If you talk to many partners of people with ASD or read discussions, you’ll see a lot of people (usually women, but not always) talking about things like being the “frontal lobe” or executive manager for their household. It’s usually said in an exasperated or weary or even angry way—this isn’t a criticism of those people, because, oh, I have been there—but a call to think differently about it.
My husband and I have been together for 13 years, and I’ve been open about the fact that we’ve been through MANY marriage therapists. We were always banging our heads against the exact same issues without seeing much movement in either direction. Everything made sense and became clear once we realized it was ASD. And that also allowed us to change how we approach these issues, while also understanding them better.
Before my husband, I was… shall we say, “carefree”? I forgot things all the time, could have often been misconstrued as irresponsible, was often called flaky… I’ve never been a Task Manager sort of person. I have ADD (I always say “ADHD,” but my form is ADD.) so remembering things and being structured and on top of things is extremely taxing for me. And yet, over the last decade, I’ve become The Manager. If anyone out there (particularly women) is thinking, “But all women do this…” or something similar that starts with “but all…” let me stop you right there. Even if my husband and I were neurotypical, responding to anyone with “but all… do this” is really, really dismissive of a person’s experience and feelings. But we are not neurotypical, and this issue is more extreme than for NTs. It’s different and has different underlying causes than, say “patriarchy.” If you’re an NT partnered with someone with ADD/ADHD, you probably experience this differently, as well. It can be intense. I’ve started writing some posts to talk about this a little more.
Over the last year or so—especially in the last few months—I’ve realized that in our relationship, the absolute number one issue is me feeling like I have to manage everything. I’m hypervigilant to my husband’s anxiety, I can’t ever stop noticing things or scanning to see what’s done, I never take a break from thinking about “tasks” and what have you. It often prevents me from thinking about what I want to think about, or doing things for myself, or being spontaneous, or even just… being free to be who I am. It’s a feedback loop where I’m tense and anxious about all of this, which makes me husband anxious, which makes me feel even more that I have to manage things, or I’m drowning in resentment that “he’s upset because I’m upset about him not doing x, y, z.” It keeps us both on high alert. When I’m not in “manager” mode, I’m far more relaxed, don’t notice every little thing, and there’s more room for both of us to work on our respective issues.
I think, when the allistic partner gets stuck on this issue of being “manager,” they consistently view it as the ASD partner’s fault rather than as a pattern that they both contribute to. When we were filling out the questionnaires for my husband’s official diagnosis, there was one about skills and adaptability. It really hit me as I rated these items as “can do them,” “can do them if needed,” “can rarely do them if needed,” etc. just how many little tasks and things I manage or fix or do for him on a day to day basis. And when we spoke to the person who was doing the evaluation, I said I had a really hard time answering some of these, because I found myself questioning whether it’s that he has a hard time or can’t do some of these things or it’s just that he doesn’t or doesn’t even try since I’ve just jumped into to manage it all. She said it was good that I brought that up and the fact that I was even just thinking about that is pretty telling.
A couple of weeks ago, in my individual therapy, I was feeling particularly worn out and mentally drained; I told her (my therapist) that we had this great new neurodiverse couples therapist (I have a lot to say about this in another post, too—ND therapists make a WORLD of difference) who gives us concrete exercises to do. We only see her once every three weeks or so, since we aren’t in “crisis mode,” and she’s said she wants to give us time to do the exercises. But then I spend three weeks hounding my husband to do the exercises and spinning myself out in anger and frustration because he isn’t doing them. There are a lot of things in our life that are like this.
Is this my husband’s fault? NO. This is the pattern we’ve created together.
My therapist said she was just finally starting to really grasp why I was so mentally drained and tense all the time. Then she suggested we ask to see our marriage therapist more frequently, such as every week, so that he would be accountable to HER and SHE would be the one getting on his case about doing or not doing the exercises. In fact, we just saw her this morning, and she was in agreement. Along with other things we’re working on, one of them is me learning to step away and not take on the task of managing his “jobs” or tasks.
While yes, there are reasons I fell into this role and started doing it, the fact that I’ve been doing it so much and for every little thing at this point also takes away his opportunity to one, manage his own anxiety (instead of me taking it on) and two, to just learn how to do or manage things. In marriage therapy, the fact that I hound him to do the exercises has meant we wouldn’t talk about how hard it was for him to do them, which meant our therapist couldn’t figure out ways to make it happen or find new strategies. My managing things doesn’t always help or make things happen—it also sometimes prevents progress or obscures other issues.
Couples counseling is not accessible to everyone. This is an unfortunate and unjust fact. Even if it is accessible to you, it’s not always easy to find someone who specializes in neurodiversity—either in neurodiverse relationships or in particular neurodiverse things like ADHD or ASD. And I’m not talking about all those therapists that say they “work with” or “have experience in.” This may come as a shock to you, but a lot of those people don’t really know much about it and rely on old information and incorrect stereotypes. Our current marriage counselor specializes in neurodiverse relationships, has a million degrees in areas relating to autism, has certificates in ND issues, and even teaches college-level courses in autism and ASD. I can honestly tell you that no single therapist has been as effective as this one has in just a few sessions so far.
So when I say to people in these relationships, “You need to take accountability for the part you’ve played in creating your relationship pattern,” this is the kind of thing I mean. I can hear some of you protesting. Some of what you “manage” feels so absolutely necessary, you’re thinking. But I bet half of it isn’t. Or that a large chunk of it comes from being hypervigilant. There are a couple of areas in our life that I absolutely must manage, such as when we’re in the car. And that’s ok. I do not mind doing that, and we can joke about it now. But a lot of what I “manage,” I don’t really care about that much. I’m just so “on” all the time, that every moment of my life turns into a “managed” moment. Just start to pay attention to the things you manage. See if you can pull back from some of them. If you have a therapist, strategize ways you can manage less—just for yourself, if you don’t have a diagnosis or your partner isn’t on board with all of this. Just work on yourself. If you can find ways to outsource any of the mental load, DO IT.
But the important thing you need to understand is that THIS IS NOT YOUR ASD PARTNER’S FAULT. Patterns in relationships are always created by BOTH people (or however many people are in your partnership). You cannot control your partner’s piece but you can control your own. And that requires admitting that some of it is yours. Protest all you want, but I have stories that would make your head spin—if I can own my share of the last 13 years and shift my perspective, I assure you that you can, too.
Do you want to wallow, be acknowledged for all your sacrifice, and feel “safe” (but not) in a familiar pattern, or do you want to… be happy and have a close relationship?
It also requires that you let go of your anger. You MUST let go of your resentment, and understand that THIS IS NOT YOUR PARTNER’S FAULT. With my ADD, there are things that are far more difficult or even impossible for me to do than someone who is neurotypical. There are things that are exceptionally hard or near-impossible for your ASD partner to do. You MUST accept that they aren’t doing things on purpose. They aren’t taking advantage of you, they’re just operating based on the pattern that you both created. I can tell you from over a decade of experience that letting go of anger and resentment and focusing on what’s going on with yourself will create huge ripples of change. When I stopped focusing on what my husband was doing that was “wrong” and that he needed to “change” so that I could start working WITH him to break a pattern that was hurting both of us… voila! We feel like we’re in this together. We feel connected. We feel compassionate towards each other.
And I feel less angry, less resentful, less alone, less “on” and hypervigilant. I feel more like a partner and less like a manager.
Please do leave comments or submit your own story (email email@example.com). Or join the forum to talk about other strategies to change patterns, manage your own emotions, or just talk things through. Sometimes we just need to talk about how we’re feeling and eventually… the answers appear.