How To Be A Loving Partner When You’re On The Autism Spectrum
Marriage is hard work when you have an unconventional brain.
I’ve known I didn’t think like other people for a pretty long time. As a kid, I had a prodigious intelligence only matched by my lack of social skills. It was hard to make eye contact. I hated group activities. I read four to six books a week, every week. I cried more when my pet hermit crab died than when my great-grandmother did.
Things didn’t get much better in my teens. I would uncontrollably flinch when people touched me. It was hard to get through a party without accidentally insulting someone. I wasn’t in anything even resembling a romantic relationship until I was in my 20s.
Eventually it took a therapist to suggest that I might be autistic.
I grew up in the 1980s, before the modern boom in autism diagnoses, so it’s not surprising that I flew under the radar for so long. To observers, I was just a shy, bookish kid with particular interests. But inside, my brain was dealing with things in a very different way.
If you need a brief explainer on autism, here we go: it’s a group of complex, hard-to-understand disorders involving brain development. There are a wide range of symptoms, varying from social difficulties to repetitive speech and movement. Diagnoses have skyrocketed in the last decade or so, but doctors still aren’t 100% sure why. The general consensus is that it’s a combination of genetic and environmental factors.
It’s important to clarify that I am, by far, on the very mild end of the autism spectrum. Through primarily self-directed cognitive behavior therapy, I’ve managed to find workarounds to most of the issues that it causes me. I can hold conversations, interpret emotions with effort and generally function in the world. I’m very lucky in that regard.
My personal struggle on the autism spectrum is with sensory and emotional processing. If I’m in a room where there’s more than one conversation happening, I can’t understand any of them. It all devolves into a howl of noise, like being trapped inside a washing machine while it’s running. The same thing happens with visual stimuli. If I can see words out of the corner of my eye, I have to read them. My brain is wired to thrive on intense, dedicated focus without distraction. This makes writing a perfect job for me, but dealing with some everyday situations is difficult.
Processing emotions is similarly tough. I understand when people are sad or angry. But it’s often hard for me to mirror those emotions when it’s appropriate. My wife will be upset about something, and I’ll feel bad for her, but my primary impulse is to try and find a solution to the problem when she just wants someone to be mad with. This can, naturally, feel a little frustrating for her.
Learning how to navigate the world of emotion that comes so naturally for other people has been a lifelong struggle. Many friendships and romantic relationships have crumbled under my inability to understand what was expected of me. Every one has been a learning experience, giving me something new to watch out for next time.
My wife and I have been married for 10 years. We met on the Internet, as you do, and the first time we met in person I didn’t really make eye contact with her. Somehow that wasn’t such a big deal, and we started flirting long-distance before she moved to New York. Once there, things got more serious. She moved in with me after a year of dating and I proposed about a year later.
Our marriage has experienced a number of stresses. We both got hit hard by the financial crash of 2008, moving from New York City to a tiny island in the Pacific Northwest to be closer to my family. My wife had serious back surgery shortly afterwards that resulted in nearly $100,000 in medical bills. Our son Henry was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in 2013. So we have our issues.
But we’re also really happy. Our marriage is strong, and we’re good for each other.
I read an interesting study from the Gottman Institute about how husbands who are “emotionally intelligent” and let their wives influence them are key to a lasting marriage. For people with autism, this is an extra challenge. We are naturally resistant to change. But when you commit your life to another person, you make a rational decision that change is unavoidable. That doesn’t make dealing with it easy, but I’ve always been aware of it. That mindful consciousness — that I will have to change and compromise sometimes, because everybody does — has made my marriage significantly better.
A big part of being a responsible partner on the autism spectrum is communicating. Because I’m not very demonstrative with my emotions, I need to say out loud if I’m uncomfortable or unhappy, using exactly those words.
One thing that can be frustrating as an autistic person in a relationship is the difference between “holding feelings in” and simply not feeling them at all. My wife will sometimes pressure me to express emotions when I don’t want to.
Ironically, I get angrier at being told I’m supposed to be angry than what I’m supposed to be angry about.
On the other hand, my place on the spectrum has made me better at certain things. My wife jokes that we’re each cut out for different kinds of crises.
When something bad happens suddenly, I have a tough time handling it. My son got norovirus as a toddler and puked a geyser of half-digested Indian food all over me while he was sitting in my lap. My first response was to take my pants off. To me, this logically made sense. I did it so I wouldn’t track puke all over the house. The right thing to do, obviously, was tend to the vomiting child, but my brain just wouldn’t let me get there. Thankfully my wife was there to handle that part.
On the other hand, slow-moving disasters are absolutely my specialty. I’m able to assess a situation, break it down into component tasks and develop strategies for accomplishing them while my wife just gets overwhelmed. When I have distance from a problem, it doesn’t threaten or worry me at all.
Having kids has also made it easier for me to be a good husband. Because my self-care routines are all about being mindful of my behaviors, my kids act as extra reminders. Having to attend to their needs keeps me from getting too obsessive over mine.
I can see elements of my autism in my son, and I’m sure he’s got a little touch of it himself. My wife and I jokingly refer to it as his “party garnish” — a little sprig of parsley that makes the plate complete. It’s funny to see how his behaviors — obsessively humming the Imperial March from “Star Wars,” for example — irritate me just like mine irritate other people. But he’s also an awesome, charming, engaging, beautiful child, and that helps me see the good things in myself.
My parents divorced when I was two years old. I never had a loving mother-father relationship to model my own marriage after. That’s why it’s especially important to me that my children have one. I know that they’re watching everything I do, and that makes it extra important to do the best I can. I want them to find someone who completes them like my wife does me.
After 10 years, my marriage feels stronger than ever. We’ve weathered a lot of stuff, and the future is still something I look forward to. I’m lucky to be married to someone that understands and appreciates me for who I am.
Being a good husband with autism is hard work. But being a good husband is hard work anyways, and the skills are basically the same. Listen. Be honest. Accept change. And stop humming, OK?