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The Impact of Autism on Marriages

This is How Autism Destroys Marriages

There’s no way to ignore the data: 80% of marriages that have a child living with ASD will end in divorce, and that doesn’t even include the people that stay in miserable marriages out of necessity. It would be easy to argue the physical stress of caring for a special needs child, the financial pressure of getting adequate services/therapies, and the emotional stress of raising a child who may never even speak (much less reach developmental milestones) is just a living nightmare no marriage could reasonably be expected to survive.

The truth is more complicated though.

Humans are tribal beings. We are meant to live and survive in large cooperative groups. While modern culture has revised our living conditions and expectations for families to the two parents, 2.5 kids average we think of as family today, our biology hasn’t changed much at all over the past 10,000 years. We are living in unnatural ways that are counter to what nature intended for us. What’s more, despite our desire to be rational and logical, we’re all driven by emotion. It is a primitive, survival based, intuitive hard-wiring in our brain.

As humans, we’re wired for survival before anything else. And Autism often serves as a threat to this survival. To understand how, you need to know about how our species communicates survival needs and some genetically programed gender differences.

All social animals have a phenomenon called the Fear/Shame Dynamic. Essentially, the females animals have better hearing and sense of smell which allows them to be more attuned to threats. The male animals are wired to protect and become aggressive when the female animals exhibit signs of fear. The more fearful the female animals become, the more aggressively the male animals respond. This puts the males into fight or flight as a stress response, which is driven by testosterone.

If a male is unable to protect the female, or group (including their young) they experience shame, and feel like a failure. This typically results in either withdrawal or abandonment, or in some cases the male taking out his anger and aggression toward the female to escape feelings of inadequacy and shame.

The female version of this response is tend and befriend. This means that during times of stress, women seek connection and alliances.

The four primary shame triggers for men are failure as a provider, protector, lover or parent.

The three primary fear triggers for women are fear of harm, isolation or depravation.

Starting to see how Autism could push some pretty sensitive triggers?

Protectiveness regulates shame.

Historically, women have been socialized to connect through sharing vulnerability. When others validate their feelings or show interest in their experiences, it creates a shared sense of understanding and safety. On the other hand, men have been socialized to connect through hiding vulnerability, due to social pressure to never be perceived as weak. Therefore, when women share their fears/vulnerability men experience it as a failure to protect. And as the man’s sense of failure increases, so does his anger (or withdrawal), which serves to further increase fear and a sense of isolation the woman.

Autism is the ultimate danger to a family. The mother sense on a cellular level that something is wrong and her child is in danger. The physical symptoms cannot be denied; sleep issues, digestion problems, an inability to effectively communicate, medical issues, the developmental delays are undeniably threatening. For fathers, this may or not be obvious. And even if it is, it presents an virtually impossible adversary. The instinct to protect is there, but what can he protect against? Even if he agrees that the child is under attack, what or how does one go about fighting autism? It’s a stealthy, insidious, and pervasive predator; there is no clear and obvious solution. To heal or effectively treat autism is an arduous, long, and often gruelling task that takes many years.

And treatment is just the beginning.

Fathers are already faced with the unbearable feeling of not being able to protect their own child medically and physically. But over time, more issues emerge. There’s likely to be a question the father’s ability to provide and parent as well. How do you come up with an extra $20-30K a year if you’re not already well-off? How do you parent or teach a child that can’t talk or communicate? How do you fall asleep at night when all you can think is “I can never, never die. Otherwise who’s going to provide and care for my disabled, grown child?”

From the mother’s perspective, every milestone missed just increases her fear. And as the various never ending therapies often produce inconsistent results, she reaches for support and understanding, from her increasingly fearful husband. As she cries and exposes her most painful fears about her worst nightmares coming true, he feels searing, unbearable pain. In his mind he has failed; as a provider, a protect and parent. So he responds to this overwhelming sense of shame with anger, rage or withdrawal. He can’t stand to feel so awful, and every time she speaks her truth it reminds him of all the ways he has not lived up to his responsibilities. Each time he meets her fear with anger or abandonment, it reinforces to her just how alone and at risk she and her child are. And now (in his mind) he has failed as a lover as well, after all his wife is constantly inconsolable and depressed.

Over time, she learns that she’s in this alone and can’t depend on him to help, and that it’s easier for her to not need anything from him. She learns to meet his distance with distance, and eventually they drift so far into the abyss of Autism that they don’t even know each other or care anymore.

All they know is they share a child that is unable to have a normal life and their dreams of family have turned into a nightmarish reality that has a grim prognosis at best. And there is no guarantee that things will ever get better.

This is how Autism destroys families.

It’s tragic, and hard in ways someone who’s never been in the situation can’t ever truly understand. But it doesn’t have to play out like this. It creates a reality where both parents are so overwhelmed by pain, exhaustion and agony that the only way the feel they can get relief is to separate. And in turn this only makes things even more complicated for their special needs child and reduce the likelihood that any of them will have the chance to heal in time.

But there is hope.

It is possible to overcome the Fear/Shame Dynamic and work together to get past this survival instinct that exists to protect our species, but both people have to understand what’s going on, and they need support. Effective couples counseling can help families living with Autism overcome this dynamic and come together to build bonds that are stronger than ever and heal their ASD child.

This kind of help is a huge part of my practice, so please know that I’m here for you. If you have any questions, or simply want to tell your story, leave a comment or question and I will get back to you personally at

And learn more by visiting my website:

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