This article is based on reported firsthand experiences from thousands of neurotypical spouses in Europe, North America, Australia. A reference is also autism-help.org
A long-term relationship with an adult, who has Asperger’s Syndrome or high functioning autism, can be extremely stressful for the neurologically normal (neurotypical, NT) partner. Health injuries, similar to those seen by traumatic stress disorder, are common in the neurotypical partner. Here are 15 tips for you, who are an NT-spouse of a person with autism spectrum disorder (ASD):
Most neurotypicals married to an adult with Asperger Syndrome /ASD feel great responsibility for their AS-partner. It is important that it is clear you have a choice. No one forces you to take responsibility for your AS-partner’s social behavior, tantrums or lack of oversight. Your spouse´s developmental disorder is not your fault. You are not responsible for your partner. You are however, responsible for yourself and your children. Nevertheless, if you assume a responsibility for your AS-partner, then make a careful decision as to what, how much and when. It is you, who must set the distinct boundaries. Never expect your AS-partner to do it. A relationship between an NT spouse and an AS partner will always have the essence of an adult-child relationship.
- Take care of yourself
Spouses of those with Aspergers often use so much time taking care of others, that their own needs are ignored – both by themselves and others. Decide what you need for yourself and how you can achieve it. For example: Where can you find support, validation and understanding? Who can you talk to? It is vital that you are often together with emotionally normal (NT) acting friends who can provide that emotional and intellectual feedback, you can´t get from your AS-partner. Tell people close to you about your spouse’s autism disorder. It is OK to tell the truth, and it is in the interest of all parties, including yourself. Would you not tell the truth, if your partner had been blind instead of having AS/ASD?
- Be clear in your statements
Leave no ambiguity in your statements to your AS-spouse. Do not expect that your wishes, feelings and arguments are understood, taken seriously or remembered the next day. Drop any hope of reaching a common understanding from conversation and discussion. Common understanding requires that both parties can listen interpretively to others and put themselves in the other’s place. This ability is limited when it comes to people with AS/ASD.
- Realize: It does not get better
It is helpful to realize that your AS- spouse’s developmental disorder never gets better. But the realization is also painful. Certain types of behavior may be modified so that cohabitation is less stressful for both of you. For instance, it can sometimes help by writing down agreed times and duties.
When you recognize the incurable condition of AS/ASD, you can experience great sadness and despair in addition to disappointment, anger and loss. It may be helpful to talk to a skilled therapist who supports you in understanding your feelings and choices. But be careful with the choice of therapist. If the therapist is not a specialist in NT-AS relationships and in Ongoing Traumatic Relationship Syndrome (OTRS), the therapist can make things worse. Several NT-spouses recount sadly that their therapist advised them to take even more responsibility for the AS-partner’s behavior and comprehension. That advice leads with certainty to even greater health damage to you as the NT-spouse.
- You are not alone
You are not alone, even though it feels that way. There are a lot of other normally functioning (NT) spouses in the same situation as you. Embrace all the support you can get from support groups and others in the same situation. Tell your doctor, lawyer, priest and other relevant people about your spouse’s developmental disorder. Give them a print of the table “Impacts and Deficits in NT-ASD relationships”. Give them also a print of the article “OTRS, the burden on spouses and partners” (see Documentation on this site). These articles summarize significant facts. You cannot assume that professionals have insight into what it means to be a partner of a person with Asperger/ASD, although there will be some who do.
- What about therapy for couples?
Forget all about therapy for couples, if your spouse has AS/ASD. Couples therapy does not work when one spouse has AS/ASD. Asperger´s syndrome is a severe developmental disorder without the ability of insight into their own and others’ thoughts and feelings. Insight-based therapy, as used in normal couple therapy, is therefore useless when one spouse has AS/ASD. Your AS-spouse might immediately think that spouse therapy sounds like a good idea. Then he/she has shown “good will” and so can afterwards be left alone! But you will be left with even greater despair and frustration, when the nice words that were said and promised at the psychologist, are gone with the wind next day: along with the money for counseling.
If you need psychological counseling, find your own therapist.
If your AS/ASD partner is able to recognize his/her disability, he/she may benefit from consulting a specialist with knowledge of Asperger Syndrome. But it must be another professional other than your own therapist. The spouse who has AS/ASD can at best learn some practical ways to handle social situations. But do not expect that your AS-spouse will initiate a consultation. You will have to insist on this point. Otherwise, nothing happens.
- Write down
Your AS-spouse has difficulty capturing and understanding your need for emotional response and mutual communication. He/she can exhibit irritation and tantrums when you show emotions, including anger, no matter how justified it is. Instead, you can benefit from communicating your needs in writing. You cannot expect your AS-spouse to keep a promise or agreement, if his/her impulse the next day is going in a different direction. Agreements between you that are essential for you can usefully be written down.
- Have your own economy
Adults with AS/ASD may act irresponsibly in money matters to the detriment of the whole family. Some people with AS/ASD can spend the whole household finances on their particular and obsessive interests. Some may be treated for gambling addiction (ludomania). Money problems are well known in families where one adult has AS/ASD. It is linked to Asperger´s reduced ability for impulse control, extreme preoccupation with their own needs, limited oversight and weak executive function.
Be sure to have your own finances. Make sure that your AS- spouse is forced to contribute financially to the family’s common costs. Tell the truth to the bank. Some NT-spouses report that they have to have a security system in the household to prevent their Asperger-spouse from consuming resources that should go to the children, rent, heat, food and other fundamental costs.
- Avoid discussions
NT-spouses worldwide report, that they are being frustrated in conversational attempts with their AS-spouse. An Asperger’s person might be an encyclopedia when asked factual questions of “who” or “what”. However, mutual problem-solving talks and discussions include the analytical word “why” or “how”. Here, the Asperger can’t interpret the point. Therefore, the conversation derails and leads nowhere, no matter how carefully you explain. A person with AS/ASD is limited in the ability to understand causal relationships, finds it difficult to learn from experience and can not interpret your motives and intentions. He/she can not understand the nonverbal part of communication and therefore misinterprets.
Remember: That is not your fault. It is caused by the Asperger´s developmental disorder.
Drop the hope of achieving a ping-pong conversation with your AS-spouse. Drop the hope of reaching reciprocity and a common understanding. Instead, communicate your conclusions about what is important to you. Do not involve yourself in discussions, if you want to protect yourself against being misinterpreted.
- Talk to others who understand
Asperger’s syndrome is a complex developmental disorder in which the normal (NT) spouse’s situation is difficult to grasp for others. Persons with AS/ASD are good at masking their disability by role playing and copying other’s behavior. It is one of the most humiliating responses for NT-spouses, when they are not taken seriously by others. In some countries there are support groups where AS-partners support and validate each other. The value of being in contact with someone who understands cannot be overstated. Also, allow yourself to use humor! Seen through NT-eyes there is a good basis for humor in confident contact with other NT-partners, who are also familiar with the bizarre reality of a close relationship with an Asperger.
- Children and daily routines
Review the daily routines at home and consider how it might work best. It may, for example, relate to meal times and responsibility for certain practical things being done – and exactly at what time! Be consistent. If your AS-partner fails to comply with a time agreement, do not save him/her or cover for him/her. If there are children in the family, it must be clear that you – as the neuro-typically developed parent – has primary responsibility. You may have to bear all the responsibility alone for the sake of the children. Be extremely aware of the limited responsibilities, your AS-spouse can deal with alone. Read more in the article “Children of a parent with Asperger’s syndrome “.
- Be wary of false guilt
NT spouses typically suffer from feeling guilty. Your partner´s developmental disorder implies that their lack of insight and immaturity means he/she will often blame you for their own problems and mistakes. You may also experience being unfairly blamed for negative intentions, you never had. If you have lived with an Asperger partner for many years, you can mistakenly come to believe that it must be “your fault”, if your partner gets tantrums or seethes with irritability. You may come to believe, that you should have been even more quiet/considerate/self-effacing! Or that you could have taken even more duties and responsibilities on behalf of your spouse upon yourself.
Drop feeling guilty. Your AS-spouse’s thoughts, tantrums, irritability, silence etc. is not your fault. You cannot make any difference. Get any idea of guilt out of your mind. Protect your own perception of reality. Remember, that people with AS/ASD are not flawless supernatural beings. Persons with AS/ASD have good and less good character traits – just like everyone else. They can also lie and manipulate. “Passive aggression” is a way of manipulation that many Asperger´s people in particular master. When a person with AS/ASD has a tantrum (as opposed to “meltdown “), he/she also manipulates. During a tantrum the person with AS is able to regain control of himself – if he/she wants.
Share experiences with other NT spouses. It can help you to maintain a healthy perception of reality and navigate free of unwarranted guilt.
- Get knowledge
Read and get knowledge of Asperger’s syndrome. There is plenty of information available in the literature. However, almost all available information on Asperger´s Syndrome focuses on the person having the disorder, especially children and young people. There is extremely sparse academic and medical focus on NT-spouses and NT-children of adults with AS/ASD.
The greatest expertise in the affect of Asperger´s Syndrome in an adult relationships, is naturally found in the NT-spouses. This expertise and insight deserves to be recognized, validated and taken seriously.
- Take care of yourself
This advice is so important that it is mentioned twice. Trust your intuition and your own perception of reality. It will come under pressure in a co-habitation with a person having AS/ASD, who experiences the world quite differently than others. Be true to your own reality. Do not be ruled by fear. Hold zero tolerance for physical violence and psychological violence.
- To end the relationship
All these tips can appear exhausting. And they are. There is no way to escape excessive burdens if you are the NT-spouse/partner of an adult with AS/ASD.
To end the relationship is always a possibility.
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