Asperger's Syndrome in Relationships
Asperger's Syndrome in Relationships
This is a good question, but very complex as members of a partner forum explored recently.
As with many aspects of relationships affected by AS, the
matter of trust may vary wildly from one couple to the next, but I’ll share the
thoughts that I shared, that are related to my own experience.
My comment within the forum was that “I think their trust (AS partner) is
closely linked to what their values are and how they believe we are complying
My recent experience was with a partner who had values
linked to finances and asset building, he was a hard worker and honest in his
business dealings, but even though I was as honourable and transparent as I
could be and contributed as much as I could and pulled my weight, I didn't let
him be “in charge” of my stuff, nor did I follow his directives and therefore
he persistently demonstrated suspicion towards me.
It was crushing
because I'm sure I contributed to our shared lifestyle far more than he gave me
any credit for, and all the while my own asset (home) was left to slowly run-down because I didn't have the funds to maintain it.
So, as I said in my initial comment, it seems to depend on
what they value and how well they perceive that we are complying with that as
to whether they trust us.
I'm not saying everyone’s situation will be the same. I
know my ex-husband (I was married to him for 20 years) never seemed to trust me,
but it wasn’t about finances or assets with him. He was very ego-centric,
and having me in his space made him feel very threatened, which I think many
other partners find is true too. We expose their poor attitudes and
behaviours and hold them accountable which they don't seem to forgive us
for. I never felt like I had any credibility in his estimation, which
tied in to his trust in me.
Added to this is something I wrote about not that long
ago, about how they seem to build up a perception of us based only on our reactions
or negative responses to their poor attitudes and behaviour and they don’t
balance up their perception of us by all our good qualities and all the amazing
things we do do, particularly for their benefit.
These seem unnoticed, and seem to be irrelevant
to them and their estimation of our trustworthiness, or not.
For better or for worse, a very strong thread that runs
through our support work is the need to be understanding of our partners in
relation to their AS characteristics and difficulties. The truth of the matter is, this mostly means
that we have to be the stronger, more accommodating human being in the
situation, and go without the consideration and accommodation that rightfully
should be ours too in a partnership or marriage relationship with another human
being of equal status. But this is the
nature of it.
We “get” that the AS person has so many limitations in
areas we are so natural in, and of course we can feel considerable compassion
for their struggles and deficits when we see how stressed they can become in
work, home or social settings, until we are reminded of how stressed we have become
trying to stage manage home life every moment of every day to avoid the AS
partner going into shutdown or meltdown and the consequent disastrously
stressful impact this has on the relationship, on the family, on us!
That long-winded introduction was heading somewhere …
I was thinking how extremely sensitive the AS partner is
to any hint or whiff of criticism, to the point that they read criticism or
personal attack into innocent statements that are just factual about whatever
is taking place at the time, or for the purpose of making some sort of
arrangement or improvement to household functioning or relationship quality for
the benefit of all. It’s called “family
I thought of the word “collude”, how they seem to draw us
into colluding with them in their belief that they are without error, that
their perspective is correct, that their way is best, that they are a more
advanced human being who we are privileged to be able to learn from. We find ourselves rehearsing every word,
every phrase, every statement, every conversation before we speak it to purge
it of any taint of criticism or judgment or attack, to the point we just can’t
speak or deal with anything for fear of bursting their bubble.
And that’s how I think they like it, or in fact need it
to be. There is only room for one
reality to exist.
Perhaps they have arrived at their position and
perspective as a result of having felt different throughout the formative years
when social acceptance and inclusion were everyone else’s priorities, but they
couldn’t achieve this, and so they had to become confident in whatever skill or
strength they had in order to create an identity of their own. Still different. But typically using a skill or gift that has
been more highly developed than any non-AS person can achieve. One that sets them above as well as
apart. One can understand this
happening, their reliance on their superiority in a particular field as a
“shoring up” of identity.
But as patient and sacrificing partners, we struggle
every day with this apparent arrogance they portray and our own sense of
powerlessness to influence them to consider our perspective, comment or
suggestion as valid or acceptable, and so we become silent. Or eventually leave. No other option seems available to us.
What is even more horrifying and disabling for us is the
requirement on our part to patiently endure being corrected, directed,
criticized and often rudely spoken to regularly by our AS partners, sometimes
constantly, as they work on forming us into more complete and tolerable
partners for themselves.
While we weather the torpedo blasts of rage and reaction
they direct towards us if we suggest an imperfection in them.
Carol Grigg OAM, Dip Counselling, MACA Level 2www.carolgriggcounselling.com.au
A couple of days each week I work as a Generalist
Counsellor for a rural health service.
It’s been a great way to gain experience with a wide variety of personal
circumstances and different age groups.
I love it.
I was in a counselling session with a male about my own
age a couple of weeks ago and he was explaining to me that he was a bit shy
socially, and then he said something that completely stopped me in my tracks. A light-bulb moment. (Or another hit in the head!)
I believe I did very well staying composed and not letting
on that he’d said something of great significance to me. However I did gently ask him to elaborate a
little because it was helpful information in my work with him anyway.
He told me that he likes being around friendly and
outgoing people because they do all the work.
Are you thinking what I’m thinking? Is this what was happening when we first met
our partners? And is this a role we
continue to fulfil for them? And for
My client did say that he found social situations and
relationships difficult, but clearly he’d learned a very effective way to manage
this. Without effort on his part. Using the effort of another.
That phrase “unrequited love” has been rolling around
inside my head a lot lately. I had to
find my dictionary to check its full meaning, and I think it matches the
feelings I’ve been experiencing. So
often when I’m counselling with partners I share with them what so many
partners share about feeling like we’re pouring our love and our souls and our
emotions and our efforts … everything into a black hole and nothing comes back
to nurture us in return. It’s quite soul
destroying, and has to be linked to that feeling of “unrequited love”. Love that’s not returned or reciprocated. I know it’s a different usage, but I think
it’s the same feeling or state to be in.
A real sense of ineffectiveness.
Somehow we do believe our partners love us, but they just
seem unable to demonstrate it or respond to us in ways that resonate with our
soul-need to be actively loved and acknowledged for who we are and all the ways
we show our care for them. The
reciprocation we naturally expect in a marriage or long term partnership. For us, it’s why we’re in a relationship.
It was really stirred up for me recently when I was
trying to find some sort of closure (again) for myself after a relationship
breakdown I experienced late last year. (Yes,
I chose another Aspie arrogantly thinking that with my knowledge I could make
it work. 1 year of bliss. 4 of confusion
and conflict. I failed. Correction - we failed.
So many unhealed painful feelings. So many meaningful
words rewarded with silence. Some rewarded with rage. Having to sit with and be content with those
open and raw feelings of unfinished business and “unrequited” love, care and
effort is next to impossible. I want
some of it, or something, back. Please.
My attempts to seek some sort of acknowledgement or
empathic response are met with statements about his hardships as though it’s a
competition. I need to let it go. For my own sake I need to stop seeking a
response that satisfies my longing to be acknowledged, valued … or told that I
was loved. He genuinely doesn’t seem to
understand the meaning of my words or what I’m seeking.
I know that my value is in no way diminished by his lack
of response or acknowledgement; I know I’m a good lover and partner!
The fact is, we are all wonderful and beautiful people
who are highly empathic, highly responsive, highly loving, and many more good
We just fell in love with beautiful human beings who
cannot requite to us what we cannot help but give.
thought that has been on my mind the past few weeks has been how we all seem to
have a natural expectation that as soon as we find the right strategy for
reaching our AS partners, they will suddenly become neurotypical and we can get
on with our relationship.
We seem to
have a subconscious belief that somewhere tucked away deep inside our partner
is a neurotypical person who will emerge once we find the key or the right
method to reach them. After all, each
day we do see some little glimmer that keeps our hopes and efforts alive.
this is a very difficult reality to have to come to terms with, that even if we
do find some methods or strategies that improve our communication and
interaction, our AS partners will still have AS. They think and operate differently. Like Clinical Psychologist Jeroen Decates
reminds us whenever he comes to our meetings – the difference between a
neurotypical partner and an AS partner is like the difference between a PC and
a Mac. They are completely different
operating systems. And they can’t talk
to each other without interpretation or assistance. Much the same with us and our AS partner.
. It is imperative that we read and learn. The ASPIA website has many articles that
countless partners have found helpful and I always recommend ASPIA’s handbook
as essential reading too. There are many
definitions and descriptions and interpretations listed in the handbook that
will help partners to understand the different way their partner thinks and
operates. I would also strongly
recommend reading the Diagnostic Criteria in the DSM 5 – it is reproduced on
the Autism Speaks website - https://www.autismspeaks.org/what-autism/diagnosis/dsm-5-diagnostic-criteria
(this lists the social (pragmatic)
communication disorder criteria also which is absolutely relevant too!).
of ASPIA’s greatest strengths as a support group has been to provide education
and we are so privileged to have quite a few psychologists and other presenters
who attend our meetings to teach us and keep us up to date with knowledge about
Autism Spectrum Disorder. This has been
a great strengthener and enlightener for those who attend.
need professional support. I don’t know how any partner can hope to know
how to negotiate daily life with an Aspie without at least a few consultations
with a psychologist or a counsellor for guidance and support, especially in the
early days of learning.
peer support. How many of us have had our sanity saved by
being able to talk to other partners? Of
course, the face to face support group context that ASPIA provides in Sydney
(and other groups in other capital cities) is the ultimate experience but for
those who live too far away, we have the Yahoo group (email based
discussion). Financial members of ASPIA
also have access to a private facebook group for daily support.
have been reminded many times in our workshops and support group meetings that
we cannot manage a relationship with an adult with Asperger’s Syndrome without
knowledge, understanding, professional help and support. We don’t have the knowledge naturally. Our natural instinct gives us the ability to
relate to other neurotypicals, but to relate to those on the Spectrum we need
this past month I have been busy with many conversations and counselling
sessions with partners.
couple of common threads continue to stand out to me. I will talk about one of them here.
is our “natural” response to become emotional with our AS partners when we are
hurt or offended by them (which of course is natural in any relationship). As offences and conflict build up over time
and are not resolved (which tends to be the pattern in relationships affected
by ASD), we naturally become more upset and emotional, which is a normal
response on our part. It is “normal” to
need resolution, not to just go on as though the issue doesn’t exist anymore
which is what the partner with ASD seems to do.
is hard for us to come to terms with is that in a relationship affected by ASD,
the more emotional and verbal we become, the more likely it is that the ASD
partner will shut down or retreat, or the opposite, emotionally or verbally
“out-escalate” us even to the point of aggression so that we are overwhelmed or
frightened and we back down.
situation is then restored to what they can cope with. And they go on as though nothing happened,
while we are left more upset and distressed or traumatized, still with no way of
finding a place of resolution or having our needs met.
leaves us feeling very powerless, unable to address legitimate hurts, offences
or even everyday situations, and all of us can relate to this feeling of sheer
and desperate frustration and helplessness.
fact is, the adult with ASD is unable to cognitively, emotionally or verbally
meet us at a place of resolution. And
displays of emotion by us are in fact futile in securing what we need from our
are our options? Not very many I’m
afraid. But perhaps the first and most
important one is to reclaim ownership of our own emotional state instead of
allowing our partner to be in charge of it.
When stress and emotional distress go on indefinitely our mental and
physical health will definitely suffer, and prioritizing the relationship and
our partner’s needs may not be worth the devastating toll this is having on
us. We cannot look to an AS partner to
heal us emotionally.
are a beautiful and worthwhile person.
Your partner may be the one you chose to share your life with, but they
are only one person in a vast world, and many of us have come to the conclusion
that we wouldn’t even choose our partners as a friend if we knew what we now know
about their attitudes and behaviours.
Are you therefore doing yourself justice by allowing them to be the one who has
the most influence over your emotional well-being and also how you feel about
your emotional energy. Change your
expectations. Try to reduce the extent
to which their contribution matters to you.
Find alternative solutions. Look
to your healthy and normal friendships and family connections for your
emotional nurture. Channel your nurturing
into yourself and those who reciprocate your care. Develop your independence and value yourself.
know this is not what any of us really or ultimately want for our relationships,
but perhaps this is the only way to ensure our own emotional survival. And one never knows, if we back off and just
quietly step away from them emotionally, they may notice the change and move
back towards us just a little.
have to admit that this past month I’ve felt a little empty of words.
do keep remembering snippets from our workshop with Tony Attwood though so I will share another
shared with us that for there to be any hope of change or improvement in our
relationships, our AS partners must at least make some acknowledgement that
there is a problem and be motivated to learn.
He said that it is not necessary to achieve a diagnosis of Asperger’s
Syndrome, but there must be some acknowledgement of and willingness to learn
partners find that their AS partner completely refuses to acknowledge or
discuss the matter. And many find that
if they try to push it, the reaction or meltdown is not worth it.
does this leave us? In many ways, the AS
adult’s response is strategic for them because it ensures they can maintain
Perhaps this gives you
the freedom and right to choose your own position in response?
I really think the only way to make a shift
is to stop talking and trying to explain the problem (which they often take as
a personal attack), and just start “doing”.
Not with malice or retaliation, just purposeful action.
your responses. Act. Calmly and firmly, without any fanfare. Stop waiting for neurotypical responses from
them. Say what you are going to do and
do it. Use logic, “cause and effect”. Remind yourself of your own values and begin
to live in a way that is true to yourself. It will take some courage. Make some ultimatums or trade-offs with your
partner, one at a time. You do not have
to tolerate bad behaviour. It is ok to
leave the room or leave the house. In
general it is futile trying to reason with them.
Save your energy, acknowledge your reality,
choose your response and follow through.
Take your time. In many ways it
will be like a conditioning process and in time you may find you’ve achieved
more than you thought you could.
seek professional help or make sure someone knows whether you’re ok or not.
We were educated and inspired and validated
and challenged by Tony’s presentation at our workshop on Saturday 7th March. And perhaps I should add discouraged and
grief-stricken for some or many too. It
is no easy life, with no easy solutions.
was a strong sense of warmth and identification among all those present and the
ASPIA members who were in attendance were lovely hosts, caring for others and
being a source of information and support throughout the day. I felt very proud to be part of our group. (www.aspia.org.au
have added a number of new partners to our mailing list and expect a few new
ones to attend our monthly meetings.
have also added a few new professionals to our website list. One in Wyong (Central Coast NSW), and two in
was clear from Tony’s presentation that there is more material and professional
help available now for couples and Tony discussed the possibility of returning
with one of his colleagues to do a couples workshop for a limited number of
participants. We will let you know when
this is likely to happen.
own Sydney Psychologist Jeroen Decates is also working towards offering couples
workshops, and already holds a couples group for those he is working with. Jeroen’s contact details are on the ASPIA
afraid I’m a bit lost for words at the moment for writing a thought, it’s a bit
like, “where do I start?”.
snippet Tony said that’s helpful to know is that when your AS partner answers
“I don’t know”, it may just mean, “I don’t have the words to tell you”. They have a lot of difficulty with vocabulary
for emotions and self-reflection. They
can also tend to feel they need to give the “right” answer and they don’t know
what this is, so it’s better not to say anything.
problem of “negativity” came up too. One
person asking if Aspies tend to be negative because of all the difficulty they
had growing up, but Tony said he sees it as actually coming with the
territory. Aspies tend to have negative
thinking and be pessimistic. He also
said that many NT’s tend to be optimistic.
I think this might lend itself to another whole discussion sometime.
In my thoughts at the moment I can’t get past the fixed
I’m thinking that this is a huge aspect of the
conflict we experience in our relationships.
Aspies tend to arrive at an opinion or perspective as a result of their
own logic and this then remains fixed.
Healthy relationships are about hearing and considering
each other’s perspective, respecting each other’s views and finding outcomes
that take into account a whole range of factors important and known to both
partners together and individually.
But it seems an Aspie cannot consider an opposing
or differing view to their own, believing their logic to have arrived them at
an irrefutable position. They can’t be
wrong, so the partner has to be. Two
perspectives or views can’t co-exist.
Instead of a wider range of wisdom and experience
to draw on for a better outcome for all, the field is narrowed to one view only. This is actually dangerous and naïve in the
bigger picture, and surely can’t be defined as a relationship either.
During the last month I’ve had lots of thoughts
float through my head. Not that thoughts
about AS float, more likely they pierce or clobber me in the head at the most
unexpected moment and leave quite an ache in the heart as a result.
The thought that impacted me a lot during the last
month and that I’ve continued to think about is to do with the lack of conflict
resolution in our marital situations.
Most of us have reported feeling like nothing has
ever been resolved over the entire duration of our relationship. This is of deep concern in any relationship
of any duration, but some of these relationships have existed for twenty,
thirty or forty years. How bleak. What have we done with all that stuff? Unfinished threads everywhere, tangled and
tight, cutting off the circulation to all that is healthy.
I started to think more about resolution and
reconciliation. I think this is an
essential need, even a compulsion on our part, to look for resolution, to
resolve conflict, to reach a place of harmony again, of agreeing, of being on
the same page, of one mind. We seek it
out, initiate it.
How does the AS partner in our relationship respond
when we try to initiate a resolution to some situation of conflict? Don’t most of us feel drawn into combat with
them rather than negotiation? Tit for tat. The situation escalates, becomes technical,
one-up – one-down, emotions run high into rage; we cannot reason with
them. And then we’re called on to
weather yet another meltdown, or carry on in their absence while they shut
down. We can’t revisit the issue. Another issue unresolved, leaving another raw
and unhealed wound, forever.
I think sometimes I portray the AS person as having
an impact on us in more passive ways rather than aggressive. I am sensitive to portraying Aspies as
aggressive because this can be interpreted as them being “abusive” and this
always has to be defined or qualified in some way to be fair (and safe to
However, when it comes to conflict, I think Aspies
have a compulsion too, though not for resolution in the way we do. I think they may have a compulsion to correct
and to complete, and often in an aggressive manner.
They tend to need to control their
environment to create predictability for themselves and to reduce their own
anxieties, and the people around them actually form part of this environment
that needs to be controlled. It is my belief
that they have a set way they need us to behave, like a script. And if we don’t follow it, in the right way
and at the right time, we are corrected.
I’m sure we all know that feeling of being corrected, and for many us of
it is so frequent that it becomes part of what we take for granted. Remember the old report cards from
school? “Responds well to
correction.” Great. If only they knew.
We all have that depth of character and
humility that allows us to respond well to correction, but at what point is it
taken too far? When we’re constantly
corrected, and often aggressively, to conform to someone else’s script within
the context of a relationship and home life, how much of ourselves is left?
And what about the resolution we so desperately
crave for wholeness of heart?
Another unmet need. Written for November 2014