If you’re giving all your energy and support but you still feel invisible to your partner, you may be experiencing ongoing traumatic relationship syndrome.
Ongoing traumatic relationship syndrome (OTRS) is a dynamic that can occur between a person with Asperger’s syndrome (AS) and someone without AS who is close to them. This person can be a spouse or a close family relative — like a parent or child.
Cassandra phenomenon refers to the non-Asperger’s person (allistic) in the relationship’s experience of not being believed when they talk with a friend about the problems in the relationship with their AS partner.
OTRS can cause mental and medical health issues in the allistic person and is made worse by the lack of support caused by the Cassandra phenomenon.
Still, there are resources available to support you and your partner.
OTRS occurs when a person experiences trauma in a close relationship. In a relationship between an AS and a non-AS person, the non-AS person may feel like they’re not having their needs met or feel ignored on an emotional level. They may feel like they don’t matter and are invisible to their AS loved one.
Doctors no longer use the term Asperger’s, although some people still identify with this name. In the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5), Asperger’s has been listed under autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
It’s estimated that
The presence of alexithymia in autistic people has contributed to the perception that autistic people lack empathy. However, alexithymia can affect someone’s empathy — not autism.
If the autistic person in your life makes you feel like you have OTRS, they may have alexithymia.
It’s also possible that your partner recognizes a problem in the relationship. They may not understand your feelings or how to reciprocate, but they may feel as though they’ve failed you.
An autistic partner may feel stressed trying to meet the expectations of nonautistic people. While many of these dynamics have only recently been explored in clinical terms, discussing OTRS can help those involved recognize the dynamics of their relationship and find clearer lines of communication.
Feeling like your partner ignores your emotions is upsetting, but it can be hard to tell whether these patterns point toward a larger dynamic. Simply, how do you know if the situation has turned to OTRS?
The psychological symptoms of OTRS look similar to those seen from emotional abuse. They may include:
- reduced self-esteem
- dissociation or a loss of self
- social phobias
OTRS may cause you physical symptoms from emotional stress, including:
- weight changes
- reduced immunity
The communication and social differences of ASD can contribute to OTRS.
Even though autistic people may be highly articulate and intelligent, many still experience the social and emotional differences common in autism. These signs in your autistic partner may point toward OTRS:
- lack of emotional reciprocity
- unable to show their empathy or compassion
- may not be skilled at seeing another’s point of view
- miss nonverbal emotional cues
- may not recognize the consequences of their own actions
- struggles with impulse control and emotional regulation
- may not learn from experience
- lack the ability to assess complex personal situations
- don’t understand how their actions affect others
You may be having trouble with something, and the autistic person in your life may not notice. This makes it seem like they don’t care. These sorts of miscommunications may contribute to OTRS.
If your situation isn’t something they’d have trouble with, they can appear overly critical because they cannot recognize your differences.
A partner with autism may not realize they come off as critical.
If you tell them how it makes you feel, they may feel attacked and react angrily — rather than offer you the compassion you may need. Or, an autistic partner may not acknowledge your feelings if they don’t agree with them.
OTRS can arise from an autistic partner’s inability to understand their partner’s feelings.
Some autistic people have trouble with emotion regulation. If this describes your partner, they may lose their temper unexpectedly and lash out. Even if you’re not the trigger, you may bear the brunt of their emotions.
They may not understand how this affects you, so they may not apologize or offer comfort.
The Cassandra phenomenon refers to the non-Asperger’s person in the relationship’s experience of not being believed when they talk with a friend about the problems in the relationship with their AS partner.
It points toward the frustrations and potential traumas of a partner dealing with their neurodivergent partner.
Cassandra was a princess in Greek mythology. When she backed out of a deal that she’d made with Greek God Apollo, he was angry. He put a curse on her so that no one would ever believe her.
You may reach out for support to heal your relationship with the autistic person in your life. If no one believes you when you say there’s a problem, this could demonstrate the Cassandra phenomenon.
Not only can this keep you from the help you deserve, but it can also intensify your feelings of invisibility and low self-worth.
Learning more about OTRS and the Casandra phenomenon is a good place to start. Without understanding why the syndrome occurs, you may feel responsible and think there’s nothing you can do to improve the situation.
Communicating in clear language with your autistic partner is also helpful. Autistic people may miss nonverbal cues like facial expressions, so consider using clear words rather than waiting for them to figure out what you’re feeling.
It may surprise you how effective it is to simply state what you need. You’ll find it empowering to vocalize what you want — even if your partner cannot meet your needs.
Do keep in mind the limitations and challenges that are present in any relationship. There’s more at work here than your autistic loved one simply missing your cues. It helps to remember that you both have very different cognitive styles, and it’s no one’s fault.
Self-care can help you stay relaxed and supported through difficult times in your personal life. Proper nutrition, consistent sleep, regular exercise, and stress-reducing activities can all help you deal with the draining emotional work.
Being in a relationship with someone who doesn’t acknowledge your feelings can be traumatizing and impact your mental and physical health.
If you’re experiencing OTRS because you’re close to someone with ASD, you’re not alone.
Therapy might be something to consider. You can try it solo or with your partner if they’re willing. The American Psychological Association has a psychologist locator tool to help you find a qualified therapist in your area. You can also check out Psych Central’s How to Find Mental Health Support resource.
If you’re more interested in a support group, visit the Asperger / Autism Network support group sign-up page to explore some support group options.
Consider OTRS and the Cassandra phenomenon as names for very complicated and complex relationship dynamics. Now that there are names for these experiences, you can find support and resources versed in your experiences that you may have thought you were alone in experiencing.