How do Theory of Mind Deficits Affect Divorce?

Partners with autism lack the immediate empathy and theory of mind (or ability to see their spouses’ perspectives) that would otherwise help them understand the wisdom of putting a halt to their own aggressions during divorce (Baron-Cohen, 1995; Frith & Happe, 1999).

With only an awareness of their own perspectives, partners with autism will often believe that they are being greatly wronged by the divorce and that their typically developing partners are exploiting them when in actuality, the marriages have been very harmful to the typically developing partners.

It is not uncommon for partners going through divorce to have different ideas about what is “fair.” In mixed-neurological relationships, however, the partner with autism’s theory of mind deficits and lack of immediate empathy prevents insight into the typically developing partner’s intentions and perspective. The partner with autism will usually believe that what is “fair” is for the partner with autism to take all or almost all of the resources.

The partner with autism may be excessively pedantic, over-focusing on irrelevant details and may have immature conflict resolution strategies that remain at the level of an ‘eye for an eye’ and ‘you started it so I can use any retribution that I like.’

This dynamic is especially difficult in marriages in which one partner has been the provider and the other has raised the children. If the partner with autism is the provider, he or she may feel that there is no need to pay alimony and that the children should lose the other parent. If the partner with autism has cared for the children, he or she may feel that the provider must continue to sacrifice everything even if that means that the provider must work full time while paying child support and alimony and with hardly enough money to pay for reasonable housing.

In most cases, the typically developing partner would have been willing to agree to an equitable solution early on in the divorce. Theory of mind skills help people understand why it is in their own best interests and the family’s best interests to stop fighting. Their perspective taking skills help them have a more accurate understanding of what is closer to fair. 

The partners with autism do not have the capacity to understand how much harm they are causing. They will feel the effects of the harm, along with everyone else, but they will mistakenly assume it was the typically developing partners’ fault instead of realizing their attorneys are taking advantage of their theory of mind deficits and are financially exploiting the family as a whole.

Many mixed-neurological divorces cost far too much money and go on for years even when the family’s collective net worth does not justify the fight. This dynamic is very traumatic for families and children, overloads courtrooms with unnecessary cases of fighting ex-spouses, and costs the tax payer. Abolishing fault divorce and having laws that require the use of equations will do much to end high-conflict mixed-neurological divorce.

Countries and states that don’t have laws that protect both spouses equally make it very difficult for unhappy spouses to achieve divorce, especially when children are present. This inequality is destructive because mixed-neurological marriages are vulnerable to trauma and domestic abuse and children and both spouses can be harmed when divorce isn’t easily attainable.

What the family needs is for laws and attorneys to protect both spouses and the children. Attorneys who don’t mind helping their clients exploit the legal system to meet their objectives will not help their clients with autism achieve happiness and success after marriage, but will line their own pockets with a distressed family’s money.

Mediation is not likely to be successful because theory of mind skills are necessary to collaborate towards solutions that work for the family as a whole. Sending mixed-neurological couples to mediation may do little more than increase the cost of the divorce for the family. 

Partnerships that include abuse should not be eligible for mediation and mediators who suspect abuse should discontinue mediation.

Baron-Cohen, S. (1995). Mindblindness: An essay on autism and theory of mind. Boston: MIT Press.

Frith, U. & Happe, F. (1999). Theory of Mind and self- consciousness; what is it like to be autistic? Mind and Language, 14, 1-22.

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