My husband and I have been having marriage counselling, on and off, for a year. We have been together for 20 years, having met in our late 20s, and have four children – two boys and two girls. I love him very much and I believe he loves me. But something seems to have come unstuck in the way we communicate, ever since having children, culminating in a particularly bad patch after our (unplanned but delightful) last baby was born, which prompted me to seek counselling for us. He was reluctant, but agreed to try.
The counsellor thought my husband showed strong signs of “mild, high-functioning Asperger’s syndrome”. It was like the clouds parting and the sun shining through. Everything that had ever puzzled me about my husband’s behaviour suddenly became clear. I began to read about the subject and found it immensely helpful and an enormous relief.
The problem is, my husband refuses to accept this idea. It makes him defensive and angry if I even hint that he may be on the autistic spectrum. He gets furious if he sees books on the subject about the house. He will no longer go to counselling.
I really want our marriage to work but feel that this issue is dividing us. I need him to accept and face up to the idea of having mild AS if we are to move forward. Am I being unreasonable?
Yes. Imagine if your husband had come up with a diagnosis for you, based on one person’s comment, and insisted that is what you had? And that was the reason, basically, for your marital problems?
By giving your husband this label and making it the reason why your marriage isn’t working, you absolve yourself of all responsibility. That’s not realistic or fair. More than that, it actually takes away all control from you, which is counterproductive.
I showed your letter to Liane Collins, a counsellor with 25 years experience of working with people with autistic spectrum conditions (bacp.co.uk). She said: “Invariably when a relationship is difficult, it’s rarely one thing. He’s probably feeling that suddenly someone wants to put a label on him and blame him.”
Collins didn’t feel there was anything in your letter that even hinted at your husband being on the autistic spectrum. “There is no evidence at all in this letter to suggest that your husband does, in fact, fit on to the spectrum.”
Furthermore, she said, “I’m rather surprised that a counsellor would say such a thing. While they are probably very experienced in couples counselling I doubt he or she is qualified to diagnose an autistic spectrum condition. More to the point, your husband probably felt judged and blamed by a counsellor who should not have expressed judgment or bias – which would be a very good reason for him not wanting to return to counselling.”
This is a really important point. This is the sort of diagnosis that should be made by a specialist. I don’t want to dismiss how you feel – I appreciate that “the clouds parted” but I think you need to take a step back and work your problems out with your husband without forcing him to accept a diagnosis, which you, anyway, cannot do. When people feel attacked, they go into defensive mode and tend to stop listening because they are so busy defending their position.
The birth of children can shift things in a relationship, and you say that your problems started after your children came along. People don’t develop autism after having children, so I’m wondering, why now?
The last child, although much loved, was a surprise. But you say this almost as an aside – yet I think this is important. I think you need to rewind, to before this “diagnosis”, and work out what else isn’t right in the relationship, when things started going wrong and perhaps look at the part you have both played. That way you can take responsibility for your part, and that will eventually help you both to move forward.
Collins wondered why it was important to “pin it down to one particular issue”, and suggested you write down what other problems there are. She recommended: “Stop pushing. Stop pushing a label on him and go to counselling on your own if your husband won’t come with you. This will give you time to talk through the problems on your own.”
This is important. You can’t make your husband go to therapy, but you might make significant progress on your own to “bring back” into the relationship.
This article first appeared in The Guardian Family section on 30 October 2015.