What I Didn’t Know, Hurt Me
By Carol Reller
Some folks have been known to say, “What you don’t know won’t hurt you”. This couldn’t have been further from the truth in my situation when it came to understanding my spouse’s neurology, or my marriage for that matter.
I became a Speech and Language Specialist in 1988. My schooling was prior to any understanding of Aspergers. I worked with kids that were diagnosed with classic autism, so that was my framework for what autism “looked” like. To give a brief (if that is possible) background, my husband and I experienced a rollercoaster marriage. Some days were great. He was so intelligent. He showed his love by telling me I was beautiful and buying me gifts, although sometimes the gifts just missed the mark a bit. However, our communication seemed to be a major issue, which was tough for me since I was a speech therapist. I should know how to communicate, right? It also seemed like he got mad a lot. He was always expressing great disdain for inanimate objects. Dishtowels, ladders and garden equipment often felt his wrath. He felt criticized by me constantly, even if I just asked a simple question. We went to counseling early in our marriage and he was diagnosed with depression. I just saw anger. Years went by. He worked, came home and read. We both blamed his behavior on the fact that he was raised with an alcoholic father.
Over time we had 2 biological boys and adopted a girl. My husband did many outdoor activities with our kids and taught them a lot. This added to my confusion. There seemed to be two sides to him that didn’t make sense being in the same person. We were active in our church and he was a church leader. We took every marriage class that came along, and I convinced him to do numerous bible studies on communication. We had tried every marriage course and book on the market. Our issues prevailed. We found a counselor who helped us enough to stay married, but she neglected to tell us the diagnosis she had figured out for my husband. She had realized from the start that he had Aspergers but just assumed I knew since I was a speech therapist and I had mentioned one time that he acted like the jr. high students that I was teaching that were on the spectrum.
Not knowing the real reason behind our inability to communicate effectively held us back from progressing because there was no ownership of a diagnosis. You see, a diagnosis isn’t just a label or a name. Lots of people resist “labels”, but we all hold many labels. Sister, Mother, Christian, Athlete, Professional, someone with Alzheimers, and so on. The label gives us a clue as to how we are supposed to act, or what someone might expect of us. It gives us information as to how to proceed. When a woman gives birth to a child, she becomes a mother. That event and subsequent label of “Mom” changes things. She has different responsibilities. Behaviors are changed based on the new knowledge.
Finally, one day (after 25 years of marriage) during a particularly ridiculous argument, (as most of them are) a realization came to me. Maybe he DOES have Aspergers. I checked with my previous counselor and she confirmed this. I mentioned it to my husband and he took an online test (which doesn’t always work and isn’t a true diagnosis) but it also confirmed what I suspected. He then started looking things up. He realized the diagnosis explained many things in his life. Since I had experience in working with autism, I was able to make several changes rapidly. First, my understanding of him was different. I understood the wiring of his brain caused him to think differently than me. I started paying attention to when he was overstimulated and helped him to understand the feeling and that he needed to escape for a while to settle his brain. We discussed sensory overload. I found short (1-2 minute) videos on line we could talk about for a few minutes. He couldn’t handle more than that. I found a Christian coach on line who specialized in neurodiverse relationships and we began intensive counseling. Our counseling was at separate times which was different from what we had in the past but very beneficial since we could concentrate on what we needed to work on and not relive all the events that caused us to argue. And that brings up the next important factor. Not only was the diagnosis incredibly important, the acceptance by my husband of this diagnosis and his willingness to work on our relationship and be teachable was key.
Fast forward 7 years post-diagnosis. We are still seeing our coach and are in the “maintenance” phase. We definitely spend much more effort than most couples in planning and figuring out our day, the flow of our day, when we will connect, when we will have our own time and who does what chores. We still have misunderstandings that are frustrating for both of us, but we circle back around and talk about what happened later. And by later, I mean usually during that day and not 3 days or a week later like before. We struggle with deeper conversation but are working on it. We get along much better than in the past and are much happier in our relationship. We continue to listen to podcasts and join groups that have neurodiverse couples in them on line to realize we are not alone, and to help others on this journey.
Carol and Greg Reller have participated in a series of interviews for couples who are NeuroDiverse found on this website - Courses- Interviews with Couples. Greg Reller has participated in the NDCC podcast series, Just the Guys.