Disorder may be a mouthful, and the term “disorder” may be offensive to some.

She dismisses the idea of a childhood wound (although I think that it could be an aggravating factor) and focuses on present-day relational disconnection.

Maxine describes an intimate relationship that is being actively thwarted by alexithymia or low emotional awareness. But she offers real hope for Neurodiverse Couples. By increasing your interpersonal skills, you can repair the relationship.

In other words, once you learn that you’re in an neurodivergent/neurotypical relationship and you are both willing to work on it, good science-based couples therapy can help. Interestingly, what these thought leaders are all trying to convey is the interlocking sense of isolation Neurodiverse Couples experience when they get poor social support… and really bad couples therapy.

The role bad therapy plays in the Cassandra Syndrome

It’s been my experience that many individually oriented therapists and couples therapists are utterly oblivious to the idea of Neurodiversity, but that is rapidly beginning to change.

Living with a neurodivergent partner with no external support creates intense internal conflict, poor self-esteem, frustration, rage, anxiety, depression, and a constellation of other symptoms that thought leaders described twenty years ago as Cassandra Phenomenon or Cassandra Syndrome.

Cassandra was a mythological character who was given the gift to foresee the future, along with the curse that no one would ever believe her. Interestingly, they chose this term because the epicenter of the problem is not in the speaker of the truth. Cassandra knows what’s up. The problem is in the extended family and therapists…who do not believe her.

Often it is only those closest to the individual with Asperger syndrome, such as their parents and partners, who are truly aware of the problems the syndrome can cause.

By the time the couple gets to the counseling room, the NT partner may appear quite desperate and frustrated by the difficulties and strain, the relationship has placed on her.

She will be saying things like ‘He can’t talk about his feelings. He treats me like an object he is obsessed with routine. He constantly accuses me of criticizing him.’ Finally, a thought that most NT women seem to express is, ‘I think I am going mad!’ Maxine Aston.

To me, the most important aspect of this term…is that the problem is, once again, a lack of emotional awareness. Only this time with the neurotypical's extended family and helping professionals.

Here is the irony. The “hegemony of normalcy” is now oppressing its own kind. The neurotypical spouse is neither understood by their neurodivergent partner…or by family and helping professionals who could reasonably be expected to be empathetic.

Although awareness is increasing thanks to organizations like AANE, most couples therapists are unaware of the traumatic impact of the communication challenges inherent in Neurodiverse Relationships.

Untrained therapists are readily deceived by “… a man who is quite likely to be very intelligent and hold down a very responsible job; announce that he really does not understand why she is never happy,” Maxine Aston.

Cassandra Syndrome, symptoms and certainty

The Cassandra Syndrome underscores the existential loneliness of the neurotypical partner. One of my clients described her husband this way:

By all outside measures, my husband is a success. He’s a multi-millionaire, deeply respected in his field. He has a vast command of many different forms of knowledge. People see his quirky sense of humor. But they didn’t see the 7 months he spent focusing on his humorous routines as a “special project.”  After a party, on the drive home, this all exhausts him. He believes that he has a responsibility to pass as neurotypical…and when the show is over, there is precious little left over for me or the kids.

It’s typical for Neurodiverse Couples like this to enter couples therapy because of a lack of emotional connection and poor communication. The neurotypical had certain conventional expectations that marriage would include a mutual sharing of thoughts and feelings, and conversation about important topics would be relatively easy and effortless.

Clashing needs and expectations in a tangled mess of disconnection and poor communication

Expectations and emotional needs clash. The neurodivergent partner may have an entirely different set of expectations, and a contrary sense of emotional closeness.

The Cassandra Syndrome describes a mismatch of needs and expectations arising from interlocking misunderstandings that are typical for Neurodiverse Couples.

Many neurodivergents have more emotional awareness than neurotypicals give them credit for. Sometimes they are overwhelmed by their intensity.

Some neurodivergents, who find eventually find good couples therapy, disclose that they live with a constant overload of feelings, and they go through their days in a hyper-aroused state for much of the time. These marriages need to build dialogic skills that offer safety.

And some neurodivergents are overwhelmed by their thoughts and struggle to be able to reach out beyond themselves.

More familiar are the neurodivergents who are alexithymia and can not quickly identify their emotions. And then there are the neurodivergents who have very intellectualized emotions and require more processing time than their Neurotypical Spouse.

Some neurodivergents struggle to string 3 sentences together. Others can’t stop talking and crowd out their neurotypical partner. There is no one set pattern of emotional disconnection and poor communication in a Neurodiverse Marriage. But connection and communication challenges are the centers of gravity in the neurodiverse marriage.

As you can see, the ways a Neurodivergent Couple can become emotionally gridlocked are complex and numerous. That’s why training for therapists assessing and treating Neurodivergent Couples is so essential.

A well-trained couples therapist will carefully assess what symptoms are causing the most distress and how this couple can collaborate in therapy to find ways to curb the Cassandra Syndrome. And that’s the promise of science-based couples therapy for treating Neurodiverse Couples.

Are you in a Neurodivergent marriage?

Originally published January 29, 2020

Research:

Aston, M. (2009) The Asperger Couple’s Workbook. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Aston, Maxine. (2001) The Other Half of Asperger syndrome. London. The National Autistic Society.

Aston, Maxine. (2003) Asperger in Love: Couple relationships and family affairs. London. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Carter, R. (1998) Mapping the Mind. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

Fletcher, P.C., Happe, F., Frith, U., Baker, S.C., Dolan, R.J., Frackowiak, R.S.J., Frith, C.D. (1995) Other Minds in the Brain: a functional imaging study of “theory of mind” in story comprehension Cognition 57 pp109-128

Slater-Walker, Gisela, and Chris. (2002) An Asperger Marriage. London. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Stanford, Ashley. (2003) Asperger Syndrome and Long-Term Relationships. London. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Wing. L. (1981) Asperger’s Syndrome: a clinical account Psychological
Medicine11, pp.115–30.

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Daniel Dashnaw


Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist and the blog editor. He currently works with couples online and in person. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and Developmental Models in his approaches. Daniel specializes in working with neurodiverse couples, couples that are recovering from an affair, and couples struggling with conflict avoidant and passive aggressive behavior patterns.

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  1. Iam a mother of four daughters on the spectrum. My oldest is 40 today! The bomb. 4th of July. She started my career of raising girls with the spectrum disorder. I been through it all. Now I have a term to describe my experience. That's helpful to my mental state.
    I lived the most wonderfully hurtful life possible being the mother. But knowing these people as I have makes me know admiration and distain on levels most would never ever choose.

  2. Help! I have been married to a man that has the symptoms of Asperger’s for 16 years. He was never diagnosed, but after learning more I am realizing that he must have it. I come from a very supportive family and work as a recreational therapist in an inpatient unit at our local hospital. I am committed to him, but in order to stay I must find help.

  3. Kathy Marshack has several books for Neurotypicals in Neurodiverse relationships. She is a Psychologist who had a Asperger's parent. She was married to an Asperger's man. I discovered her after reading her books about the relationships between Aspie and NT's and how the NT suffers. Very validating!

  4. I had no idea what I was getting into either. When I would complain, everyone would tell me how lucky I was. He's so calm, loving, always home with you, doesn't beat you, doesn't drink or cheat on you etc…

    So I married him.

    M

  5. Hi

    I have finally found what I was looking for. I have been with my husband for 13 years, married 9 years. It has taken me this long to realize my husband is "on the spectrum". A couple of years ago I confided in my sister in law and she suggested my husband might have Asperger because she self diagnosed and feels her dad and older brother also have it.

    I let it go at that time and decided to seek therapy for myself since my husband kept telling me I was always complaining, sad, depressed, delusional, critical, judgemental, condescending, needy etc..

    Even though I'm the one who takes care of our home, work full time (earn twice his income), provide for myself, puts food on the table, he's still critical. I was wondering why even though he is highly intelligent (Yale MBA) he does not seek professional work. He does not have any friends but, you would not think that by looking at his FB page. In public he is social and very talkative but cannot carry a conversation without taking it over. His mom is his only friend, confidant and enabler. I'm pretty much just a roommate. The intimacy between us is getting worse almost non existent.

    I'm desperate and can't find a therapist with experience in this situation. I need help, I feel my health is detiorating….

  6. Thanks so much for this article. I've found many online articles about how to help an ASD partner deal with his meltdowns, but this is the first one that significantly acknowledges the impact on NT partners and offers greater understanding. This article rings true. It was an especial relief to read this quote from Maxine Aston (I'll look into getting her book):

    "She will be saying things like [‘…]He treats me like an object he is obsessed with routine. He constantly accuses me of criticizing him.’ Aaaaaaaaargh!

    My experience is that my ASD partner having a meltdown is exhausting, even if I retreat to another room for both our sakes. I am looking for ways to minimize the impact of being around sudden storms of swearing that I cannot tell are coming (I don't know the "rumble" signs; I will ask him to look out for them and help me understand how they manifest, once he knows). I am not ASD but I am sensitive to bursts of anger, which make me feel ill afterwards–physically ill, worn out. I can use all kinds of self-soothing, EFT, meditation, etc. but being around this behavior is physically detrimental…I am still working on strengthening my immune system after cancer recovery.

    The REASON for an ASD meltdown is different than the reason for a tantrum, yes… And. The impact on being around one is actually worse. When my stepchildren had tantrums, there were ways to deal with them (tactically and with my own emotional regulation) and predictable courses those tantrums would run. There was also an obvious cause that they and I knew about. I did feel exhausted afterwards, but not as shaken and "wrung-out" as when a grown man starts swearing and saying all kinds of things with no warning. It is well and good to practice responses and being prepared, but if I am just sitting with him at breakfast and suddenly, his inability to read a timetable so he can figure out whether he's going somewhere tomorrow triggers a meltdown, it's 0 to 60 in less than a minute, without warning.

    There are good things about him/us, but it's exhausting to do such a large proportion of the emotional labor. He does not have trouble figuring out his feelings, and he's very good at researching whatever he wants to learn about. I think that in this situation, his willingness to work on the problem (which he does experience as a problem, here and elsewhere) is just not developed yet. He thinks that if he learns about Catholicism or the system of roads, that will solve the problem (I am not being sarcastic). The only thing that helps is when he realizes that his ex-wife said many of the same things I mention. My question is: how can I appropriately encourage him to engage in learning things that will help our relationship.

    *Also*–in this regard, it is hard to separate strands of ASD from strands of regular human resistance to growing closer; for instance, my partner had early experiences that impacted his attachment style. My friend and landlady who is Aspie says, "When you've met one ASD person, you've met one ASD person. Everyone's different." That is VERY important.

    Not that ASD is like polio, but as an example of how different situations can bring about different attitudes:
    My grandmother had polio, lost the use of one leg, was kept in bed in a leg cast for a year because that was the prevailing medical advice in the rural Midwest, was fortunate and went to college (govt. supported polio victims education) and taught, helping people, her whole life. My friend Lyman had polio, was from an educated and well-to-do family with high-end doctors, and instead of being told to rest and keep his arm still (his affected limb), was given a course of rigorous PT like therapy that restored most of his movement. Another friend had polio, lost the use of a leg as my grandmother did, and wound up in a wheelchair her whole life, on disability, because that's what they espoused where she was from.

    Shining a little extra light on the fact that it is always important, with every human being, to consider the whole person in addition to noting strands of commonality.

  7. Misappropriating CPTSD (which is the result of prolonged trauma, most frequently during childhood) by claiming that simply dating a neurodiverse person is incredibly demeaning to people who have actually been through traumatic experiences. Claiming that neurodiverse people are as a whole harmful to be in a relationship with is not only untrue, but ableist. I hope you are able to learn from your ignorance and not spread misinformation like this in the future.

    1. I think the real villain is when an NT has no idea they are living and loving someone who is neurodiverse. Real and serious problems emerge when the NT assumes someone is intentionally being this way, instead of developing a greater understanding.

      Even once they are told they are living in a neurodiverse marriage, it takes them a while to re-adjust their mindset.

      There is a lot of true hatred and misinformation that is spread across the internet regarding neurodiverse people. Many of the comments to other posts like “Five Good Reasons to Love an Aspie” are like this.

      This blog, however, isn’t one of them. We both respect and advocate for living and loving in effective neurodiverse relationships and many of us have taken advanced training to be better at doing this.

      Thanks for your comment.

  8. Thank you so much for this. I'm once again on the hopeless end of the spectrum with my neurodiverse relationship–and this piece offered a sliver of hope to me this morning. Going on 4 years with a resistant, undiagnosed man, and doing the best I can to navigate/survive/thrive without any support.

  9. I just welled up reading this. As an NT in a neurodivergent marriage with (an as-yet undiagnosed) Aspie, I'm feeling so incredulous. Up until this point, I didn't even have the vocabulary to describe any of this, and all of that has changed after having read this article. Thank you so much! As an inter-generational PTSD sufferer myself (my mother had her own PTSD on top of NPD/borderline), I thought I understood the world. I then entered into a neurodivergent relationship with both arms open (he's so calm! He doesn't overwhelm me emotionally!) … I literally had no idea what I was getting myself into. This is an excellent article – thank you and I'd appreciate it very much if I could be kept in the loop with further research developments on this topic. Best regards from Switzerland.

    1. Thanks, Maya! I’m glad you found this article helpful! Check out AANE.org for more information, and especially their course for couples in Neuro-diverse relationships. The couples in it are just great!

  10. CS ” … the psychological and emotional distress experienced by a neurotypical woman married to a neurodiverse man …”
    So no mention then, of similar distress experienced by a neurotypical man married to a neurodiverse woman ?

    1. Sounds sort of flip but Penelope Truck once said that neurodiverse women are more like neurotypical men. In my clinical experience, they also often have greater social skills at “blending.” However, these relationships can also have problems, as you point out.

  11. Are there any good articles or websites for children of parents with asperger’s? As an adult I suspect this is what my mom has.

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