I wrote a post entitled AFFECTIVE DEPRIVATION DISORDER AND ALEXITHYMIA IN MARRIAGE in 2014. I wrote it from a place of profound emotional and psychic pain, but there was also a thread of hope woven into that post because I thought I had found an answer. Alexithymia. Maybe there was an explanation for my then husband’s behaviors and relational style. Affective Deprivation Disorder. Maybe there was a name for how I felt. A label, if you will, for the twisting of my reality and life. I didn’t exactly feel comforted, but I did feel validated and less alone. I didn’t expect so many people, however, to respond. I didn’t realize just how many people intimately and experientially understood the contents of what I had written. That post is still the most widely read and cited post on this blog. I’ve been contacted privately by people from all over the world, men and women, asking for answers. I’ve been emailed anonymously by people who just needed to tell their stories. I’ve received hate mail. And then there are the comments. Well, you can read those. The mélange of pain, despair, hope and the desire to repair what is broken is present.
It has been almost six years since I wrote that post, and I’ve learned some things since then.
I was contacted by only one person who felt they had alexithymia, and they themselves wanted to know what they could do to bridge the gap. He went to a therapist and is still actively involved in a healing process. I’ve gotten to know him, and he is a thoroughly sincere person with genuine desire to be in authentic relationship. Every other person who contacted me felt they were in crisis due to partnering with someone who was, at that least, emotionally unavailable and neglectful or, at the worst, abusive. On the whole, the trend that I’ve observed is that it was one person out of a partnership who was doing the bulk of the emotional work and who was also absorbing the inequities in the relationship.
There is a name for this. Emotional exploitation. What is emotional exploitation? Essentially, it is using another person or persons (for example, spouse and children) from whom one extracts emotional nurturing while returning only a tiny portion of that same love, support, and listening. (source) Many of the emails and comments I’ve read over the years have painted a picture of emotional exploitation. That was a very real dynamic in my former marriage. One I could never change.
So, let me be real. What could I change? Could I change anything about my ex-husband? No. Only he could change himself. We cannot change people, but we can influence people. Was I successful in any way at influencing him? Yes and no. I’ll explain.
When I asked him to be more present with me and the kids, I influenced him. He became more avoidant. When I asked him to help me do yard work, I influenced him. He became more childish and feigned incompetence to get out of helping me. When I asked him to watch a movie with me, I influenced him. He mocked my movie choices because he knew that would embarrass me, thusly, causing me to let him pick the movie instead. When I asked him to stop drinking, I influenced him. He got angry, blamed me for his anxiety, and drank more. When I asked him for sex, I influenced him. He ignored me for months and turned our bedroom into his home office. Did I have influence? In a way. Did I change him? No. In the end, it became an overtly abusive relationship where it did not matter what I did. Every move I made was met with psychological or physical warfare.
Allow me to be clear. You cannot change anyone. You could transform yourself into the most perfect version of who you think you need to be to please your loved one, and I guarantee that it will not change that person. You could delete every part of yourself that you’ve been told is flawed or somehow innately wrong in order to please your beloved, and it will still not change this person. I know this because I tried. You will only end up a mess. A despairing, hollowed out, confused, hurting mess.
You cannot change another person.
Tattoo that on your brain. It is not your job to change someone else. Isn’t that a relief? It might not feel like a relief. If you like to be in control, then it is maddening. If you, like me, grew up believing that if you did everything right, then a Happily Ever After would be yours, reality turns out to be a shock. Here is the heartbreaking truth of it all. You can promise to love someone–and truly love them–until the day you die, and there is no guarantee that they will do the same even if they made the same promise, too. I never really understood that until domestic violence entered my former marriage. I never really understood that love was not enough. I naively believed that love conquered all. It doesn’t. Why? Why isn’t love enough?
Let me rephrase that. Love for one person isn’t enough. Often when we hear people say that love will conquer all, we see one heroic person preparing to embark on an ill-fated journey wherein a great sacrifice will be made all in the name of love. That’s a terrible template for relationships, but that describes the dating history of a lot of people I know. We are not supposed to live in one-sided, emotionally exploitative, psychologically besieged relationships marked by great and terrible drama. We are supposed to allow for the possibility that we will receive the same love and nurturing from our partners that we give and cultivate that on a daily basis. It is called mutuality or reciprocity, and that is what was missing from my former marriage. That is what is missing from all the comments and emails I’ve read. Reciprocity. Furthermore, we want to choose partners and friends who also cultivate reciprocity so that greater trust and intimacy are built over time thereby lessening the possibility of all kinds of exploitation and shame allowing for vulnerability within our relationships which ultimately allows for feelings of belonging, safety, and acceptance. In all the comments and emails I’ve received never was there mention of present feelings of safety, belonging, or vulnerability. I certainly never experienced that in my former marriage.
Well, what is to be done? I’ll be frank. I ended my marriage less than a year after I wrote that post. Yeah, I was married for almost twenty years, and I ended it. There is no reward for languishing in a dark pool of suffering, wasting away, pouring yourself out, giving your best away to someone who really doesn’t care or lacks the capacity to care. Either way, you cannot make someone else care for you in a way that is meaningful to you or meets your needs, but you can make your own choices. So, for the first time in my life, I stopped thinking about what would meet everyone else’s needs and started thinking about what would meet mine.
Was it easy? No. As hard as I imagined it would be, I ended up wishing that it were that easy. The first two years after it ended were the worst, and it wasn’t because I missed him. It was because there were years of pain to process, and I didn’t expect it. I have never experienced anything quite like it. Would I do it again? Absolutely. As time goes on, I feel less and less vulnerable and more capable.
So, what would I like to say to anyone who reads that post and sees themselves in it? Well, I want to say that your happiness, well-being, and needs are just as important as your partner’s. If you are thinking that you can save your partner or change them by doing something more than you already have, then I would encourage you to pause for a moment. Please remember that I wrote that post. I was once in the same place. I, too, was trying to solve the problem of my relationship–the problem that was my partner. In the end, I needed to save myself. I was the one who was drowning because, in reality, it did not matter whether my ex-husband would not change or could not change. The manifestation of either of those realities was the same, and I could no longer exist in that reality and be okay. And since I could not change him, I had to change. That might sound like a scary proposition, but authentic change happens slowly.
Start where you are. Take one step at a time. Be intentional. Begin to value yourself as much as you value your partner. See where it takes you.
Just don’t give up.
Talking Man to Man about Sexism by Lundy Bancroft
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Hi MJ. Thank you for your helpful words, as usual. Much appreciated.
Take care. BR
Hi – I just read these two blog posts this morning, after receiving an autism spectrum diagnosis for my son yesterday, and realizing how much the diagnosis applies to my husband as well. So I started off this morning with researching being married to someone with Aspergers. And came across AfDD. It’s been mind blowing, and is currently making me cry a bit. I’ve been feeling so worthless, and like once I was good for something, but that over time I’ve obviously become pretty useless. So, this is all something to look into further. Wish I could take a couple weeks off & really get into this. Wow.
I understand how shocking it can feel to see names and expanded descriptions for your life experiences particularly if you thought that perhaps it was all you or you were the problem. That was, in fact, why I wrote the original post–to tell everyone that it was not just them. There was a name for the ongoing turmoil. I recall that I was reeling. My daughter is on the autism spectrum, and I can say definitively that she is sensitive, kind, fun-loving, empathetic, caring, and generous of heart. I want to give you loads of encouragement there. I love spending time with her (although her younger years were a real challenge, I won’t lie). My ex, however, is not on the autism spectrum. If your husband is, in fact, on the spectrum, then I would encourage you to read through the comments to find the comments of a reader who asked if he could add to the conversation. I have gotten to know him. He is on the spectrum, married with children. He became aware that he had alexithymia and wanted to do better. He went to therapy. His comments are very helpful. My ex actually has a personality disorder that, at times, looks like an ASD, but it is not. He has schizoid personality disorder with some other tendencies. My only additional comment will be: When you have lived with this for a long time, your first thought might be to educate and arm yourself to the utmost in order to fix it. That was me. I was a Fixer Extraordinaire. I’m really good at problem-solving, but I could not fix or solve this. My efforts only made it worse. So…much…worse. So, double down on self-care, and that may sound foreign to you or even selfish. I promise, however, that it is actually the solution.
Thanks for your reply. I’m thinking through a lot of things since yesterday, while also getting normal things done. 1) My son has a new diagnosis & I’ll want to educate myself on that. He’s been having a tough time, mainly at school with other kids. He had an in-school suspension last January that really pushed things forward in seeking an evaluation. Right now he is seeing this whole autism spectrum thing as proof that there’s something wrong with him. 2) My husband’s reaction to the AS diagnosis was very interesting. When he said that it was feeling very familiar to his experience, the doctor suggested that he might want to look into an assessment for himself. 3) I’ve been having a really hard time with my husband’s lack of emotional presence, response, etc. Over time, I’ve been having a hard time with how I feel about myself & have been drawing some connections to how I feel like he doesn’t seem to see me as good for anything (except some really basic things), though he has insisted that’s not the case. I don’t know where we are at this point, or where things are heading.
I’m really sorry to hear about your ex. I also have an ex, from when I was previously married in my 20s. After being separated from that one, I began to realize that he had been very manipulative, and is possibly bipolar. It wasn’t easy.
I don’t think I even know what constitutes self-care for me at this point.
I am so sorry that you are experiencing all this. That is a lot process and deal with. Do you have any support to speak of?
No, not really. Guess that’s why I’m talking to strangers on the internet.
I think many people who have found their way here have felt much the same way myself included.
I don’t know if you will find this helpful, but I just read this today. And, I found it helpful personally. It speaks to what I have tried to say, at times, in this blog. Maybe you will find something useful in it. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/inviting-monkey-tea/202007/freeing-yourself-your-partners-behavior
Hi CH, I believe I am the person that the helpful MJ refers to, and she has been a great help to me, and so to have the comments left on her blog; I have read all of them. MJ has my private email address, which I would be happy for you to have, should you wish to contact me privately, just in case I might be able to help you in some small way.
Please tell your son that a diagnosis of ASD does not mean there is anything wrong with him, just a difference, that may come with skills and a different perspective.
Hi BR – thanks for writing. I’m a little overwhelmed, and my son is as well. He’s certainly seen from the reactions of peers & teachers at school over the years that there’s something different about him, and that it comes off as “wrong.” I had been worried that he wouldn’t even want to do the assessment, but he seemed to have a relatively good time with that – the doctor was young & friendly. I’ve talked to a friend’s wife, who is a school psychologist about how to discuss the diagnosis with him. From the various sources, I’ve tried to assure him that lots of people are different in different ways, and that it isn’t a bad thing, but instead it’s a really good thing that everyone doesn’t think the same & see things the same way – society would be very static if that were so. But he’s obviously not feeling good about it. He doesn’t like to talk about things that happen at school, or about how he feels about things.
Hi CH. I was brought up in an emotional vacuum; no-one in my family ever discussed emotions or feelings, and it is something I still find difficult at times. It’s not that I don’t want to talk; it’s that I struggle to recognise feelings and emotions, and in particular to find words to express them. The only emotion I would notice would be sadness; but I could not tell if that was sadness, depression, being overwhelmed, grief, guilt, anxiety, remorse, apprehension, or something else. That is the very essence of Alexithymia
Read this site. It says it all. Click on the upper blue bar testimonials. Educate yourself. It gives you the validation you are looking for. I’m 27 years in. 3 HFA children and a HFA husband. https://theneurotypical.com/
Thank you for your blogs on these topics. I am here. In the thick of it. Recently Separated after 23 years. My husband has always been explosive and emotionally abusive. But only 3-4 times each year. However – emotionally distant and in his own world all the time.
After one really bad incident I insisted he get therapy. His therapist turned around and diagnosed me with a personality disorder without ever even speaking with me once. Taught him ways to “handle me” which really meant treating me like his at home executive assistant/roommate/friend with benefits (rare though because he had no sex drive).
Worse – he’s told my kids for years (yes years – I didn’t know he was seeing the most incompetent therapist) that “mom has an issue. She’s sick. But she can’t be helped. Her condition is incurable.” Just the greatest example of him having alexithemia, not understanding/admitting – but acting downright cruel to me.
I was hoping to save our marriage when we first separated. But I’m losing hope (rapidly) that he will ever admit his issues and put in the work to change or work with me.
But I have a great therapist that I’ve been seeing for years (because of how he treats me!) who is helping me with overcoming my fears and learning self-love.
Hoping I can become stronger, move away from the sinking ship that can’t be repaired when the captain keeps drilling holes in the hull, and eventually find a genuinely healthy relationship.
Thank you for sharing your experiences. I know it must have been hard to pit it out there for the whole world, but it’s so validating fir so many of us who can relate.
As I’ve been researching SPD, I have gone through the rabbit hole that we call the Internet, and come across MJ’s wonderful blog over the past few days. I thought it might be useful for readers to hear from someone diagnosed with SPD (I may not be the first here, so much to read I just don’t know). If what I write is of use to some readers, great.
I am 65 years old, male, lifelong single, never been in a long-term relationship (and not too many short-term ones either). In terms of profession, I have always been reasonably successful (probably more than reasonably, but not a star) and continue to be, but I very much want to retire as soon as finances will allow.
Since my 20’s, I have always known that there was something different about me in terms of my connections – or lack of – with others. In fact, as I grew older, I realized that this was always true of me as far back as I can remember as a boy, but I wasn’t aware of it then. At about the age of 36, I went to my first therapist and have seen/worked with about 25 therapists since then. In addition, I have done psychoanalysis, attended numerous other developmental programs, spiritual and secular, listened to and read various teachers – you name it, I probably have tried it. At age 61, an astrologer mentioned to me that she thought I might have Asperger’s – she didn’t push it, and I just dismissed it in my own mind. However, as time went on, I thought maybe it might be worth reading about Asperger’s and I read _the_ text on Asperger’s by Tony Attwood.
It took some time for me to digest that a lot of the symptoms he described I could relate to, and it took me even longer to accept this. Eventually, I went to get an assessment for autism (in the US, and/or for users of DSM-V elsewhere, Asperger’s is now included as part of the Autism Spectrum Disorder). After much testing, the psychologist/psychiatrist team told me that I worked with assessed that I was not on the ASD spectrum (and thus did not have Asperger’s).
When I pressed them, they diagnosed me with SPD. I had never heard of that disorder, and the term ‘schizoid’ freaked me out. This occurred about 3 years ago, and it is only in the last while that I have accepted that indeed I do have SPD. [I was hoping and pressing for a diagnosis of Asperger’s – the term is becoming more common, and telling someone that one has Asperger’s (I imagine), while likely stressful, is not as stressful as telling someone that one has Schizoid Personality Disorder. [Maybe, maybe not.]
I know that I’m leaving out a lot of nuance here, but I want to make just one major point. I assumed that my difficulty with connecting with others (friendships, romantic relationship, whatever) was due to awkwardness on my part – which is more of an Asperger’s characteristic – but that I _did_ want a friendships, etc. The diagnosticians explained that a characteristic of SPD was that the person is ‘asocial’ – has a lack of desire for friendships, relationships, and that this is a primary reason for difficulties, not awkwardness, etc. [Again, please don’t attack me for leaving out nuance in the above paragraph.]
As I’ve been reading about SPD, I’ve come across quotes that fit me very, very well, if not perfectly – i.e. I want to be clear that these are not my words, but they fit me, but I don ‘t have sources (although a Google search would probably unearth them for anyone who might wish to do a search). Here they are:
“I want to face this miserable, hurtful truth. … We can’t love as we’d wish to love. What now? Accepting that is the first step, for me. Not that I know what comes after that.”
“I intensely secretly desire emotional/physical bonding in theory, but in practice it’s just not possible, so I discard the feelings to keep myself functional. I’m always fighting myself. I feel like a cat who wants both in and out and loves having affection but only on his terms.”
“This is at the heart of the disorder. The schism, where our true selves can only safely exist inside ourselves, while we present something else outside. Many want intimacy, whatever that thing is that seems so alluring to everyone else in the world, but we reject it when it comes too close.”
“Life at the moment is as it’s always been and always will be, waiting for time to pass.”
“To the extent to which any person is schizoid, the only social life he or she can have is one without any meaningful connections, which is bound to tire anyone out.”
Why are your overt and covert characteristics so split from one another if not to fend off the intrusions of others and protect a part of you?
It’s just super draining to pretend all the time, and never feel like I’m “allowed” to be my true self, which is almost comically different from who I pretend to be.
“I only want friendship/intimacy on my terms.”
Early in life (20’s, early 30’s) I was in two very short-term relationships, and it wasn’t until I was in those relationships, that I realized I only wanted to be with the other when I wanted it, and then I wanted to be on my own – i.e. all on my own terms. One thing that I am very thankful for is that I broke off both relationships very quickly (thankfully, less hurt for them), and have never been in a relationship since.
Even more so, I cannot thank ‘the Gods” enough that I never entered into a relationship and fathered a child.
Overall (again, lack of nuance here), I am asocial, and only want to be with people on my terms. Yes, I have a few friendships, but it would be more accurate to say “fake friendships,’ because the other does not know who I am. As I get older, I have fewer and fewer such “fake friendships,” as being fake is worse than being alone.
I am 65 years old and my entire personal life has been fake.
For all those commentators who have written about their pain and suffering as a result of being in a relationship with a person with SPD: I do not recall any of your experiences to be anything but authentic, true. You were not, you are not imagining it.
That’s about it, I guess
I want to sincerely thank you for taking the time to write such a thoughtful and elucidating comment. It has given me much needed insight into things I set aside and wondered about. In an important sense, one might abstractly realize that perhaps certain things weren’t one’s fault, but it never settles into the deep places where true comfort and healing are required. Consequently, there remains a nagging doubt that, of course, always arises when doubt is the least wanted. Speaking for myself, after having lived with a man for 20 years who I’m quite certain has SPD, I lost a great deal of confidence in myself and conflated his terms for relationship with my own sense of worthiness.
I really loved the cat analogy as a cat owner–the cat who can’t decide if it wants in or out. And, of course, relationship seeking but solely on unilateral terms. This is something I’m intimately acquainted with. To see this written and described is immensely helpful.
Your succinct and honest description will, I hope, shed light on something that has remained out of reach and outside of tangible understanding for a lot of readers. Thank you very much for taking the time to share your inner experience and your life experience. I am better for your having done so, and I’ll likely read your comment a few times. All the best to you, MJ
P.S. You are a good writer and perhaps would be great at blogging. 😉
I came across your response just now, as I do not use this email very often. I glad that it was of help to you, and also hopefully to others. It was also useful to me to write it.
I liked your comment about my writing. It is indeed true, I think. As an unexpected consequence of working in my profession, I edited a lot of others’ work and became a reasonable writer.