Avoid the Aspergers Relationships Trap of Ignoring How Aspergers Affects Relationships
I remember some big fights during my first year of marriage. I don’t even remember what we fought about.
Then we had two couples over, both married for a few years. When we told them about some of our fights, they all laughed. We found out, to our surprise and relief, that they had the same fights when they first got married.
We learned that we were not alone in our struggle. We had fallen into a relationship trap of a false assumption: that our fights were signals of a failing marriage; that our struggles were unique. When we found out others fought over the same things, we felt relieved and human.
Gender differences can lead to false assumptions in relationships.
John Gray wrote about some common differences between genders in Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus.
Here’s a brief explanation from Wikipedia of one gender difference: how men and women operate under stress:
He (John Gray) believes that many men withdraw until they find a solution to the problem. He refers to this as “retreating into their cave”. In some cases they may literally retreat, for example, to the garage or spend time with friends. The point of retreating is to take time to determine a solution. In these “caves”, men (writes Gray) are not necessarily focused on the problem at hand; many times this is a “time-out” of sorts to allow them to distance themselves from the problems so their brains can focus on something else. Gray posits that this allows them to revisit the problem later with a fresh perspective.
Gray holds that this retreat into the cave has historically been hard for women to understand because when they are stressed their natural reaction is to talk about issues (even if talking does not solve the problem). This leads to a natural dynamic of the man retreating as the woman tries to grow closer. According to Gray this becomes a major source of conflict between women and men.
So you’ve got the example from my marriage, the example of gender differences, and now here’s a humorous example of how wrong assumptions can cause havoc in our lives.
Sears Optical put out one of the funniest commercials I can remember.
A woman in her nightgown is calling for her cat to come back inside. A fat racoon waddles into her living room. She happily closes the door and goes back inside.
Because she wasn’t wearing glasses, she didn’t see that her kitty was a racoon!
In the same way, false assumptions are the trap many people in Aspergers relationships fall into.
What I’m saying is that you, as an NT partner, may not understand that many of your fights are not because your partner is mean, egotistical, and selfish. Rather, a lot of your misunderstandings.
Seeing relationship issues as part of Asperger’s syndrome helps couples stop blaming each other and start working together in more rewarding ways. Dr. Cindy Ariel Tweet This
Cindy Ariel, author of Loving Someone With Asperger’s Syndrome, writes mainly to NT (neurotypical) partners. She shares some very helpful insights that can be like glasses to help you see that what appears to be the cat in your relationship, is actually a racoon!
Here’s how to avoid the relationship trap of false assumptions:
Understand How Aspergers Affects Relationships
Someone diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome typically demonstrates problems in two main areas: social interaction and patterns of behaviors, interests, and activities. These and other issues become pervasive in the intimate relationships of people with AS (Asperger’s Syndrome). -Dr. Cindy Ariel
Social interaction is challenging for a person with Aspergers.
Your partner with Aspergers may have difficulty starting, maintaining, and ending a conversation. As the NT partner, you may be embarrassed and frustrated when your partner struggles this way in social settings.
Autism is a spectrum for a reason. Your partner may or may not struggle with some of these Aspergian traits:
- looking down or away when speaking
- ignoring or misunderstanding nonverbal cues or body language
- trouble expressing or managing feelings
- showing confusion as to the importance or purpose of positive feedback
- finding emotions confusing or uninteresting
- seeming unaware of the feelings or perceptions of others
Imagine that you are terrible at logic and strategy. You’re then required to play chess constantly: at work, and in your relationship. That’s what it’s like for an Aspie partner who doesn’t naturally take to understanding and reading social cues and subtleties: like nonverbal body language, or certain types of humor, like sarcasm. He interprets humor literally, or may misjudge the amount of personal physical space a person needs when interacting.
You may assume that your AS partner is simply uninterested in relating to others, when s/he simply is exhausted by the process of relating.
Unusual Behavior and Obsessive Interests
Repetitive or focused activities represent another feature of Asperger’s syndrome. The person’s difficulty in seeing another perspective makes it hard for him to understand that others may interpret his singular focus as boring or inappropriate. ~ Dr. Cindy Ariel
A person with Aspergers may focus obsessively on a special interest or topic and only talk about that topic. Repetitive routines or unique mannerisms, like hand flapping, increase under stress or excitement. If you don’t understand the hows and whys of these Aspergers characteristics, you’ll have a hard time supporting your partner.
Do you recognize any of these behaviors in your partner?
- highly focused special interests
- special interests that interfere with other activities
- preference for repetitive routines
- discomfort with spontaneity
- inflexibility or bland-and-white thinking
- tendency to get easily upset by change
A Relationship Exercise for the NT Partner in an NT Aspergers Relationship
Here’s a relationship exercise Dr. Cindy Ariel designed for you, the NT partner:
Asperger’s in Your Relationship:
- On a sheet of paper or in your journal, make two headings, “Social Interaction”, and “Unusual Behavior and Obsessive Interests”
- Under each heading, list ways in which these two areas cause problems for you
- With each item on the list, write a sentence or two about how it affects you or your relationship.
Here’s a sample exercise:
- He doesn’t talk in the car. I feel rejected and lonely.
- He rarely looks at me when we talk. I can’t tell if he pays attention or understands me.
- He goes to our room when he gets home, without saying hello. I feel ignored and lonely, as if I don’t have a partner.
- She talks about animals constantly. She’s so self-absorbed; she doesn’t know me.
- She has to smell anything she eats or buys. It embarrasses me when she smells clothes before buying.
- She’s on the computer more than she is with anyone, including me. I think she loves the computer more than me. I feel like smashing it.
Completing this exercise may seem like dwelling on negatives. This isn’t the goal. The exercise helps you start looking at how Aspergers syndrome affects your relationship. You’ll learn how some common issues in your relationship develop from Aspergers syndrome, rather than failures in you or in your partner.
Seeing relationship issues as part of Asperger’s syndrome helps couples stop blaming each other and start working together in more rewarding ways.
photo credit: skedonk