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A few years ago, my wife and I were in the car, driving from Indiana back to Chicago, IL, after a visit with my parents. She was driving, I was navigating.
Suddenly, we came to a fork in the highway.
“Which way should I go?”, she asked frantically?
It was too late. I was focused on whatever I was reading on my phone instead of looking at the map/directions. She had to make a snap decision. And we took the wrong turn. We ended up going out of our way and wasting almost an hour.
We got into a yelling match over whose fault it was, and when we got home, my wife later told me that this was just the tip of the iceberg. She was unhappy with our marriage, and we needed to get help.
I was stunned. I thought our marriage was going well, but she was unhappy?!
We went to marriage counseling, and it was there I found out that I had some specific behavior patterns and attitudes I needed to fix. And although I had many personal weaknesses to work on, my wife found out she had some of her own. She went to work on those, and I went to work on mine.
But here’s the key – we both needed to understand each other, what was we were doing wrong, and what we needed to do differently. Then we needed to commit to making changes in our lives, for the good of each other and our relationship.
Here’s my premise - Autistic partners can live together IF they understand their challenges and work to overcome them.
I struggled in my marriage, until I realized some of my own personal weaknesses and began to work on them. The fork in the road on the way back from Indiana is like an analogy of a decision each of us comes to at some point in our marriage. We need to be willing to take a gut and humility check to work our own personal weaknesses. Each partner in the marriage must decide to do this.
I’m writing as a fellow traveler, not someone who has the answers. But I did get some help from Dr. John Gottman, author of The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.
John Mordecai Gottman (born April 26, 1942) is a professor emeritus in psychology known for his work on marital stability and relationship analysis through scientific direct observations, many of which were published in peer-reviewed literature. The lessons derived from this work represent a partial basis for the relationship counseling movement that aims to improve relationship functioning and the avoidance of those behaviors shown by Gottman and other researchers to harm human relationships (Source: Wikipedia article)
8 Healthy Relationships Tips for Autistic Adults
1. Both autistic partners must understand what Aspergers is, and how it will affect their marriage.
Here are some challenges autism can present -
Sensory Sensitivities – As an example, Jack Elder Robison, a young man with Aspergers, was dating Kristen Lindsmith, a young woman with Aspegers (see New York times article). He does not like kissing or much of any kind of touch. She, however, craves touch.
Unique interests -
Here’s what one woman with Asperger’s had to say about this:
I find it VERY difficult to get along with male Aspies as friends because their interests always clash with mine. My Ex’s best friend has Autism and she annoyed the heck out of me and I avoided her at all costs: I honestly don’t see how I could form a relationship with a Aspie. As I see it, the relationship would only if both partners had similar obsessive interests. Since mine are stereotypically male, that’s not likely at all.
On the other hand, here’s another point of view-
I don’t think having different obsessive interest should be a problem if both are OK with indulging in their interest by themselves some. Us Aspies tend to need abit of alone time. I love spending time with my partner but some of our interest are different. We both like watching TV & like a lot of the same shows but we sometimes watch shows we don’t care for to just enjoy cuddling on the couch with each other. Other than that I like spending time on computer or sometimes playing video-games; she likes reading, writing, daydreaming/thinking, artwork some, computer some, & some video-games; we don’t play video-games together much because we like different 1s.
(For more thoughts expressed, see this thread from my Wrong Planet discussion.)
To varying degrees, adults with autism may struggle with planning, attention, and decision-making.
Action Steps and Suggestions -
Read my article, Who Else Wants These Executive Functioning Skills
Purchase the book, Loving Someone With Aspergers Syndrome, for many practical tips and exercises to help your communication, problem solving, and decisions making.
2. Know each others’ love maps
Each of you has preferences, hopes, dreams, and interests. If you want your relationship to succeed, it’s important to store up a large cognitive “hard drive” of mental information about both yourself and your partner.
Action Steps and Suggestions-
-Purchase The Seven Principles of Making Marriage Work. The chapter on Love Maps guides you through questionnaires and exercises to help you better learn about yourself and your partner. The more you know, the better you can relate to each other over time.
-Purchase the Couples Ungame deck of cards that comes with lots of questions to help you get to know each other better. It’s challenging enough to think of questions, let alone answer them! Let the Couples Ungame help you out.
-Read What is a Love Map, a brief article at the Stay Married Blog.
-Best of all, here’s a free option – This free download has all the questions to help you get going.
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3. Nurture fondness and admiration for each other
Take the Fondness and Admiration quiz to figure out how you fare in this aspect of your relationship.
Here is a 10 day exercise to help you nurture fondness and admiration for each other. When you do this, you avoid contempt, criticism, stonewalling, and silence, which often destroy marriages. (Credit for this exercise goes to Feed the Good Stuff on the Stay Married Blog. Check out their article to see the great infographic that summarizes the exercise below)
Day 1 – Think of one characteristic you find endearing or lovable about your partner. Write it down.
Day 2 – Think of good times in your marriage. Pick a recent or past memory. Write it down and think about it throughout the day. Share it with your partner.
Day 3 -Think about ways to show affection to your partner. Does s/he prefer words of affirmation, acts of service, small gifts, touch, or quality time spent together? Remember, this is about helping him feel appreciated and loved in the way he prefers to be loved.
Day 4 – Think about your physical attraction to your partner. What is one physical attribute you appreciate about him/her. Tell your partner about it.
Day 5 -Reflect on other personal qualities you appreciate about your partner. Check out this list of comprehensive personal qualities and pick a few you see in your partner. Think of specific incidents that exemplify those qualities. Share them with your partner.
Day 6- Reflect on a belief or beliefs you both share. Talk about it with your partner.
Day 7 -Write down your memory about when you both first met, recalling the feelings and good times you had in that first encounter. Talk about it with your partner.
Day 8 -Think about what makes your partner your best friend. What do you both know about each other that others don’t know. Talk about it together.
Day 9 – Reflect on the thought that Marriage is sometimes a struggle, but worth it. Think of one difficult time that you’ve gone through, and how you worked it out together. Discuss it with your spouse.
Day 10 – Write a love letter to your partner and mail it to him/her.
4. Turn toward each other, not away
Dr. Gottman talks about being aware of your partner, and his or her thoughts and feelings. When I turn toward my partner, I engage in discussion, tolerate conflict, and choose to be there for the relationship.
Action Step – Watch this video to better understand this concept:
Action Step- Read this article from the Gottman Blog for practical ways to turn toward each other.
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5. Let your partner influence you.
Take each other’s thoughts, feelings, and opinions into account. Be willing to compromise.
It’s easy, in the midst of the heat of conflict, to shut ourselves off to the other person.
Take time to calm down when you’re upset.
Learn to communicate effectively.
Take each other’s thoughts, feelings, and opinions into account. Be willing to compromise.
Action Step – Play the Blind Mines game
Blind mines – Take turns blindfolding and guiding each other through an obstacle course in your living room. Scatter random objects over the floor and use verbal cues to help your spouse dodge the mines. Practice listening to and relying on your spouse’s influence to gradually grow more comfortable sharing power in life’s larger decisions. (source - 7 Team-Building Games for a Winning Marriage)
A resource to consider. It’s free.
Read the 10 Steps to Peace from the Center for Non Violent Communication for helpful strategies.
6. Practice working on solvable conflicts
Start small! Instead of getting caught up with problems that seem impossible to solve, let the big things go, and concentrate on small successes.
Here’s a nice summary of this principle from Psychology Today of a five step model for resolving conflict.
- In step 1, soften your startup, which simply means starting the conversation without criticism or contempt.
- In step 2, make and receive “repair attempts.” Gottman defines repair attempts as any action or statement that deescalates tension.
- In step 3, soothe yourself and then your partner. When you feel yourself getting heated during a conversation, let your partner know that you’re overwhelmed and take a 20-minute break. (That’s how long it takes for your body to calm down.) Then you might try closing your eyes, taking slow, deep breaths, relaxing your muscles and visualizing a calm place. After you’ve calmed down, you might help soothe your partner. Ask each other what’s most comforting and do that.
- In step 4, compromise. The above steps prime couples for compromise because they create positivity, Gottman says. When conflicts arise, it’s important to take your partner’s thoughts and feelings into consideration. Here, Gottman includes a valuable exercise to help couples find common ground. He suggests that each partner draw two circles: a smaller one inside a larger one. In the smaller circle, make a list of your nonnegotiable points. In the bigger one, make a list of what you can compromise on. Share them with each other and look for common ground. Consider what you agree on, what your common goals and feelings are and how you can accomplish these goals.
- In step 5, remember to be tolerant of each other’s faults. Gottman says that compromise is impossible until you can accept your partner’s flaws and get over the “if onlies.” (You know the ones: “If only he was this” “If only she was that.”)
I highly recommend that you read, Loving Someone with Aspergers Syndrome for practical worksheets to help you solve conflict and overcome other challenges every couple has. Here’s an example of a helpful exercise from that book.
7. Create shared meaning together
Take pleasure in living life together. Think about what rituals each of you particularly enjoyed growing up.
Then talk about what kinds of rituals you would enjoy creating together.
Read this article from the Gottman blog to better understand how to create shared meaning together.
Here’s an exercise from that article you can do today:
Exercise: Examining Your Rituals
- Waking up, waking one another up
- Breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks, &/or coffee together
- Leaving one another
- Handling finances
- Hosting others at home
- Athletics, exercise
- Celebrations (birthdays, anniversaries, etc.)
- Taking care of each other when sick
- Renewing your spirit
- Taking vacations, getaways, traveling
- Recreation, games, play
- Dates and romantic evenings
- Attending or participating in sporting events
- Watching television
- Going out to the movies
- Going to concerts, plays, cultural events
- Going dancing
- Running errands, doing chores
- Participating in community events
- Doing charity work
- Doing schoolwork
- Soothing other people’s feelings
- Apologizing or repairing feelings after an argument
- Religious services, festivals, holidays
- Common hobbies
- Making art
When you discuss the rituals of connection in your relationship, make sure that you and your partner both have the time and energy for it. Remember that this exercise is meant to be an ongoing conversation and not to be completed all at once! Look forward to Wednesday’s posting on creating rituals for your whole family to enjoy.
The Fork in the Road
I shared that my wife and I were literally at a fork in the highway on the way back from my parents a few years ago. As the navigator, I was supposed to be paying attention to the directions and my surroundings.
Instead, I had buried my attention in an article.
In the same way, if we aren’t consciously paying attention to ourself, our partner, and the state of our relationship, we may end up in a crisis, where one partner is at the brink of ending the relationship.
Pay attention to yourself, your spouse, and the condition of your relationship.
Apply the relationship tips for healthy relationships.
What are some of your best health relationships tips? Please share them below!