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Chronic Stress & Chronic Illness: when neurodiverse marriage makes us sick

Part 1 of 2

Guest Blogger: Abby

Among neurotypical partners who identify with experiencing Ongoing Traumatic Relationship Syndrome (OTRS), a strong correlation exists between chronic stress and the development of chronic illness. Those who suffer from OTRS experience various adverse complexities within their neurodiverse relationship. Over time, the turmoil of unremitting marital discord takes a serious, and sometimes irreversible, physical toll.

Neurodiverse spouses often have differing social, emotional, and interactional expectations for marriage. The neurology of a neurotypical partner necessitates emotional reciprocity, affective attunement, and mutuality in their relationship, for a felt sense of well-being.  A neurotypical spouse expects partnership in every dimension of life together. When mismatched relational needs, differing standards for practical concerns, and toxic conflict patterns emerge in a neurodiverse marriage – the OTRS neurotypical partner is persistently flooded by chronic stress. 

Autistic characteristics may unintentionally create trauma, or chronic stress for the neurotypical partner, due to associated impairments affecting social, emotional, interactional and practical necessities for the neurotypical spouse. Additionally, characteristics of neurodiverse marriage itself often contribute to the stress load. Examples of autistic and neurodiverse marriage characteristics include the following: 

Relational stress: poor perspective-taking, insufficient theory of mind, rigid thinking, difficulty predicting the impact of personal choices upon others, low flexibility, resistance to change, communication impairments, alexithymia, blunted affect, missed non-verbal cues, misreading social cues, difficulty generalizing expectations, non-initiation of celebration for birthdays or special occasions, hurtful or intimidating actions during meltdowns, abandonment during shutdowns, hyper-defensiveness, discounting the spouse’s feelings or experience, financial withholding or overspending, prioritizing special interests over quality time, authoritarian or permissive parenting, triangulation with children or family members, deprioritizing the spouse in favor of other non-family relationships, hyper or hyposexuality, sensory aversions that thwart intimacy, preferring to use porn instead of participate in marital sex, passivity or disinterest in date nights or romance, avoidant or reactive behaviors, rejection dysphoria, valuing autonomy over mutuality, lack of curiosity about the partner’s thoughts or feelings, transactional mindset, resistance to being influenced into compromise, inadequate emotional attunement.

Practical stress: inequitable distribution of chores, disparity of responsibilities, impaired executive functioning, avoidance or procrastination of obligations, forgotten or ignored commitments, faulty working memory, overly rigid or too loose standards, time blindness, prompt dependency, poor supervision during parenting time, interactional difficulties with children which reduce parenting reliability, financial mismanagement, lack of capacity for strategic planning, poor self-monitoring, requiring repetition of instructions or reminders of agreements, difficulty inferring expectations, distractibility, disparity with peripheral parenting obligations, requiring explanation and justification for a simple request or preference or instruction, lack of basic skills for daily necessities (cooking, cleaning, feeding or bathing children, etc), haphazard or absent caretaking during illness, inadequate urgency during crisis, accommodating meltdowns or shutdowns that disrupt the needs of others, incapacitation from sensory overload.

With so many stressful dynamics in the marriage, conflict inevitably follows. Below are examples of conflict mismanagement between partners (of any neurotype) which compound

the relational and practical stress. 

Conflict stress: circular arguments, right-fighting, hyper-defensiveness, adversarialism, criticism, contempt, countering, blame-shifting, high reactivity (yelling, screaming, shouting, storming off), avoidance, withholding, stonewalling, side-stepping accountability, aggressive/passive/passive-aggressive communication, punishing, justifying, minimizing, intimidation, threats, reversing victim and offender roles, weaponized incompetence, avoiding conflict resolution, unrepaired ruptures.

Listing the above circumstances inadequately captures the impact. A neurotypical spouse isn’t just experiencing adverse events in a singular sense of an isolated incident. The stress is compounded by the cumulative load, and aftermath considerations, along with often frantically trying to mitigate recurrences. As an example, poor supervision of children isn’t a momentary concern. The autistic partner may have every intent of carefully parenting. When incidents happen, there may be dozens of discussions clarifying the expectations of what it means to supervise children appropriately. Perhaps moments of inattentiveness still end well, but it was a close call to a catastrophic possibility. The neurotypical spouse carries around the fear of future incidents, creating hypervigilance (which wreaks havoc on the nervous system). Autism can be considered a poor prediction disorder, and generalizing between situations is challenging, so the neurotypical partner lives with the ever-present anxiety of wondering whether the autistic spouse will successfully apply protective knowledge in parenting moments that need it. Hypervigilance adds to a sense of obligation to be present at all times, in hopes of buffering those singular moments that could result in unintentional harm to a child. This isn’t a maligning of autistic character; there is almost always a well-intended parent behind occurrences that can happen to anyone. But in neurodiverse marriages where there is a heightened difficulty of managing distractibility, executive functioning, processing time and response, along with prediction of danger or child behavior, it is reasonable to hypothesize that perhaps a higher level of concern is warranted. Thus, a neurotypical spouse carries this awareness in their body, activated frequently, and making strategic decisions that likely overtax functioning, prevent down time, and create disparity of emotional and physical labor. Going to the grocery store by oneself becomes a decision that feels like Sophie’s Choice, if there are previous instances that endangered a baby or child when the neurotypical partner wasn’t home.

Read more of Abby’s blogs at:

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