Simon was handsome, a ‘9 out of 10’, he told me. He seemed to attract women like pigeons to a 19th century municipal statue.
Simon’s problem wasn’t getting relationships. It was keeping them.
“My relationships never last,” he lamented, his forehead a labyrinth of creases. “I just don’t understand people. Especially women!”
“I mean, they never just say what they mean! It’s like they expect me to read their minds. No one’s ever straightforward. Either girlfriends finish with me, calling me weird, rude and cruel, or I finish with them.”
“Why do you finish with them?” I asked.
“Because as I just said, I don’t understand them. They don’t make sense.”
Simon told me about his latest girlfriend, and how she’d increasingly become more negative about the relationship.
Where he thought things were fine, she saw miscommunication. Where he believed they were intimate, she saw lack of feeling and romance. They both felt confused, and Simon had grown tired of her recriminations. As far as Simon could see, there was only one thing for it. He decided to end it before she did.
“How did you finish it?”
“I sent her a Valentine’s card and wrote a message inside it telling her I was finishing with her. She went ballistic!”
For the life of him, Simon couldn’t see why this had upset her so much. I suggested that some people may see it as… well… not the optimal way to end a relationship.
“A message is a message. But she screamed down the phone at me, told me I was nasty. I thought women liked Valentine’s cards!”
What was causing the misfires in Simon’s relationship?
Simon had Asperger’s Syndrome. I’d already guessed by this point, but he told me he’d been formally diagnosed some years before.
“Can you help me keep a relationship?” Though his face retained its perfect symmetry, he couldn’t hide the raw sorrow that took him now. The first sign of emotion.
Relationships can be hard to maintain for those on the autistic spectrum. Loneliness and isolation are common, as the seemingly random ‘noise’ of emotionality and human interaction leave them feeling constantly overwhelmed.
As I sat there across from this honest, intelligent, but troubled young man, I thought through everything I knew about high-functioning autism.
Relationships and Asperger’s
Having an Asperger’s brain doesn’t mean a person doesn’t or can’t feel for other people. In some cases it may be quite the opposite – emotions can run so high that the only way the ‘Aspie’ can deal with them is by shutting off and seeming to feel nothing at all. But obviously this kind of response has consequences for relationships.
Relationships can flounder when the expressions of empathy or intimacy expected by the neurotypical partner fail to happen.
I’ve treated clients whom I suspect were married to or dating partners who were Asperger’s. They’d say things like:
- “He’s so loyal and I do love him… but he just doesn’t want to see friends and we can never talk about how we’re feeling.”
- “My wife always seems to rub people up the wrong way and just doesn’t understand why she upsets people. If someone is boring her she will just walk away.”
- “My boyfriend can’t do small talk and all he thinks about is politics. He reads everything there is on the subject and there’s nothing he doesn’t know about it. In fact, I sometimes wonder if that’s all he’s interested in!”
Paul Hughes recently wrote a wonderful guest article for us offering tips for treating clients with Asperger’s, and Dan Jones, a therapist with Asperger’s, gave some more fascinating insights in his podcast. And I don’t want to retread the ground they covered.
But I’d like to add what I think is a useful way of thinking about Asperger’s Syndrome, and then offer a few ideas as to how we can help our Asperger’s clients manage and maintain their romantic relationships.
Context is everything
Asperger’s – high-functioning autism – has been described as ‘context blindness’ or caetextia. For me, this is such a useful way to think about it.
Caetextia falls into two categories: right-brain and left-brain. Left-brain caetextia is what we recognise (at least for now) as the typical Asperger’s Syndrome, and that’s what we’ll focus on in this piece. However, it’s worth noting that Asperger’s can also involve ‘right-brain caetextia‘, which comes with a different set of symptoms and may easily be missed.
Missing context – seeing the details but not the bigger picture – is a real problem for some people.
I can see the trees, but where is the wood?
People with left-brain caetextia often fit the ‘typical’ Asperger’s pattern. They like to systematize everything.
Now it’s easy to see how the ability to systematize can be a huge asset in many contexts. Indeed, I often wish I had more natural capacity for detailed organization! But there is a time and a place for everything.
I had an Asperger’s client who rented out the rooms in his house. He’d organized a rota in which one person would cook for everyone else in the house once a week. He didn’t ask anyone if they were interested in doing this – actually, most of the tenants really weren’t interested – he just enforced it.
He’d also pinned notices up everywhere with instructions relating to the tiniest of details. He required his tenants to always say goodbye to every other tenant before leaving for work. They were also expected to say good evening on returning from work, and goodnight before retiring to bed. He demanded his tenants get along by imposing these rules.
While the rules made him feel there was some order in the disordered arena of human interaction, he was missing the wider context – that people don’t like to feel forced to behave in these ways.
By forcing the details of human relationships, the wider feel of the relationship is lost. More than that, when a certain behaviour is enforced as a rule, when people feel they have to do it, it can end up making them feel reluctant and even demeaned.
Another client whom I suspected might be married to a loyal, kind Asperger’s man told me how he would limit her physical affection to one hug a week, to be dished out at a certain time on a certain day for a certain duration. In trying to systematize human affection he had taken the life out of it.
Asperger’s traits can be seen in bureaucracies as well as individuals. The cult of Political Correctness imposes tight controls over language, and in so doing attempts to systematize human decency. Systematization is great for engineering, and a multitude of other areas, but certainly not in every context.
Obsessing over systematization, taking metaphorical communication literally, and being cruelly direct because ‘honesty is good’ are just some of the features of Asperger’s Syndrome that can cause problems in relationships. To someone with Asperger’s, the subtleties, social rituals, and ebbs and flows of changing context can seem unfathomable.
How hard can it be to ask “How are you?”
It’s no wonder many left-brain context-blind people have difficulties with relationships when you consider that, for them, even the most banal of interactions – “How are you?” – can be a minefield of confusion.
When someone asks how you are, to give them a detailed account of exactly how you are yet never ask how they are is to miss the context that, more often than not, “How are you?” is not even a question as much as a courtesy.
I once suggested to an Asperger’s client that he could ask other people how they are.
“But I’m not interested in how they are!”
Okay, fair point. No one wants to be a complete phony. But by his own admission, he was leading a lonely, empty life. He wanted to get along with people.
So I explained about social grooming. I explained how, while dogs get to know each other by sniffing each other’s rear ends, humans have developed slightly more civilized social grooming strategies (at least, most of us have!).
By conceptualizing “How are you?” as part of the system of social grooming and relationship building, rather than as a literal request for detailed information, he was able to learn to integrate better with others.
People who lack awareness as to others’ perceptions can come across as supremely arrogant or super confident when, in reality, they just don’t grasp the context of the situation.
But it’s not always obvious someone has Asperger’s until we enter into a relationship with them.
Feeling like an outsider in your own relationship
It can take a while to spot that someone might be context blind as far as relationships go. Many people with Asperger’s get quite good at faking the social interactions and niceties that come instinctively to most of us.
But to ‘fake it’ continually can be a real strain. Stress and depression are the all-too-common results of the constant effort and confusion that come with human relationships (let’s be honest, that goes for all of us!).
For people with left-brain context blindness, the simplest of everyday interactions can be a struggle: maintaining eye contact, picking up ‘signals’ that others may want a turn talking, recognizing when someone needs sympathy not advice, or realizing that someone is asking a question to be polite, not because they need a detailed account.
So imagine how stressful an intimate relationship might be! Maintaining a romantic relationship with a neurotypical person who sees your behaviour as selfish, rude or cold could quickly come to feel like just too much trouble.
Many Asperger’s men and women lead lonely lives as a way of avoiding all this stress and confusion. They can feel like perpetual outsiders, always on the periphery of social groups. The flip side of this is that they may often be innovators because they don’t tend to fall prey to groupthink.
But they still need love and intimacy, even if sometimes they don’t seem to need it.
So how can we help our Asperger’s clients find the intimacy they seek?
Tip 1: Normalize the stress of relationships
When Simon told me he didn’t always understand his partner or what women mean or want in relationships, I rolled my eyes and said “Tell me about it!” And he was genuinely amazed!
If autism is a continuum then so is the experience of autism. We can all be insensitive when we perceive limited context (especially when we’re emotional). Chronic anger, for example, can render others’ perspectives all but invisible until we calm down and wider context perception returns.
I told Simon that most people find relationships confusing or difficult sometimes. And we can all misread our partners. Finding the right person means having less of this disharmony. But just about all relationships contain (sometimes quite big) misunderstandings.
And we can all improve our capacity to compromise, and to read and understand our partner’s needs as well as our own.
This was a great relief to Simon. He had felt as if he was the only one that felt this way. It reassured him to know that everyone struggles in their relationships sometimes. And everyone – himself included – can get better at finding a good match and communicating.
“It’s such a relief to hear you say that!” he said. I was surprised by the power of his sentiment. “I thought everyone else always understood one another.”
Simon was also moved when I told him that, for some women, being in a relationship with an Asperger’s man can have advantages. Scrupulous loyalty and honesty (the positive flip side of tactlessness) and the capacity to work hard can be highly desirable attributes.
There’s no denying that left-brain caetextia leads to particular problems in relationships. But it’s useful to reassure our Asperger’s clients that while the type of problems they are experiencing may be unique, the problems themselves certainly aren’t!
There’s no perfect relationship, and no couple understands each other all the time. Everyone can stand to improve their relationship skill levels.
Tip 2: Encourage open dialogue about Asperger’s
Some people with Asperger’s form relationships with others who are similar to themselves. In this way they feel they are singing from the same hymn sheet. But you don’t always get to choose who you fall in love with! Of course neurotypical people fall in love with non-neurotypical people. No one falls in love with ‘a condition’ – they fall in love with a unique person, and all the quirks that come with them.
I asked one Asperger’s client to try talking to her partner about Asperger’s and why she is different in some ways. With time, he gained a better understanding of who she was and how she worked. And he started to take less offence at things she said and did.
He stopped feeling she was being difficult for the sake of it, and realized she genuinely saw things differently to him. Compromise and understanding became the new mainstays of their relationship, and needless to say, it improved.
When you understand and accept your partner, and appreciate that they see some things the way you do, but not everything, you nourish your relationship.
A person with Asperger’s doesn’t even necessarily need to say: “I am Asperger’s!” But they can perhaps say things like: “I do tend to take things very literally!” or “I won’t always pick up on your feelings so please tell me if you are feeling a certain way. That’s just what I’m like!”
When neuro-diverse couples can understand their differences, the foundations are laid for appreciation, tolerance, and therefore compromise.
We can help our clients communicate their needs to their partners (when the time is right, not on the first date!) and rehearse with them the kinds of things they might say. Sometimes we might even get the chance to meet and talk with the neurotypical partner so we can talk to them about their partner’s specific needs.
But we can also take advantage of left-brain caetextics’ love for systems. We can utilize this in our therapy when helping them to connect with others.
Tip 3: Teach relationship behavioural blueprints
“Direct communication is what I like!” said Simon. So I gave it to him.
He wanted help to understand people and to be able to, as far as possible, learn how to avoid upsetting others. He wanted to maintain a relationship.
Simon needed to learn some of this social cue reading and communication ‘from the outside’, because it wasn’t currently on the inside. So between sessions I wrote him out 100 tips on how to interact socially with other people. This was stuff that most of us would consider common courtesy – but to him it was revelatory.
In fact, so ingrained are these emotional templates in most of us that the whole time I was writing the list I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was doing something offensive. I worried that he might perceive it as patronizing or belittling that I would spell all this out. And it probably would have been offensive to a neurotypical person.
But he loved it. He said it was fantastic, and he assiduously studied and remembered the ‘rules’ until they became habit – though probably never instinct.
My list included such gems as:
- Ask your date about herself, and listen to and sometimes comment on what she tells you. Break it down so you talk and she talks.
- Remember that just because something seems a certain way to you doesn’t mean that it seems the same way to her.
- If you upset someone, tell them you are sorry and ask them why you have upset them rather than telling them they are wrong to be upset.
- Don’t rush a relationship. It will seem weird to tell a woman you love her during your first meeting. (This was something he’d done several times.)
- Limit negative comments. If you don’t like something, consider that sometimes it’s better not to say so.
We spent a bit of time on that last point! Simon had once told a first date that the pattern on her dress reminded him of vomit. On the second date (yes, he really is that good looking!) she’d changed her hair, and he told her it made her look old.
We explored together why this kind of communication might upset people. And we rehearsed him spotting when he felt like saying stuff like that and resisting the urge.
And so on and so forth.
Simon is super intelligent, with a much quicker brain than I have in a multitude of ways. He has deficits but also huge advantages of mind.
I didn’t hear from Simon for months, then one day I got an email. He told me he was in a relationship and that it was going well. And he told me something else. Something really beautiful.
“I feel like I can be me and she can be she when we’re together.”
He still looked at the list I’d given him and remembered the contents of our sessions.
If we assume others see the world as we do, we assume they should behave as we do. Then when they don’t, we assume they are being mean, or they are stupid, or any other negative motive we can think of… when if we just took a moment to appreciate that they see things differently to us, we could avoid the whole wretched spiral.
In fact, maybe the whole human race could get better at this.
And you can read more about treating neurodiverse couples, by downloading the PDF course ‘Neurology Matters: Recognizing, Understanding, and Treating Neurodiverse Couples in Therapy’ by Grace Myhill, MSW and Dania Jekel, MSW.
Co-author Grace Myhill, a therapist who specializes in working with Adults with Asperger’s and/or their partners, was kind enough to share this PDF with us, and I hope you find it interesting.
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