Get together with a group of NT partners who haven’t found their tribe yet and the top two comments will be, “I feel like I’m crazy!” and “I feel so alone.”
Hopefully you’ll come away from this article understanding why you feel crazy and alone and knowing that you are sane and part of a larger community.
Today we’ll write about:
Before Tim was diagnosed with autism, Robin felt confused so much of the time. She felt like she was married to someone who looked like a husband and seemed like a nice guy, but then would respond to her in ways that didn’t make any sense for a nice husband to respond. To be fair, she didn’t make much sense to him either but he was used to people not making sense. For Robin, as part of the dominant culture and not understanding that Tim is wired completely differently, she was left with a couple options. He’s wrong or she’s wrong.
And since Tim was so absolutely certain of his own view of the world, she started questioning her own. This is common in neurodiverse marriages because neurotypicals (NTs) tend to frame their opinions as opinions, saying things like, “I may be wrong here but…” or “I’d prefer it if….” And for the relationship to have even worked to begin with, the NT partner is generally fairly flexible and open minded. While this is an admirable trait, it doesn’t prepare you to hold up in a neurodiverse marriage.
Tim, meanwhile, was in a state of defense. He felt he was always in trouble for reasons that made no sense and responded to Robin as if she was incomprehensibly mean and unreasonable.
Most Aspies struggle with changes in routine, social events, and trying new experiences. Because the NT partner has been enculturated to the idea that we do things as a couple, it’s common for the NT partner to become increasingly isolated. It can be because the Aspie partner openly wants to stay home and the NT partner yields. But it can also be more subtle. If each time you’re about to go out, your Aspie partner becomes upset or withdrawals, you’re going to gradually wonder if it’s worth the effort. If you can sense your partner’s discomfort while you’re enjoying yourself, it’s likely you’ll start avoiding the situations that make your partner uncomfortable. That’s a normal thing for NTs to do to show their care for their partner.
It’s common in ANY marriage to blame your partner. We all do it. But spending your energy on blaming your partner is like throwing good money after bad. You’ve already given up things that are important to you. Don’t also give up any more of your energy towards blame.
Even though it may seem like your partner is doing this on purpose, it’s no more purposeful than a drowning person dragging under the person who is there to rescue them. Not that you are there to rescue your partner–it’s just an analogy for what’s really going on. Think back to what you and your partner first found appealing in each other. In general, you were the sunshine in your Aspie’s life. You were the Poppy to your partner’s Branch (from the Trolls movie–consider watching it…it’s a cute movie and you might relate). Your partner loved that in you and didn’t intend to squelch it–they are just stuck in who they are and you got sucked it. In the words of Poppy, “Get back up again!” (When Robin needs a little pick me up, she listens to the Trolls soundtrack and tries to channel her inner Poppy…the whole family knows when this is happening because we’ve all got the Trolls soundtrack memorized now and recognize it on the first note.)
It is reasonable and necessary to grieve what you don’t have–and blame may be the first step for you but for most people it stands in the way of facing their sense of loss over not having the marriage they thought they would have. If you find yourself blaming, try sitting with your feelings instead. For more information on how to do this, read or listen to Non Violent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg (that’s an affiliate link, by the way).
You don’t have control over anyone’s behavior but your own. And no matter how you see this headed–staying married or getting divorced–you’ll need to make some changes for your own sake. So why not do them now?
Quite often, NT partners (Robin included!) end up so focused on what their Aspie partner wants that they start blaming their Aspie partner for everything. Robin has heard many grown adults tell her, “He won’t let me” or “I can’t because of my wife.” Unless you are in physical danger (and if you are, then get help immediately from one of the reliable organizations in your area), this just isn’t true. You may not like the consequences of doing what you want, but no one is actually stopping you. You may have to deal with your partner’s irritability, meltdown, anxiety, disappointment, and so forth, but that’s still your choice. There’s a good chance it’s bothering you more than your partner anyway.
Robin learned a very simple technique for getting around this mental habit. Ask yourself, “What would I do if we weren’t together?” What if your partner were in the military and deployed halfway around the world? What if you were divorced or split up? What if your partner had died before you started having relationship problems? What would you do in this exact situation minus your partner?
Now what is actually keeping you from doing it? Is it because you’d rather your partner take care of it? Or would your partner be upset about it? How upset? Is it worth it? What if it was a roommate? What if you were renting your spare room (or sofa if you, like us, don’t have a spare room) to someone you found online and that person made a similar fuss about what you’re doing? How would you respond then?
Getting out of your old mental patterns and seeing the situation from new perspectives can help you move forward.
In a neurodiverse relationship, you have to be able to stand strong in your own opinions and with your own interests. While it’s certainly wise to consult your partner and have some shared activities, you don’t need to give up who you are to become who they are. You need to have firm boundaries around yourself and what are your preferences and responsibilities and what are your partner’s. For more help with this read Boundaries by Cloud and Townsend. (Note: it’s written from a religious perspective but was recommended to me first by an atheist who noted that the messed up way of dealing with boundaries has permeated our entire culture and that is an affiliate link.)
We’ll cover these topics in more detail in the future but we wanted to get this out right away in case there are NT partners who are suffering right now the way Robin used to be. Today, right now, make a list of what makes you happy. If you can’t think of anything, make a list of what used to make you happy before you gave it up.
Now choose something to do alone that’s all your own. We cannot tell you how many NT partners we’ve met in neurodiverse marriages who have developed significant anxiety about having fun alone. But to make your relationship work (or to leave it, for that matter!), you’re going to have to get used to creating your own joy. We’ve found that it’s important for Robin to have her own space (both physical and mental), go places alone, socialize alone, spend time with the kids alone, and be in the house alone. Come up with your own list of what you need to do alone in order to feel fully human and worthy. Racing through the housework or running errands doesn’t count. This needs to be quality time with yourself.
Not long after we finally had both kids sleeping in their own room together, a pipe burst and destroyed their bedroom. Because we sleep in the basement and the pipe was in the crawlspace, the ensuing flood brought a couple feet of mud into their room. Basically everything was destroyed and we ended up having to pull everything out to the studs.
And then random things from around the house started migrating in there for temporary storage.
Both kids were sleeping in our room and as months changed to years, Robin realized that she was going to have to do something about it. “But Tim won’t do it” and “Tim won’t let me” kept echoing in her head.
So first she asked herself, “What would I do if I weren’t married?” Well that’s obvious, she’d watch some Youtube videos, buy her own tools, and figure it out.
Then she asked herself, “What’s stopping me?” The two big issues were that it felt unfair…why did she have to be the one to do the work…and she worried that Tim would be upset.
What if it was a roommate who was upset? Well that wouldn’t make any sense. It’s Robin’s house! And while yes, it’s Tim’s house, too, he had years to do it his way so it was only fair for her to have a chance to do it her way.
So she did it! While Tim was visiting his mom, Robin packed up all the stuff and bought her own tools and finished the kids’ bedroom. It was exhausting, hard physical work on top of caring for the kids. But it was also really exhilarating to use power tools and do work that would permanently improve our home.
Was Tim upset? Yup. But was it okay in the end? Definitely. In fact, it was better than okay because the kids are still in that same bedroom. So a few days of upset in our relationship has given many years of better living. And now we’re on the same page about it–Tim realizes that he was overwhelmed by the project.
But we don’t expect you to start with buying your own power tools! Go back to that list of what makes you happy and see what small steps you can take. Don’t miss out by insisting that if you can’t get exactly what you want, you won’t have anything at all. This is just the first step. And don’t refuse to get moving because you can’t see the entire path to what you want. If we all waited to start until we saw the whole way, nothing would ever happen.
Do you want a garden but there’s too much STUFF piled everywhere? Watch a gardening show or order a seed catalogue. Do you want to travel again but the budget and your partner won’t allow it? Pull out photos of your last trip and remember what fun you had or look at a travel website. Do you miss eating out? Look up reviews of a few new places or try going out alone for coffee (Robin loves eating dinner alone!) or text a friend to meet for lunch. Whatever you decide to do, do it NOW. Order the seed catalogue now. Text your friend now. Don’t wait until you feel like it. Many people don’t feel like doing something but feel better after they try it.
What about you? What are you doing right now to take care of your own needs and wants?