Marriage on the Autism Spectrum: He Said/She Said – Part 3
Marriage on the Autism Spectrum: He Said/She Said – Part 3
Categories: RECENT RESEARCH
Stephanie C. Holmes, MA, BCCC
Certified Autism Specialist
It is possible to have marital satisfaction in an Aspie- NT marriage, but it will take dedication, endurance, and modifications from both spouses once the couple has an awareness of their issues and realistic expectations in which they are trying to achieve together. Would you agree with me as colleagues that the counseling techniques and marital counseling books make a basic assumption that both husband and wife are NT (Neuro-Typical)?
One of the areas I have to work with the NT wife is partly a grieving process of the that perfect Christian Utopian marriage that the books say if you do this or try this or pray this you will have a great marriage relationship. If someone is in a neurodiverse marriage (married so someone on the spectrum) this picture or outlook needs a change or tweak. This is very difficult for the NT wives. Often they say they feel tricked into the marriage or there was a bait and switch and had they known about the difficulties of Asperger’s/Autism prior to marriage they may have not married this person. (The person with Asperger’s sometimes says the same, had they known how difficult and draining emotionally to live with another person and have expectations to relate/connect so often with other expectations; they may not have chosen to marry.) But, with our Christian clients who believe marriage to be a covenant or oath, this can cause the NT wife to feel stuck and trapped in a marriage which often becomes a celibate marriage.
What type of therapy do I use? I combine Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Family Systems approach, and Transactional Analysis (TA). Persons on the spectrum tend to shut down in the presence of strong emotion ( if the spouse is crying or using a frustrated tone) and I found the following cycle works.
I either start a counseling cycle with which ever spouse reached out to me first or practice in this fashion:
As I stated before, the first part of counseling is educational and requires bibliotherapy for both in understanding marital impact and issues with AS. This part may also include grieving on the part of the NT spouse of what marriage was expected to be and what marriage may actually look like moving forward. The second phase is setting goals and stabilization of new patterns and communication systems. Here CBT and TA with an understanding of systems (as a person with ASD/AS lacks theory of mind and ability to see others’ perspectives) helps to explain how one person’s behaviors or lack of behavior impacts the other partner. The third part is maintenance which requires some coaching and accountability for the AS spouse who may find it easier to slip into the previous patterns. When the “stress” is off, the motivation to keep learning and striving sometimes becomes an issue.
Finally, I see 4 C’s. The first is Conflict Resolution. Conflict is measure by frequency, intensity, and duration of arguments. The AS person has a fight/flight/freeze component more easily triggered by any form of conflict or disagreement which can result from a wife simply saying, “Did you remember the milk on the way home as you promised?” This small issue can trigger the fight/flight/freeze component as the Amygdala just signaled a “danger/distress” response if perhaps the milk was forgotten. Understanding how the couple resolves or does not resolve conflict is crucial to planning the next phases of counseling.
Next is Communication, and by this I mean simple communication skills about logistics or factual details of the home. AS is usually accompanied by ADHD or anxiety disorders, which affect memory and higher executive functioning. Learning to communicate in clear, direct, concise ways is important in this couple dynamic. The wives will tell me, “If I cannot count on him to remember to pick up something at the store or to attend a child’s event, how can I trust him with my feelings and dream and sharing?” So building consistency, dependability, and trust and learning precise, direct communication is key, and this is where TA is helpful to examine basic communication patterns with the couple. Frequently, this couple is navigating these marriage issues and parenting a child on the spectrum adding to the complexity of marriage and family systems.
The third is Conversation. When there is consistency in basic communication we move onto sharing feelings, dreams, desires, issues within the sexual components of marriage and sharing. In this stage it is possible to regress because emotional processing is difficult for the AS person. AS/ASD comes with the symptom Alexithymia (the inability to verbalize a feeling state at the time of feeling the emotion).
As we move through these phases the goal is Connection. Connection will look different for each couple. The NT spouse will have a higher need for connecting than the AS spouse. The AS spouse usually prefers to connect with tasks or activities (as in side by side type play from childhood), but the wife will want more meaningful connections. Finding what that means for this couple with the dynamics in this system is customized. There is no set way to teach or coach connection.
Divorce rates are very high in this dynamic, and it is important to understand AS/ASD, how it affects a marital relationship when often the AS spouse is not diagnosed or has been misdiagnosed.
Aspie- NT Marriage DVD 2 Disc Set/ 4 hours
Aspie- Nt marriage is a complex marital counseling situation. This DVD set is useful to both couples and therapist to better understand nuances of Aspie- NT marriage. Stephanie C. Holmes has put her best workshop material into a DVD seminar you can watch from home.
Stephanie C. Holmes, M.A., is an ordained minister, a Licensed Christian Counselor, and a Certified Autism Specialist. Stephanie’s career path changed when her eldest daughter was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome in 2004. She then began to focus on helping families deal with the frustrations and challenges of having a special needs child and works with Aspie- NT couples across the country through Skype consultation. She speaks nationally about AS/ASD and families, Spectrum Teens, and Aspie- NT marriage. Her newly published book Confessions of a Christian Counselor: How Infertility and Autism Grew My Faith explores her personal journey and gives practical advice to families. With leading ASD researcher, Dr. Tony Attwood, Stephanie has published articles in Autism /Asperger’s Digest on issues Spectrum Teens face.