The Journal of Best Practices

Marriage, Asperger's, and being a better husband

Combatting Asperger's: A Losing Proposition

Learn to say yes to your best possible life.

Finch and his saintly neurotypical wife, Kristen.

Though I've had Asperger syndrome my entire life—more than thirty-four years, now—I've only known about it for the past few years. Like many who are diagnosed as adults, I was surprisingly relieved when I found out: It all makes sense now, I thought. I'm supposed to be different from the other 109 people around me at any given time; this is how I'm wired.

Despite the immediate sense of relief that seems to accompany such newfound self-awareness, it did not take me very long to start thinking about ways that I could learn to manage my so-called disorder. For, it seemed the most glaring evidence of my condition lay in all the negative stuff—the socially unacceptable behaviors, the difficulty relating to people, the complete inability to (Heaven help me) operate on someone else's timeframe—rather than in the myriad positive aspects of my uniqueness. I sometimes regarded Asperger's as something that needed to be combatted and conquered.

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When I realized, for instance, that my marriage was in trouble largely because of my behaviors and detachment from my wife, Kristen, I immediately blamed Asperger's. (I don't pay attention to her needs? Asperger's! I don't help with the housework? Also Asperger's! It takes me three hours to make my breakfast yet I can't find time to help the kids get ready for school? Yep, that would be the Asperger's, too...I'm sure of it.) I thought the only way to save our marriage would be to somehow conquer my disorder. After all, erasing my neurological condition would automatically make me a better husband. Wouldn't it?

I thought I was really onto something, but when I told Kristen that I was on a mission to defeat my own brain, she did what she always does when I lose sight of the big picture: She smiled, knowingly, and then showed me a different way.

"We don't need to fix you, Dave. We need to fix our relationship, and that's something we can do together. Let's focus on that."

I hadn't thought of it that way, but she sure made a lot of sense. Asperger syndrome, in and of itself, isn't something to combat. Rather, it's something that makes us who we are, and like any other personal attribute, having Asperger's—being Aspergian, as my friend John Elder Robison would say—means that, like anyone, we were born with certain assets and certain liabilities. How we manage those assets and liabilities is completely up to us, as individuals.

Notably, the nature of Asperger's is such that many of us who fit within the parameters of the condition can learn to manage certain behaviors that, in some ways, might hold us at a disadvantage—be it in the workplace, in school, or in our relationships with people we love. Living successfully on the spectrum is not about saying no to the disorder. It's about saying yes to your best possible life. If we are so inclined, of course—and inclined I was.

With this profound insight from Kristen, I set out not to defeat my syndrome, but rather to be the husband I wanted to be—a far more worthwhile proposition. When Kristen and I were having trouble communicating, for example, I took notes on how I might express myself more openly, or listen more empathically. When I realized we no longer had common ground on which to rebuild, I learned to love the television shows she typically watches, my usual television habits be damned, just so we'd have something fun to talk about. When it became clear that Kristen needed a husband who would, every now and then, load a dishwasher or fold a basket of laundry without being asked, I committed (though admittedly reluctantly) to start taking initiative with the housework. I did these things as a means to a worthy end: being a better husband.

Of course, the responsibility of marital reconstruction wasn't entirely on my shoulders. Kristen maintained her end of the bargain as well. She worked every day towards the marriage she wanted to have, a relationship that suited both of us. Mindful of my neurological composition, she learned new ways to engage with me, which enabled better communication and brought us closer together.

Had I focused on combatting myself and my neurological makeup, Kristen and I would have gotten nowhere, and our marriage would have suffered further as a result. But I listened to her guidance, had faith in her vision, and cast my focus strictly on building a better relationship, using knowledge of my condition as a roadmap. And along the way, I couldn't help but learn how self-acceptance balanced with a desire to adapt can radically change the course of one's life.

So, if you don't mind my prying, I have to wonder: have you ever felt as though you were at odds with your autistic mind? Or have you always accepted yourself for who you are?

David Finch is a New York Times best-selling humorist, essayist, and public speaker.


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