In marriage, communication is vital but when autism is thrown into the mix, communicating with your spouse becomes a little tricky.
As a psychotherapist in Seattle and an online coach, I work with couples where one partner is autistic and the other is not. This partnership is more common than most people might believe, and most often, it is the woman who is neurotypical, though not always.
First things first, what is autism and how does it affect your communication skills?
According to the Autism Society website, “Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a complex developmental disability; signs typically appear during early childhood and affect a person’s ability to communicate, and interact with others.”
One of the things that come up over and over again in the married life of couples I work with is the deep pain of the neurotypical partner who suffers when her husband says things that wound her without him realizing it.
She makes a careful effort to point it out to him, explaining her feelings and helping him see why she is upset. She does her best to be calm and avoid blame.
However, instead of hearing her distress, he is likely to insist that he ever meant to hurt her. He may get indignant and angry. He might blame her — in the words she has come to dread — for being too sensitive.
This leaves her feeling a little crazy and thinking to herself, “Am I being overly sensitive? If he didn’t mean to hurt me, why does it hurt so much? What’s the matter with me?”
These conversations often end with the woman apologizing for having misunderstood. Her partner may still be angry, though. He may leave the room, not acknowledging her attempt to reconcile. And there she is — alone, confused, and still hurt.
What does she do now?
Usually, she tries to ignore it. She distracts herself. But the pain just goes from red hot to a simmer. It doesn’t disappear. And, in fact, it grows, until one day, after one more incident, she simply explodes.
And then he is convinced — and convincing — that she has a serious problem with the way she communicates, behaves, and treats him. And she feels worse.
What’s going on here? It is a key example of how these couples can benefit from understanding the differences in how they experience reality and their places in it.
Let’s look at the partner with the autism diagnosis for a moment. His thought process is literal. Most nuanced communication, the approximately 70 percent of communication that is non-verbal, is invisible to him. His language is also literal and he says what he thinks.
For example, if she asks him whether he likes her new haircut, and he tells her he preferred it the old way, he is telling the truth. It’s just that she’s not actually asking for the truth. She’s asking for a compliment.
Embedded in the actual words she used is also the metamessage, the conventional social code that accompanies such a question. And most neurotypical individuals would understand that and respond in kind without giving any thought at all to why saying, “It looks great!” or something similar is the proper — and expected — response.
It’s a matter of conversational convention.
So she is hurt when he frankly states his opinion, and he is baffled by her response because he told her exactly what her question had requested of him.
“Why did she ask if she didn’t want an answer?” he wonders.
This is a small example but it is a stand-in for the kind of conversational crossed purposes that come up regularly in these couples.
If you are married to a man on the autism spectrum, what can you do to help yourself and your communication skills?
First of all, recognize the differences. You’re likely to believe that someone says something for the same reason that you would say it. For example, with the haircut conversation, you realize that if you had said, “I liked it better the other way,” you would have been acting rudely. Therefore, you attribute rudeness to the intention of your husband when he says it.
Remember that our ideas of rudeness are based in generally agreed upon social conventions and mores. Unfortunately, the rules that underlie every social encounter are invisible to someone on the autism spectrum because they are not spoken. He is forced to intuit them based on watching others around him. More often than not, he guesses wrong.
Helping your partner see the invisible would be a great gift because most likely he experiences great anxiety without even realizing it due to all the cues he senses that he misses. Gradually, he could come to believe that social interactions are impossible to manage.
Remember that this is just an example and not all autistic individuals behave the same way. As we say, “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.”
However, if this particular kind of exchange is familiar to you, understanding the reasons behind it may allow you to make peace with what otherwise has been hurting you every time it occurs.
And be kind to yourself. Remember that even though you may understand this and your partner may begin to see the differences between you, your hurt is still valid. You are still feeling distressed, even though the intent to hurt you may not have been there in the first place.
This is where working with a counselor or coach can help you develop coping skills that will help you heal and have positive effects on your marriage.
Sarah Swenson is a coach and therapist for couples in which one partner is autistic. Her work is to translate the experiences of both partners and help them develop tools and coping skills so they can move forward in their lives.