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How An Asperger Syndrome Diagnosis Saved My Marriage

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It was my wife Kristen, a speech therapist who had worked with autistic children, who was most suspicious about my behavior. After we were married and living together, she started noticing little "things" about me that were consistent with Asperger Syndrome, a mild form of autism: impaired social reasoning; persistent, intense preoccupations with certain interests; unusual rituals and behaviors; and clinical-strength egocentricity.

Oh, and my thumbs look like toes, so I'm, like, a total catch.

At that time, things were not going well between us. Though we had been best friends since high school, our relationship had been reduced to little more than delicate coexistence. We were both constantly feeling misunderstood, under-appreciated, and resentful towards each other. We didn't talk very much, because if we did, it usually led to arguments. We felt hopeless, sad, and confused, the way people do when they've lost their best friend.

We never could have predicted we'd feel that way when we were first starting out together. After I was diagnosed, however, the fact that we were experiencing these marital problems seemed less surprising. It didn't take long for me to realize that perhaps there was a connection between the fact that our marriage was in dire straits, and the fact that I had this mild form of autism that manifests itself in ways that tend to destroy relationships.
Learning as an adult that I fit the Asperger's profile might have been shocking or unsettling. But it wasn't. It was cathartic and eye-opening. I had always understood that I was different, and I had always felt that I was struggling with things that didn't seem to be a challenge for other people, but I never knew why. With my diagnosis, I was given insight into how I work. I felt empowered and full of hope, which is a great feeling for anyone with such silly-looking thumbs.

And Kristen was given a new perspective on who she was married to. She could see that I wasn't unwilling to tune into her needs or be more flexible, but rather that I was unable to do those things sufficiently, without her help. There is a huge difference between being unwilling and being unable. Kristen was essentially handed a user manual for her husband (and who doesn't need one of those?), which she used to learn how to engage with me more effectively. She learned, for example, that she had to overtly express her feelings and needs if she wanted me to be responsive to them, and that I operated best during social events if I had a clear mental image of what to expect beforehand: "They're serving dinner at 6:30 with dessert to follow, and then we'll probably chit-chat over coffee before we leave. Decaf, if you're wondering."

Armed with new self-awareness and intense determination, I started looking every day for ways to manage the behaviors that had been wreaking havoc on our marriage. I wasn't interested in a complete personality overhaul; I just wanted to become more in control of myself. So, I started keeping what I called a "journal of best practices," which was a collection of personal maxims that I wrote down and tried to practice everyday: "Don't change the radio station when she's singing along," "Apologies don't count when you shout them," "It's better to fold the laundry than to take only what you need from the dryer," "Don't hog all the crab Rangoon." (Yep. Did I mention I'm a catch?)

Working together, guided by love and my best practices, Kristen and I were able to transform our failing marriage into the happy marriage we'd always wanted. I learned how to manage my behaviors on my own and be a better husband. Occasionally I took things a little too far--holding routine performance reviews to measure my progress week to week, for instance--but for the most part, my Asperger zeal and single-minded determination served us rather well on our journey of reconstruction. Best of all, we were able to renew our "bestfriendship," which is what I wanted more than anything.

So, if you ever find yourself staring at your partner over breakfast and wondering who the $#*! you married--and you will--just know this: there is hope.

David Finch's essays have been published in The New York Times, Slate and Psychology Today. "The Journal of Best Practices" [Scribner, $25.00 ] is his debut memoir. He lives in northern Illinois with his wife, Kristen, and their two children.