I’m writing this blog after reading David Finch’s hilarious book about learning to be a good husband while discovering what rules he needs to operate as an adequate spouse and as a person with Autism. In his book, “The Journal of Best Practices: A Memoir of Marriage, Asperger’s Syndrome, and One Man’s Quest to Be a Better Husband. David Finch tells a great story about love, a marriage in crisis, and the process of change after he discovers that he has high functioning Autism. Published in 2012, this book is timely and likely a great resource for any person who grew up in a world where little was known about Aspergers or Autism.
As a family and couples therapist in Washington, DC who has treated thousands of neurodivergent kids, I’ve often worked with parents who became aware of their own diagnosis through the process of getting their child (with ADHD, Anxiety, Depression or Autism) help. Their child receives a diagnosis, and a light bulb goes off–they have their own “aha” moment where they begin to relate to certain behaviors, notice particular emotional experiences, and become aware of how they may share similar conditions with their children. This realization can be a turning point in therapy for a family, because it gives clients permission to start crafting a plan or a map for moving forward. Similarly, David Finch learns of his Aspergers diagnosis and immediately begins researching and developing his “best practices,” to live as a better husband (and father).
Many of his tips are simple, and are listed below as his key ideas for Loving Your Partner Well:
- Do all that you can to be worthy of her love.
- Be her friend, first and always.
- Use your words.
- Get inside her girl world and look around.
- Just listen.
- Laundry: Better to fold and put away than to take only what you need from the dryer (i.e. think of others and the big picture).
- Go with the flow.
- When necessary, redefine perfection (i.e. lighten up and let go).
- Be loyal to your true stakeholders (i.e. always have her back).
- Take notes.
- Give Kristen time to shower without crowding her (i.e give her space and time).
- Be present in moments with the kids.
- Parties are supposed to be fun.
- Don’t make everything a Best Practice (i.e. rules change).
These strategies work well in ALL Marriages and EVERY household. Yet, relationships where one partner is neurodivergent and one is neurotypical can experience greater conflict–80% of these marriages end in divorce, and many of these couples don’t find help in typical couples therapy.
Is it harder to help couples where one person deals with Autism? Well, yes, in some ways it is. First, it is more difficult to recognize Autism in adults who have adapted for so many years without support. They’ve learned to take on roles (David Finch calls it masking) in order to survive social expectations and succeed professionally at times. Second, typical therapy models for couples don’t screen persons for individual issues well, especially a condition such as Autism. Third, conflicts among couples can obscure these individual conditions so that a therapist might not know that they are working with a couple where one member is dealing with issues related to being neurodivergent. Emotional reactivity due to sensory issues or social misunderstandings can look like anger management problems. Absence of communication skills in one partner due to Autism can look like partners who are withdrawn and stonewalling each other due to prolonged conflicts and disconnection.
How do you love your partner better if you have some of these traits? You own your behaviors and begin to develop procedures for learning about what roadblocks you encounter in life with your emotions, your social demands, and your lack of communication skills. You start to develop your own playbook for relating better to your partner. You also find a venue for regularly communicating with your partner about what changes you are trying to make in order to come up with your Relationship Map together. Find a couples therapist who has some experience in working with issues of Autism and neurodivergence and ask for his/her help in drafting this map with your loved one.
How do you love your partner better if your partner lives with some of these issues? I suggest many of the same strategies as above and from the last blog post. Be kind, but be direct with your partner about what the behaviors are. Be consistent and clear as you describe what needs attention in your relationship. Learn about neurodivergence. Work on yourself exhaustively so that you don’t fall into depression or addiction, which are common among partners of persons with Autism. Try to think about the purpose behind your partners behaviors (i.e. He withdraws because he is overwhelmed and doesn’t have the words, etc). Ask for specialized help in communicating with your partner about his personal plan for growth. Work on a Relationship Map–consisting of problems, patterns, and strategies—with your loved one. Remember what you love about your partner and why you connected in the first place. Don’t stay if you are in danger or unsafe. Keep trying—Repetition is the key intervention here for persons with Autism!!!