It is very confusing when there is a huge discrepancy between the public behavior of your spouse and what you experience behind closed doors. What makes it so confusing is that on the one hand, you have a very strong feeling that something is wrong in your relationship, but on the other hand, your intimate partner seems to be so charming with everyone else, except for you.
When describing their spouse with high functioning autism, especially at the stage when it is still not diagnosed, women often use the metaphor of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, to emphasize the dual nature of their husbands, who can sometimes be very kind, and at other times, very aggressive. The experience is so confusing that women start to question their own sense of judgement and their own sanity and feel that they are going crazy…
What is really going on?
Autism is primarily a genetic and neuro-biological disorder. The social brain of children on the autism spectrum starts to develop at a later age than that of normative children and does not reach its full potential. When children feel that they are in some way different than others, they do their best to imitate the behavior of other kids with the aim of being socially accepted by their peer group. However, this requires from them enormous efforts.
As these children mature, they continue to use compensation strategies that have proven to be successful for them. They invest a lot of energies to cover up for the lack of natural social skills and try to behave like everyone else in their work place and in social occasions. Men also use these skills during the courtship phase at the initial stages of a romantic relationship. The problem is that after successfully achieving the goal of getting married, they often feel that the mission is completed and that there is nothing else needed for the maintenance of their marriage.
People with autism invest so much energy in wearing their social mask during the day, that they are exhausted and need to rest and take a break from acting out when they return home, to their comfort zone. They need a lot of ‘alone’ time to recover and recharge their energies, and do not want to be disturbed, so their spouses are left wondering what is wrong. Well, nothing is wrong. They just have different needs than their neurotypical partners. They do not have the natural drive to share their day and their feelings, nor the drive to do something together. What they need is to spend some time on their own, indulging in their favorite activity or topic of interest.
When you and your partner understand the origin of what seems to be very different and confusing patterns of behavior, you can try and diminish the discrepancy by planning and scheduling the time alone that is needed for the spouse with autism, and the time together, that is essential for the neurotypical partner to feel loved and secure within the relationship.
Dr. Pnina Arad