So…What is Cassandra Syndrome, Anyway?

You may have heard of Cassandra Syndrome, or maybe you have not. As the neurotypical partner in a neurodivergent intimate partnership, you are likely trying to better explain your emotional experience in your relationship with your partner who may have autism and/or ADHD. More often than not, your neurodivergent partner may not even be aware of how you are feeling in the relationship or how their behaviors impact you and how you are doing day in and day out. Maybe you’ve begun to wonder if you are alone in your experiences or if there is a better way to describe your challenges within your neurodiverse relationship. As a result, let’s dig a little deeper into what Cassandra Syndrome is, and what it means for those who are experiencing it in their neurodiverse partnership.

Cassandra Syndrome 101

The Cassandra syndrome (adapted from Greek mythology) is an attempt to describe the relatively common experiences of the neurotypical partner in a neurodiverse relationship where their partner may have autism and/or ADHD. Autism and/or ADHD are neurodevelopmental conditions that impact how the neurodivergent individual engages in emotional reciprocity, social connection, communication, and perspective-taking skills. As an unintentional result on the neurodivergent partners’ end, this can leave the neurotypical partner feeling emotionally deprived, misunderstood, and invalidated. Complicating the neurotypical partner’s experience is often the poor understanding of this issue with friends, family, and mental health professionals. Whether at work, school, or home, they may have difficulty feeling understood and mindfully present due to the internal stressors they carry around from being in their neurodiverse relationship.

Relational Trauma

Some professionals believe that the Cassandra Syndrome is another experience that can contribute to relational trauma also referred to as Complex PTSD. Complex PTSD is a form of trauma that doesn’t occur from one singular big traumatic event but rather from a series of ongoing contextual trauma events through lack of intimacy, social connection, emotional deprivation, and misattuned relationships. It should be noted, that in most cases we see at Spectrum Connections Therapy, the neurodivergent partner lacks some skills to communicate and meet the neurotypical partner’s needs, but this is often unintentional and no one is necessarily to blame in these dynamics. Usually, both partners are speaking a different language so to speak. As neurodiversity-affirming and trauma-informed therapists, we strive to validate and honor both individuals’ experiences in the couples therapy process. With that said, signs that your neurodivergent partner’s behavior is contributing to relational trauma may include:

  • a lack of emotional connections and reciprocity
  • missing cues that you are feeling upset, misunderstood or ignored
  • trouble understanding your perspective of an experience
  • limited interpersonal skills
  • difficulty with communication
  • sometimes what appears to be a lack of empathy (this really depends on the neurodivergent individual and isn’t applicable to all)
  • challenges with reading your emotional experiences
  • difficulty regulating emotions
  • needing lots of time alone to decompress
  • lack of intimacy and emotional connection

Symptoms of Cassandra Syndrome

The misalignment in the neurodiverse partnership can negatively impact the psychological and physiological symptoms of complex trauma and may include:

  • negative self-image
  • interpersonal challenges
  • anger and emotional regulation
  • anxiety and/or panic attacks
  • OCD
  • hypervigilance; easily startled
  • social phobias
  • dissociation, flashbacks, and/or nightmares
  • physical illness and weakened immune system

Managing Symptoms

The first step in managing the neurotypical experience is learning more about this common relational dynamic in intimate neurodivergent partnerships. The neurotypical partner is not alone and validating the experience is often the first step toward relational healing. We often find that the neurodivergent partner is not intentionally causing this issue but lacks insight, skills, and awareness to understand these complex relationship dynamics and the neurotypical needs due to how their brain is wired. Oftentimes, the two individuals are essentially speaking a different language and need professional support from a highly specialized couples counselor to help cultivate learning new skills and effective ways to communicate within the neurodiverse relationship.

Seeking Treatment

Trying to navigate healthy neurodiverse relationships can feel hard and exhausting. You are not alone, and help is out there. The Gottman Method is an effective, evidence-based couples therapy approach that we find incredibly helpful in supporting neurodiverse partners in learning how to communicate, connect and move forward together toward a healthier relationship.

If you know the diagnosis or even suspect your partner may have autism and/or ADHD and that this may be contributing to the conflict and frustrations in your relationship, couples counseling can help. A good couple’s counselor, who is specialized in the complex dynamics of neurodiverse partnerships is essential. Finding a couples counselor who can understand both of your experiences and neutrally support you both in cultivating a healthy, balanced relationship is key. If you would like to learn more about our neurodiverse couples therapy approach, please reach out for a free 30-minute phone consultation today.

Be well,

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16 thoughts on “So…What is Cassandra Syndrome, Anyway?”

  1. Thank you, Dr G!
    I am very happy to have come across your article on Cassandra Syndrome while googling to see who Cassandra herself was.*
    You clarified many ideas about the effects of neuro-diversity in relationships. You referred to John Gottman. All very helpful for my work in family law and mediation and, of course, for my own family life!
    Best wishes,
    Jane
    * I was reading the latest edition of an impressive newsletter, Cassandra Voices. But who was Cassandra? Why had the newsletter that title?
    Then, how did we get to the Cassandra Syndrome? And finding your article!

  2. Thank you so much for your article. I have been married to my husband who has Asperger’s for over 49 years and honestly I have lost my mind many times over and suffered severe depression and anxiety while surviving this marriage. Leaving was just not a possibility for me. We are both in our 70’s. I am from Ontario Canada and have asked my family physician and also a psychiatrist for help but both said they know of no one in this area that specializes in marriages like mine. My husband has high functioning Asperger’s. He held a good job, but is socially and emotionally distant especially with me. He watches tv or sleeps most of the day. He is non communicative and totally oblivious to my emotional needs. I feel so despondent. I have had some therapy but nothing helps. My 3 grown children often see me as bitter and angry. I am lost! Sorry for venting to you. I have a Cassandra syndrome to the nth degree. Sharon

    1. Sharon, I just want to say… I feel for you. I landed on this page after Googling emotional neglect in marriage, and your post resonated with me. My husband of 14 years, with whom I have 2 children, is not yet diagnosed. He realized he is likely ASD/Aspergers after our 7-yr-old son was diagnosed earlier this month. Our 11-yr-old, selectively mute but intelligent daughter is probably higher-functioning ASD as well. I will be seeking a workup for her too.

      I’ve known all along that there is a reason for my husband’s problematic behaviors, many of them avoidant and emotionally/socially inept.

      Due to his limited ability to communicate on matters that relate to feelings and needs, I carry the emotional burden of not only myself, but our kids. His interactions with our kids have been impatient and dismissive at worst or non-responsive at best.

      He has no close friends and strictly adheres to a daily routine, working from and rarely leaving the home. Outside of the beaten path of his daily routine, he is not particularly helpful in terms of planning, executing and following up on tasks, which highlights the characteristic challenges with executive functioning. “I totally forgot” is something I hear regularly.

      Sex was methodical and formulaic – notice the operative word here – was. It is now a rare occasion and has been since our daughter was born almost 12 years ago. I find that I do much of the talking in conversations unless the topic is of interest to him. These days, we stick to pretty benign subjects, like our kids and their schooling/activities. When I try to engage him in a discussion that does not have a concrete concept, (e.g. what his goals are for the marriage, personal growth plans, etc.) he will say “I have no idea” or “I’ve never thought about that,” and it’s said in a way that conveys that he also does not care.

      I suspected he may have a personality disorder, namely narcissistic personality, but it just wasn’t checking out. He has the ability to see and acknowledge the harmfulness of his ways, and he has been seeing a therapist for the past 18 months when I told him I was considering divorce. He has made incremental improvement in therapy with communicating, but he still prefers the comfy old slipper of his daily ritual, and he does not initiate anything intimate – with me or. the kids. He will interact, but it is in a surface-level and casual way, usually doing something he wants to do (like video gaming, watching TV, or eating at a restaurant he likes).

      Interestingly, now that I have spent significant time digesting all that I can on the subject of ASD, I am recognizing characteristics of ASD in several of his family members, mainly his mother. Add to that his father and stepmom are toxic individuals who we had to enforce boundaries with, and they decided that they would rather cut us out of their lives than respect our boundaries/have a discussion about their behavior.

      While I have empathy for my husband and his own emotionally neglected childhood, I can no longer minimize the effect the emotional abandonment has had on me – especially since I walked into the relationship already hauling some hefty baggage in the form of childhood physical, verbal, emotional and sexual abuse.

      On the spectrum or not, I want my children to be as emotionally mature as they possibly can. But I don’t know how well I can accomplish that, living in an environment where they mostly see me expressing my anger and resentment at his neglectful ways. So I have some tough decisions to make.

      1. Susan, you are articulate and describe some of the aspects of the NT/AS relationships that many of us are familiar with. I believe I’ve had two NT partners; both apparently really decent people, but that’s said from the perspective of value judgment, and while my partners have never deliberately caused harm, that’s as likely to be because they don’t care about human values and emotions as that they want to follow a moral compass.
        I also feel too old to start a new life. I’ve done it four times before and don’t have confidence I’d find any relationship with the emotional and intimate content that would make life as rich as I’ve always wanted. My father was able to maintain a stable job and modestly support a family, but he was extremely eccentric and isolated and had no interest in his family. My elder brother is very isolated and eccentric. I am far less social than most people, and have been described as quirky more than once, so it’s pretty clear we all “stand in the puddle” at varying depths.
        Don’t expect emotional maturity from your children. Autism is a developmental disorder; it becomes more and more apparent to me that my 76 year old partner’s brain is simply not developed in terms of caring for or about other people. He lacks communication ability in every form; from eye contact to intimacy to using or understanding tone of voice, and peculiarly alienating, a total lack of reciprocity. The last is well demonstrated by me sending him little clips from Facebook that I know he’ll find interesting or funny, but he watches them by himself in his study and never, NEVER, acknowledges them. It would be normal for anyone to say “Oh, yeah, that was a cute video about the baby elephant and the newscaster”, but no, I can’t even have that much reciprocity in thus relationships.
        So you know you will never get what you need from thus relationship. You will be the only one doing the parenting. His contribution is stability to some extent, and financial, which is very helpful while raising children. Depending on the extent of your childrens’ disabilities you may want to provide long-term support to them, too. Weigh your financial options carefully. I don’t recommend an affair; just another disastrous mess lying in wait. You don’t need that. But you need physical pleasure, and dance classes and massage might help somewhat.
        Just want you to know that you’re not alone.

    2. Please update your information. The signs enumerated under neurodivergent behaviours includes “ lack of empathy” – when it is now well established that autistic individuals do not lack empathy. This is a negative stereotype that has propagated a ridiculous amount of demonisation and/ or dismissal of autistic adults. I am aware that it was, at one point, a ‘known’ in medical literature on ASC but today, even the medical model has accepted that it is untrue.

      I am an autistic woman in an inter-neurotype relationship and had been looking for couples counselling to ensure my partner and I develop good relationship strategies at the outset of our cohabitation. Having seen that the number of couples counsellor who say they have experience/ knowledge of autism appears to be closely related to the number endorsing/ addressing the effects of, Cassandra Syndrome- I fear I will struggle to find a counsellor with who I will actually be ‘safe’. It is incredibly disheartening, sadly, it has effectively amplified the lifelong feeling of being profoundly alone (E.g., misunderstood).

      1. If it’s a highly recognized trait that people are experiencing with their loved ones, one that gives way for a family member to realize something may not be right or may lead to an autism diagnosis, why would you want to get rid of this? This is a huge identifier, because what people are recognizing as lack of empathy can also show up as unmatched reactions. A person has to be able to investigate something they are recognizing before they can come to a conclusion on WHY what they are recognizing is happening.

        This sounds like more of a personal wish, versus one that will help many people and help family members recognize and get a diagnosis for autism. It absolutely looks like lack of empathy, and no one should change that concept in their writing, just to make someone else feel better. How can anyone get help with their problem if they can’t even be allowed to look it up and call it what it looks like?

  3. I wish you had defined “neurotypical” and “neurodivergent” with greater precision in your essay instead of just diving into using the terms, assuming that everyone would know what you meant. I looked up “Cassandra” when it was used in another article, and it was all about someone in Greek mythology. Then I noticed that it was a “syndrome” (what? that I’m good at prophecies but never believed?) which didn’t clarify anything at all. I’m now wondering if I am mildly “divergent” (whatever that means) and if that explains anything in my own 53 year marriage. And is it me or my wife who may have the syndrome?

    1. its u. Cassandra could intuit the future and other people’s motivations with a high level of emotional intelligence. When she shared this information-and emotions are information-she had her eyes gouged out. This is analogous to the way that neurotypical partners often have a higher awareness of their ND partner’s emotions than the partner realizes is even possible. this creates a feedback loop of resentment as NT partners are often just questioning their partners dismissal of them and neither party has the capacity to understand where the misunderstanding is coming from. It takes a lot of work to be kind and empathetic and considerate of each others needs and that is often an exhausting thing that we all fail to do in relationships sometimes. But a helpful solution is open communication about emotions which NT are sometimes more skilled at-that is why they are Cassandra.

  4. I’m so glad to find this site. I’m a 51 year old woman, married to a very nice but very “Aspie” man who is recovering from alcohol use disorder. Finally sober after many many years, we have a lot of love but also a lot of past pain. I find myself wondering why I was determined to be with someone who, nice as he is, will never fully meet my emotional needs. An alcoholic autistic is exhausting and I don’t even remember what I ever needed or wanted. I’ve come through some pretty serious somatic symptoms (spasticity in both shoulders) and am wondering if I have the energy to stay in this marriage or leave – both require energy that I don’t have.

  5. What I read this page as saying is that the neurodivergent partner is responsible for any range of symptoms that a neurotypical partner may be experiencing, just because the neurotypical thinks that is the cause. As the neurodivergent ex-partner, all Cassandra syndrome was allow her to use my greatest insecurity, undiagnosed ASD (turns out I have ADHD and medication is extremely effective ameliorant), against me and absolve herself of any responsibility for communication or action and push it back on me. It was all my fault. Suspect it will also give her a licence to do the same with our kids that take after me. It was this page and others like it that gave her the licence to behave as she did.

    I am writing this in case there are any other neurodivergents in a similar situation to the one I found myself in – hold up your head and be proud of who you are.

    Perhaps this page could also be modified to reflect that it is not the ND partners “fault”.

    1. Thank you so much for this perspective, I appreciate your comment and will add this additional statement to clarify, at Spectrum Connections Therapy we strive to be neurodiversity-affirming in all aspects of our work.

    2. Thank you, Allan and Thank you, Dr G!
      I am not (yet) divorced but I am wondering… I love my wife, she feels she’s suffering with Cassandra’s so, as far as I understand from this essay, a divorce would be the best solution for her happiness…

      1. Pier, this sounds exactly like something mu neurodivergent partner would say. Your wife needs to be valued; if you don’t want to be divorced, if you like and want to live with her, tell her. I know that doesn’t seem like a logical solution to a problem to you, but it would be very helpful for her to hear.
        I wish you both some happiness in your relationship.

  6. I wonder why they say that autistic men only do this to neurotypical women. I can tell you that’s not true at all.

    Once again, autistic women are being excluded, invalidated, and ignored in medical literature. It’s fine… we’re used to it. We will just learn to make our own emotional safety and connection too.

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