Saturday, November 26, 2011

Loving Your Introverted Husband with Asperger's

My husband zones out if too much is going on!
He's always focusing on details other people don't care about!
It's like he needs to hibernate after a party!
Am I the only one with social needs around here?

My name is Cary Terra, and I work with lots of couples on the spectrum. Of course I'm generalizing with the title of this post - many of my clients with AS are female. For the sake of simplicity (for this entry, at least) let's assume our Aspie is male.

So many partners enter into therapy feeling alone and exhausted. Often socially anxious themselves, they are tired of toting the social line alone. Without their efforts, I'm told, no holiday gifts would be sent, no brithday cards mailed, no housewarming parties attended. And I believe them. Their Aspie partners are often happy to hole up at home, friendless and isolated. There's only one problem: it only seems to bother ONE of them - the partner! Often the adult with Asperger's seems content, not only with his number of friends, but with the quality of his relationships. This can serve as a constant source of frustration to the more socially inclined partner, who feels building anxiety as the social circle shrinks over time.

So what to do? Can an introvert be coached to behave as an extrovert? Can your introverted Aspie husband be trained to enjoy cooking classes, weddings and the lindy-hop?

My a resounding NO!

There is a new trend amongst therapists, one of acknowledging the benefits and realities of introversion. Often passive and accomodating (though not always, of course), many men with AS will force themselves through work lunches, daily meetings, kids' birthday parties and holiday celebrations without acknowledging - even to themselves - their own anxiety and exhaustion. The truth is, socializing is not for everyone. Introversion is not pathology. Social anxiety is a reality for many, many adults - both introverted and extroverted.

In fact, many of my couples experience similar levels of social anxiety - with one member pushing through it (extrovert) and one less likely to (introvert). Unfortunately many introverted clients come to treatment convinced they have a fundamental defect, even shame and guilt. It is crucial that partners, despite frustration and sometimes social embarassment, resist the urge to shame their introverted partner. Husbands with AS often have few sources of emotional support, leaving them vulnerable to partners' guilting or shaming.

So why do partners guilt or shame their introverted partners? Sometimes it's out of loneliness, or a sense that things look "off" to neighbors or friends. Sometimes it's just being tired. But herein lies the key: the extroverted partner can meet her own needs by connecting with friends and maintaining relationships, all while respecting that her partner does not share these needs - and this might be part of what she found attractive in the first place!

While this concept may seem simple, it does often mean adjusting your idea of what your relationship should look like. What expectations do you have regarding your social circle? What fears do you have regarding being isolated? How much responsibility do you take for your own social life? Are you holding your husband responsible for your own hidden social anxiety?

Partners of adults with Asperger's often benefit, as much as do their partners, from learning that it is OK to be introverted: to pass on holiday obligations, to limit time at parties, to set boundaries on family time. In fact, such habits may be crucial to resource management for your relationship and for yourself.


Through working with many Aspie couples I've come to notice an interesting phenomenon. The apparent lack of emotionality of the Aspie partner seems superficial. After gentle questioning it becomes apparent that many adults with AS are quite emotional - sometimes even overly sensitive - and many of them are suffering in silence.

It is a fascinating thing to watch, indeed. The adult with AS, often times experiencing severe anxiety, becomes....quiet. To the neurotypical adult, who expresses emotions interpersonally, this silence can mean only a handful of things, from disengagement to disinterest. In fact, I have worked with only a few adults with AS who do not suffer with severe anxiety or depression. While a few clients exhibit anger, sometimes overwhelming anger, most do not. Rather they retreat, and become unreachable when they feel threatened. The untrained therapist might view this retreat as passive-aggressive, even evidence of sociopathy. However as I experience this behavior in many different kinds of adults with AS, it is becoming clear to me that the behavior is not only means of protecting oneself, it may be largely involuntary.

Partners of adults with AS may stray from the mid-line too, though in the opposite direction. The more their partners retreat, the louder they become, desperate to effect a response. The cycle is self-perpetuating, of course: the louder one becomes, the more the other involutarily withdraws. Yet who among us has been taught another approach? What options are there for cajoling a withdrawn adult to communicate?

Answers to these questions are not easy to hear. They are painfully complex in their simplicity. They arouse in partners emotions such as righteous indignation and outrage. But the answers are solutions to bridging what appear to be unbridgeable gaps. The foundation to this bridge, of course, must be basic emotional stability and, above all, humility. It appears to this therapist that usually both partners stray from the mid-line of thought-emotion integration. Recognizing this and strategizing ways to meet in the middle can help couples - even those who seem miles apart - come together in deeper and more balanced ways.