How Our Invisible Differences Can Enrich a Marriage

Whether you’re an aphant or a visualizer, marriage, or any loving partnership, is about commitment. Among other things, commitment means respecting each other’s differences and working through them lovingly.
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It’s a wonderful idea, the oneness of marriage. But you know what you find out once you’re married? Being one with each other isn’t as easy as it seems. At first, there were all those things that attracted you to each other and all the great qualities that you admired and loved. Of course, they’re all still there, but in the friction of living together, you begin to notice your differences. My wife Leslie and I were married for 43 years. Among other differences, she was a visualizer, and I have aphantasia

Remembering Important Dates

Like many people with aphantasia, I have issues with my memory. Nothing too serious, though sometimes irritating. One of the worst issues is remembering dates. I have difficulty remembering when things happened, even if the event was important to me. Oddly, there are some dates I never have any trouble remembering. Almost all of them are related to Leslie. 

There are certain dates that I will never forget because they were the beginning of a journey Leslie and I traveled together. For instance, our first date was on August 16, 1974. I never have any trouble remembering our wedding day—May 6, 1978. And, almost as important was February 14, 1978, Valentine’s Day, when I proposed to Leslie, and she said, “Yes!” Maybe this date sticks in my mind because it solidified our willingness to commit to each other in a way that changed the direction of our lives.

While it was joyful, we took that Valentine’s Day very seriously. We knew that we were committing to making this work. We knew we were committing to work hard and endure the pain associated with it to make our marriage work. One of our conversations in the weeks before the wedding was about each of us losing our identity. She didn’t just want to be an extension of me. I didn’t want to be just an extension of her. We knew that was not God’s idea of oneness. Rather, we wanted to be two individuals that fit together perfectly, better together than either would ever have been apart.

Differences On the Imagination Spectrum

While I had always known I couldn’t visualize, Leslie knew she was a visualizer, but neither of us understood how different this made us. Our differences on the imagination spectrum became an issue for understanding each other. 

What do I mean by the ‘imagination spectrum’? It is a fact that people with aphantasia and those who are visualizers are not total opposites. Not all aphants are total or multisensory aphants. Not all visualizers have hyperphantasia. We’re all on a spectrum. Some, and probably most, are in the middle. Good visualizers. But there are those who can watch movies they have seen in their minds! 

Leslie and I were not totally unaware of our imagination spectrum differences when we got married, but the magnitude of those differences and the difficulty of understanding each other in this area became clearer over time. 

I knew that Leslie was a high visualizer, and she knew I had multisensory aphantasia, but it took a long time for us to understand and appreciate each other’s unique experiences and work through the associated difficulties.

We dated for a number of years while I was away at school. We were in a long-distance relationship during a time when letter writing was the norm. It was good that we were able to develop our relationship through words. She was a wordsmith. I was an idea smith and not too bad with words either. But the content of our letters was somewhat different. 

My letters were mostly filled with the philosophical issues I was struggling with. Her letters were filled with relationships with friends and families, her work, and her concern that I was becoming a rationalist because I was coming to grips with the role of reason and logic in knowing truth. This was good for us. She slowly began to trust that I would not lose sight of people and relationships because I, too, began sharing about my relationships at school and how much she meant to me. The fact was, her candor and challenges helped me keep my mind in the world of real people! We grew closer through our letters.

After graduation, we had more time together. We got married and became involved in our Church.

As time went on, I began to notice another way we were different. When we would see an amazing sunset or beautiful scenes in our various travels, she would remark about it, saying, “The heavens declare the glory of the Lord!” I agreed, and we had some nice moments together. But more and more, I realized I just didn’t respond the same way she did.  What we were seeing was nice, and I acknowledged her declaration, but for her, it was more. It clearly evoked deep feelings that I just didn’t have. 

My mind was conceptual, not visceral. It’s not that I didn’t have feelings. It’s just that visual and sensory input didn’t evoke those feelings. I began to feel like I was not being honest with her. I recognized her feelings were appropriate; I just didn’t have them myself.

At some point, I remembered a time before I knew Leslie when I was on the edge of the jungle looking out over the ocean, and a storm was coming in. The sky and the sea got darker and darker. The waves got higher and higher, and at some point, as the waves pounded the shore, I could almost feel the shock waves in the ground. It elicited a small but real sense of awe in me.

Remembering that feeling of awe when we were looking at something beautiful, I would put my arms around her and try to see it from her eyes. And though I could not feel it the way she could, I got a sense of what it meant to her. Those became precious shared moments despite the differences in our perceptions.

It was many years later, when we were talking with friends that the subject of her and my differences came up. She got very animated, and I realized that she was going to explain something important to them.

She said something like, “When I recall and speak of a passage of the bible, I can see the page in my bible and read the verses, and they mean a lot to me.”

I hadn’t known that before. I just thought she had an incredible memory!

“Frank can’t do that, but he can go back to the beginning of that book of the bible and relate the whole argument up to the point where I am talking about. He helps me see the context and gives me greater meaning to the verses. I help him to focus on the details and get to the point!”

It took Leslie many years to understand that difference between us, and it meant a lot to her to finally see how we complimented each other. It meant a lot to me that she understood! 

We were becoming one!

Another Difference: How I Grieved

What were our last years together like? We just loved to poke fun at each other. We loved to work in the kitchen or around the house together. We loved to take walks in the park and do so many things together. We were just comfortable because we knew each other as no one else could. 

Once, we were sitting at a picnic table in a park having lunch when a young man came up and asked us if he could take our picture. He said, “You two are just so cute!” He was not the only one who said that about us. We just belonged together!

That is why I will never be able to forget the date, April 23, 2021. That is the day Leslie’s suffering from a terminal liver disease ended and she went to be with her Lord. I grieved. I still do. I had already known grief. Both my parents died before my 22nd Birthday. But I already knew that grief for me was different than it was for many. I loved my parents, but I didn’t cry at the funeral.

My sister thought that I had suppressed something and would need to deal with it eventually. But for some aphants, grief isn’t expressed in the same way. Without the visuals in my head, I did not have the same depth of feeling. Now that my sister understands my aphantasia, she knows I did not suppress anything. When Leslie died, I cried. I keenly felt the loss of her. I will miss her all the rest of my life. But I do not cry when I see one of the many pictures of her around my house. I usually just whisper, “I love you,”  and move on.

Dawes, A. J., Keogh, R., & Pearson, J. (2023). Multisensory subtypes of aphantasia: Mental imagery as supramodal perception in reverse. Neuroscience Research. doi:10.1016/j.neures.2023.11.009
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My wife and I were also extremely different. She had both a photographic memory and an audiographic memory. I am a total aphantasic who does not generate any type of mental images. Her memory abilities made if so easy to remember events and textbook materials that she had not had to pursue developing her analytic abilities. As a pure cognitive learner, I do not have a good memory at all, but my analytical abilities are excellent. During our 60-year marriage, she was, in effect, a living encyclopedia of our lives. I helped her develop her analytical skills by challenging her solve various problems. Ever since she died from the COVID-19 virus, I have missed her greatly, but I have not experienced any strong emotions of grief. Similarly, I did not have any emotional reactions to the passing of my parents or my brothers. I simply accept death as being a natural part of the cycle of life. Surprisingly, I did have an emotional reaction when I first so the video of a 15 year old violinist experiencing her joy of performing in a manner my wife had experienced when she was a young violinist in a symphony orchestra.