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.

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

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. 

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,” loosely translated as “no words for emotions.”)

Therefore, spouses who have high functioning Autism or who are neurodivergent 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.

Remember, however, that alexithymic means “no words for emotions” not “no emotions.” One in ten people has alexithymia and it is much more common in autistic people and those with depression.

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 neurodivergent people 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.