A Love Letter to my Ex-Husband

Healing begins where the wound was made.” ~ Alice Walker, author

Love is an antidote to terror

It took me twenty years before I could write this chapter. I was so wounded by a contentious divorce from a man with High Functioning Autism (Autism 1, or Asperger Syndrome) that waves of nausea consumed me every time I thought about it. Since outlining the topic, I have had nightmares and I woke up screaming more than once. Just a few mornings ago I awoke after a fitful night of being unable to breathe. It is clearly not easy recuperating from the trauma of parental alienation.

I decided to brave my fears and write this chapter to free myself of the painful hold Howard has over me. I hate being trapped by my angst and anger. I can still condemn his actions, as atrocious to his family, but I don’t need to carry the humiliating dilemma of loving someone who is also my enemy.

Once you give your love to another person, I don’t think it really goes away. It might fade a bit, but it is still there, waiting to surface and be acknowledged. In fact, allowing the love to be felt again for Howard Marshack, a man who tried to destroy me, is what contributed to the terrorizing breathless nightmares. However, instead of backing away from those feelings, I decided to lean into them. What emerged is acceptance — and the realization that Love is a marvelous antidote to anger and terror.

Falling in love with Howard – circa 1978

I parked my Desert Sand VW a block away from the Horse Brass Pub and walked through the December slush to the front door, for the agency Christmas party. Portland winters are wet, cold and occasionally slushy from the crust of snow and ice that partially melts during the day, and freezes over at nightfall. I was prepared though. Had my warm one-button black wool swing coat, leather gloves, waterproof boots, and a sassy turquoise hand-knit wool beret holding back my long, wavy hair. It was 1978 and I was fond of the Annie Hall look1.

Inside the pub I found my way to the banquet room where the party had already started. It was a fund raiser hosted by the Multnomah County Foster Home Unit of the Oregon Children’s Services Division. I was a young social worker then, working for the Child Protective Services Branch. Everyone at the party was an employee or spouse or date of some social worker at the agency. And by the time I arrived the party was in full swing.

My admission to the party was a toy for a foster child. After depositing the toy in the collection bin, I left my coat, hat and boots at the coat room, slipped on my party shoes, and headed toward the no-host bar. There was a long line, but I couldn’t help noticing the cute bartender pouring champagne for a dollar a glass. He seemed to be drinking a glass for every one that he poured. It was clear he was having a great time.

I liked the cut of his jaw, very handsome, with a mole on his right cheek, just like a young Robert De Niro. He looked like he had just stepped out of “Fiddler on the Roof.” He had wire rimmed glasses, and wore a sporty leather “newsie” cap. His curly dark hair peeked out from under the cap. The black vest he was wearing fit snug against his torso, making him look even more dashing. And for a note of whimsy, he wore a red ribbon rose on his lapel. I could hardly keep my eyes off of him.
He graciously poured me a glass of champagne and I made my dollar contribution. I flashed him a smile and he smiled back. There was a twinkle in his dark brown eyes and he said something, but I couldn’t hear him above the party din. So, I just smiled and turned to find my friends.

I still remember this Christmas party as the best ever. We were all young twenty-somethings, and happily starting out in life. We ate pizza and drank champagne and laughed . . . so much. Most of us were single professionals, so there was plenty of flirting going on, but it was all in good fun. There were a few married couples, like Jim and Sue, and Paul and Vicki. But mostly we were young single social workers, full of idealistic energy. We had made a commitment to pursue a profession of service to the community. Low pay, hard work, and a life-long purpose. We deserved a Christmas party where we could let our hair down.

My face was flushed with champagne and laughter when Howard came to my table and asked to sit with me and my friends. It was then I realized he wasn’t a real bartender but a volunteer from the Foster Home Unit. He was a social worker too.

“Of course,” I said, and scooted to the left on the bench, so that he had room to sit next to me — very close to me. I was energized and having the time of my life.

Howard brought a bottle of champagne to the table and poured drinks for all of us. My boss Bill, and another social worker Jim, sat across the table from us, but it soon became clear that Howard and I only had eyes for each other. By then the fund raiser part of the party was probably on the back burner.

I can’t tell you what Howard and I talked about exactly. He touched my hair with his hand and his fingertips gently brushed my face, “ I saw you when you came in,” he said. “I haven’t seen you before. Where do you work?” I knew from the look in his eyes and his soft touch on my face, that he could care less what I answered.

But I answered anyway. “I just started at CPS. Bill’s my boss,” and I gestured toward Bill on the other side of the table. Bill gave me a knowing smile, but I ignored him. I didn’t think anyone noticed what was going on between Howard and I. Love is blind.

“Oh,” Howard said. “Would you like more champagne Bill?” He poured Bill and Jim more champagne without taking his eyes off of me. I wanted this man and he wanted me.

Time passed. We were falling in love. People were leaving the party. But we didn’t notice. The only thing important was the electricity of the moment between us.

Eventually, I looked around and saw that the room was emptying out. Howard noticed too. He said, “Would you like to go somewhere else? We should get some real food. There’s a Chinese place not far from here.”

“Love to,” I said. As we started to slide across the bench seat, peanuts in the shell fell from our laps. Laughter erupted from another table. A few of our friends had been lobbing peanuts at us all evening, but we hadn’t noticed. We were so “into” each other that time had stopped still.

I turned toward the laughter. Sue lobbed another peanut, just to be sure I knew it was her. Then she said, “Have fun tonight, you two.” We all laughed.

It was the best night of my life with Howard.

Sweet moments – few and far between

I realize now that Howard loved me. That’s why he has never forgiven me for leaving him. As an autistic man, he has no way to explain our rift. He loved me in his own way, a way that seldom reached me, but he felt the love — deeply.

I remember the way we held hands when we walked together. I would put my hand into his and he would gently slip his index finger between my pinkie and ring finger as our thumbs linked.

He used to call me “Kath” — on the rare occasion he called me by name. When I heard him use my name, I felt loved. It wasn’t often, so this makes it all the more precious in my memory.

Trust was implicit. Howard trusted that I would take care of him and our family. He didn’t always like my decisions but he usually cooperated. Like a child he seemed to know that one of us needed to take charge — and that it should be me. I used to feel burdened by always being the grown up in the room, but now it feels like love. Trust is a kind of love.

I remember the day he made me laugh, and I loved him for it. I frequently complained about the way he dressed. He had no sense of style and would often wear smelly, worn-out clothing even to work (and as a professional man, an attorney, this was shocking to me). I would scold him and send him back to the bedroom to change. One workday morning he came out of the bedroom wearing high water light gray polyester knit pants showing white socks. Tucked into the pants was a red and green plaid shirt, sporting a yellow and blue Rep. tie. I couldn’t believe it! In fact, I was so stunned at this outlandish outfit, I couldn’t utter a word. I just stared. He asked, “What do you think?” I caught the twinkle in his eye and burst out laughing. “You had me going there for a minute. Where on Earth did you get those clothes?” Howard had made a special trip to the Goodwill to find this outfit. I loved that he went to all of that trouble to make fun of himself — and to delight me.

In fact, when we were dating he would send me correspondence addressed to “Kathy Eye Johnson,” teasing me about my professional signature “Kathy I. Johnson.” One day I got a white business envelope addressed to “Kathy Eye Johnson” and when I opened it, hundreds of paper punch scraps fell out onto my desk. It was cute. It was juvenile. But I loved this quirky guy and his antics made me smile.

Over the years though, Howard’s love language became tedious to me. He never grew beyond that middle school behavior. It was tough for me to see the love, to feel his love for me. Now I know this is the best he could do. I know that it was love in whatever form he was capable. I expected the love to grow and mature, but just because he couldn’t do that, doesn’t mean he didn’t love me. It’s not easy being loved this way — to have to accept the love in an intellectual way – an autistic way.

The children drove us apart

I hate to admit this but our children drove us apart. It’s not their fault of course. Howard was just not equipped to be a parent. I often say that if we had not adopted Bianca and Phoebe, we might still be married. I might have been able to grow in my acceptance of his autism and the way he loved me — in his one-sided childish way.

But the problem is that we had kids and they needed more love and attention than even I did — or than Howard was capable of. I could instruct Howard on the way to diaper a baby, or how to mix the formula. Or give him a basket of towels to fold — that he would forget to put away. I could give him assignments, such as taking a child to her soccer practice, but if I wasn’t specific, he would forget her cleats or how to get to the practice field. I could walk him through how to comport himself at a parent-teacher meeting, but I couldn’t control all of the outlandish things he would say to the teacher.

Parenting is more than following the color-coded calendar I prepared to help Howard track his responsibilities. Parenting requires engaging with the child, getting to know her, putting aside your own needs so that she feels appreciated and encouraged. Parenting is sharing the joys with your wife of helping two daughters become all they are capable of.

I was the parent who planned for the children and recognized their developmental needs. As our oldest daughter Bianca started showing signs of a developmental disorder (later identified as autism) I was the one to research the mental health and educational system for the best fit for her. As Phoebe became angrier, drinking alcohol, and doing poorly in school, I was the one to search for alternative education and therapy to keep her from emotional collapse.

Howard couldn’t fathom the complications required of ordinary parenting, let alone parenting two children with disabilities. I didn’t know at the time that Howard had Empathy Dysfunction and Autism (Emd-0). While he could do assigned tasks (when reminded) he struggled to understand the inner needs of his wife and children, so the three of us were left behind, feeling unloved and unappreciated.

After a while we no longer held hands. Howard may have tried to entertain me with his juvenile humor, but I was too busy dancing as fast I could to protect our children. I longed for those days, when Howard would rub my back at night, or send those silly messages to “Kathy Eye Johnson.” It is very tough to hang onto feeling loved by an autistic man, when he never even says it. Now I know he still felt it, but that’s not the same as giving it freely, is it?

Love is a conversation, not a transaction

I got a call from Richard Marshack, Howard’s brother when we first separated. I was surprised to hear from him since we weren’t particularly close. He said, “Howard told me that you want a divorce. He said you were not happy with the sex.”

I demurred that this was not a subject I cared to talk about with my brother-in-law, even though it was true. After the first year of our marriage, Howard showed very little interest in intimacy. Often months would go by. One time a whole year elapsed, as I tried to be patient with his excuses and fatigue. In 25 years, it never improved. I was heartbroken. How does a wife keep the love alive when her husband is not interested in sex?

Richard continued. “You don’t have to tell me about it, but I want you to know that Judy and I separated for a while a couple of years ago. I complained that she functioned at a C- level in that department, and I was sick of it. So, I moved into an apartment and started dating.” Judy is my sister-in-law and the mother of Richard’s three sons. I knew that he was tough to live with because of his abrasive personality. He also would embarrass his wife with his public flirting with other women. In fact, the first time I met Richard he walked out of his bedroom wearing nothing but his boxers even though he knew I was alone in the kitchen having breakfast.

I said, “Richard, I am not sure what your situation has to do with Howard and I.”

He said, “Well Judy begged me to move back home and so I did — on one condition. I told her that she had to do better in the bedroom or I would leave again. That scared her! She notched it up to about a B+ level so I compromised. It’s not what I want, but it is better than it was.”

“I’m not sure that would work for Howard and I. Shall I tell him you called?” I wanted to get off the phone and get some fresh air. The one thing I know about Howard’s family is that they are so transactional that I am not sure if any of them are motivated by kindness and love.

I consider love a conversation not a transaction, as Richard suggested. Love is a reciprocal knowing, sharing, and understanding of the loved one that feels precious, special. Love is not an object or even an idea. Love is dynamic energy. I felt that energy with Howard on the night we met, but it disappeared much too soon. I loved Howard very much, but I couldn’t bring myself to bargain with him for sexual favors. I suppose I stayed as long as I did for the memory of what we once had.

I failed Howard

I was very hurt when Howard became vindictive during our divorce. I’ve written elsewhere of the harm he inflicted, but I failed him too. I don’t blame myself for not knowing of his autism at the time. But this ignorance contributed to my codependency. In other words, I worked harder and harder to cover all of the mistakes and social missteps that Howard demonstrated. Most of my daily life and my children’s lives revolved around accommodating Howard.

For example, on weekends I would have to remind him to shave and take a shower and put on clean clothes. He would complain that he should get the weekend “off,” like he was that middle school child who doesn’t want to use deodorant. I would insist that he clean up since we had friends coming over, or we might be heading out to shop. Sure, it was OK to dress casually, but I would explain that it’s a common social courtesy to clean up. I would also explain that I wanted him to create a good example for our daughters — to which he retorted “Why do they care if I shave?”

No matter how much I cajoled or complained, Howard did not improve, so I just ramped up the codependency. Since he couldn’t seem to pay the bills on time, I took over the family finances. I drove the car most of the time since he was erratic on the highway and frightened me and the children. I made lists for him often using Post-It notes so that he could tack the list to the bathroom mirror, or the visor of his car. He would even carry extra pads of Post-Its in his pocket to hand me when I would make a request. “Would you write that down for me?” he would say and pass me a pad of Post-Its.

I kept using the strategies you would normally use with NeuroTypical adults, such as seeking conversation to create a win/win solution. I would paraphrase, ask for his opinion, seek a compromise, etc. But Howard never understood how to reciprocate my bids for connection. He never grew in social skills. Not understanding his developmental disorder of autism (and concomitant Empathy Dysfunction), I grew increasingly frustrated, weary and angry.

As I mentioned before Howard usually cooperated with my decisions, but when we separated I had even less control of his behavior. He became petulant and uncooperative. For example, he refused to contribute to the medical and educational bills for our special needs children. Worse, when he got angry with a child during a visit, he would refuse to let her visit again for a lengthy time. I would implore him to change his mind, but he would say, “I’m not ready yet.” How can a parent say they’re “not ready” to love and care for their own children?

I started waking up to his disability at this time of our separation. The decisions he made shocked me, but I shouldn’t have been surprised. Howard’s lack of conscience was long known to me if I had only digested the evidence earlier. For example, as a grad student in Social Work, he was pulled from a practicum because of his failure to meet standards of care for clients. Later as a Social Worker (when I first met him) and he was charged with the vital responsibility of supervising children in foster care, Howard bragged about how he had coffee and donuts with foster home parents but never met the children. Why didn’t he know this was wrong?

I can still hear his complaint when I asked him to take his own children to visit their grandfather in southern California. We were separated at the time and Howard had yet to take the children on a vacation or even a weekend excursion. I said, “Why don’t you take the girls with you to visit your father when you go this time? They don’t get to see their grandfather very much. You could even take them to Disneyland for a day.?” He stopped me cold with this response, “I don’t want them ruining my vacation!” I was speechless, utterly speechless.

But Howard’s transgressions are not the reason that I failed him. By growing codependent, I failed to set clear boundaries of conduct and care. In fact, I became such a super hero, that when I finally crashed and burned — when I just couldn’t carry the load any longer, Howard felt justified in blaming me for nearly everything that had gone wrong for us. He was so used to me handling it all, that when I stopped, it never occurred to him to pick up the slack. Since I was the only adult guiding Howard, he had no one to confront his immaturity. Sadly, there were plenty of people surrounding him encouraging the worst. And our whole family suffered accordingly.

Healing the wound

Alice Walker wrote, “Healing begins where the wound was made.” There’s a lot packed into this message, a lot more that I will need to unpack over time. For now, the healing is three-part. First, forgive myself for not knowing about High Functioning Autism (Autism 1 or Asperger Syndrome) at the time I was living in a NeuroDivergent marriage. Goodness knows I asked for help from therapists and doctors and read many books. But I just didn’t realize the system was rigged. My empathic skills were no match for Howard’s transactional mind set (and professional training as a win/lose litigator).

Secondly, I can accept that Howard did love me and I can forgive him for not knowing any better how to be a better husband and father. He has done a tragic disservice to our family, but he doesn’t know any better either. I don’t think he meant to be so destructive. I suspect he doesn’t believe he has been, but if I am to heal, it is important to place the responsibility where it belongs. He tried to destroy me and our daughters, whether he believes it or not2.

Thirdly, I spent decades of my life enmeshed in codependency, trying to “fix” a man with autism, instead of accepting him as he is. If I had let go of all that goes with this codependency — the shock, the hurt, the rescuing, the anger — I might have spared all of us the years of suffering, or at least given room for each member of my family to discover their divine nature.

This is true for all of us who face overwhelming relationships.

  • Take responsibility for your part in the problem.
  • Give responsibility to the other person for their part.
  • Let go of trying to fix anything, especially the other person.

Yes you may still need to set firm boundaries — and maybe even leave a relationship that is dangerous for you — but love is what heals all wounds, especially your own. Never deny it. I loved Howard deeply in spite of the tragedy he caused my daughters and me. It wasn’t wrong to love him. It was a gift — the gift that comes from God. I will treasure those moments of love that I shared with Howard because now I understand that tragedy does not destroy love.

Even in your grief, remember that Love is your super power.

——

1. Annie Hall is a 1977 Woody Allen movie, staring Diane Keaton as Annie.

2. For more on the specifics read my book, WHEN EMPATHY FAILS: How to Stop Those Hell-Bent on Destroying you.

12 Replies to “A Love Letter to my Ex-Husband”

  1. Hi Kathy,
    My goodness, I relate so much to your story ! Even some of the anecdotes are mirrors of my own. It is profound, and for me validates my own story.
    You are an exceptionally brave woman to share this with yhose of us who need to hear it!

    1. So very, very well written. That short but engaging narrative took me through some of your history and experiences in such an entertaining way . Well at least those vulnerable experiences that are relevant to the points you are making.

      Being new to your group, until I read this heart felt narrative I did not realize that you have been teaching /counseling from a foundation of your own personal experience.

      I admit that when I first came across you web site/page I did not expect to gain or add to the knowledge and tools that I have accumulated within the last 10 years.

      However, the silver hair and good looks along with a PHD next your name …caused me to pause, to listen, to read.

      Now, because of these attractions, and this engaging narrative I feel compelled to buy a few of your books hoping to gain more insight and to Steele more tools from this bright new person north of California.

      1. Thank you Mark. Your remarks are very kind. I hope you do find some nuggets here. Please lend your insights too. It is our collective wisdom that makes the light shine brighter.

    2. Thank you Julie. My courage grows stronger every year. It takes a lot of work to live this life doesn’t it?

  2. Kathy, thank you so much for writing this. It is so hard to find information that helps to make things clear in my mind. I’ve been fixing for long, and somehow I didn’t realise this was codependency. (I am a counsellor! Although couples therapists have also encouraged these methods of reminding him about everything). I was asking myself, why do I keep trying to explain myself to him, I’m so stuck in this pattern, and I want to see clearly. Your writing about all the ways you helped him as being codependent switched the light bulb on.
    I understand that it’s taken you a long time to write about this because it’s so painful. But I think it will help many people. The neurodiverse dynamic is confusing for those in it, and hard for those on the outside to see.
    More of my husband’s masking came away this week, and I’m more able to see his emotional and mental capability underneath, despite what he promises to me he will be able to do.. It breaks my heart to move on from the dream of us and our family that I have fought for for 25 years. But the truth of what is possible for him, and also what it is possible for me to live with, is becoming more clear.

  3. Thanks for sharing your pain, Kathy. I can relate to so much of it but thankfully my spouse isn’t as extreme as Howard.

    I have to question your statement that Howard “tried to destroy” you. Please correct me if I’m wrong, but my understanding of autism 1 means they are the way they are with little to no understanding of how their behavior effects or affects others. They don’t try, they just do. This total lack of understanding and empathy is what is so hard for me to comprehend. The lack of trying made me crazy.

    You have taught me so much, Kathy, and my marriage is improving. Thank you so much.

    1. You make a good point Nancy. When I say he tried to destroy me, I mean that in more than one way. “Trying” doesn’t mean he did destroy me. I survived and I grew to a new level that I can appreciate. In another way, his desire to destroy me comes from his lack of empathy and inability to recognize that we are all connected. Because he felt hurt by my leaving him, he felt justified hurting me back. But I doubt that he fully understands the destructiveness of his actions to his children (and me). In other words he probably believes I deserved and caused the outcome. It’s simple. It’s tidy. It’s still cruel.

  4. Hi Kathy,
    Thank you for sharing. Sounds so very similar to narcissism. The love bombing, the transactional approach and manipulation. The boundaries blur sometimes. I hope that someday I can heal similar wounds in my life. It’s definitely a journey and it’s good to have an example.
    Thank you

  5. Kathy,

    I think many of these traits of not being there emotionally and doing overtly weird things socially are much more pronounced in men with autism than women. Also, many of the sayings they use, just as “ I am aware” and “time has no meaning are spooky since many people with ASD say these things even without realizing that others with autism do (not necessarily copycat behavior in those instances ) It is becoming more apparent to me that there is a spiritual entity that works with ASD because there are just too many “ personality” characteristics that go beyond the inability to emphasize etc that are very eery and create a frustration that is emotionally, psychologically, and mentally destructive. When I have suggested this, I’ve been met by anger or just been cut off, but I really do wonder. I almost feel like the masking is due the Knowledge of a lack of healthy skills where the true personality is underfed and overshadowed by the “autistic personality” that is unwanted by the individual and others around him/her. Autism is not just a disability or something that can be mitigated -it is an all encompassing “blow” to who the real person is and life is marred by what could have been-the person with it is a person who can never swim, but who is right at the edge of drowning. This is not what God intended-if it were just a different way of thinking, it wouldn’t be highly destructive

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