When David Finch and his wife Kristen had company over, he thought nothing of getting into his car and driving off for an hour.
If a grocery store was out of his favourite hamburger buns, the electrical engineer would unleash a "nuclear reaction of cynicism and anger." If Kristen bought the wrong detergent, he'd sulk for days.
Getting his young children Emily and Parker ready in the morning as Kristen rushed off to work meant Mr. Finch could no longer luxuriate in the shower for an hour. Now, he was incessantly texting his wife for guidance on a daily routine he'd been spared for years. Oblivious, he'd then slam her parenting and domestic skills, suggesting that their neighbour did both better.
Two years into their marriage, Kristen could hardly be blamed for writing off her husband as a "temperamental man-child who couldn't handle the demands of real life." Five years in, the Finches – best friends since high school – were largely estranged.
It all changed the night Kristen, a speech therapist, decided to sit her hubby down to a quiz. He scored 155 out of 200; she scored 8. The test was for Asperger's syndrome, and a doctor would later confirm the diagnosis, which helped explain Mr. Finch's long list of "relationship defeating" quirks: intense preoccupations, frequent meltdowns and crippling awkwardness in social situations. Throw in "clinical-strength egocentricity" and zero empathy skills – most wives would run.
Over the next two years, Mr. Finch decided to overhaul himself into a better husband in his "neurologically mixed marriage." His process involved incessant note-taking and nightly performance reviews with his wife – basic relationship edicts, learned the very hard way.
Mr. Finch details the effort in his book The Journal of Best Practices: A Memoir of Marriage, Asperger Syndrome, and One Man's Quest to Be a Better Husband. He spoke with The Globe and Mail.
Diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, you felt "reborn." Why?
A lot of my behaviour was very baffling. I didn't realize until Kristen started telling me on an almost daily basis: "I can't believe how difficult things seem to be for you. It must really be hard being you." I had no explanation until I took that self-diagnostic quiz. It was a beautiful moment of recognition. It explained a lot about why we had these problems in our marriage.
So then you both understood that you weren't just being malicious?
Yes, the difference between me and your garden-variety [jerk]is intent. I was never intending to make things miserable for everybody, but my brain wouldn't have it any other way, until I found out that it's something I could actually manage a little bit.
You embark on 18 months of obsessive self-improvement, a process your wife finds emotionally draining.
The day I got my diagnosis, Kristen went to bed and slept great, better than she had in years. I decided to figure out where the disorder was coming into play and try to mitigate the symptoms. She was very much the voice of reason: "It's our relationship that's broken, not you. We can face this as husband and wife."
I'm a lot more monomaniacal in my approach to fixing things than most people – that's a good thing about the disorder.I would obsess over our relationship constantly. I wrote on a Post-it note, "Take initiative, help with the kids today," and taped it to the mirror. I could see the words while brushing my teeth and think, "Oh yeah, I'm supposed to do that." Things went a lot more smoothly.
But it only took about a year and a half for it to get a little much for Kristen. Even when I tried to get it right it became a big pain because I was constantly in her face about it. Our marriage and friendship was coming back but the obsession was more than she bargained for.
Is that because it was mostly about you?
No, it was mostly because we couldn't just have any nice moments. It was constantly, "How am I doing? Here's what I've been doing this week, rate me on a scale of one to 10." Most of the time, she just wanted to watch TV or talk about her day. I had to learn to stop journaling and obsessing and start being okay with the fact that I was going to annoy her sometimes. Annoyances are different than fundamentally screwing up a relationship. I had to learn the difference.
She also had her own shortcomings in your mind, particularly in the domestic sphere. Did she change at all?
She did. It's so unfair because I wrote a book about all the things I did. We are being bombarded by requests for her perspective – people want her to write a book and there may be one forthcoming. What she's had to work on is figuring out a way of engaging with me that will suit both of us – not, "How can I program him to be a great husband?" The challenge was accepting who we both really are and going from there, instead of hoping I'd be the sociable, fun-loving husband and she'd be this Betty Crocker homemaker.
You realize you're doing way more than most "neurotypical" husbands.
I always get that tongue-in-cheek response from wives, saying, "Oh, I'm going to make sure my husband reads your book. You should be commended." That's great, but this was the only way it was going to work for me. I'd gone five years on autopilot and it got us nowhere so I decided to roll my sleeves up. If I'm to be commended, I should get a pat on the back, but Kristen should be canonized for sainthood because she's hung in there.
Did she vet the book?
Out of respect for her and our situation and because I wanted to get the emotions right, I made sure Kristen read every draft of every chapter.
What are takeaways for guys who don't have the syndrome?
This is a lot of husbands, just to a more severe degree. Men in general aren't as wired for social intuition as women. Just go to any party: Women are very much engaged with each other and men stand perpendicular to each other talking about sports. There's no "That must have been really difficult for you." If you can figure out a way to dial in and be more responsive to your partner's needs, just do that.
Should women start wondering if their hubbies all have Asperger's?
I've gotten all these e-mails, "I think my husband has Asperger's." I say, why not have him tested? Whether it's actually Asperger's or a husband who's just a guy, it's the level of impairment – the degree to which his "quirks," selfishness or disregard for other people's needs are out of his control, or a choice.
It sounds so funny to say this out loud but I could choose to be very mindful that other people have their own feelings and needs – that there's a world outside of my head. I'm very lucky. Many people who receive the diagnosis are capable of doing this but not everybody is. It's a level of impairment thing.
Other people are not on the autism spectrum at all: they're just not going to change their behaviour for anybody.
The book is by no means prescriptive but I'm getting an overwhelming number of responses from readers saying they're on a new track. That gives me goose bumps when I read it.
How are you guys doing?
The two of us are doing better than ever. We found a lot of strength in how we got through all this. We feel like best friends again. My average day is a lot easier than it ever was. I've developed a better sixth sense for existing, being social and living in a predominantly neurotypical world. But I'm also doing constant maintenance. If I'm not careful to keep my mind in this and keep my best practices going, I revert to old habits.
Proposed changes to the DSM-5, up for revision next year, could see Asperger's discarded for a more general diagnosis of Autistic Spectrum Disorder. How do you think this would affect your outcomes, had you started your process after 2013?
Would we have been able to change things without the diagnosis? Maybe, but we might have resigned ourselves to the notion that some things just aren't going to get better. With the diagnosis, that catalyzed very rapid change. The value for me isn't the label but how does my brain work. The diagnosis led me to that information a lot faster.
It will be interesting to see a year from now, would I even be able to call it autism spectrum disorder? If I'm able to manage the symptoms myself, maybe I wouldn't be able to receive the diagnosis. Really the biggest impact in my life now would be that I'd have to change the title of my book to, "A Memoir of Marriage, Something or Other and One Man's Quest to Be a Better Husband."
This interview has been condensed and edited.
David Finch's better-husband list
When David Finch discovers it is Asperger's, not him, that's killing his marriage, he starts a "journal of best practices" to better himself as a husband and father. For nearly two years, he jots down edifying notes constantly – typing them into his phone and home computer, scribbling them down in notebooks, on receipts and envelopes floating in his car. A sampling:
- Don’t change the radio station when she’s singing along
- Don’t hog all the crab rangoon
- Laundry: Better to fold and put away than to take only what you need from the dryer
- Watch her shows and don’t make fun of them
- Get inside her girl world and look around
- Empathy – sometimes she just needs you to listen
- If you can’t tell whether you’ve offended her, just ask
- Apologies do not count when you shout them
- Say it, don’t show it. Talking = productive. Showing = drama
- Swallowing anger = swallowing poison
- Be present in moments with the kids
- If I can learn to go with the flow, then I will be a more stable husband and father. I won’t have to live in a constant state of agitation. I may start enjoying things.
Readers, what would you add to a list of best practices for husbands (or wives)? Share your recommendations with The Globe.