What happens when you find out your husband is on the autism spectrum?
We used to call it Asperger’s (like what Sheldon has on The Big Bang Theory). But now the correct term is high functioning autism spectrum. And it has a big impact on marriage!
Recently I was putting together my focus groups for our book The Great Sex Rescue, and I reached out to some of those who had taken our survey for more information. One woman shared her story with me, thinking that she was not alone and that others needed to hear this, too.
In my case, it was a “hidden” disability that we didn’t discover until we were 33 years married – high functioning autism, formerly known as Asperger’s Syndrome.
The condition affects my husband in subtle but profound ways. He can understand that a husband should behave in certain ways, but cannot sense when or how or what to do.
Because we didn’t know about the disability, our marriage was so emotionally and sexually dissatisfying to me that I developed severe depression within the first five years. I knew my husband cared and wanted me to be happy, but he never followed through on what I told him I needed. The only way I could interpret that was that he just didn’t care enough.
We would have sex, but I rarely felt that we made love. I wanted to be pursued, but sex usually happened “by accident” – a kiss goodnight in bed would develop into more. Even then, the accidents didn’t happen half often enough for me. And the encounters were relatively short because he can’t maintain a firm erection for very long. So I would often “let” him climax long before I was ready to. He was willing to touch me to climax, but his mental disability left his efforts mechanical and not always effective.
Even with all that, my high libido meant I could achieve arousal easily and orgasm frequently; but as I got older, climax would require serious mental gymnastics – imagining my husband being romantic or more sensual to stir up my arousal.
When my orgasm rate declined, between 25 – 30 years married, sex (when it did happen) became more and more one-sided in his favour, and less frequent because I was fed up with all the effort I had to put in just to feel aroused, never mind orgasm. I didn’t mind that any particular encounter ended without me climaxing, but I got frustrated that my husband wouldn’t make a point to try to balance the scales the next time. Again, I thought that I just didn’t matter enough for him to put any effort into my needs.
So, now that I’ve had three years to learn about high functioning autism and how it affects my husband, I can see how my perfectly normal expectations of a husband were impossible for him to fulfill. Although he understands the concepts, he will never know how to seduce me, make me swoon, how to behave like a “sexy beast”. I will never hear sweet affirmations or ardent desire whispered in my ear, never feel cherished, or needed for anything more than what his mother did for him.
As we’ve learned about his condition, there have been so many “aha! that’s why…” moments. It’s been a relief to us both in many ways. I’ve learned to accept the many things he does do for me as his expression of love. I also now realize that my role as the helper suitable for him is to be the cheerleader, the coach, the guide, the initiator, in all areas of life. Except sex.
As I already mentioned, it was becoming harder to get myself aroused, so I told him one day (pre-diagnosis) that I needed him to step up and make my sexual satisfaction more of a priority. I was no longer able to keep running the show. And shortly after that, we stopped having sex. That was three or four years ago. I can see now that he doesn’t know how to “step up”. But I don’t think I can function sexually if he doesn’t. So, we just don’t.
I know that in many ways I have to be my husband’s caretaker, and I can see God’s hand in this because I’m skilled in the areas my husband is not. And my husband is still my best friend, so I’m happy to be here for him. But the depression still plagues me, though not as severely and not for the same reason. I used to believe that I wasn’t important enough for my husband to cherish me. Now I grieve because I know he will never be able to give me the kind of relationship I have longed for. We will never be deeply intimate. Just friends, without benefits.
So Sheila, I’m telling you this story because I can guarantee that you have followers struggling with intimacy because one of the partners has un-diagnosed autism, usually but not always the husband. This level of autism is very hard to notice in children, often because there aren’t the same language delays that can accompany more obvious autism symptoms. That means there is a large group of adults whose behaviour is slightly “off” but no one can quite pin down why. They are dismissed as belonging to the slightly-odd end of the normal bell curve. But even mild autism is a whole different thing than slightly-odd. If my husband and I had known in the beginning what we know now… It’s not that he wouldn’t, but that he couldn’t.
This has been my experience with an un-diagnosed autistic husband. Mileage varies wildly. They say if you meet one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person. But there are enough commonalities to warrant a page in every marriage counsellor’s playbook to discuss red flags, typical issues and coping strategies. In the meantime, can the TLH&V family have a chat about this?
Like she writes, I imagine there are many who read this blog who are in similar shoes. Can you see yourself here? Let’s talk in the comments!