NEURODIVERSE COUPLES COUNSELING
WHAT IS NORMAL ANYWAY?
It is easy for us to get trapped into the idea that my spouse is not "normal" or at least my marriage is not "normal". But what is normal anyway? The illusory nature of normal is captured in the following quote:
“I wonder if we recognize the irony of telling people to act normal, because to act is to perform a role that isn’t real. And I wonder if we truly understand what it does to a human being to tell them to pretend to be someone, or something, they are not, and how this demand requires people to repress, efface, and cover up who they really are.”
― Jonathan Mooney, Normal Sucks: How to Live, Learn, and Thrive, Outside the Lines
With the help of neurodiverse-sensitive therapy, most couples come to the realization that that "abnormality" is not the problem; rather, the difficulty is rooted in trying to fit into their own concept of normal. This shift away from "normal" expectations can free a couple trapped in thinking that labels them, shames them, and tell them, even in subtle ways, that they are the problem. If we can reorient the ways in which we view diversity, abilities, and disabilities, a relationship can be completely reinvented.
For better and for worse, the world of psychology used to place the label of "Asperger's Syndrome" (AS) to describe a group of people in the neurodiverse world. AS has since become part of a high-functioning autism (Autism Spectrum Disorder or ASD). Individuals in this grouping often have tremendous strengths while simultaneously experiencing difficulty with social aspects of intelligence. So we can use common language, the team of therapists at the NCCC use the term Asperger's Syndrome or AS to describe our clients who tend to fit the symptoms formerly listed as part of AS and now ASD.
Although people with AS definitely feel affection towards others, relationships may not be a priority for them in the same way as others do; thus causing confusion and disconnect in a relationship. Furthermore, on a day-to-day basis, people considered AS may be more focused on a particular interest, project or task than on the people around them. Yet, we have found that many of our clients with Asperger's are genuine, honest, loyal, funny and certainly make real contributions to the world that we live in.
Often Asperger adults and neurotypicals are attracted to each other and couple up. The neurotypical may be attracted to the Aspie's stability, focus and intelligence. The Aspie may appreciate the neurotypical helping him or her navigate social situations. They may feel like they are complementary, a perfect fit - hence it may feel like a "magnet" pulled them together.
CORNERS OF THE HOUSE
Consider an analogy; the average person assumes that a simple, square house will be solid if it has strong 4 walls.
However, they are wrong. It is not the walls that make a house strong, it is the corners -- the connection that the walls have to each other. Otherwise, you'd just have 4 walls stacked on top of each other.
The corners matter the most.
The same applies to Neurodiverse relationships. So much of the focus is on the "walls" (the characteristics of the 2 people involved in a relationship). How can they be better? How do we fix what is wrong?
What is most important is the "corners". How do those 2 people relate to each other? Is there trust? Is there a strong, solid, joining of the 2 people together? Or are they haphazardly leaning against each other, about to fall over?
To put it simply:
A relationship is more than just the 2 people. It is literally how those 2 people relate. Our job is to improve the way the two people relate, not to change the core of people themselves.
DIFFERENCES TURN INTO DYSFUNCTIONAL PATTERNS
Building and maintaining strong "corners" becomes more difficult if a couple discovers that they speak "different languages" and have a disparity in how they think and experience emotions. Without the tools to understand and constructively deal with neurodiversity, these differences are often interpreted negatively which, over time, become cemented into dysfunctional painful patterns which gradually weaken the the "relationship house" that they have built.
THERAPY FOR COUPLES WITH ASPERGER’S
Therapists who are not experienced with neurodiversity often tell clients married to Asperger adults that their partner cannot feel empathy and cannot truly love.
This is dangerous feedback because it is simply not true. Asperger's partners feel empathy and are capable of love.
Asperger's adults are often shocked to find that their partner’s faith in their love and loyalty could be compromised by a forgotten good-bye or missed eye-contact. Most typical AS clients feel empathy but often need a lot of help to understand his partner. Even when they do understand, they may have difficulty expressing empathy.
There are three ways to support neurodiverse couples::
the couples work,
For the couple work, your therapist will help you create as much emotional intimacy as possible. Often, emotional intimacy has been blocked during the years the couple was not aware of AS. This pre-diagnosis period is often marked by misunderstanding, resentment, anger outbursts and withdrawal.
First, our therapy team is aware that many of clients have been hurt by therapists that tried to make them "less autistic." We will try hard NOT to do that.
WHAT NOT TO DO:
There are so many different things to concern yourself with when you are trying to help your neurodiverse relationship, that it is very easy to focus on the wrong thing.
Here's a short list of things not to focus on:
Convincing the AS partner who doesn't see the need to change that he/she should. (People on the spectrum are stubborn, so good luck with that one!)
Trying to find the right carrot and stick to finally motivate your partner
Getting the diagnosis exactly right. Even with the right label, the problems are still there! See more on this below.
Punishment & manipulation (It just tends to put them deeper into "Defense Mode")
WHAT TO DO:
Instead, we work together to eliminate the counter-productive patterns (mostly based on misunderstanding) that have developed during their relationship, accept each other's differences, and begin extremely explicit behavioral steps to increase closeness.
Pursuing a diagnosis (OPTIONAL) or Identifying the aspects of Asperger's that apply to you;
Accepting the diagnosis OR accepting your unique characteristics;
Understanding how AS impacts the individual;
Managing depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder;
Self-exploration and self-awareness;
Creating a Relationship Schedule;
Meeting each other's sexual needs;
Bridging parallel play;
Coping with sensory overload and meltdowns;
Expanding Theory of Mind;
Improving communication (learning to interpret gestures, facial expression and tone of voice of others so that intentions and the meaning of communication is clearer);
Managing expectations and suspending judgment (developing a realistic understanding of who one is, greater appreciation of one’s unique qualities and strengths).
Although these steps may seem daunting, there is good news. Despite the tendency of the AS partner to be rigid and focused on himself, most AS clients that we work with will put in tremendous efforts to change in the context of our therapy and the support from the NT spouse.
Asperger’s is NOT a fixed condition that locks someone into the same behaviors throughout life. It is subject to the same forces of change that occur in anyone’s life. Understanding this provides the ray of hope to break painful entrenched patterns of interaction.
Please know that the change is usually gradual but, over time, both partners usually experience progress and your relationship can finally become more relaxed and rewarding.
Desmond Tutu has been quoted saying: “there is only one way to eat an elephant: a bite at a time.” Everything in life that seems daunting, overwhelming, and even impossible can be accomplished gradually by taking on small manageable steps.
In fact, many neurodiverse couples that our team counsels report that they are satisfied with the marriage and choose to remain in the relationship.
First, I do not like the diagnostic term "Autism Spectrum Disorder" and, instead, much prefer "Autism Spectrum DIFFERENCE". When considering all the strengths and weaknesses, my clients are no more "disordered" than other people.
Secondly, most of our clients do NOT seek to receive a diagnosis, nor do we find much benefit in providing one. It is much more effective to treat whatever unique characteristics which present themselves and avoid the negative effects of labeling and having a fixed mindset.
On the other hand, it can be INCREDIBLY helpful to receive a diagnosis if it can help a couple reinterpret behaviors as a way of experiencing the world as opposed to a sign of bad intent.
In such cases, clients start by taking the following on-line assessments (not definitive tests):
Autism Spectrum Quotient (AQ) Test (a result of 33-50 indicates the possibility of Asperger’s)
Empathy Quotient (EQ) Test (a result of 30 or above indicates the possible absence of Asperger’s)
Ritvo Autism & Asperger Diagnostic Scale- RAADS-14. (scores of 14 and above are indicative of possible Asperger's).
When a formal diagnosis is requested and both partners agree that it will be helpful, we use a collaborative process and involve the neurotypical partner in the process as long as this can be handled in an emotionally safe way. This often helps build an understanding of what the diagnosis actually means.
The following steps are usually involved in the diagnostic process:
Discuss your developmental history with a focus on the quality of attachment to family members
Discuss your development of peer relationships and friendships
Make behavioral observations including your social and emotional presentation
Interviewing your partner regarding the nature of interactions and the quality of attachment
Observe your self-awareness, perspective-taking and level of insight into social and behavioral issues
Discuss your ability to understand another person’s feelings, intentions and beliefs
Ask for your self-report of certain symptoms
Possibly meet with other friends or family members who can provide additional perspective. This is not usually necessary if you are part of couples therapy but can be helpful.
Assess for related issues such as obsessive-compulsive tendencies, general anxiety and depression.
Please note that neurological testing is not required to get a “formal” diagnosis.
Where appropriate, we encourage couples to consider if medications can help. There are no medications for Asperger's but there are meds for anxiety, depression, OCD and ADHD which often are experienced in these situations. We always provide a referral to a qualified psychiatrist for all discussions on medications.
Overall, we recommend in-person therapy for Neurodiverse couples. Nonetheless, because there are so few therapists who specialize in Neurodiversity, we also offer video counseling or coaching. This approach often works well and may be more comfortable for the AS partner.