Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Letter Writing in Relationships - Communicating in Aspie (Part 3)

In parts 1 & 2 I covered how letter writing is a great leveller which removes non-verbal cues from the communication. I also gave some tips for effectively communicating emotions and affection.

I now want to look at how letter writing can be used to solve relationship problems.

To do this, I'm going to refer to some training which I received from Marriage Encounters several years back.

A Quick Plug for Marriage Encounters
Worldwide Marriage Encounters ( is an initiative intended to give couples the tools they need to effectively communicate in marriage.

It is not merely for marriages which are in trouble - in fact, it works best on marriages which are going well. The cost of an "encounter weekend" is very low there is usually a single low upfront fee with a request for private donation at the end. "However, no couple is denied the opportunity of a weekend because of financial hardship."

The initiative is supported by the Catholic Church but please don't let that stop you. They don't try to peddle religion on the weekend - it's all about couple communication.

One last thing. The weekends are hard work (a lot deep of one-to-one couple talking) but you are not expected to share any details of your marriage with outsiders. The discussions are strictly between you and your partner - privately. The ME team simply provide training in communication, and suitable questions to ask each other.

Problem Solving using the ME Principles
Note that this is a very simplified version of the ME technique. It's impossible to cover in a single post, all of the things that they cover over the course of a weekend.

Formulating the Question
First of all, agree on a single topic to be tackled. We are problem solving here after all. If you have more than one problem, start with a general question which covers everything (see example 2 below). You can always ask more specific questions later.

Sometimes it helps to try to ask the question in a way that says - "how do I feel" - this often gets an emotive response.

Here are some example questions for practice;

  1. How do I feel about our marriage so far?
  2. What do I think are the 5 biggest problems in our relationship?
  3. Are we in a rut - and if so, what can we do to get out of it?
  4. How do I feel when we are together?
  5. How do I feel when we need to discipline the children?

There are lots more questions you could ask and in fact, you might want to take it in turns to ask questions or, for a bit of fun, write them all down and select one at random.

Some questions like, "what do I need when you/I walk in the door after work" will probably give you great insights into how both partners can satisfy each other's needs and will lead to practical solutions which you can immediately implement. Other questions will give you more abstract answers.

Choose questions which will add value to your relationship.

Why write when you can talk?
Sure, you could simply blurt out the answers but the key here is to make sure that both partners are thinking about both sets of answers.

The problem with "talking out an answer" is that while Person A is talking, Person B is only half listening and half trying to work out what they're saying in response.

So... Don't try talking.. write.

Start by getting yourself an exercise book or pad each. This will help you to keep your correspondence together and will allow you to re-read old letters to see if you've changed your opinion or if you've promised things you've forgotten to deliver.

Now, for the actual writing.

It's not an essay, you don't need to use a lot of supporting arguments, cite references or anything. If it's anything, then treat it as a love letter.

Writing the Answers
First of all, take pen and paper and go somewhere truly by yourself. It's possible to do this in the same room as your partner but you should not be facing each other. You need to write as yourself - not as you think your partner wants. Looking at your partners expressions while writing the letter can be very distracting.

Start your letter, as you would any other letter, with Dear... This helps you to start on a "loving" note, no matter how angry you may feel at the time. Even more important - make sure that you end with a declaration of love and sign your name.

The bulk of your letter should be about the problem and how you feel. Remember not to say things like "you made me do xxx" or "you made me feel like xxx" because nobody made you do anything.

Instead, say "when you do xxx, I feel like xxxx because.....". This gets the point across without pointing the finger.

Also, remember to concentrate on your feelings. This is the one thing that your partner is guaranteed not to know. This is particularly true (on both sides) in any relationships involving an aspie. Your partner doesn't just need to know your emotional state but also how strong the emotion is. I covered this in Letter writing part 2, so have another look if required.

Be candid and explicit in your letter. If you have something to say, it must be written down. Don't leave hints, metaphors or anything that suggests reading between the lines.

The End of the Letter
I said earlier that you need to end with a normal (loving) letter ending but the aim here is not to end your letter with a contradiction...

"and I think you're a complete idiot!

Lots of love..."

You need to end it appropriately, to show that you are willing to work at things and to show that you are willing to make compromises;

For example, try things like;

"I know we've had our differences but I'm willing to work with you to patch things up. I think that if we start by ... and perhaps you're right about .... Let's give it a shot,

Lots of love..."

Reading the Letters
When you've finished your letter, wait for your partner to finish and then swap letters.

Separate again, or face the other way and quietly - without any comments - read the letter twice.

On the first reading, don't attempt to make any judgements at all. Simply try to "be" your partner and to feel what he or she is feeling (hopefully the letter will be all about what he or she is feeling). Read what the letter is telling you but don't try to read between the lines. Accept only what has been written down - otherwise, you'll be putting your own interpretation onto your partner's feelings/behaviour.

When you've finished reading the letter the first time, pause for a minute or so and try to understand what you've been told. Chances are that if you're a chatterbox (like me), then this is the first time you've heard your partner's entire feelings on the issue.

Now you can read the letter a second time. This time, you need to be thinking about how you feel. You should not be trying to think of counter-arguments, slanders or dismissive comments but simply trying to see how you feel about the letter, whether you agree or disagree, whether you can understand how your partner could be feeling the way they are and how you and your partner can reach an acceptable compromise.

For example, if you've been given the impression that you're doing something selfish, then the answer is not "I am not selfish". Your partner has written that from their perspective, you've done something selfish. They're the expert on their own perspective, so it's right - and not for you to challenge.

Instead, your reaction should probably be one of the following;

  • Acceptance: You feel that you probably do come across as selfish. In this case, you probably already know what you can do to rectify the situation.
  • Denial: You didn't think that you come across as selfish - this is news to you. If your partner thinks that you're being selfish, then you need to think of specific examples (if your partner has cited them) and how you could handle these better. In your view, you're not selfish, so it means that it's a perception problem instead. Is there another way you could get your point across? How do you change your partner's perception of you? Are there other ways in which you could share?

Discussing the Problem
Now that you've both considered the problems, you're ready to talk. One partner will go first and will be allowed to talk about their letter and yours.

You must listen and must not interrupt. Your turn will come. Other expressions, such as rolling your eyes, shaking your head, deliberate yawning etc are also forbidden. Just listen and be ready to compromise.

If you're the partner doing the talking, remember to focus on the problem, how to fix it and how to avoid similar problems in future. Love is all about compromises, so keep thinking about what you and your partner could do to meet "somewhere in the middle". Above all else, do not use your talking time to slander or otherwise offend/criticise your partner.

If the problem is centred on one partner more than the other such as in the "selfish" example I used earlier, then the partner who can change should probably go first. This will allow them to propose a solution/compromise up-front and therefore bypass most of the discussion of the problem itself.

When it's the other partner's turn, they can either accept/reject the compromise or propose an alternative.

Good luck.

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