Could Autism/ASD Be a Cause of Your Relationship Difficulties?
If you are trying to understand why you are suffering from ongoing relationship difficulties and are wondering if Autism might play a part, this blog article should help.
As we all know, relationships can be difficult and complicated at times, but when one partner has Autism, many more difficulties usually arise. That’s because ASD/ASC is primarily a social-emotional-communication difference.
Being able to express your emotions and be emotionally supportive of each other is the lifeblood of a healthy relationship. This can be difficult though, if you are in a neuro-diverse marriage, and over time you can both run out of energy trying to deal with these challenges.
To make things even more difficult, the tools and strategies that “garden variety” couples find helpful often don’t work for you in a neuro-diverse relationship.
I will start with what it feels like to be a neurotypical partner with an Aspie, and then also talk about what it feels like to be a person with Autism or Aspergers in a relationship with a neurotypical person. I’ll then describe how the relationship usually progresses, the challenges that can happen along the way, and then how your relationship can be helped.
Just a note, in the past Asperger’s disorder was considered a “mild” type of autism, but since 2013, when a new classification called Autism Spectrum Condition/Disorder (ASC/ASD) was created in the DSMV, Asperger’s is no longer a correct clinical term, but is now included in the Autism Spectrum. However, many still refer to the term to differentiate “high functioning” Autism from more evident types of Autism.
Is my partner Autistic? Here are 55 relationship clues.
Here is a 55-point questionnaire we have created that will help as a starting point. It is important to understand that Autism has a very diverse set of symptoms and no two individuals will be alike. But the more of these points that you feel fit your relationship, the more likely that ASD can explain your particular set of difficulties.
If you find that 40 or more of the below clues seem to apply, then your partner could be on the Autism Spectrum.
For ease of expression, I will use the term “he,” but this could equally refer to “she”.
- Your relationship had a passionate start, but the passion dwindled quite quickly when you started living together
- Your partner can often engage in long-winded conversations that are often one-sided
- He may have difficulty putting himself in someone else’s shoes and empathising
- He often needs many periods of solitude and quiet time
- He tends not to understand the nature of give and take in a conversation
- He can often seem to be self-absorbed
- You often feel emotionally deprived in the relationship
- He often interprets words quite literally
- He has difficulty talking about his emotions, and so tends to avoid it
- He may have trouble making the connection between what you are feeling and what he has done or not done
- You often feel frustrated by not being able to connect on a deep and consistent level
- Even if you are physically together, there can feel like there is an emotional distance, which can leave you feeling lonely
- He can suffer from sensory overload at times
- He tends to shy away from public displays of affection
- You can often feel taken for granted by him
- He tends to demonstrate his feelings of love through his actions
- You can feel your best efforts in the relationship get very little in return
- He doesn’t choose to socialise much with his friends
- He can tend to be lazy in the relationship
- He may find it difficult to completely let go in sex
- He can have trouble engaging with you when you are talking about an emotional issue
- He gets defensive easily and the gentlest of conversations he can view as an attack or a criticism
- He may not tell you the whole truth
- He usually tends to put himself and his needs first
- You can sometimes find yourself in situations where you are shocked at how insensitive he is
- He can be altruistic and heroic, but sometimes when you expect him to come through for you, he may not be able to handle it
- He doesn’t tend to like pressure or expectations put on him
- In times of relationship difficulty, he tends to see you as the neurotic one
- He can sometimes have a hard time holding onto a job or seeing things through
- He feels more comfortable with structure and routine
- He finds it difficult having to answer to an alarm clock
- He can be excessive at lazy activities
- His aloneness or cocooning is essential for him
- Depression is a common state for him at various times of his life
- He can be very passive
- He tends not to be good at organising holidays or outings
- He is often not interested in your world, inner life or activities
- He tends to be socially withdrawn
- He can at times, cut you off and change the subject when you are mid-sentence
- He can keep you separate from his family and /or friends
- Even if he loves you and values your relationship, you may never get a commitment. He may worry he is not capable of being a good husband.
- He may marry because you want it and then often be half hearted
- He will be more comfortable with old friends and family than new ones
- He can acknowledge it’s good to have companionship, but it does create stress for him
- He can tend to live in his rational mind the most
- His conversations can often be surface level and brief
- You may find it difficult to cope with his anxiety and routines and not being able to be silly and frivolous
- The chances are he has never made any promises, unless you are married
- You find you have made more adjustments to him over time than he has to you
- You feel you are more a caregiver to him than an equal to him
- You may feel you are never number 1 for him. His special interest more often is
- You may feel you have to do more than an equal share of the household tasks
- Your relationship may be more practical than anything else
- He may deny there is a problem as he finds it difficult to empathise with what you are feeling
- You may feel isolated as no-one else understands what’s going on behind closed doors, and he seems normal to others outside the relationship
Those with Autism are at an inherent disadvantage in a relationship, but that doesn’t mean with guidance it is not possible to create a happy union. Each partner has very different and unique needs and these need to be taken into account.
Our Hart Centre relationship psychologists across Australia have completed training by Tony Attwood, the leading Asperger’s expert in the world, so can help you navigate a relationship where one or both of you are on the spectrum.
Am I an Aspie in a relationship with a neurotypical partner?
Perhaps you think it might be possible that you have ASC/ASD and are in a relationship with someone who is Neurotypical.
Here are 33 questions to ask yourself that will give you clues in identifying this.
If you find that 25 or more of the below clues apply to you, there is a high likelihood that you are on the Autism Spectrum.
- You have had very few relationships in your life
- You are not sure you know what is expected in a relationship
- You really enjoy your solitude
- You have at least one interest you are very passionate about
- You appreciate having the opportunity to talk about your special interest
- You are easily stressed by social situations
- You tend not to talk about your emotions
- You tend to show your partner how much you love her by doing things for her
- You can have difficulty concentrating if the topic isn’t about your specific interests
- You can feel stressed by change or unpredictable situations
- You tend to like structure in your life
- It can feel great to settle into a relationship and not have to put so much effort into it winning her
- You feel easily overwhelmed when someone is talking about their emotions
- You can be socially shy
- It’s difficult for you to share all aspects of your life with your partner, and work towards shared goals
- Managing conflict is not your strong suit
- You tend to be more comfortable with old friends and family than with making new friends
- You don’t tend to like being silly and frivolous
- It can feel after a while in your relationship that your partner is often criticizing you
- You can tend towards being passive in your life
- You are not so good at listening to your partner
- You find your partner often seems obsessed with you showing her more affection
- You find it difficult and unnecessary to sense what your partner is feeling
- Making compromises doesn’t come easily to you
- You don’t like public displays of affection
- You don’t understand why birthdays and anniversaries are considered important
- Past partners have often left you
- You don’t feel comfortable with expectations put on you
- Being in the relationship can begin to feel very difficult and complicated
- You don’t tend to like making commitments to others
- Your partner can seem more and more moody, irrational and emotional over time
- You prefer to keep some things separate from your partner
- It can seem like your partner is making the relationship difficult for you
If many of these apply to you, then you may have found an explanation for why your relationship has had its particular challenges.
You will need to work together to understand and meet the needs of both of you and create a whole new structure for your relationship.
You may have already tried this with a generalist relationship counsellor without success, but because specific knowledge, understanding and strategies are needed for you, this is best achieved by seeing a specialist ASC/ASD relationship psychologist.
Please see below for locations of our Hart Psychologists
Should we get a diagnosis?
It is usually in the context of their romantic relationships that most adults with Asperger’s discover that they are an Aspie, because this is the context where the expectations on them are the most difficult to meet. Colleagues, parents, siblings and even children may consider them quirky, unusual or different, but will often not identify anything beyond this.
Diagnosing ASC/ASD, particularly in adults remains challenging as it is both a science and an art, requiring the trained eye of a specialist who has seen a wide variety of adults on the spectrum, and viewing a cluster of traits in the broader contexts of relationships, life history and life experiences. Add to this, the severity of traits can and do vary greatly with each individual, which adds to the complexity of diagnosis.
Clinical Neuropsychological testing is more commonly done with children and teenagers where special educational accommodations may be needed. But for adults, many are satisfied with having the expert opinion of a clinical psychologist or psychiatrist specialising in ASC/ASD, without the formalised testing procedure, or even self- diagnosis.
Please be advised, The Hart Centre’s psychologists do not offer a diagnosis for Autism, but we are happy to help you through your relationship difficulties.
More and more people are self-identifying as being on the autism spectrum. Many actually prefer self- diagnosis, because this can lead to them evaluating their strengths and weaknesses in the context of ASC/ASD, and it can help finally make sense of why they may have always felt so different from others.
There can be a great relief to know their alternate mindset is what makes them different, and they can actively seek out professionals and resources that will help.
When you get the diagnosis
Having a diagnosis of ASC/ASD can bring about a huge paradigm shift for both partners.
For the neurotypical partner, it can help explain and put into perspective all, or almost all, of the relationship difficulties they have been experiencing, and she can now understand that for the most part, he has not deliberately been making things difficult.
For the partner with ASC/ASD, the diagnosis can bring about very mixed feelings. Sometimes he can deny or make light of the diagnosis, although at a deeper level he also realises that this does explain a lot of why he has felt so different to others over his life.
There can be a relief to discover that his brain is wired differently, and he may also realise that his partner isn’t to blame for their relationship challenges either, and that she hasn’t been too demanding or overreactive as he had previously thought.
Accepting the diagnosis can set them both on a course of new understanding and learning new strategies to help their specific relationship.
For the partner of the Aspie, this initial stage can often be followed by a stage of grieving for the loss of the partner she thought she had, and the loss of the typical marriage, but this grieving process can also bring hope.
As Eva Mendes, a US ASC/ASD relationship expert says ‘She may come to think “I now understand the way he is. I no longer feel like I am going crazy. It’s not what I thought my marriage would be, but I am interested in working on solutions”’, particularly if the positive aspects of their life together outweigh the challenges.
This is the time where a specialist ASC/ASD relationship psychologist is the most help, in assisting you in coming to terms with the discovery, in understanding each other more fully, and suggesting specific strategies to help both of you meet the unique needs of each other.
When you met, what attracted you to each other?
Tony Attwood has found that it is common for a new person meeting an Aspie to be impressed with his intellect and knowledge on topics, or his literary or artistic qualities.
Due to their giftedness in the areas of maths, science, technology, medicine, art, and music, many adults with ASC/ASD make highly desirable life partners.
He will often also be kind and thoughtful to his new partner.
In addition, he often offers a detail-oriented approach to problem solving, and a unique and interesting way of looking at the world.
Initially, he can appear to have a kind of “Peter Pan” type of character, often being good looking and attentive, and not suffering from a lot of relationship baggage, having not chosen to be in many relationships in his previous life.
When it becomes apparent that he is rather socially shy, the partner can often feel strong maternal and caring feelings for him.
What kind of partners do Aspies usually find themselves with?
There are usually 2 very different kinds of partners a person with Asperger’s looks for, and finds themselves with:
Firstly, the less common option is a partner just like them – someone who works in the same industry as them, and/or who has similar interests, who also likes solitude and who likes talking about facts and information, rather than sharing more on an emotional level.
The second and more common choice of partner is a someone who is on the other extreme – a person who is exceptionally caring, affectionate, and nurturing, and with a natural maternal instinct. She/he moves effortlessly in social circles and can easily become a social interpreter for the person with ASC/ASD. She can also be a calming influence when anxiety and anger come up for the person with ASC/ASD.
What happens in a relationship with an Aspie
The relationship usually starts off beautifully with the neuro-typical partner feeling her partner is very attentive to her, eager to please her, and desires to be with her often. She feels very much appreciated and special in this new relationship.
When an Aspie man finds just the right partner he is looking for, which may take him a long time, initially he will work very hard to make it work between them. He will put himself out and extend himself right out of his comfort zone to accommodate her wishes and desires.
However, he will not be able to keep up this amount of effort for very long, so once he feels he has secured her, and they have settled in, he usually relaxes back into his more normal ways.
The Disillusionment Stage
Once the couple start living together or get married, the initial romantic stage often comes to a very abrupt end, and this loss is felt very deeply by the neuro-typical partner.
She has no idea of how much effort and sacrifice he has had to expend to win her over and to have her as part of his life, and she is devastated when his attention then moves away from her and back to his special projects, especially as she has no inkling of why this is all happening.
This disillusionment stage happens in all relationships; but is often felt more acutely in a neuro-diverse relationship.
Once that initial intoxicating limerence stage has come to an end, both partners start to realise that their relationship is not what they each imagined, nor is it as fulfilling as they initially thought or hoped it might be.
The neurotypical partner may feel disappointed that their ASC/ASD partner appears to find more enjoyment from solitude, and being involved in their special interest, than from their company.
Added to this, the conversations that they are having are brief and more superficial than she would like, with the ASC/ASD partner having little interest in conversations with more emotional depth.
She discovers that where she expected him to become more emotionally attuned to her and interested in things that are emotionally significant to her as the relationship deepened, she finds that this is often not the case at all.
She may also find that he no longer expresses love and affection for her in the ways he did to start with, as if this is no longer needed. Whereas for her these are needs that remain through-out the entire relationship.
She can also find it taxing to need to adhere to his strict routines, perfectionism and bouts of anxiety, or rages against what seems like minor irritations.
She can also find over time, that she is becoming a micromanager of her ASC/ASD partner, with very little appreciation from her partner, and this can exhaust her leaving her feeling taken for granted.
For the neurotypical partner it can feel like she is expected to be his mother, giving unconditional acceptance and support without receiving anything similar in return.
In addition, she can find that there’s times when she just wants to have fun, and perhaps be a bit silly and frivolous, but he’s never up for that. Nor is he interested in having fun socially either.
As a way of coping with these stresses, she may go through a change where she tries to become more like her Aspie partner, taking on similar values, lifestyle and thinking in order to cope, but this is usually an unsuccessful coping strategy.
As a result of all these things, the neurotypical partner often finds herself feeling emotionally neglected or rejected and undervalued.
The ASC/ASD partner can also start feeling that his relationship is not what he thought, but usually this takes a little longer for him.
Having not had much experience in relationships, he can find himself in a complex world where he feels overwhelmed with what seems to be expected of him.
Usually, he has not had much experience or practice at the basic relationship skills of seeking to understand another’s view, resolving conflict in a way that honours both persons needs, making compromises and sharing responsibilities, so these can seem overwhelming.
He can become increasingly aware of not living up to the expectations that his partner has of him in the relationship.
He unintentionally trips up in things he says or does or doesn’t say or doesn’t do, and then feel criticised by his partner for it.
He can find it exceedingly difficult and taxing to maintain a relationship particularly as he notices his partner becomes moodier and more irrational, and has more emotional ups and downs than he is comfortable with. And he doesn’t appreciate her seeming obsession with him showing more affection towards her.
As Tony Attwood says he feels like he is in a world “with no operators manual”.
He also can’t understand someone who seems to be so emotional about things instead of using logic to solve problems which he knows is by far the best way.
Often, too, she doesn’t understand how important his special interest is to him, and on many occasions, this is more important than spending time with her. In this, he can escape from the complicated world of relationships to a familiar world where he feels comfortable and knowledgeable and at ease.
He often feels unappreciated, and constantly criticised and not able to do the right thing by her, leading him to feel confused and resentful. This affects his sense of self- esteem and he can easily feel like a relationship failure.
Having ASC/ASD will mean that it will be very difficult for him to put himself in her shoes, and rarely will he make the connection between his behaviour and her reactions. This can make things worse as he can then blame her for the relationship problems, seeing her as being unreasonable and difficult.
Each of them can experience not only different enjoyments, but also different priorities.
This stage of disillusionment can be followed by a prolonged stage of anger and frustration by both partners as their needs are apparently so different. Arguments become common, accusations are often thrown around, and frequent short and extended separations happen regularly.
Neither person understands what is going on, or why the other is being so difficult.
In the absence of a diagnosis and skilled professional help, neuro-diverse relationship almost always flounder because of these complex differences.
How a partner feels in a relationship with an Aspie – Affective deprivation
Neurotypical partners tend to have a rather unique relationship experience, and this often leads to the development of what has been referred to as Cassandra Affective Deprivation Disorder, or more recently Affective Deprivation Disorder.
This disorder is not a personality disorder, but instead develops as a result of being emotionally deprived in their relationship situation. All humans have a need for emotional love, belonging, affection and reciprocity and when we are in a situation where we feel we are giving it, but not receiving it in return, then it affects our self-esteem and has a huge impact on our mental and physical health.
It is important to understand that the Aspie partner does not realise that these needs are there for his partner and that this deprivation is happening, as he is not intentionally withholding anything.
He is often surprised and saddened to discover that his partner is being impacted in such a huge way like this. This is why a no-blame perspective is the best approach.
Maxine Aston, a UK specialist Asperger’s relationships counsellor, explains that this Cassandra Affective disorder is like a seasonal affective disorder which is caused by a lack of sunlight, affecting the person with depression, sleep problems, lethargy, overeating, hopelessness, anxiety, tension, a loss of libido and a weakened immune system.
Things are often made worse for a partner when she is not believed, and commonly is blamed for the problems in the relationship by her ASC/ASD partner. Even when other professionals like doctors, teachers, therapists and counsellors become involved, unless they are trained in ASC/ASD and it’s affects, they can choose not to take her seriously, and inadvertently continue the pattern of blame towards her. Realising that she isn’t being heard or understood creates even further depression and despair for her.
She can feel confused, alone and desperate by this stage.
Symptoms of “Cassandra” Affective Deprivation Disorder
Maxine Aston has identified the following symptoms of CADD:
- Feeling extremely disappointed with the relationship
- Feeling confused
- Feeling angry
- Feeling guilty
- Low self-esteem
- Loss of self-identity
- Loss of faith in yourself
- Anger and frustration
- Listlessness and depression
- Phobias or social phobias
- Developing Asperger’s ways
- Loss or gain in weight
- Premenstrual tension
- Low immune system
What can be done about Affective Disorder?
The first most important factor in reducing Affective Disorder is to acknowledge it and seek to understand it, by both the person suffering and her Aspie partner.
This is almost impossible unless or until there is a diagnosis or acknowledgement that Asperger syndrome exists in the partner.
Then it can be understood as a consequence of the huge differences between their emotional needs.
Then secondly, it is about repairing the deprivation.
For the NT partner these emotional needs are like food that are crucial for her survival, so the best approach is to take a two-pronged approach.
Firstly, Maxine suggests her ASC/ASD partner can learn about what he can do to help her feel more emotionally fed.
What can an Aspie partner do to help his partner?
He can start doing things like:
- Giving her a kiss when he leaves the house
- Greeting her sweetly when he arrives home
- Making a commitment to say one nice thing a day to her that he is genuine about
- Hold her hand when they are walking together
- Tell her he loves her often
- Send her a nice text message daily
- Ask her to tell him about her day
- When she is upset, give her a hug and ask her to tell him about it
Secondly, she needs to start doing some of the following things she finds enjoyment in herself:
- Have a regular coffee morning with a friend or friends
- Join a gym or take up some form of exercise
- Take up a fun hobby
- Pamper herself in some way and make these a regular part of her week
- Spoil herself with something nice
When both partners of the couple are motivated to help her, and make the relationship work, then it can be done. That doesn’t mean it is easy. Its important to focus on the positives and work through the negatives.
Many couples find this is too difficult to do on their own. That’s where a qualified and experience ASC/ASD couples’ therapists is your best ally. He or she can understand and support you both in overcoming these differences and give you the specifics steps to take to help you create a more fulfilling relationship for you both.
Can our relationship be saved or improved? Creating Successful relationships
In many cases, it is very possible to save and/or improve your relationship if one of you has ASC/ASD. There are 3 factors that Maxine Aston has described which are crucially important in maximising your relationship satisfaction and ultimately your success:
- Both partners need to acknowledge and accept the diagnosis of Asperger’s. This helps each partner to have an understanding of what the strengths and weaknesses of each of you are, along with your needs, and also some skills that might need improving.
- Both of you are motivated to change, and are willing to put in time, effort and commitment in working on your own side of the relationship equation.
- You will need access to specialised ASC/ASD Relationship Psychologists or counsellors who can understand the specific difficulties you are going through.
Relationship Counselling – some important points
A couple’s psychologist/counsellor who is trained and experienced in ASC/ASD will be able to provide both of you with information about ASC/ASD, and work with each partner about understanding the wiring, mindsets and perspectives of each other, and create a space where both of you feel safe and understood.
He/she will also suggest and help you implement specific strategies for your particular relationship, and provide accountability, motivation and support to move you both into a healthier happier relationship.
It is important to note that couples’ counsellors who don’t have knowledge of ASC/ASD can often wrongly ascribe your challenges to personality clashes, or family or origin issues, or can blame one partner more than the other, and are therefore rarely able to give you your best and most appropriate help.
For your part when you are considering coming to relationship counselling, we need each of you to be motivated and be willing to work on your side of the equation, rather than entirely blame your partner. This gives us the best chance of success for your relationship.
But this is often a journey, so we can support you together or individually at any stage of your journey of discovery.
Our Hart Centre relationship psychologists have been specifically trained by Tony Attwood to help you with the unique problems that come with neuro-diverse relationships. We have psychologists in each city, as well as Skype counselling options for those who can’t make it into one of our offices.
Click here to put in an appointment enquiry, or search for a Hart Asperger’s Relationship therapist using our search bar on the side of this page.