Coping With a Partner’s Asperger’s Syndrome
It takes a lot of work to make a marriage or other long-term relationship a success. And when one partner has Asperger’s syndrome, the relationship can be even more of a challenge. Given that Asperger’s makes emotional connections and social communication extremely difficult, it’s no wonder that a partnership between a person with Asperger’s syndrome and someone without it can be filled with stress, misunderstandings, and frustration.
To understand how Asperger’s can create such angst in a relationship, it’s important to know how people with it are affected. Asperger’s syndrome is a developmental disorder that is part of the autism spectrum. It is considered a high-functioning autism spectrum disorder. Recent statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show that one in 68 American children born today has some sort of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Another study published on CDC also shows that ASD is over four times more likely to be diagnosed in males than females.
People with classic autism can have severe impairments in language development and the ability to relate to others. Those with Asperger’s syndrome are affected to a lesser degree, but often have difficulties connecting on a social and emotional level. They have a hard time reading verbal and nonverbal cues like body language and facial expressions, and may have trouble making eye contact. They sometimes don’t pick up on “how” something was said, only on “what” was said. People with Asperger’s may also lack empathy, the ability to understand the feelings of others. They may unwittingly say or do inappropriate things that offend or hurt others’ feelings.
Though each person with Asperger’s syndrome is unique, some common characteristics include:
- Above-average intelligence
- A keen interest in or obsession with a particular subject — an unusual interest in trains, for example — and being a master on that subject
- Having strict routines or rituals and having a hard time with change or transitions
- Sensory issues
Because of these eccentricities and their lack of social skills, people with Asperger’s may make few friends and are often considered loners.
How Asperger’s Syndrome Impacts Relationships
Lack of empathy is one of the most challenging problems for someone with Asperger’s who is in a relationship, says Kathy Marshack, PhD, a psychologist in Vancouver, Wash., who works with couples affected by Asperger’s syndrome and the author of Life With a Partner or Spouse With Asperger Syndrome: Going Over the Edge? The non-Asperger’s member of the relationship gets angry and hurt by the partner’s lack of emotion and understanding, often saying things like, “You just don’t get it!” Because the person with Asperger’s does indeed “not get it,” he or she pulls away and gets angry and defensive, Marshack explains. Over time, the emotional disconnect can chip away at the relationship. The non-Asperger’s partner often feels unloved, worn down, and depressed, she says.
Asperger’s/non-Asperger’s couples also face a number of other challenges, including:
- Sexual problems. Marshack says sex is one of the first things to fall apart in these relationships. Half of the problem arises from sensory issues, but the other half is the lack of empathy. People with Asperger’s can’t gauge what their partner enjoys (or does not enjoy) by reading their body language. Says Marshack, “Who wants to constantly talk their way through sex, saying things like, ‘Please put your hand here’?”
- Strain during social settings. Because a person with Asperger’s syndrome has difficulty with social skills, Marshack says, the non-Asperger’s partner is always ready to swoop in and “save” his or her partner from embarrassment. Socializing can become simply too much work, and the couple stops doing it or the partners start living separate lives. Sometimes the Asperger’s partner abuses alcohol to lower inhibitions and feel more “normal” in social situations.
- Parenting problems. “When children enter the picture, it’s often the demise of the relationship,” says Marshack. The non-Asperger’s partner is often devastated by the lack of empathy shown to the child: The Asperger’s parent may ignore the child, make caustic comments, and not recognize when the child needs comforting. Sometimes the Asperger’s parent is overly strict or way too lenient, leaving much of the real parenting up to the non-Asperger’s partner. This sets up a parenting battlefield, even though both parents love the child.
Tim Bennett, a painter living in Great Britain, is in a long-term relationship with Tray, a woman with Asperger’s syndrome. Tray refuses to move out of her small one-bedroom apartment or share it with Tim even though the couple have a son together. Francis, age 6, also has Asperger’s and related behavioral issues. Bennett says that since he and Tray have vastly different parenting styles, they find it better to parent Francis separately to avoid conflict. Tray has a particularly hard time dealing with Francis’s behavior and runs the risk of having a public meltdown if the child is difficult. On the upside, “she can enter into play with him in ways that I cannot, imaginatively creating worlds together,” Bennett says. “So we complement each other in many ways as parents.”
Asperger’s Syndrome: A Delayed Diagnosis
Jurintha Fallon also knows the difficulties of living with an Asperger’s partner. The stay-at-home mom of two teen boys in Connecticut says life with her husband, Rob, a successful computer engineer with Asperger’s syndrome, is “like riding a roller coaster 24/7 without being strapped in.”
Jurintha and Rob have been married for 20 years, but he was formally diagnosed just two years ago. She had long suspected something was different about Rob. Jurintha’s lightbulb moment came 11 years ago when her younger son was diagnosed with Asperger’s. “Our son’s behaviors and diagnosis are what quickly led me to believe my husband also had Asperger’s,” she says.
Jurintha describes Rob as functioning as an adult on an intellectual level but as a child on an emotional one. The couple has experienced many relationship pitfalls because of Asperger’s, but perhaps the most significant issue has been Rob’s lack of empathy, she says. This issue came to a head a few years ago when their older son had a life-threatening bicycle accident while staying with grandparents in Maine. Jurintha and Rob were at a business event in Boston, but Rob didn’t want to leave to be at his son’s bedside. Rob believed his parents had the situation under control so it was unnecessary to make 2.5-hour drive.
Jurintha finally convinced Rob that they had to go. “The first question my son asked was ‘Did you leave work right away to come up?’” Jurintha says. “I had to lie. Rob didn’t see how upset my younger son was and how exhausted his parents were either. He started working the next day.”
After that incident, Jurintha demanded that Rob see a psychologist to get an Asperger’s assessment. After the diagnosis, Rob started therapy, and he has made big strides in understanding how his Asperger’s affects the marriage. “I am very proud of him,” Jurintha says.
4 Ways to Cope When Your Partner Has Asperger’s Syndrome
For the most part, people with Asperger’s want to be loving partners and parents, but they need help learning how to do it, says Jurintha. Here’s how to make life a little easier for everyone:
- Communicate your needs directly. Do this either verbally or in writing and without emotion. Don’t hint — they just won’t get it, Jurintha says.
- Set clear rules about parenting. Marshack says that the Asperger’s partner needs to agree to stop talking to or disciplining the child in certain situations if the non-Asperger’s parent says to. The Asperger’s partner might be missing something the other parent can pick up on. Discuss the situation as a couple and work out a solution.
- Consider therapy. Marshack suggests starting with individual therapy for both partners and then doing couples therapy. Realize you can’t “fix” your partner, but education is the first step. “Read everything you can about Asperger’s, and become an expert about the dynamics of your own relationship,” Marshack says. Jurintha adds that therapy can help you learn to cope and do more than just survive the relationship.
- Seek support. Consider joining a support group. One online option is Aspergers and Other Half, a support group for women whose partners have Asperger’s. Asperger Syndrome: Partners & Family of Adults With ASD is another community for men and women who love an adult with Asperger’s.
Both Jurintha and Tim stress how much they love their partners and are committed to their relationships. “In the end, we love each other, we both know this, and are learning to cope with each other,” Jurintha says. A little humor doesn’t hurt either. “We have a funny thing we say to each other: ‘You drive me crazy!’ ‘Ditto!’ It’s just as challenging for him to cope with me as it is to cope with him.”