Some thoughts

Life in a Mixed Marriage

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LIFE IN A MIXED MARRIAGE – from Teresa’s point of view

Today is our wedding anniversary. It’s been five years – and in some respects, they have been the most eventful years of my life. As David and I made our commitment on that sunny July day, I had no idea that I had entered into a mixed marriage.

Mixed marriages can be a joy – I believe this to be true whether the mixed element derives from the fact that the couple come from different social or religious backgrounds, or because their brains are wired very differently.

My ‘shopping list’ when it came to finding a lifelong mate after the death of my first husband was pretty extensive. Here’s a taster of what I was looking for:

  • A man who could hold intelligent and articulate conversations about something more significant than sport!
  • A man who was emotionally aware
  • A man who could make me laugh
  • A man I could make laugh
  • Someone who could embody old-fashioned gentlemanly behaviours (holding open doors, carrying the shopping, walking on the outside of the pavement to place himself between me and the traffic 🙂 ) and doing so with respect rather than from a sense superiority, as many women seem to fear
  • Someone willing to take their share of female stereotypical roles such as shopping, cooking, cleaning, ironing
  • Someone strong, but gentle
  • Someone I could love in absolute confidence that he loved me in return and who I could trust completely.

Ok, there were probably more requirements lurking under the surface, but these are the headlines. As a friend once said, what I was looking for was a woman with man’s bits – but that’s for another post at another time.

You might look at that shopping list and think, ‘dream on, that’s a rare beast – it may even be extinct.’ You’d be right about the rarity aspect, it took a while but in the end I did find him. I also found something I wasn’t expecting.

The reason David is able to tick so much on that list is that his brain is wired differently to the brains of most men. Part of this is gender related but I want to put that aside because what’s on my mind at the moment is the part that his autism plays in all of this.

Our marriage is mixed because he is autistic and I am neurotypical. From my point of view, I get the man I went shopping for (you will have to ask David about his list and his view on the ‘mix’) but it also means I have had to learn about that different wiring.

It hasn’t been easy.

I know I’m not alone. I know there are a lot of women out there in a similar situation who have encountered, as I did, the sudden and apparent loss of the gentle man they married. This typically happens when the stress, the sheer exhaustion resulting from being autistic in a neurotypical world, becomes overwhelming.

I have learnt a lot over the past couple of years – a whole new language – but I’ll never get it entirely right and that is the reason for this post.

Let me tell you what happened the other day.

David is writing a book. This book is a kind of biography but the biographical element is a framework because what he’s really trying to do is give the rest of us neurotypicals a sense of what it’s like to live inside his head.

Each day for the past week he has written in excess of 3,000 words. Each evening I read what he has written and we chat on the phone about which bits work well, which less so, which bits made me laugh out loud and which bits made me cry. I think he is doing something extraordinary and although it will require a lot of work by both of us in the editing process, it is shaping up as a really good read: learning through laughter and nostalgia.

So, I think I’d better get to the point (which is part of the point, part of the reason things went wrong the other day: me not getting to the point). I had arranged to meet a friend to discuss a project we are both involved in. Once the meeting was confirmed, I wanted to make sure David knew straight away because it would have an impact on our evening conversation and was likely to mean I wouldn’t get to look at that day’s 3,000 words until the next day.

Why delay? Well I didn’t want to have it hanging over me while I was out, to be worrying about whether I’d get back in time to read it and give David feedback. I didn’t want to promise to read it on my return, then find I was too late and too tired to give it the attention it deserved: to do so would be to let him down. I didn’t want to promise to read it before we spoke in the morning (he rings me at 8.00 a.m.) because I’m not at my sharpest at that time of day, so the best thing would be to read it after our morning conversation, then discuss it during our lunchtime call.

In a non-mixed marriage of two Neurotypical, saying I was going to be out for the evening would naturally have led to a two-way discussion as to how to rejig our plans.

In a mixed marriage, the autistic partner (David) felt I had not taken in to account the impact of this change of plans (autistic people don’t like changes of plan, especially relatively last minute). The fact that I (eventually) said we could talk about it during our lunchtime call the following day, meant that I didn’t understand/didn’t care how much my input meant to him and how much that delay would affect him.

The problem was that most of my part of the conversation, like the iceberg, was below the surface. I knew the change of plan would cause him distress which is why I was focused on making sure he knew as soon as possible. Unfortunately I then spent too much time at the start of the conversation telling him who I was meeting and why. I did this because his memory isn’t of the greatest and sometimes he becomes stressed if he doesn’t know/can’t remember who I’m talking about.

So in dealing with one autistic concern, I didn’t give enough time/thought/weight to another. Opportunity for meltdown. In a situation like this, whilst David is dealing with his reaction to what I’ve said/not said, I am typically fighting the feeling of ‘hey, that’s not fair’ because I did know that he needed the information as soon as possible and I was going to get on to the bit about how we might work around the change – but because, having warned him about the change, I focused next on the detail of who I was meeting and why, his reaction had kicked in before I got to that bit!

It’s happened before. As a neurotypical I need to remember to identify the aspects that are likely to be of most concern to David and deal with those first. It is not something I do automatically as yet – and first thing in the morning after a bad night’s sleep is when I most often slip up.

In the past, this situation would have spiralled out of control very quickly. David would feel hurt and angry because I didn’t understand (he still felt that) and would be shouting at me (these days he rarely does that). I would feel unfairly accused and as a result inclined to launch into an explanation of what I had said and why I had said it that way – which would come across to him as dismissing his feelings. I no longer do this. Well, mostly I don’t. Sometimes, if I am fragile for any reason, the sense of unfairness can overwhelm, but this happens far less often than it did because I know now that he is not being unfair: his reaction, regardless of whether I understand it or not, is just as valid as mine.

The point here is that David and I are working together. David understands a lot more about the way his brain is wired and the impact of adrenalin on his system. I understand that although at times I still fall into a neurotypical way of behaving and speaking, for the most part (not always), I am able to take steps to ensure that matters do not spiral out of control.

However, even taking all this new knowledge and understanding into account, something like this has a devastating effect and the aftermath left David feeling, in his own words, ‘deflated’ and as a result he described that evening’s writing as being ‘pretty stodgy’.

The following morning he was still in a very flat and unhappy state.

I think most neurotypicals would class this as a case of ‘making mountains out of molehills’. I know that’s what I used to think, before I knew about autism. However, what may seem a slight social hiccough to a neurotypical can have an overwhelming effect on someone on the autistic spectrum.

What’s needed is more awareness. Mixed marriages can work wonderfully well – and understanding is key.

Striving to understand a different way of seeing the world broadens my outlook, makes me more tolerant and generally helps me to become a better person. If I were married to a neurotypical man, the chances are I’d have to forgo a lot of the things on my shopping list and I would still be locked into a neurotypical-narrow view of the world and therefore less tolerant and kind towards others.

So if you are in a mixed marriage of this sort, and something you have said or done has sent your partner into an adrenalin-fuelled meltdown, don’t despair. It is possible to navigate a path through. Talking to one another is the first step and it is priceless because only by talking can we ever hope to understand and to see the world through different eyes.

As for me, well I would not change my mixed marriage for the world.

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