What to do when your partner has Asperger’s syndrome

Asperger's Syndrome can be complex to diagnose and treat. So how does one manage their life and marriage when one partner is suffering from this condition?

Woman sitting with hand on head and man in background

In the past, autism was thought to be something that only affected children who couldn’t speak, function, or interact with the world around them. However, in the last two decades, we’ve seen higher-functioning adults coming out of the closet, so to speak, and even being popularised by movies such as Shah Rukh Khan’s My Name is Khan and more recently The Imitation Game with Benedict Cumberbatch.

Asperger Syndrome [AS] is a mild form of autism. Considered to be a neurological condition, AS affects many successful adults in the IT, science, engineering, technology, finance, and even medical professions. Low-functioning children with autism often have a borderline or lower than average IQ and many lack verbal language. Higher-functioning adults are the reverse. Many of them have sophisticated vocabularies and IQs that are in the average to superior range. In fact, those with the more “invisible” brand of autism often thrive in academia and even become leaders in the fields of science, technology, finance, or engineering. But while their IQs are higher, their EQs are low. Their brains are uniquely configured to work with machines, data, facts and figures; however, they struggle to express their emotions or understand the feelings and needs of another person. While often successful at institutions such as IIT and MIT, they lack insight into how their behaviours and words affect those around them.

Take the case of Mitu, a woman married to Aman, a man with AS. Mitu came to see me for counselling because she was desperately lonely and unhappy in her relationship. Aman barely spoke to her other than to discuss their children’s homework and his parents’ ailments. And his interactions with their two children were confined to checking their daily homework. Mitu said that Aman had always been a loner and had no real friends to speak of. He also seemed overwhelmed by his job as a software engineer and wedged-out in front of the TV most nights, completely ignoring his family. Without conversation and physical or verbal affection from her husband, Mitu became deeply depressed. When she tried to speak to him about these issues, he would shut her down by telling her to “stop nagging and go see a psychologist” to find out why she was so unhappy!

Asperger's Syndrome affects many successful adults in the IT, science, engineering, technology, finance, and even medical professions

Life can become very painful for spouses like Mitu. Prior to learning about AS, Mitu had mistakenly come to believe that it was all her fault. Over time, she became increasingly depressed and when she tried to confide in close friends or family members, they would say, “What are you talking about? Your husband is such a nice guy,” or the popular, “all men are like that!” Only Mitu knew that her experience of marriage was traumatising and unusual. She felt exhausted and was beginning to have health issues brought on by stress and the complete lack of emotional connection with her husband.

Obtaining a diagnosis

The big problem right now is that the majority of doctors or couples counsellors do not know about adults with AS. Most would dismiss a spouse in Mitu’s position if she tried to seek help by saying, “Are you sure it’s not just a personality clash?” Or, “Seems like you might need to work on your anger issues.” Even if they met someone like Aman, they wouldn’t see that something is different or odd about him because they might consider that he has a successful career or a “normal” demeanour. Adults with AS can be very well groomed, physically attractive, and verbally skilled. Even well-meaning professionals might not pick up on the more subtle signs of their social awkwardness and lack of emotionality. When the professionals don’t see how the wife could possibly struggle in a relationship with someone who presents himself so well, they may attribute the problem to the wife and assume that she is lacking in maturity.

Adults with Asperger's Syndrome can be very well groomed, physically attractive, and verbally skilled

A diagnosis is best done by an Asperger-specialist who is experienced in identifying adult AS. In my work, I take a comprehensive written and verbal history of the individual. I speak with the wife about her experience in the marriage. I also conduct the diagnostic interview over a total of four sessions and observe how the person behaves and interacts with me during this time.

Reading about and understanding Asperger Syndrome

If you are in a situation similar to Mitu’s, and there aren’t any avenues of professional help locally, reading books and articles on AS and marriage can be the first step into really considering whether your husband has AS or not. Sometimes the husband is open to learning about the information that his wife gathers. He might even be relieved to learn that his brain is different and that he’s not a jerk. Alternately, some men resist the idea that they are lacking in EQ. No matter if your husband is open to hearing about AS or not, keep speaking to him about it when you feel like there is an opening. Individuals with AS can often come across as rude and intimidating with their sharp logic and biting tone; my advice would be to not give up. Patiently continue to read and even get counselling with an Asperger-specialist.

Taking care of yourself

If your spouse has AS, it’s imperative that you take really good care of yourself and prioritise your health, otherwise you may be at risk of developing numerous mental and physical ailments. This is even more so if you’ve been blaming yourself for the challenges in the marriage and if you have no other emotional support in the form of family or friends. You can also become aware of how your own behaviours may add to the conflict in your relationship, and learn to change some of the ways in which you interact with your spouse.

Strategies for coping with your partner’s Asperger Syndrome

Many individuals struggle with mental health issues in addition to numerous AS traits. If you realise that your spouse is struggling with anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder [OCD], or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder [ADHD] in addition to AS, you may need to help her work with an AS-specialist around these issues.

If your spouse is extra sensitive to smells, sounds or touch, learning more about sensory sensitivities can be useful. Sensory sensitivities and a low EQ can often lead to physical intimacy issues, which need to be addressed.

Individuals with Asperger's Syndrome can often come across as rude and intimidating with their sharp logic and biting tone

If your husband/wife with AS has difficulties picking up facial cues, vocal intonations, and body language, they might monopolise or struggle to initiate and hold conversations. You might feel frustrated, lonely and abandoned by their lack of reciprocity and communication. Therefore, you may have to deliberately schedule time for regular conversations and doing fun activities together. You may need to create calendars and schedules to help your spouse stay focused and organised as many individuals with AS struggle to manage and prioritise time, tasks and space.

Your spouse with AS may also have trouble understanding, predicting and responding to your thought-feeling state. He/she may unintentionally or intentionally make negative comments and do things that can come across as insensitive and hurtful to you. Expressing more compliments and positive observations instead of criticisms is something they can learn to do.

Asperger-Specific couples counselling

Couples often report to me that working with a counsellor who is unfamiliar with AS was unhelpful and, in some cases, even harmful. In general, it is important to invest in a couple’s counsellor who specialises in AS and has experience in working with couples since the dynamics of a conflict-ridden relationship requires not only a wise and compassionate approach, but also solutions to get you unstuck and moving forward. As an AS-specialist and couple’s counsellor, I teach both the spouses in the marriage about AS. I interpret their points of view and help them understand each other better. I also help them to implement practical strategies in their relationship. Without proper understanding and solutions, marriages where one partner might have AS can be painful and challenging, but many couples are able to improve their relationships by learning about AS and by finding the appropriate help.


A version of this article was first published in the February 2016 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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