“…when you find yourself staring defeatedly at your spouse over breakfast or watching them hunt through the dryer for a pair of socks, and you wonder, Who in the hell did I marry?-and you will-I can now say with absolute certainty: there is hope. You can turn things around.”
The Journal of Best Practices: A Memoir of Marriage, Asperger’s Syndrome, and One Man’s Quest to be a Better Husband
As a clinical psychologist who specializes in adult Autism Spectrum Disorder, I’m often asked whether it’s possible for neurodiverse couples to have a relationship as satisfying and fulfilling as normal couples. The answer is, yes, of course. Autism Spectrum Disorder doesn’t prevent two people from loving each other any more than any other mental, emotional or physical difference. It’s not the condition that keeps two people apart, it’s what they do with it.
That said, a couple where one person has Autism Spectrum Disorder and the other doesn’t is bound to have challenges. How then do they overcome those challenges and achieve the well-being and satisfaction necessary for a successful relationship?
Here are the steps I use in helping neurodiverse couples achieve relationship success.
My initial goal in working with couples is to determine whether the identified Autism Spectrum Disorder partner has, in fact, a correct diagnosis. This may require a preliminary assessment, if one has not yet happened, or a review of an existing assessment.
Assuming the diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder is accurate, my next step is to evaluate the couples’ communicative style, that is, how the partners shares information with each other. Are they competitive vs. affiliative? Direct vs indirect? How do they communicate about differences? What emphasis is there on understanding each other and their individual needs, worries, goals, plans, preferences, etc.? What flexibility exists in how they communicate?
I also want to find out what each person’s goals are for the relationship and how different or similar the goals are for both partners. Different goals are not necessarily bad. What is important is whether the couple is aware of the differences and whether they can agree to work within those differences, recognizing that meeting each person’s need is not only possible but vital for the relationship to improve.
Finally, my task as a couples therapist is to determine the degree and extent to which each partner is willing to work for change. If the motivation to change is absent or diminished beyond repair, couples therapy will not succeed.
The Work of Couples Therapy
Helping couples change is generally complex. Dysfunctional communication patterns, disparate relationship goals, frayed trust in the other, lingering feelings of betrayal and disappointment, resistance to change, competing outside interests—these and other challenges within a relationship must be uncovered and addressed in a lasting way for progress to occur.
Lack of reciprocal communication is a frequent problem with neurodiverse couples. Sharing conversations, activities, and resources is either minimal or non-existent. While the non-Autism Spectrum Disorder partner typically seeks emotionally intimate interactions as a way of feeling understood, validated and cared for within the relationship, the Autism Spectrum Disorder partner often is fearful of being entangled in the complexities of interrelating, sharing and forming intimacy. This must be understood and worked through for the relationship to grow and succeed. A frequent focus of the couples work is conflict management, that is, replacing negative conflict patterns with positive interactions.
Essential to bringing neurodiverse couple together is a thorough understanding of Autism Spectrum Disorder, for both partners. Each must learn the problems or challenges that are central to Autism Spectrum Disorder, what they mean and how they shape a person’s life. Without that understanding, and an appreciation of the challenges and strengths of someone with Autism Spectrum Disorder, it’s hardly realistic to assume change will happen.
Improving a neurodiverse relationship can be compared to learning a new language. Both partners are well advised to imagine the other as resident of a different country, and to recognize that succeeding together depends upon understanding the language, customs and etiquette of that country.
The Couples Therapy Contract
While recognizing that each couples’ needs and circumstances differ, and that it’s important to be flexible in how we work together, I do have several basic requests of each couple I see.
I suggest that we agree to work together for at least six months. In my years of experience, I’ve found that lasting change for couples is not usually achievable in less time.
Also, I often meet individually with each partner, from time to time, in addition to meeting as a couple, in order to help with challenges that are better suited to one-on-one work.
Using this framework for the therapy along with an understanding of what neurodiverse couples work requires, satisfying and lasting change is a very much a realistic, achievable goal.
You can read more about this topic here.