Alexithymia and the Secret Schizoid

I want to switch gears for a moment.  Some time ago I wrote this post–Affective Deprivation Disorder and Alexithymia in Marriage.  According to my stats, this is the most widely viewed post on my blog.  That is telling.  I had never heard of alexithymia until I stumbled across the term while trying to find a name that might adequately describe a feature of my husband’s behavior.  Once I discovered the term, the world opened up to me because once you have a name for something, then you are connected into a larger more common experience.  In short, I felt validated.

Something recently occurred around this post.  Someone commented.  And then another person commented.  Then, another.  Soon, a dialogue started, and what I observed was again common experience.  We had all been or were currently married to essentially the same man.  The patterns of behavior were all the same.  The relational trends within the marriage were almost identical.  It was eerie.  In my mind, as I read the comments, the only explanation was a pathology.

It must be stated that I am not a fan of the current direction that the therapeutic model in psychology is moving.  A medical model is being applied.  For example, a diagnosis like PTSD is pathologized and made to look almost like a disease process rather than a very normal response to trauma.  Overlaying a medical diagnosis to a non-medical condition does not equip and heal people.

That being said, when I speak in terms of pathology regarding human behavior, I am referring to a commonality of “symptoms” that meet a set criteria.  When there is a group of people who display similar to matching symptoms that repeatedly match a set criteria, then one is wont to look for pathology; pathology in this context means a set of features considered collectively for diagnostic purposes.

The pathology, therefore, that I believe is most likely present in my husband and quite possibly in other people often presenting with alexithymia (when there are other features present as well) is schizoid personality disorder.  That’s a leap, I know.  Allow me to explain.  The most common diagnosis that presents with alexithymia is an autism spectrum disorder.  There have been more than a few psychiatrists and therapists who have leapt to that conclusion when hearing of my husband’s behavior.  I even went there.  Alas, no, he is not on the autism spectrum.  There has been, however, something wrong.  Here is the criteria for schizoid personality disorder as listed by the World Health Organization:

  1. Emotional coldness, detachment or reduced affect.
  2. Limited capacity to express either positive or negative emotions towards others.
  3. Consistent preference for solitary activities.
  4. Very few, if any, close friends or relationships, and a lack of desire for such.
  5. Indifference to either praise or criticism.
  6. Little interest in having sexual experiences with another person (taking age into account).
  7. Taking pleasure in few, if any, activities.
  8. Indifference to social norms and conventions.
  9. Preoccupation with fantasy and introspection.

One must meet four of the nine criteria to be considered on the schizoid spectrum based upon WHO’s description.  My husband meets eight.

To make matters more complicated, there is a comorbidity in those with schizoid personalities and autism spectrum disorders.  The reason for this, I suspect, is that schizoid personality disorder seems to run in families where there are schizophrenia spectrum disorders present.  And, where there are schizophrenia spectrum disorders present you will find autism spectrum disorders because autism and schizophrenia spectrum disorders are genetically related.  So, I am going to make another leap and suggest that some people diagnosed with autism, particularly the high functioning variety, have, in fact, been on the schizoid spectrum simply because the criteria for schizoid personality disorder reads like a high functioning autism spectrum disorder.  In the end, it gets very confusing for the clinician with little to no training in abnormal psychology and very confusing for everyone else.  Furthermore, since ASDs and SCZ are both biologically based brain disorders, it begs the question: is alexithymia a brain-based response? In other words, what is the neurology behind something like an alexithymic expression? If we are looking for the truth, it’s a question that must be asked.

Here is the question that led me to post this.  “Why is my husband so amazing at work, so skilled there, and such an asshole at home?”  This is my husband.  In something like an autism spectrum disorder, deficits are generalized.  One struggles at work and at home.  An AS adult cannot go to work and turn it on, so to speak, only to return home and derp it up.  There is, however, a known phenomenon called the Secret Schizoid:

Many fundamentally schizoid individuals display an engaging, interactive personality that contradicts the observable characteristic emphasized by the DSM-IV and ICD-10 definitions of the schizoid personality.[8] Klein classifies these individuals as “secret schizoids”,[8] who present themselves as socially available, interested, engaged and involved in interacting yet remain emotionally withdrawn and sequestered within the safety of the internal world.

Withdrawal or detachment from the outer world is a characteristic feature of schizoid pathology, but may appear either in “classic” or in “secret” form. When classic, it matches the typical description of the schizoid personality offered in the DSM-IV. It is however “just as often” a hidden internal state: that which meets the objective eye may not match the subjective, internal world of the patient. Klein therefore cautions that one should not miss identifying the schizoid patient because one cannot see the patient’s withdrawal through the patient’s defensive, compensatory interaction with external reality. He suggests that one need only ask the patient what his or her subjective experience is in order to detect the presence of the schizoid refusal of emotional intimacy.[8]

Descriptions of the schizoid personality as “hidden” behind an outward appearance of emotional engagement have been recognized as far back as 1940 with Fairbairn’s description of “schizoid exhibitionism,” in which the schizoid individual is able to express a great deal of feeling and to make what appear to be impressive social contacts yet in reality gives nothing and loses nothing. Because he is only “playing a part,” his own personality is not involved. According to Fairbairn, the person disowns the part which he is playing and thus the schizoid individual seeks to preserve his own personality intact and immune from compromise.”[9] (online source)

This is why a person with schizoid personality disorder could go to work and be a superstar yet come home and be a completely different person.  This is why a man like my husband was engaging, charismatic, charming, and enthusiastic before I married him.  This is why no one can imagine what he’s like behind closed doors.  This is why I was terrified that no one would believe me when I decided that the marriage had to end.  I was going to have to decide within myself that it didn’t matter.  I had to be okay within my own narrative of events.

It is too easy to drive yourself crazy trying to find an explanation for crazymaking behaviors.  Autism? I can make sense of autism.  Theory of mind deficits? Well, a theory of mind deficit isn’t just a problem in autism spectrum disorders.  I know neurotypical adults who struggle with theory of mind.  Many people on the personality disorder spectrum will struggle with theory of mind because theory of mind is about mind-mapping.  It’s about perspective-taking and anticipating needs.  It is cognitive empathy, and one of the hallmarks of many personality disorders is a lack of cognitive and even emotional empathy.  This is where many clinicians get stuck and smack an autism diagnosis on a person who is really in no way autistic.  It is unfair because said patient will receive a woefully inappropriate treatment plan (if they receive one at all), and their families will then come to believe something that is not true.  In that scenario, no one gets the necessary help.

It must be stated that I am not trying to stigmatize alexithymia or invalidate the emotional experience of anyone who finds themselves experiencing it.  I do my best to avoid stigmatizing language.  This is, however, a blog, and blogs are written with a bias.  My natural tendency is to be empathetic and compassionate to everyone, and I am actually annoyed with the larger therapeutic community in North America for bringing so little to the table on this specific topic.  I have yet to meet one clinician who has ever heard the term ‘alexithymia’, and that’s a damned shame.  What can be done to increase the emotional spectrum and repertoire for those who have it, and what can be done to equip those who love them and want a relationship? It’s simply not enough.  People deserve more.  All people.

In the end, for all of us who have lived with individuals struggling with alexithymia, it is important to note that alexithymia is a piece of a larger puzzle.  We must find our locus of control and internalize it.  Our lives are not just happening to us.  What can we accept? What can we not accept? What do we need to be happy and fulfilled? Do we believe that we are responsible for the happiness of our partner? Does their happiness come at the expense of our own? Is that appropriate? What should the boundaries look like? What should be normalized and accepted and what should not be in terms of human expression or lack thereof? It’s hard to answer these questions when so little information is available, but we must try anyway.

What course do we have to set so that we can be happy, too? Then, do it.

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10 Comments on “Alexithymia and the Secret Schizoid

  1. You truly have an amazing noggin.

    You’ve come so far in your life, and still have an amazing journey ahead of you.

  2. Hello darling! First of all, I just want to say that your blog is wonderful and gives me so much hope as a domestic abuse survivor and a sexual abuse survivor. Second of all I am sorry to hear about your husband. It sounds like he is having some real issues 😦 but I was actually quite puzzled about something you said in some earlier posts. You were longing for sex with your husband, but he was not giving it to you. And yet you kept attempting to get him to give you sex. Or participate in sexual activities with you. Now maybe I misinterpreted this, and I could be totally wrong, but I don’t think your husband wants to have sex. In other words, I don’t think your husband is giving you consent to have sex with him. Now here is the thing, nobody is entitled to anybody else’s body. Ever. No matter what. If your husband doesn’t want to have sex, he shouldn’t have to, because sex without consent isn’t sex. It’s sexual abuse. He has to be willing and happy. He does not owe you, or anybody sex. Ever. Consent is a not a “maybe” consent is not a “yes” said in a shaky and reluctant voice. Consent is a confident and happy “I want to have sex with you,”. Now I’m not trying to be rude. Or offend you in anyway. Because maybe you didn’t know that what you were doing could be interpreted as trying to solicited sex from an unwilling party. Thanks for running such a wonderful blog and I’m terribly sorry if I have offended you. I just wanted to inform you that what is happening may be interpreted as sexual abuse and I know that that is not who you truly are. You are a woman who is creative and smart and is caring. Which is why I think you need to know this. Have a wonderful day darling! Sorry to be such a downer.

    • Thanks for commenting, Anna. And thank you for bringing up such an important topic–consent. I do understand consent. And, I think that it’s easy to misinterpret internal conflict posted on a blog as external cajoling in a relationship. Sexual abuse survivors and domestic abuse survivors are particularly sensitive to any sort of violation of consent. Hypervigilance around consent becomes common. That has been my journey. For example, attempting to attract the attention of a partner by dressing nicely isn’t sexual abuse. Wearing pretty underwear isn’t a violation of consent. Attempting to take care of oneself in an attempt to stoke the fires of passion as it were isn’t sexual abuse or a violation of consent. Were this true, then strangers would be sexually abusing each other the world over.

      You did draw the correct conclusion: my husband did not want to have sex with me. And, the cardinal rule around any situation like that is–“You do not want to have sex with someone who does not want to have sex with you.” So, I did not violate his consent. Did I engage him in conversation? Yes. But, ask any sex therapist about the sexless marriage. If you want a sexless marriage to move from sexless to sexy, then you have to start to talk about it. Is there a way to do this without being sexually abusive? Yes. And I did my best to follow those rules. If you read the entirety of my blog, which just about seems impossible, then you will have a much better context for who I am. My husband was actually sexually abusive and violent. So, I know what it means to deal with domestic violence and sexual abuse within a marriage. I know what consent means more than I can even explain on my blog.

      Thank you again for voicing your concern. And, don’t be afraid to do so anywhere. It’s not a “downer” to ask questions or feel concern. So, you don’t have to apologize. Best, MJ

  3. Thank you for sharing your story. I stumbled upon this blog post because I just recently became aware of the fact my husband is probably struggling with SPD. For years I thought it was just Aspergers, but it’s more than that, I’m convinced now. I feel incredibly alone in this journey. He forces me to be alone by his hermit-like ways. He’s gotten worse over the years. My hope and prayer is that it will improve at some point. But that would take some kind of therapy or intervention, and he is stubborn and unwilling to get help.
    I do find comfort in blog posts like this. I’m not completely alone anymore. Again, thanks for sharing.

    • Hi Kris, I’m glad that I and all the readers and commenters could be here in the blogosphere to offer a comfort to you. When you say SPD do you mean Schizoid Personality Disorder? If that is the case, then my biggest encouragement would be for you to turn your focus from him to yourself. An unwilling partner is not a partner. I say this from years of experience. Invest in yourself as foreign as that might sound and begin thinking of yourself as worthwhile again. The biggest error that I made was letting my worth be determined by the actions/inactions and opinions of one person. So, I say it fairly often now–never let the trajectory of your life and your sense of self rise and fall on the bad acts of one person. You are worth far more than one person’s deficiencies and incapacities. I wish you all the best…MJ

  4. You conveniently forgot to mention the common genetic expression between autism and schizophrenia also includes bipolar. These are all very distinct entities.

    You also cherry picked autism and schiziod, but there are many more psychiatric disorders that overlap with alexithymia. Including, but not limited to, PTSD, MDD, eating disorders, anxiety disorders, social phobias. Not to mention a slew of organic disturbances like traumatic brain injury and substance use. Guess that didn’t fit your “my husband is a selective asshole” narrative?

    Please be more responsible with facts.

    • You know, accusatory, pedantic, and condescending comments like this I usually deep-six because they are not meant to edify or enlighten. They are really just very common trolling comments meant to hurt and judge in the name of “doing someone a favor”, and they are almost always made from a place of ignorance or anger which is why I’m actually going to respond to this one.

      Nova, you accuse me of “cherry picking” but, in this case, you have done the cherry picking. You picked this singular post out of an almost 10 year-old blog linked to another blog which is, in fact, about schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. I know all too well about both of those “distinct entities” as you label them, and I am very familiar with their genetic expressions as I have lived with them, researched them and am pursuing a PhD in the healthcare field. You also picked one post in which I discuss a SYMPTOM–alexithymia–of a plethora of human expressions of mental, neurological, and biological health issues and rail against me for only discussing one issue/manifestation related to it rather than linking it to every other condition known to humanity in which the symptom of alexithymia might manifest and in so doing you call me irresponsible with facts.

      That is absolutely absurd.

      If you were really wont to hold me to some form of legitimate accountability, you would have done a search of my blog and found that I have already discussed alexithymia at length and the myriad contexts in which it manifests. Furthermore, that blog post was cited in Huffington Post. I have not “conveniently” forgotten anything and have been very responsible with “the facts” including every single “organic disturbance” you mentioned in an article written in 2014–4.5 years ago–on this very blog.

      The part of your comment, however, in which you reveal the true nature of your comment is your very unscrupulous and plainly mean remark about “my husband is a selective asshole” narrative”. Let me clear this up for you, Nova, just so that your motives for leaving this comment are clear:

      You did not leave this comment to clarify what alexithymia is because my blog posts dating back to 2014 have already done that. Had you done your due diligence you would have learned that. No, your comment was misogynistic as it is also very clear on my blog that my ex-husband was not an “asshole”. He was a three-time domestic abuser guilty of three felonies two of which could put him in prison for the rest of his life. No, he isn’t an asshole. He is a felonious perpetrator, and that isn’t a “narrative”. Those are fully documented legal facts.

      So, the next time you get an urge to troll women’s blogs and feign some kind of offense in the name of standing up for people with mental or neurological health issues, or dish out condescension and judgment because you felt personally offended—don’t. In this case, you are the one who needed to get your facts straight before you left your comment on my blog.

  5. MJ, you are amazing. Your response to ‘Nova’s’ comment is sublime. Unlike him, you retained dignity. You have ACTUALLY changed my life. Thank you xXx

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