Navigating a Marriage With Autism
As most people know, marriage can be very difficult. Learning to co-habitate with another human being can have some ups and downs. Being around someone on a consistent basis, accepting all of their quirks, and loving them in their most unlovable moments are just a few of the many challenges that either make or break a marriage. These challenges can increase exceptionally when your spouse has autism. Having my diagnosis since the age of 2, I would say I have gotten to know myself pretty well at this point. Even with how deeply I understand my own place on the autism spectrum, opening up that aspect of your life to someone else can be frightening, especially if you have a romantic interest in them. I have been extremely lucky to find the amazing man I now call my husband. I feel even luckier that he has seen some of my most ugly, overwhelming and intense moments and still thinks I am the most beautiful thing he has ever set eyes on.
I want to help other couples know they are not alone when it comes to facing hurdles that come with being in a relationship with someone who is on the autism spectrum. There are many horror stories out there about marriages ending with parents who have a child with a disability, so I can only imagine it is a big fear for couples with one or both spouses with autism, that their marriage may not be able to handle the difficulties that can arise. If you take anything away from this article, know that autism is not a death sentence for a marriage. Many wonderful things can come from sharing a life with someone on the spectrum (not to brag or anything). Here are some challenges and tips for navigating a marriage with autism.
One of the difficulties my husband and I often run into is my emotional state and the ability to appropriately express it in the moment. I sometimes get overly excited, and that high energy can be a lot to handle if someone else is not equally excited. The other side to this is the emotional high of that excitement can mean devastation if the thing causing the excitement does not work out. For me, this can mean being excited about a show I auditioned for, having my heart set on a certain role, and not having it work out the way I was so sure it was going to in my head. This means my husband has to watch me temporarily fall apart at times if plans change, or if I was certain something was happening a particular way and things took a different turn.
When I feel this deep of an emotional low, his challenge is his love language is touch, and he’s not necessarily able to give that to me. I often do not react well to physical touch in the moment of being extremely upset. I will often push his attempts away, or tell him to just go away. When I’ve done this, it has hurt him as deeply as I was feeling because that’s what happens when you love someone: you feel with them. I have had to learn to let him in: to be OK with him gradually building up to physical comfort, starting with him sitting beside me and letting me cry out my frustration out until I calm down. Then I often collapse into him because I feel so much better after a nice, ugly cry. Before that though, my sensory overload can be overwhelming when my emotions feel out of control.
Many people don’t realize that even when someone with autism seems emotionally distant, that doesn’t mean they don’t have emotions. In fact, our emotions are often amplified and affect us more intensely, which means our ups are really up, and our downs can be very down. As a partner, the best thing you can do is have patience with your autistic loved one. Assure them what they are going through will pass. Let them know you still love them, even through a sensory meltdown or disappointing news. Ask them what they need before an episode happens. It can be extremely difficult for people on the spectrum to appropriately communicate their thoughts in the moment, so this helps us a lot if you have tools up your sleeve to help us when we are having difficulty expressing what is going on.
If you’ve ever seen a movie with some kind of alien-mind possession, I’m thinking the two are comparable metaphors. A million thoughts are spiraling in our mind at once with a sensory overload, so the more you know about how these are for your partner ahead of time, the better. The other night I had a complete meltdown because there was a popcorn kernel stuck up the roof of my mouth behind my teeth, and the pain from that sensation, along with being tired and already stressed from other factors, sent me into a full meltdown. My husband did everything he could to help, from getting me tools to try and get the kernel out to using a hot compress on the roof of my mouth. Even after multiple methods got the kernel out, my emotional state was still a bit of a wreck. He then held me in bed, arms wrapped tightly around me, and sung to me gently in my ear until I fell asleep. I am so grateful to have someone who not only understands my triggers, but also patiently tries whatever he can to get through the episode with me.
Another hard thing for couples can be the autistic partner’s sensitivity to certain foods. Many times it can be hard for someone with autism to eat foods that have an uncomfortable texture, taste or smell, so if you have a more adventurous partner who likes to try new things, this can bring up challenges within the relationship. The adventurous partner may feel bored when their partner wants to eat the same foods all the time. This can translate into a lot of other aspects within a relationship. The adventurous partner may be easily bored and want to try new activities, watch new movies, and generally be more spontaneous. The autistic partner may find comfort with what they know they like, so switching things up may be a more difficult task. As with any relationship, both parties need a give and take. Encourage your partner to both understand your needs and attempt to be open to new experiences. Luckily, my husband and I tend to compliment each other well in this department. He gets that I like having the same meals from the same restaurants, and I try to watch football games because I know it’s something that is important to him.
Emotional expression can be difficult to dissect for a neurotypical partner when it comes to their autistic spouse. There are days when I am joyful and engaged, and other times my thoughts send me off into a different universe and my husband has a hard time keeping my focus and attention. It’s never about anything he has done to cause this. Sometimes my thought patterns can be so fast and rampant that my outer body shuts down from not being able to keep up with the racing flow of thoughts. He does a great job checking in with me when he notices the signs of me being checked out, and has also learned to be transparent when expressing his frustration with our communication. Sometimes I just need to hear that how I’m acting is having an effect on him, which is my cue to try to be open with him about whatever spiraling anxiety is happening in my head. If he does not openly share those concerns, though, I may miss the signs because of being so consumed with my thought process.
Along with that, there are times I hyper-fixate on a certain TV show, hobby, or awesome new person in my life, and that new and exciting thing can take over my conversations. I have tried to be aware of when I am getting this way, since neurotypical people seem to have an easier time having a multitude of things to talk about in regular conversation. Often people on the spectrum throw their entire selves into a single concept, and it can be hard to stray away from that topic. When I notice my husband start to go “uh huh, uh huh, uh huh” over and over again, I try to let that be my cue to put my excitement on the shelf for a bit and ask him questions about things going on with him. This keeps me from dominating conversations and tiring my partner out of hearing about the same things over and over again. It’s not that he doesn’t care about what I am often excited about, but the lack of a shared level of that excitement can grow old and leave little room for him to share and contribute to a balanced conversation.
No marriage is perfect. All dedicated, loving couples (no matter how long you’ve been together), should always strive for growth within the relationship. I am lucky to have a loving partner who accepts all of my little autistic quirks, good and sometimes frustrating. That is exactly what love should be, acknowledging all aspects of another human being and deciding you love the entire picture. Relationships for an autistic person can be scary. Opening up to another person about all of the ways you are different from other people can be very vulnerable, not always being sure how they will react in certain moments. Not every moment in my marriage in this regard has been perfect, but it’s all been a learning experience for the both of us, who are equally interested in being there for one another.
I hope this information can help normalize relationships involving neurodivergency, and can also reflect neurotypical relationships… because no one said those were easy, either. It’s worth it if you’re truly in love.