My Husband’s Recently Diagnosed Autism Helped Explain Our Marital Life
It can be hard to see your spouse clearly, especially before you learn he’s on the spectrum.
My husband and I have been married for nearly four decades. The story of a marriage cannot easily be told in a few words, but I think one recent event goes a long way to capturing the essence of what has often stood between us.
A few months ago, our first grandchild was born, and we are thrilled to have another go at watching a new human being bloom. During a recent visit with her, as our granddaughter munched away at the breakfast we’d prepared for her, my husband gazed at the baby’s beaming face, and then turned to me. “I just realized how important it is for her development to be seen,” he said. “It’s like if they aren’t being watched, they cease to exist.”
“I’ve been trying to tell you that for years," I replied. But one new fact makes me wish I’d held my tongue.
Only months ago, when he sought counseling because I threatened to leave him, my husband was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. Few people know it yet because he doesn’t want it told. I suppose the people who need to know the most are beginning to understand him a little bit better. And our precious granddaughter will gain from his growing awareness of how his behavior affects his loved ones.
I’m trying not to blame my husband for the years of missing eye contact, the robotic affirmations of love and understanding, and the lack of emotional/spiritual connection in a form I recognize. He can’t help it. And I can’t help having convinced myself I don’t need him in those ways as a form of self-protection. As the saying goes, “It is what it is.”
Our Neurodiverse Marriage Has Endured Beyond What Statistics Predict
Seeing my husband smile deeply while watching our granddaughter is a reminder to me that the 20-year-old I fell in love with—the one who appeared to be in love with me, too—didn’t abandon me to his work and his special interests. He was confident enough in our union to assume it required minimal tending. And it was in his nature to think so.
I was raised by a mentally ill mother and an alcoholic father and was neglected more often than not. I was rarely mirrored in a healthy way. So when I met my future husband, I was captivated by his wooing. And because I was groomed all my life to expect disconnection, I was somewhat prepared for the estrangements that were to come. This could be why our neurodiverse marriage (a marriage in which one partner is neurodiverse) has endured beyond what the statistics appear to predict: an 80 percent divorce rate, nearly double that of neurotypicals.
My husband is a brilliant man, a research scientist who has contributed significantly to his field. A few years into our marriage, when I was pursuing graduate studies, I became pregnant with our first child. This pregnancy was unplanned and very difficult, and it unmoored me to the extent that it took years for my soul to find safe harbor.
For years, I took on the jobs of housewife and home-based teacher of our children, two of whom are gifted and one of whom has a terminal genetic disease. My work has been rewarding but hard. It would have been treacherously lonely but for the company of good friends. While my husband provided financial security, I did nearly everything else. And now that our kids are grown, I’m gradually getting to know myself again. When I picture my final years, I often imagine I’d be more content without him. Even so, I would miss him.
My Husband and I Have More Obstacles to Face
Looking back, many of the arguments between us have actually been exercises in me insisting on my own existence while he remained bewildered. I didn’t know it then. I thought I was arguing about incomplete chores, lack of planning and goal-setting and failure to spend time with us. I thought we spoke the same language.
At some point during my difficult childhood, I learned to reframe the ordinary horrors of daily life. I wrote stories about plucky raccoons. I told myself I would one day study the origins of the universe. Extraordinary things would happen to me. I would be a special person thinking expansive thoughts.
My brief, early flirtation with grandiosity and my rich imagination have carried me through illness, abuse and disappointment. But at times, they have kept me from experiencing things as they are. The fact is, I have done my best, and so has my husband. We love our family and we love one another. We can always do better. But we have done well in the face of enormous obstacles.
When our granddaughter smiles, I light up inside. And when my husband smiles back at her, I feel reborn. Love is the mirror of life. Sometimes veiled. Dazzling when revealed. I’ll try to take comfort in the love we have and to remember that it has been there all along, whether or not I decide to stay.