On my first date with my husband — we've been partners now for 28 years – he asked me, "Are we on a date?" And the second date, he asked, "Are we still dating?"
I thought it was so sweet and endearing then. It took me nearly 17 years to realize what was going on was typical of someone with Asperger's syndrome (AS). The syndrome wasn't even a diagnosis back then. Today it is considered a high-functioning form of autism.
Aspergers presents in myriad ways, including an obsession with details, social awkwardness, a seeming inability to recognize others' feelings or reactions, and a flat, outward expression with few physical cues about what the AS person feels.
I had no clue about this when I fell in love with my husband. I just found his lack of drama and histrionics calming, a welcome relief from my own family's constant antics and manipulations. He balanced me nicely: I was outgoing and verbally engaging, and he was quiet with no problem of being alone. I was animated. He was peaceful.
It wasn't until we decided to move in together that I began to feel the tension around how truly different we were from one another. At the time, I had a dusty and cluttered little apartment. My husband had a big house with a living room that looked to me like a hotel lobby — Georgian-style chairs carefully chosen for their shape and upholstery, tables placed just so. He wouldn't allow me to put any of my stuff anywhere outside of a single room he had designated as mine … I wasn't allowed even to put a nail in a wall!
Since then, of course, I've found out much about people with Asperger's, who have affectionately been nicknamed "Aspies" (Dr. Tony Atwood has written many books on the topic and one of the best articles I've read about Aspies). There are an estimated 30 million Aspies worldwide. Many are brilliant and highly accomplished.
My husband is a member of Mensa, has an IQ of over 165, and makes a great living as an IT person (many Aspies excel in this field). Typically, among other things, they have an extraordinary ability to focus on detail rather than the big picture; they are deeply loyal and dependable; they have a strong need for order and accuracy, and their conversation is free of hidden meanings and agendas.
Challenges of Loving a Neurodiverse Partner
After we moved in together, we began to have some conflicts. He had rules for everything in the house. For example, I love to whistle, and he forbade it. He didn't seem capable of extending himself for me. If I felt needy, he didn't like that, and it triggered my own childhood experience of living with a family that could never stretch for me.
My husband couldn't come out of his comfort zone, and many things had to be on his terms. I couldn't find the typical clues to show that he loved me that you expect in a partner. When I felt needy, I would often ask him why he loved me, and he would say, "I just do. I can't explain why." He didn't have the words, just the feeling.
Ever the therapist, I began to wonder if his flat facial expression and ever-present calm had some pathological basis if perhaps he had been abused or traumatized in his youth. We went to couples' therapy, and I could tell he wanted to change and was making an effort, but his changes weren't enough for me back then. I felt he was just like my family, and I was projecting my youthful trauma all over the green screen he presented to me.
Then one day, I happened to see an obscure movie called "Adam," about a man with Asperger's, and I could identify with nearly every scene. I also thought about how my husband loved the popular TV series "Big Bang Theory," which we would watch together. The show's character, Sheldon, might as well have been my husband.
Sheldon had a 50-page contract of rules for living with him, even one that stated, "no whistling in the house!" While the show never directly says that Sheldon has AS, it is clear to those who know what is being dramatized by the actor.
Then it dawned on me — my husband, Mike, has Asperger's! I started to read more about it, and it became clear how his mind worked differently from my "neurotypical" one, and almost immediately, 50 percent of my problems with him were gone. I thought, "What am I so angry about? He is trying harder than anyone in my family to accommodate my needs." Instead of thinking he had a hidden agenda or was playing games as my family did, I realized Aspies are exactly who they are, and there was no attempt to manipulate me.
Gifts of Loving an Aspie
And so, after years of difficulty with traits I now know are AS-related, I realized how much Mike tried to make room for me in his world. I recognized how hard it was for him to be in a relationship and began to notice all his attempts, which were big for him. The more he did, the more loved and secure I began to feel with him.
Out of his unconditional love for me, he was offering more verbal and physical cues. I just had to pay attention to how he demonstrated them and not just seek what I was looking for. I started to see how hard he was working to override his Asperger's with me and that enveloped me.
Long story short, these last several years together, we've had a minimal amount of conflict because I have been able to accept him for who he is, as he has done for me all these years. Despite those we've known who can't imagine how we have remained partners all these years—even some friends we have lost due to misinterpretation of Mike's ways—I have never met anyone in these 28 years I would rather be with. He is the perfect partner for me.
So, I learned an important lesson from being married to a man with Aspies that I want to share with anyone dealing with a partner: Put away your judgment. Learn how their minds work differently than yours, and accept them for who they are, don't fight it.
This doesn't mean you won't have a conflict with your partner, but it will be easier to work through the conflict because it will lack the negative judgment about who they are and how to deal with the issue at hand. If you can, I'm pretty sure you will discover, like I did, new riches in your life. If you are struggling in your neurodiverse relationship, we are here to help with Relationship Therapy. We have Online Couples Therapy and Couples Workshops too!
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Joe is a leading expert on sex and relationships. He specializes in Out-of-Control Sexual Behaviors (OCSB)/“sex addiction”, Relationship Problems and Marital Conflict, Sex Therapy, and Sexual Identity Concerns, Depression, Anxiety and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). His practice is located in Royal Oak, Michigan but he welcomes clients from all over the Metro Detroit area. Joe is also available for long-distance coaching and consultation. His practice is mixed with straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender individuals and couples.
Joe graduated from Michigan State University with dual majors in Psychology and Social Work. At Wayne State University, he earned his Master's in Social Work (MSW), then a Master’s (MA) in Psychology, and has received his Doctorate (Ph.D.) in Clinical Sexology from the American Academy of Clinical Sexologists (AACS). He is in the process of becoming a certified transgender therapist through the World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH.org). WPATH is the standard of care for transgender medical and mental healthcare. In addition to that, Joe is also the founder and director of The Center for Relationship and Sexual Health (his associate's biographies can be found here), teaching faculty at the University of Michigan Sexual Health Certificate Program, a Board Certified Sexologist, member of the Academy of Certified Social Workers, member of the National Association of Certified Social Workers, member of EMDRIA Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Basic Training, and a licensed clinical social worker in the state of Michigan.