Question

My husband is on the autism spectrum. He is highly intelligent, holds a PhD, has held admirable employment, and in many ways is shockingly gifted. But he is emotionally absent. I would like some support in dealing with that as a spouse. Most of the time I can handle it rationally and enjoy his gifts, but then I find myself hungry for emotional exchange–something he is just not wired for. I know I am not alone. I hope you can address Asperger’s syndrome in a marriage.

Answer

I appreciate your ability to hold space for both your husband’s gifts and his struggles. Even though you’ve found some measure of peace accepting his relational deficiencies, you also know this acceptance doesn’t offer automatic emotional fulfillment in the marriage. Let’s talk about how to help you address this important need within the limitations of the autistic spectrum.

Healthy friendships and marriages are based on the principle of reciprocity. Most neurotypical (NT) people quickly pick up on the rules of reciprocity in childhood by noticing body language, speech patterns, and observing social rules in action. However, individuals on the autistic spectrum (AS) have diminished (or non-existent, in some cases) reflexes to pick up on these subtle cues. It’s maddening for many NT spouses to experience a lack of reciprocity with their AS partner. Without reciprocity, it’s difficult to feel connection, trust, and reassurance that the other person cares about you.

As you know, outsourcing many of your friendship and emotional support needs to other relationships can help you keep your emotional bucket full. But, it’s also true that the one person you want connection with is your husband. Therefore, it’s vital that you stay motivated to keep working on staying as connected to him as possible. 

Your husband may not naturally initiate emotional connection with you, but is he willing to reciprocate when you initiate it? If you sense a willingness on his part to figure this out with you, then join his willingness with yours and keep working at it. If he resists, then examine closely your expectations and your approach so you can better understand how to get out of this polarizing dynamic.

One small study of the communication patterns between NT women and their AS husbands highlighted a common, but difficult, pattern of communicating that created more difficulties for these couples.[i] The basic pattern looked like this: The NT wife prompts the AS husband for reciprocal interaction and the AS husband promptly blocks or avoids the interaction. Then, because she’s now been blocked or avoided, it heightens her need for connection, so she delivers another prompt which is then met with the same response. 

Because you’re the NT spouse, you’ll get plenty of validation and support from other NT people that your efforts at seeking emotional connection are normal and healthy. This is crucial so you don’t feel like you’re crazy. At the same time, it can also work against your marriage if this is the only input you receive. Your AS husband is also doing what’s normal for him and needs the same validation and reassurance that he’s not crazy.

This frustrating cycle burns out both partners in the marriage as they continue doing what intuitively makes sense to each of them. The way out of this cycle is to honor and respect your individual wiring and resultant reflexes while seeking ways to not only see the cycle but then shape it into something different.

Instead of only prompting him to connect with you through specific requests, see if you talk with him about your need for reciprocity in the relationship. This is less about memorizing specific needs, but instead, addressing the larger need of having a caring relationship. If he can care about responding back to you, even if it’s limited and even mechanical, can this signal to you that he’s emotionally committed to you?

You can also show him some reciprocity by caring about what he needs in the relationship and making adjustments. As you both work to demonstrate an ongoing reciprocal dance of responding to each other’s different needs, it makes it less likely that you’ll feel distant and lonely.

Every marriage requires a healthy level of acceptance and surrender as we recognize that our partner simply won’t do things in the way that makes the most sense to us. This can add diversity and beauty to your bond or it can drive you completely insane. I believe this is a conscious choice and commitment we each have to make, whether we’re married to someone on the autistic spectrum or not. I don’t say this to bypass or downplay your specific challenges, but acceptance and surrender allows us to go the distance with relational differences in a more peaceful way.

And, please remember, as Dr. Stephen Shore once said, “If you’ve met one person with Asperger’s, you’ve met one person with Asperger’s.” Even though there are traits common to most individuals on the autistic spectrum, it’s important to spend your energy understanding your husband’s unique needs instead of generalizing.

I commend you for your willingness to see him as a gifted man who is still worthy of love and belonging. I hope you will continue to honor both of your unique needs as you work toward some form of reciprocity in this marriage.

Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at [email protected]

If you’ve broken trust with your spouse and want a structured approach to repairing the damage you’ve created, I’ve created the Trust Building Bootcamp, a 12-week online program designed to help you restore trust and become a trustworthy person. You can receive 15% off by entering the code MERIDIAN at checkout. Visit www.trustbuildingacademy.com to learn more and enroll in the course.

About the Author

Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in St. George, Utah. He specializes in working with couples, pornography/sexual addiction, betrayal trauma, and infidelity. He is the founder of LifeStar of St. George, Utah (www.lifestarstgeorge.com) and Alliant Counseling and Education (www.alliantcounseling.com). Geoff is the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity”, the host of the Illuminate podcast, and creates online relationship courses available at www.trustbuildingacademy.com. He earned degrees from Brigham Young University and Auburn University. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children.

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[i] https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/23311908.2017.1283828