People with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) have deficits in their social and communicative skills and face difficulties in their social relationships. Despite these problems, the majority of people with ASD do not want to be socially excluded (Bauminger et al. 2003
; Rutgers et al. 2004
) and show similar desires for intimate relationships as typically developing individuals (Hellemans et al. 2007
; Henault 2005
; Orsmond et al. 2004
). Establishing and maintaining successful intimate relationships are essential elements of a happy and healthy life (Baumeister and Leary 1995
). Although we cannot be sure whether individuals with and without ASD depend on relationships to the same extent and in the same way (Baron-Cohen and Wheelwright 2003
; Kelly et al. 2008
), research shows that social support greatly enhances the quality of life of people with ASD (Renty and Roeyers 2006
; Weidle et al. 2006
; Hillier et al. 2007
), and that family conflict increases anxiety and depression in children with ASD (Kelly et al. 2008
). This research highlights the importance of well-functioning relationships for individuals with ASD. It is not clear, however, to what extent they are able to maintain satisfying intimate relationships and how their social difficulties affect their satisfaction with close relationships. It is equally unclear whether autistic traits affect relationship satisfaction in non-clinical samples. The present paper tries to answer the latter question by examining the link between autistic traits and relationship satisfaction in a non-clinical sample and investigating possible mediators of this link. We acknowledge that the broader autism phenotype, measured in a non-clinical sample, is not interchangeable with a clinical diagnosis of ASD. However, studying the severity of autistic traits in the current large sample of couples will be informative on the links between the broader autistic phenotype and relationship satisfaction. Moreover, in clinical samples, autism is increasingly conceived of as a continuum. Taking account of the severity of the disorder has proven valuable for research (Gotham et al. 2009
), and the fifth version of the DSM is even likely to adopt a dimensional approach to autism (Lord 2009
). Furthermore, several studies by independent research groups indicate that characteristics of the autism phenotype can be measured reliably using quantitative scales (Baron-Cohen et al. 2001
; Constantino et al. 2003
) and that autistic traits may follow a continuous distribution in the general population (Constantino and Todd 2003
; Hoekstra et al. 2008
Are Autistic Traits Associated with Relationship Satisfaction?
Most research on social relationships of people with a clinical diagnosis of ASD has focused on children’s relationships with peers (Bauminger et al. 2003
; Orsmond et al. 2004
). Only recently researchers started examining autistic traits in romantic relationships in adult samples, both clinical and non-clinical. For example, adults with ASD reported lower romantic functioning—operationalized as self-reported desire, knowledge, and experience with intimate relationships—than non-autistic controls (Stokes et al. 2007
). Moreover, the severity of husbands’ autistic disorder is negatively correlated with relationship satisfaction as reported by the wife, underlining the potential relational impact of ASD (Renty and Roeyers 2007
In non-clinical samples, individuals with many autistic traits were as likely to be in a romantic relationship as individuals with fewer autistic traits. However, individuals with many autistic traits reported relatively more general loneliness than those with fewer autistic traits (Jobe and Williams White 2007
). This finding is a first indication that, compared to relationships of people with few autistic traits, relationships of people with many autistic traits—even in a non clinical sample—may not be as satisfying. Considering the centrality of satisfying relationships for psychosocial well-being (e.g. Baumeister and Leary 1995
), investigating how autistic traits may contribute to relationship satisfaction, and possibly lead to a decrease in relationship satisfaction, is particularly important.
How Do Autistic Traits Affect Relationship Satisfaction?
Researchers on close relationships recognize that relationship quality varies as a function of both people’s individual dispositions and their relationship-specific behavior and feelings (e.g. Holmes and Rempel 1989
). First, findings from dispositional (person-centered) research showed that relationship satisfaction corresponds with higher self-esteem and a secure attachment style (Bowlby 1982
; Hendrick et al. 1988
; Jones and Cunningham 1996
). ASD has been related to both lower ratings of global self-worth (Capps et al. 1995
) and a less secure attachment style (Rutgers et al. 2004
Second, relationship-centered studies found that relationship satisfaction is linked to relationship-specific behavior. Specifically, responsiveness towards the partner’s needs, including understanding, validating, and caring for the partner (e.g. Reis 2007
; Reis and Shaver 1988
), and the disclosure of personal information to the partner, including sharing feelings and thoughts (Dindia and Timmerman 2003
), are strong predictors of relationship satisfaction. ASD is defined by a lack of spontaneous sharing of pleasure, interests, or achievements with other people (American Psychiatric Association 1994
), poor perception of others’ emotions and internal states (Begeer et al. 2008
), and a limited use of communication for social purposes such as seeking comfort (Rubin and Lennon 2004
Third, research on relationship-specific feelings suggests that relationship satisfaction develops as feelings of intimacy and trust between partners increase. Not surprisingly, intimacy and trust are considered to be the most important ingredients for happy, well-functioning romantic relationships (e.g. Reis and Shaver 1988
; Simpson 2007
). Children with autism tend to rate their friendships as lower on the dimension of security-intimacy and trust than typically developing children (Bauminger et al. 2003
). This may also be the case for intimate relationships of adults with many autistic traits. In sum, findings on individual dispositions and on relationship-specific behavior and feelings suggest that people with more autistic traits should be less satisfied with their relationship.
Because close relationships by definition involve two partners, people’s autistic traits may also influence the relationship satisfaction of their partner (cf. Renty and Roeyers 2007
). The present research examines both actor (i.e. the person with autistic traits) and partner effects of autistic traits on relationship satisfaction.
The Current Research
The present paper is the first to investigate the link between relationship satisfaction and autistic traits in a non-clinical sample. We hypothesized that individuals with more autistic traits are less satisfied with their relationship than individuals with fewer autistic traits. Importantly, we investigated whether individual dispositions (i.e. self-esteem, attachment style) and relationship-specific behavior (i.e. responsiveness, disclosure) and feelings (i.e. intimacy, trust) mediate the link between autistic traits and relationship satisfaction. Because we did not have a priori hypotheses which of these mediators will be strongest, we used a multiple mediation approach (Preacher and Hayes 2008
). This approach allowed us to test different mediators simultaneously and to directly compare the strength of each indirect effect. We tested our hypotheses in a non-clinical sample of 195 newlywed couples. Including both spouses allowed us to investigate whether autistic traits influence people’s own perception of relationship satisfaction (i.e. actor effect) and whether autistic traits influence their partner’s perception of relationship satisfaction (i.e. partner effect), and whether gender modulates these effects.