Relationships Ruined by Esteem Deficits (Autistic or Not!)

People are curious about relationships and autism; the questions asked most often when I appear before groups are about relationships. I've attempted to answer a few questions on this blog, but I never feel like I'm offering many insights.

In a world in which most marriages fail and relationships seem to be transitory, I don't believe we can "blame" autistic traits for relationship issues. What we can do is recognize how autism and other forms of atypical neurology/personality do affect us and our relationships. Still, I caution readers that what I am offering is more general than "autism" and probably applies to every relationship at some time.

Caveats stated, I believe the greatest challenge in my relationship with my wife is the sense that I'm unworthy of her friendship, loyalty, and companionship. The Susan is calmer, quieter, more focused, a faster reader, a better student, a much better employee… and on and on when compared to me. She has a lot of traits I wish I had. As a result, I often feel inferior to her, realizing I cannot achieve the same types of success that she has earned.

When you feel inferior to someone else, you end up sabotaging the relationship.

First, I've always thought my wife deserved better than me. When you start with that perspective, part of you feels guilty for holding the "better" partner back in life. I've always wondered how much more my wife could accomplish without me. I've also wondered if she would be happier.

The notion of "setting her free" leads to another emotional conflict: I want her to be more, but I also realize I am a better person with her. I don't want to lose her friendship, but I don't want to be a barrier to her success. You can imagine the internal turmoil.

Then, there is the desire to improve myself and earn her respect and friendship. Yes, I realize that friendship is "earned" by being there for someone, for supporting a friend's efforts and dreams. The reality is that our culture emphasizes professional success — either financially or via status achieved. You don't need to be wealthy to be successful, but you do need to earn recognition in some form.

Social failure reinforces low self-esteem — and autism is associated with social skills "deficiencies" in a culture that emphasizes charm and non-verbal cues. Social failure can, and often does, lead to professional failure.

Since graduating from college in 1990, I've only had one job (not counting self-employment) last more than three years. That job, however, was as a graduate instructor during my doctoral studies. My corporate and higher education jobs have been either eliminated (not my fault, thankfully) or social minefields that other people might have been able to navigate.

Workplaces are all about relationships — I can't seem to master those complex work relationships. Work relationships are political, especially in higher education where tenure is awarded by committees with their own agendas. Like-minded and charming people do better than someone like me in these settings.

I just want to be left alone, without penalty for being alone. Ironically, I do well collaborating as a playwright. Recognizing that relationships differ by profession, I should recognize and remember that relationships between individuals also differ. My wife and I have "geek" personalities.

I don't consider myself a "nerd" for a variety of reasons. See:

But, what about the "nerd" qualities others see in me? When you aren't "cool" in some way, you shift from being a mere knowledgable geek to being an awkward "nerd" (and an outcast). To theatre people, I'm just another theatre geek. Within other settings, I'm a nerd — an outcast.

Being an outcast, something many autistics experience, is frustrating. It isn't that I want to be liked — which is hard to explain — but it is the knowledge that I'm being dismissed or devalued in the workplace. I end up defensive and annoyed. I end up wondering how I can fail so often, when I am supposedly so smart. If other people don't like me or value my work, how could my wife value me?

While I have failed in workplace after workplace, career after career, my wife is able to quietly do what needs to be done. She is successful, by my definition, working for employers as long as she wants. She's never lost a job, and probably never will. She "fits in" with other people, even though she is an introvert. I'm not merely an introvert — I don't "mesh well" with people.

Curiously, I'm more willing to do social things, but I'm worse at being social. Why in the world does my wife tolerate me when so few other people do?

My constant pursuit of "success" and a string of failures reinforced my perception that my wife is superior to me. The self-esteem hit of each failed effort to integrate into corporate or institutional settings harmed our relationship as a couple, and as friends.

But wait, some friends and family will say, we know you have an ego! Yes, I do. About my writing, my computer programming, and my knowledge in general. I do not think well of "me" — I think well of my works. And even then, I often doubt if my works have enough "value" to earn the respect and companionship of my wife. I'm trying to accept the path that's best for me, so I can be a better person.

I'm working on the self-esteem issue, but it will be an unending challenge. When you feel like an outsider, without traditional measures of success, building self-esteem takes effort.

I know why my relationship with my wife has been a struggle, but I haven't yet learned how to overcome the challenge of low self-esteem. She's a great person. I'm not sure I am.

As I warned, I offer no great insights.


  1. She probably keeps you around because you treat her with respect, you are proud of her, she probably has personal and financial freedom (does not mean being rich but not being accountable for every penny spent) and she can live with you.

    The last being the most important according to an article I read long ago when a 60yr married couple was asked the secret of their marriage.

    Love is important too, but it's the every day stuff that matters.

  2. Thank you so much for this. As the least autistic amongst an extremely autistic family. I constantly battle with my low self esteem issues, especially when it comes to my lovely husband who I constantly feel has sold himself short in his spouse choice. Feeling better already


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