"My husband has always been kind of difficult to live with," said Susan, 47, the mother of two grown children. "Neil can be charming and witty, but he also tends to be callous, selfish, and detached. When my kids were young I focused on them so my husband's indifference didn't bother me. But now that they're gone he's really driving me crazy.
"I met Neil when I was 18. He was handsome, brilliant, honest — and we fell in love pretty quickly. We were very different from each other, but I thought that my strengths balanced his weaknesses. I was organized and, I admit, a little bossy. Neil was the absentminded professor type. He was studying for a degree in graphic design and at times would work all night long, neglecting to eat or sleep. He was a lost puppy I wanted to rescue.
"We'd been going out for two years when I discovered I was pregnant. We got married. After Lisa and Jake were born I stayed home until they were in school, then went to work part-time at a local store. But the kids were always my priority, and I focused pretty much all of my energy on them.
"Neil and I have been having issues since the kids were young. He didn't know the first thing about taking care of children — not even how to use a thermometer! He never could handle any noise or chaos. When the kids didn't put their toys away he'd throw a fit. He'd go bonkers if plans changed unexpectedly. Worst of all, he never really bonded with our children. Once, when Lisa was in middle school, she came home bursting with pride over a drawing of a girl's face she'd done in art class. Instead of telling her how great it was Neil told her that the proportions of the face were all wrong: 'Lisa, you have to learn the basics of anatomy. The head is divided into five sections....' Who talks to a child that way? She was in tears.
"Occasionally the quirky Neil I fell in love with resurfaced, like when Jake was in the hospital for three months with a broken leg and pelvis. He was 14 then and Neil was at his bedside every day. He actually went out and bought the mountain bike that Jake wanted and took a picture of it. He gave the photo to Jake to keep at the hospital as 'incentive to get well.' At first I thought it was nuts — the kid was in a body cast! But it worked.
"Mostly, though, Neil seems to live in his own world. I take care of everything from finances to repairs since he can't be trusted to do anything. He can't even keep a job. He's always butting heads with bosses and coworkers. No surprise, really: Neil has never been able to deal with people. If we go to dinner with friends he won't even look at them. If anyone asks him a question, he starts on an endless rant. I'm working two jobs now but he seems totally unconcerned about how drained I am.
"Just as I reached the breaking point a friend gave me some articles about Asperger's syndrome that blew me away. People who have it are perfectly intelligent — some of them are actually quite gifted — but have trouble communicating and interacting. Because of the way their brain develops they can't read social cues and often act inappropriately or misunderstand everyday communication. The description of the syndrome fits Neil to a tee.
"I don't know where we go from here, though. If he does have Asperger's, it could explain his infuriating behavior. But will that make it any easier to live with? Who knows? Neil and I have a long history. Deep down I know we love each other. But unless something changes I will lose my mind."
"I've never understood what Susan wants from me," said Neil, 50, in a slow and reserved tone. "I fell in love with her right away. She was beautiful and seemed so caring and gentle. But soon I learned she also had a scolding, demanding side, and I've seen a lot of that over the years. I can't do anything right in her eyes. I try, but I often don't understand what I'm doing wrong.
"I know that Susan thinks that I'm a bad husband and father. I'm sure she mentioned the time I commented on our daughter's artwork — a mistake she has never let me forget. I hated to see Lisa crying, but honestly, I didn't understand what was so awful. I was just telling the truth. Frankly, I've never been able to understand why people even bother with white lies.
"Susan complains I'm a distant parent, but she turned the kids against me long ago by making me out to be the ogre while she acted as if she was their protector. One time Jake and I were building model airplanes, and I was teaching him how to use an X-Acto knife safely. Susan overheard me and came down hard on me for 'squelching his creativity.' That was the end of my model building with Jake.
"I know it's not just Susan, of course. I've had my share of problems with people I've worked with over the years as well. One time I was fired for taking an old typewriter from a storeroom. It had been just sitting there, gathering dust, so I thought to myself, Why not bring it home? It just seemed like the logical thing to do. I guess other people didn't see it that way.
"Susan has always blamed me for problems at my jobs, and I can't say that she is totally wrong. Dealing with people — even with my friends — has always been hard for me. I try to make small talk but I get anxious and just want to be left alone. And Susan's criticism doesn't help. She's a social person; over the years we've fought repeatedly because she dragged me to a party or school event where I was miserable. When we go out with another couple, she gives me the third degree afterward: 'Why did you say this? Why didn't you do that?'
"In all honesty I've always felt different from everyone else. Other people seem to have a secret way of communicating, some kind of mental telepathy that connects them. I just never have had that kind of connection. Those articles about Asperger's made me realize maybe that's literally true. Maybe that's what's behind our struggles — and I'd like to learn more about it. I want to feel closer to Susan and our children. She doesn't think I love her, but I do. I want to get it right for once."
The Counselor's Turn
Susan was thinking about divorce when she first came to see me," said the counselor. "But her suspicion that Neil might have Asperger's syndrome gave her another perspective on their relationship. Neil consulted with a specialist and, to no one's surprise, that's what his diagnosis was.
"Because the syndrome wasn't widely recognized until fairly recently, experts think there are a lot of undiagnosed adults like Neil (many in troubled marriages) whose partners have no clue how to fix them. It's true there isn't a cure for this, and traditional counseling doesn't work for people who have such difficulty with social interactions. But once a couple knows that one of them has Asperger's, they can find ways to improve their relationship — especially when they're as committed as Neil and Susan are.
"Even after the diagnosis, they still had a long road ahead. Susan was worn down by the enormous responsibilities she'd taken on. The lack of practical or emotional support from Neil had made her less willing to put up with his peculiarities. It's bewildering to live with someone who's brilliant in some areas but stumbles over basic skills. If you don't understand, it's easy to take it personally.
"I explained that people who have Asperger's syndrome experience difficulty comprehending emotions — both other people's and their own. They take what's said to them very literally, often completely missing the subtle messages conveyed by facial expressions and body language. As a result they can seem uncaring and rude. But Neil hadn't meant to be hurtful or inappropriate. He was simply baffled by things Susan and other people did and said. And when Susan felt hurt and criticized him, he wound up retreating even more.
"I started by having Susan coach Neil on how to read facial expressions and recognize social cues. This helped him start developing those skills and let the couple become allies instead of adversaries. I also referred Neil to a psychiatrist, who prescribed a medication that can be effective in treating people with this syndrome.
"Over the next few months I worked with them to develop a partnership of teaching and learning that has brought them closer together. Once she knew that it takes Neil longer to process what he's feeling and express it, Susan didn't assume that he was being insensitive. Instead, she made a point of calmly telling him what she needed and waiting for his response. 'Don't expect him to sense that you're feeling sad and would like a hug,' I advised her. 'Just tell him straight out.' She uses notes to tell Neil what she'd like him to do because writing things down helps her be precise. She also participates in an online support group, which teaches her coping strategies and lets her know she's not alone.
"The more Neil learned about his illness, the less he felt as though the world was against him. Grateful for all Susan's help, he has worked hard to change his behavior. He now has a clearer understanding of what to do and why. Since he knows Susan needs emotional reassurance, for example, he makes an effort to be physically affectionate and say 'I love you' more often. They try to maintain routines so that Neil doesn't get flustered by last-minute changes. Before a social event, she reminds him to make eye contact and to ask questions, not dominate the conversation. And they've agreed that if he's uncomfortable he should excuse himself to step outside. 'I have a new appreciation for Neil now because I know how much courage it takes for him to deal with social situations,' Susan said recently. 'And working with him to overcome his challenges has made us feel closer to each other than we've felt in years.'"
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, February 2010.