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.