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Afflicted with Affect

Posted by Margaret Arnd-Caddigan on 2/23/16 - 1:55 PM
*Janelle sits on the edge of the loveseat in my office. Her knees form perfect ninety degree angles. She pulls her head up, her shoulders back and down, and looks me square in the eye with a set jaw.

The word “formidable” pops in my mind.

But immediately her shoulders curl forward, her head sags. “I want him to tell me how proud he is of me.”
The formidable woman suddenly sounds like a child.

“I raised over ten thousand dollars for pediatric cancer research last week.” She pulls herself up again. “He told me ten thousand dollars wouldn’t cover the cost of a single research assistant. He called it ‘trivial.’”

I work in a town with a large university and teaching hospital. A good portion of my clientele is comprised of the partners of physicians and professors. For a small subgroup of my clients, a common story has started to emerge.

“I was in grad school. I saw him at a party standing in a corner by himself. He looked so lost.”

The story goes like this: girl meets genius. A great guy. Well, truth be told, maybe a little less amorous than she would have liked, but a really great guy. She could tell he needed her: other people didn’t seem to be able to see past his awkwardness.

“I felt sorry for him. He just seemed so uncomfortable. Except when he was talking about his research. Then he’d get really animated.”

Girl marries genius: She manages her growing family, and more. She works on boards, does amazing fundraising, and volunteers for various charities.

As the family grows and thrives her husband pulls farther and farther away. At first she chalks it up to his demanding career. Then it becomes apparent that he really doesn’t like being at home.

At some point, the husband begins to criticize her emotionality, solicitousness, and superficiality. He blames her for being overbearing and boring.

These women are intelligent, well educated, and energetic. They all have very high social and emotional intelligence, which makes them highly attuned mothers, and the center of a large network of people and activities. All of which their husbands seem to resent.

Julie brings up a psychiatric referral. “Last week I tried to talk to my husband about our son. He won’t bring any friends around. He says his dad is too weird. Chip told me that he doesn’t want any more kids around the house, and besides, it’s probably because I’m so bossy.” Her eyes well. “I got angry. I yelled.” Her chin drops to her chest. “He told me that he can’t stand my histrionics. He asked me if my therapist knows how over-emotional I am. He said maybe I need some meds.”

It happens almost imperceptibly. Confident women begin to doubt themselves. They have been repeatedly told that what makes them inferior to their brilliant husbands is that they are afflicted with affect. If they could be rational, perhaps they wouldn’t be so intolerable. By the time they see me they believe that their emotional intelligence is a sign of weakness, or worse. They want me to cure them from having feelings.
It took me quite a while to figure out that a significant subset of my clients were married to men who were very high functioning on the Autistic Spectrum. It seems that the way these men cope with their relational limitations is to frame them as a sign of superiority. They convince themselves, then their wives, that social intelligence is a disorder, and emotional matters are mundane.

Once I figured out that my client’s husbands were on the spectrum (which in many cases was confirmed by independent evaluation), I began to wonder what took me so long to figure it out. Why was I ready to believe that clear signs of high social and emotional intelligence were signs of dysfunction? My head was full of theories and symptom clusters and stereotypes. “Helicopter Moms,” “labile emotions,” “undifferentiated,” skewed my perception.

Affect is not pathological. Nor is being highly attuned. It is pathogenic to convince someone that having emotions is bad. Now when a client tells me her partner thinks she’s overbearing, I ask myself where the pathology actually lies.

Helping our clients who are married to people who are very high functioning on the spectrum means taking several steps. Helping them recognize and come to terms with their partners’ limitations is vital.

Helping them value their own social and emotional intelligence is essential. Of course, we, their therapists, must value these virtues if we are to help these clients to thrive.

“Janelle,” I lean forward. “The grad student who’s getting a research assistantship because of your fundraising does not think ten thousand dollars is trivial. Congratulations. Well done.”


* The people in this piece are not actual clients. They are composite characters.
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