autism spectrumcouples counselingmarriage/monogamynarcissism

Asperger’s: When Narcissism Just Doesn’t Explain Your Partner’s Inability to Empathize

Sometimes I see individuals in therapy, or couples in couples’ counseling, where one partner continues to insist that something is “just wrong” with the other.  Usually, they are referring to a lack of empathy and a self-absorbed nature, but also a person whose behavior just seems “weird” or “off.”  This person often seems very selfish and mean, but there is also this niggling feeling that he or she genuinely doesn’t intend to be this way, and literally does not understand how reciprocal intimate relationships generally work.

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Often, these people think that their partners must be narcissists.  They identify with both the Mr. Perfect and His Crazy Wife dynamic and the Wife Who Wants More and Her Annoyingly Satisfied Husband dynamic.  They believe that their partner acts self-absorbed because he was raised by narcissists, or because he is defending against low self-esteem or insecurity.  But, despite all of these explanations, they still feel like something doesn’t add up.  For instance, the supposedly narcissistic partner is not charming and able to manipulate social interactions, but instead often seems awkward or uncomfortable around others.  And their rude comments often don’t seem to be rooted in an actual desire to be mean.  In fact, they often have no idea why others take offense to what was just a “factual” comment.  These social/emotional deficits bring us to another possibility: Asperger’s.

Asperger’s is no longer a formal diagnosis in the DSM, and is now considered part of the autism spectrum, and diagnosed as “Autism Spectrum Disorder.”  But here’s what its symptoms used to be:

  • average or above-average intelligence
  • difficulties with high-level language skills such as verbal reasoning, problem solving, making inferences and predictions
  • difficulties in empathizing with others
  • problems with understanding another person’s point of view
  • difficulties engaging in social routines such as conversations and ‘small talk’
  • problems with controlling feelings such as anger, depression and anxiety
  • a preference for routines and schedules which can result in stress or anxiety if a routine is disrupted
  • specialised fields of interest or hobbies

There is also a new diagnosis now, Social (Pragmatic) Communication Disorder, that is also similar to many of the criteria in Asperger’s, and it focuses on an inability to understand the social rules of conversation, difficulty picking up on others’ verbal and nonverbal cues, and a lack of understanding of nuance and ambiguity in interactions.

The overlap of self-centeredness can prevent easy differentiation between the disorders, and some clients, like this guy, come in having done a lot of research and can’t figure out whether they are narcissistic or Aspies.  Here are some examples of how interactions tend to go with each:

Wife: My clothes don’t fit anymore.

Narcissist: Well, maybe you should work out like I do.

Aspie: Well, maybe you should work out like I do.

The same, right?  But then it diverges:

Wife: Why are you always so mean?

Narcissist: Look, I’m sorry, but you know you aren’t motivated to work out and sometimes I’m just tired of hearing you complain.

Wife: Do you even feel attracted to me anymore?

Narcissist: I mean…. yeah, of course.  But you know, it’s been a while since the baby was born, and you yourself don’t feel comfortable at this weight.

Note that the narcissist knows how his statement made his partner feel, and was actually manipulating the interaction to capitalize on this insecurity for his own benefit, which would be getting a more attractive partner that reflects better on him.  But here’s how the interaction would continue with an Aspie.

Aspie: What?

Wife:  What do you mean ‘What?’  You know I just wanted you to be reassuring.

Aspie: Then why did you ask?  I can never do anything right.

Wife: I’m upset!  Why are you just STANDING THERE?

Aspie: What do you want from me?  What am I supposed to do?

Wife: I told you!  People need affection and love when they are upset!  We even read that book.

Aspie: But you’re yelling at me.

Wife: [cries, or walks out]

Aspie [goes back to what he was doing, sad that his wife is so sensitive and unpredictable and his marriage is not easy]

As you see, in this case, the spouse slips easily into a role where she is explaining how interactions are “supposed to” work.  This is a usual dynamic for them.  His comment about her weight was not half as bad as the fact that he isn’t even aware why it would upset her.  Then that wasn’t half as bad as that she has told him one million times that he should hug her when she is upset, and he doesn’t remember, or he doesn’t seem to care.

A narcissist usually knows what’s going on in his relationship.  He or she can understand another person’s insecurities and exploit them for good or bad ends.  The narcissist also requires a lot of admiration and affirmation.  The narcissist can be self-centered in bed, but can usually act and even feel both romantic and passionate, particularly when being admired, as in the honeymoon stage of a relationship.  Narcissists CAN empathize with others, but often choose not to, because these other people are not as important as the narcissist.

An Aspie often has no idea why partners act as they do.  Despite their best intentions or attempts to understand their intimate partner, friends, and family, it remains that other people’s emotions are a often a mystery.  (And they often make extremely valiant attempts, which can be successful with enough thought and guidance; read Journal of Best Practices, the memoir of an Aspie who teaches himself to be a better husband.) The Aspie doesn’t require excessive admiration, and if they brag about their accomplishments, it’s not to get a response but because they think it’s the facts.  The Aspie doesn’t usually feel much in the way of romantic passion, and if you look back to your early courtship, it’s probable that the non-Aspie partner may have invented the romantic component of the relationship in their own mind.

In a sense, Aspies are unable to empathize in a deep way with other people, particularly other adults with complex emotions (although they are often good with small children or animals).  This doesn’t mean that they cannot love, or that they are robots, but that many aspects of normative emotions have not been experienced by the Aspie, which means they cannot have a one-to-one correspondence between their understanding of an emotion and the emotion that someone else is feeling.  They have emotions, but they aren’t often expressed the way that non-Aspie’s emotions are expressed.  They can love, but their partners often do not feel known or understood on a deep level.

Narcissists, on the other hand, can keep partners around despite being self-centered and mean, precisely because they are so aware of their partners’ emotional needs that they can get themselves out of trouble whenever they need to, by turning on the charm and giving their partners exactly what they want.  Narcissists have active fantasy lives, and Aspie’s are often accused by partners of having no inner world and no emotions at all.

Here’s some more examples to discriminate between Aspies and narcissists.

Narcissist: I need you to come with me to my work dinner, even though it’s when you were going out with friends.

Spouse: But you didn’t give me any notice.

Narcissist: Do you understand that everyone’s partner will be there?  This isn’t some Girls’ Night Out that you can reschedule.

….versus…

Aspie: I’m going to my work dinner and I know you have plans so I didn’t ask you to come.

Spouse: Wait, what?  Is this an important thing?  Are spouses coming?

Aspie: Yes but you had plans so I didn’t ask.

Spouse: I mean, do you want me there?

Aspie: You have plans.

Here’s another example:

Spouse: I’m so scared that this mole I’m getting removed is going to turn out to be cancer.

Narcissist: Awww.  Well, make sure to let me know, sweetheart.  Hey, I have a rash from that new shaving cream you bought me.  Can you make sure to get me the old brand today after you go to the doctor?

….versus…

Spouse: I’m so scared that this mole I’m getting removed is going to turn out to be cancer.

Aspie: The likelihood of that is low.  But there are always weird cases, like my coworker’s wife who died.

Spouse: WTF is wrong with you?

Now here’s one that highlights the positives of narcissists and why people stay with them:

Narcissist: You looked so hot tonight.  All the guys wanted to take you home, but you’re all mine.  I knew I loved you since I saw you in the dining hall in college.

…versus….

Aspie: Thanks for coming to my work dinner.  What time is your alarm set for in the morning?  I have an early conference call.

Note that the narcissist knows exactly how to get a mood going.  He is buoyed by the success of taking you out and showing you off.  He can then become wrapped up in your love story and knows how to convey this to you.  The Aspie is happy you came to his work dinner.  Another note: both of them want to have sex that evening.  Sadly, only one of them will.

Often, Aspies look fairly normal at work and may even have many friends, but if you look closely, the relationships at work and with friends are usually based on shared interests and not much emotional connection.  (Many men are like this, but sometimes they do have deeper, emotional conversations, even couched with humor. We are talking about the situation where you cannot even visualize your partner having an intimate emotional discussion with anyone, even a sibling or parent.)  Also, in more superficial interactions, the Aspie can fake it.  He has frequently learned social scripts to deploy in common situations.  But intimate relationships are more complex and therefore much more difficult to navigate.  So he will often use the same script in multiple situations with a partner, but this comes off discordant, insensitive, or robotic.  For instance, many Aspies will follow the same pattern in all sexual encounters, or during most phone calls.

If you realize that you are married to an Aspie, there is hope and a lot of reading material, like Marriage and Lasting Relationships with Asperger’s Syndrome.  But the prognosis is usually best if the Aspie knows what he is working with and is open about how his behavior is not normative.  Then, he can intellecually empathize with his partner’s unfulfilled need for the emotionality, romance, and connection he is not providing.  Aspie spouses have many strengths, like stability, predictability, faithfulness, strong work ethics, and strong moral codes.  Aspies of both genders usually don’t affiliate with traditional gender roles, so this isn’t the guy that will refuse to do housework out of some ego thing, or the woman who won’t change a tire out of a notion that she shouldn’t have to. (However, if you’re turned on by a take-charge guy or a flirtatious woman, your spouse is likely not that.)  Aspies are also often very kind, and try not to hurt anyone.

Couples counseling can help you and your Aspie partner accept and make sense of your dynamic, as well as give you concrete tools for communication and help guide the Aspie to better express himself verbally and emotionally, as well as how to pick up on your cues.  Whatever you decide, looking through an Asperger’s lens often makes sense of a relationship that previously seemed completely confusing and hopeless.

Last points:  Remember that everything is a spectrum.  Your Aspie may not be this severe, but if something feels “off,” it’s worth thinking about this more, because it can make you feel better and more tender and understanding to your partner.  Also, it is worthwhile to introspect about why you subconsciously chose your Aspie.  It is likely that a parent was, if not Aspie, emotionally tone-deaf, and your deep seated fantasy was always to explain “normal” interactions to your parent and have him or her respond by changing their behavior to approximate parents like those which your friends had.

Till we meet again, I remain, The Blogapist Who Says, Also It’s Often Comorbid with Anxiety, Depression, and ADHD.

———–
Order Dr. Rodman’s newest book, 52 Emails to Transform Your Marriage and order her first book: How to Talk to Your Kids about Your Divorce: Healthy, Effective Communication Techniques for Your Changing Family

This blog is not intended as medical advice or diagnosis and should in no way replace consultation with a medical professional. If you try this advice and it does not work for you, you cannot sue me. This is only my opinion, based on my background, training, and experience as a therapist and person

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19 Comments

  1. Itzel
    August 28, 2015 at 2:34 pm — Reply

    So if I b

  2. Mrs M
    August 28, 2015 at 7:47 pm — Reply

    I’ve suspected for years that my husband may have Asperger’s. I’ve never been 100% sure but I love your description that something just seems “off”. Reading your example interactions for the Aspies truly made me laugh out loud because it was all too familiar. Especially the one that ends with “WTF is wrong with you?!”.

    • August 29, 2015 at 4:56 pm — Reply

      i’m glad it was helpful 🙂

      • February 9, 2016 at 7:29 pm — Reply

        right so that response is what happens when you feel a partner is purposefully being hurtful, you feel hurt and attacked. that is why someone would think or say WTF is wrong with you- that is obviously not my advice of what to say- that was an illustration of a dynamic.

      • March 10, 2017 at 4:39 pm — Reply

        Undiagnosed ASD can make relationships hellish. And the very deficit that causes pain for the NT partner makes it difficult for the Aspie to understand how their behaviors affect their partner. For an NT, living with an Aspie can traumatize them, as in PTSD. The Aspie may not *mean* to hurt their partner, but they *do* and it’s real pain caused by the Aspie’s actions.

        I get that Aspies have feelings, too. And that some of them may not want enter relationships due past experiences. But I also recognize the irony in an Aspie asking for empathy.

        Eight years into our marriage and after 2 years of counselling, I was to the point where I started calling my husband Dickhead and was ready to walk out. I knew it upset him and was not productive, nor respectful. And I fully believed he deserved it, since he had upset me and been disrespectful for over 7 years, when I *hadn’t* been. It really does equate to emotional abuse, and no, it’s not fair to the Aspie since it’s not their fault. But on the same token, it’s not fair to the NT, as it’s not *their* fault, either.

        Yes, I have said “WTF is wrong with you?” and laughed with someone about it. It’s absolutely laughing instead of crying, because I had spent years crying over it already.

        When my husband was diagnosed, I was flat out told by the doctor that I should not expect my emotional needs to be met at home, as my husband was incapable of it. It’s not difficult to understand why these pairs end up in divorce far above average.

        Aspergers sucks for everyone involved. We chose to keep trying to make our marriage workable. Not everyone will. You can’t control anyone besides yourself, though, so it’s up to you to decide if the risk is worth it.

  3. Chrissy
    September 24, 2015 at 2:00 pm — Reply

    I think I’ve been dealing with a narcissist with aspergers.

    • Tom
      June 12, 2021 at 3:32 pm — Reply

      As I understand it, this is a combination that can indeed occur. It’s entirely possible for a person to have both narcissistic personality disorder and autism spectrum disorder (Asperger’s).

      It’s also possible for someone with undiagnosed ASD not to also have NPD per se but, if they do not have proper guidance and support for their ASD, to unwittingly develop one of a variety of unhealthy coping mechanisms when learning to interact with others – tragically, one such mechanism not-uncommonly arrived at is, effectively, narcissism.

      Sadly, no matter how a person acquires the trait, narcissistic behaviour is both self-reinforcing and notoriously resistant to treatment or often even formal diagnosis by its very nature.

  4. Matt
    January 24, 2016 at 8:24 pm — Reply

    Another one that can look like narcissism is the manic phase of bipolar disorder. However, the change in personality and energy are usually along with the narcissistic personality type behavior. In my case, mania lasts months to years and in other cases it can be a week to a few weeks. I stay stable for long periods and have dead, apathetic depressions.

    It isn’t intentional but if someone manic crosses the line and abuses you, he is still responsible for it and if you choose to stay, establish boundaries. I can say it is hard to look in the mirror after a manic episode, especially when you were cruel, abusive and damaged often every relationship in your life.

  5. Aspie Mom
    March 22, 2017 at 3:07 pm — Reply

    THANK YOU for writing this! I have suspected this is what is happening in my marriage, but never read about it until now. We are early-40s, and not shockingly – met in the tech industry in the Bay Area. We have two children. The oldest was recently diagnosed with Asperger’s/Mild Autism + Gifted – and as I learned more about the symptoms, I thought “oh my gosh this is my husband!” He is, at minimum – spectrum-y with sensory processing issues, a love of spreadsheets, and a complete inability to…well he does all the things you listed above. He never wants sex. He has intense anxiety and depression that gets in the way of connection. I suspect he is also avoidantly attached as well – he doesn’t know how to articulate his feelings, yet he is deeply sensitive, easily hurt, has an explosive temper (especially when overwhelmed), and withdraws frequently. Very socially avoidant; has always said he is “introverted” but this is way beyond introversion. Weirdly, in the beginning of our relationship he pursued me like crazy and was hyper attentive to me – which is why I married him. I thought, “this is a kind, good guy who REALLY is devoted.” But then…somewhere along the way he totally withdrew. Especially after having children made life more chaotic and intense. Meanwhile, YES – I am the anxious, somewhat ADHD always-running-late but high-achieving extroverted wife who is starving to death emotionally. I am charming. I am smart. I am a spaz. I am his worst nightmare and yet he also wanted ME more than anything and (according to him) still adores me, even though he has to be reminded to tell me he likes me. (He literally forgets to say “hello” or “I like you” or “you look nice in those pants.”) Yes, I had an emotionally tone deaf parent who I was always trying to get to “hear me/see me.” And apparently now I’ve recreated that dynamic though I tried so hard not to. My husband is sad that I am sad. We fight a lot because I will start seeking connection (I am probably preoccupied attachment) – and I get more anxious as he pulls away, then he gets overwhelmed by my anxiety and starts lashing out and yelling and saying awful things to get space. We’ve been to couples therapy on and off for years. We love each other – and we are trying so hard to stay together for the kids. He calls our family the “central organizing pillar” of his life. Meanwhile I’m going loopy from loneliness. He knows all of this. I’ve even asked him gently if he thinks he has Aspergers (super defensive screaming “No!!!!” – even though his child has it, his nephew has it, there are some rather undeniable tells.) He’s told me he knows he’s not meeting his needs and that he is afraid I will eventually have an affair (fair point.) What do we do? I’m in therapy and at the point of getting medicated to deal with my own anxiety and depression as a result of being in this marriage. I have encouraged him (and a couples therapist has encouraged him) to try therapy/medication himself. He says he will but doesn’t follow up, then confesses he “doesn’t think anything will help him; though he guesses he should try for me and the kids.” What do I do? Will meds help? How do I figure out if I need to be on ADHD meds? I would be devastated to break up our family. And yet – is it time for me to just stop banging on a shut door and move on? I know my husband loves me and would be heartbroken if I left. It’s like he’s locked inside his own sadness though. I’m also afraid that if I leave – I’ll just find another permutation of another emotionally unavailable guy. I’ve had so much therapy trying NOT to marry like this – but as I said in the beginning he was hyper-attentive and kind. So it’s almost like I found the most difficult permutation on emotionally unavailable when I was ACTIVELY trying to do the opposite. I’m so scared I’ll wreck my family if I go and just create this same dynamic all over again. I love my husband very much – but there are so many layers of sadness, loneliness, frustration layered over top of that that it is hard to feel sometimes. He is a good, sweet person who means well. I feel horrible for making him feel like, “He is not enough.”

    • MH
      June 20, 2017 at 3:37 pm — Reply

      All of this (except I happened upon the ASD when trying to figure out how to get through to my husband, not through our child), and also in the Bay Area – but you’ve been doing this for longer – not at all easy.
      I’ve finally convinced my DH to try couples therapy and sign up for therapy himself. And I hope he does it. In the end, I’m a little scared that even therapy won’t be enough – I am all those things you are (a high achieving extroverted person), but I desperately want a connection. On some days, even no connection sometimes feels like it may be easier, because then I’m not wanting more or hoping for it. I don’t know if I am okay with going on for the rest of my life with no hope of a connection. My fear is that therapy won’t work well enough (sounds like you’ve tried, but the progress hasn’t been enough). I love my husband and will for the rest of my life, but without some connection, I’m not sure I can go on.

    • Tanja
      August 6, 2017 at 12:40 pm — Reply

      Dear Aspie mum!

      Thank you so much for your post. I have been reading on Asperger and marriage like crazy…but nothing/none has summarized my marriage as your description of yours. I am in hell. I feell caught between the devil and a deep blue sea. Damned if I dtay,damned if I go…I woul have left couple of years ago..when we didnt have kids. Now i feel exactly like you are saying-i am medicated for my depression and i wonder if that is not caused by being so ignored and treated as air…

      I would love to talk to you more about this and hear your story…if you have spare time and energy..if you want to,of course. Be free to contact me, it would be my pleasure to get to know you.

      Love,
      Tanja
      ( malino800820@gmail.com)

    • Wedge
      January 25, 2018 at 11:23 am — Reply

      Aspies Mom,
      Thank you for articulating what I have endured for a decade and a half! Holy moly – such parallels.

      • Kelly
        April 2, 2018 at 4:38 pm — Reply

        “Endured”

        You “endure” your child.

        Aspie here. These comments are disgusting.

        • Autist
          July 19, 2018 at 1:40 am — Reply

          Aspie here.

          I think you misread. There’s nothing about enduring her child.

          I guarantee you that a relationship with someone with Aspergers can be a circulating hell, and that’s coming from someone who is diagnosed.

          I think in any relationship people have to be willing to open up their mind to what the other person says, so when someone has decided your own thoughts, intentions and feelings and they don’t believe your explanations, and then that continues every day, the same explanations of your thought process, the same defenses of pushing the blame on you for daring to have emotions, it wears people down to a shell.

          One thing I’ve learned is that no matter how right I think I am, it’s always possible there’s another explanation.

    • Lucy Weaving
      May 8, 2018 at 4:22 pm — Reply

      Hello there. I am very late replying and maybe your situation has changed now but I wanted to say I feel your pain. Our couples therapist diagnosed my husband with Aspergers. I was getting so depressed and couldn’t see it was through a total lack of any empathy, intimacy, connection with him. I decided to end the marriage and I and the children are so much happier. Most difficult decision I have ever made but the best decision. Hugs xxx

  6. Chris Doeller
    July 30, 2018 at 7:18 pm — Reply

    As a former school teacher who stepped back into the private sector, and has worked for a person (20 yrs) who exhibits many traits of both, as well as Peter Pan syndrome. Each day is unnerving. People say leave, but the jobs market has changes so much and being at the end of my working years has proven difficult to shift to another venue. Every year its 2 steps forward 1-2yrs back, or should I say Ground Hog day?

  7. An Autistic
    May 23, 2020 at 3:54 am — Reply

    Hi there, idk if you’ve read the newest DSM, but it’s Autism/Autism Spectrum Disorder, not “Aspergers”. It’s a spectrum because autistic people have a wide variety of traits. Also, your attitude towards autism throughout this post is super ableist. Neurotypical people are not “normal” or “normative,” and they certainly aren’t better than neurodivergent people, you are just the majority neurotype. Look into the neurodiversity paradigm. It’s important that therapists are seeing their clients as people, not stereotypes or problems, no?

    • May 23, 2020 at 9:51 am — Reply

      yes but asperger’s is what a lot of people search for still. normative means what the norm is, the majority, it is not a values judgment.

  8. Charlotte
    January 7, 2021 at 9:06 am — Reply

    To those stuck in these difficult marriages, it may help to read stuff by Maxine Aston; eg the book What the man with aspergers wishes he knew about women dating and Relationships’. She also writes articles about what happens to the NTs in the relationships. Her help in my understanding, coupled with DrPsychmom’s articles esp the one about HSP’s not expecting too much change from their non-HSP partner, have helped me a lot in my marriage.

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