Cassandra Syndrome describes a woman who tries to tell others about her life with an autistic partner and is not believed. Her family members don't understand what she's troubled by. While it was named after a mythical woman, it is not restricted to wives in neurodiverse marriages but can happen with either gender.
The wife's friends wonder what about him causes her to be so distressed. She's in an ongoing traumatic relationship syndrome. Like the mythological character, she knows what's happening to her, but she's not believed.
Cassandra Syndrome is not an accepted psychiatric diagnosis. Rather, it is a description of a historic pattern of women not being believed. The medical establishment has often accused women of being melodramatic and exaggerating their physical symptoms. And their history with the mental health establishment and being labeled with inappropriate mental disorders are well documented.
So it is no surprise that when a wife describes how she suffers from emotional deprivation in her marriage, she is doubted. Her husband often successfully masks in front of family and friends. He may be a wealthy and successful husband, calm, rational, and articulate. The wife is simply not believed.
The label "Asperger's Syndrome" began to be used in 1997 in the USA. Many times, if he is an older man who has mild autism spectrum disorder, he might never have been diagnosed as having autism as a child.
In Greek mythology, the god Apollo gave Cassandra the supernatural gift of prophecy as a way of trying to win her affection. When she rejected him, he let her keep her prophetic powers. However, he cursed her with the consequence of no one ever believing her. Despite her accurate predictions, Cassandra was ridiculed and disregarded, seen as insane and irrational.
The Cassandra Syndrome was coined to describe the difficulty NT partners experience when trying to get acceptance and understanding from their neurodivergent partners, relatives, and therapists.
Typically, only when their children are diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum do those around her begin also to suspect that her husband may be likewise neuroatypical.
Emotional Deprivation Disorder
Emotional Deprivation Disorder is yet another term. It's used to describe the cluster of symptoms that result from a lack of emotional connection with a partner on the autism spectrum.
Affective Deprivation Disorder
Maxine Aston describes her conception of AfDD as follows:
AfDD is not mental disorder caused by childhood trauma, emotional pain, or a congenital disability. It is a condition that is rooted in the dynamics of the relationship. It is caused by low emotional intelligence or an inability to recognize emotions (alexithymia) in either or both partners.
It's also something that can change if you can find a good couples therapist who understands and knows how to work with neurodiverse relationships. Even believing the woman and diagnosing the man as "neurodiverse" can be healing. Teach the couple how to relate to one another and enhancing their bond, and the symptoms recede.
Support groups that help to educate the spouse about an asd husband can normalize and provide helpful strategies that the couple can adopt.
One of the critical misconceptions about neurodiversity is that neuroatypicals lack "empathy." It is a damaging accusation. It is often a relief for spouses to discover that this is not only a myth but that those on the spectrum can have cognitive empathy in abundance once they understand their partner's particular personal experience.
They may rely on their partner to articulate this experience, but this is quite different than saying they don't have this fundamental human trait. With understanding comes a greater empathetic response. TI caution them that each individual may believe they are doing the bulk of the work, but once a spouse of an NA member acknowledges the tasks at hand, they often feel greatly relieved and optimistic about their marriage's well-being and progress towards a healthier and happier life. This work teaches each partner to learn how to recognize and show emotions and connections in ways that work for both of them.
Fortunately, more couples therapists are getting trained in identifying neuro-atypicality and learning how to work effectively with neurodiverse couples.
This post will focus on the more user-friendly term Cassandra Syndrome.
Symptoms of Being Disbelieved
When a couple arrives at couples counseling, the NT partner may be feeling overwhelmed and distressed by the relationship. They may be frustrated, claiming that their partner refuses to talk about emotions, is overly controlling, is 'narcissistic,' or blames them when things go wrong.
The NT partner may feel like they are losing their mind. In contrast, there sits the asd partner, calm, rational, often intelligent, and successful in their career. In an unlabeled high-functioning Asperger's marriage, Cassandra Syndrome can be invisible. The untrained therapist asking her to describe the problem might have trouble understanding what the problem actually is. It's a task that can be puzzling without a neurodiverse lens.
Living with a neurodivergent (or autistic person) without support creates intense internal conflict. Long-term, the spouse can suffer poor self-esteem, increased frustration, or even rage, anxiety, or depression. These and other symptoms of the Cassandra Phenomenon or Casandra Syndrome were described two decades years ago.
Receiving the Diagnosis
In my practice, I have learned that with proper context, the diagnosis (or even the descriptor of "neuroatypical") brings both relief and despair. After all, if the husband was character disordered, he might get proper help and change.
What my clients learn is that this difference in how their brains function is wired from birth. The improvement in their marriages will come only from each person changing.
And, as I warn them, "Each of you will believe that you are doing most of the work."
Once a woman or man married to a person who is NA recognizes the work to be done, I have found them to be deeply relieved to be on a positive track to a healthier and happier marriage. The families of adults affected by Cassandra Syndrome can also improve, and they will be able to parent in an easier way.