Sunday, November 23, 2008

Finding Conversational Balance - Part 2: What Aspies Want from a Relationship

Recap
We've already established that aspies not only have difficulty with small talk but also greatly dislike engaging in it.

You can't change people, so there's no point in settling down with an aspie partner and expecting them to suddenly become socialites.

By the same token, there's no reason to expect your aspie partner to suddenly abandon social contact after years of reasonable participation. You're either born with aspergers or you're not and over the years you develop ways to lessen the impact of your condition. Sure, social interaction never becomes exactly comfortable but it can become bearable in small amounts. Having a formal diagnosis isn't a license to "give up".

Mutual Benefit
So where does that leave couples? Well, the whole point of being married (concepts like love aside) is to exist in a mutually beneficial and meaningful relationship. "Mutually Beneficial" can mean a lot of things; it can mean financial, family orientated, secure or any one of a dozen other meanings. The most important interpretation though, is that both parties should benefit from the relationship.

In order that both parties should benefit, we should be aware of each others wants and needs as well as things which make them feel sad, insecure or uncomfortable. These things vary considerably from one individual to another but there are some things which seem true for many aspies.

Here are some less talked about things that aspies want out of our relationships;

Hugs without Hands
Aspies are often quite sensitive to touch. A light touch on the hand or arm (or worse - for me at least, foot) can leave an itchy tingling sensation which can last for hours. On the other hand, we love tight hugs, they're a firm favourite - but play your fingers on our backs or necks while you do it and you ruin the effect. This is the reason why many people with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) ask for "hugs without hands".

Understanding
Then there's kissing. There's a bit of a problem with kissing. After all, it's a type of touch. Sometimes you can handle it and sometimes it just "weirds you out". Aspies love hugs but often don't give them because often all we want is a hug but our NT partners expect a kiss as well. Sometimes when I'm greeted at the door with a kiss, it can make me feel really uncomfortable. I'll break it off abruptly with some mumbled excuse. If I was brutally honest with my wife in one of those moments, she would take it to heart. There's just no way that she could understand that it's not her, it's simply that sometimes, I'm more sensitive to touch than others.

Discussion
It seems silly that a group of people who dislike small talk should crave discussion but it's true. The problem is that we're not good listeners but we expect other people to listen to us. Aspies hate small talk but can usually talk for a little while with family on specific matters of mild interest (such as how little Johnny is going at school). Of course, what we really want to talk about is our special interest.

In fact we'll talk about our special interest incessantly if we can. The trouble is, our special interests usually aren't terribly interesting to our NT partners.

Since movies are a special interest of mine, I'll want to discuss them after we've watched them. Unfortunately, since we tend to watch them late at night, all my wife wants to do is go to sleep afterwards.

Alone Time
When written down, it seems very selfish of us to want "alone time" from our partners as one of the products of our relationships but there it is - it's better that we admit it.

Whenever an aspie puts on a public persona and pretends to be social at an event, it puts them under a lot of strain. So much strain in fact, that we often need a bit of alone time immediately afterward to recharge our batteries.

Aspies who work in jobs which include a lot of social activities such as meetings, are often particularly keen on a bit of solitude when they get home. The more meetings (or the longer a meeting goes), the greater the need for alone-time.

Alone-time can vary greatly depending on the individual and circumstances. Sometimes, complete social isolation is required and we need to go to a room to be by ourselves. At other times, simply listening to music via earphones or watching television without discussion will suffice.

It can be a problem when an aspie is taking a break and the phone rings but at least that can be ignored. A much bigger problem is the fact that our partners, particularly stay-at-home moms, are often starved for adult conversation and their needs are not being met.

Encouragement
As children, aspies are often put into special classes, treated differently and assumed to be generally quite incompetent. This has enormous and long lasting social ramifications which can only worsen the symptoms of aspergers itself.

Aspies quite often have low self confidence and low self esteem. It's not generally admitted but one of the key things that aspies need from their partners is a low stress confidence boost. It is doubtful whether I would have had the confidence to leave my first job were it not for my wife's encouragement. Her words have been inspirational and supportive and they've always encouraged me to stretch my boundaries.

At the same time, I need that "push" to recognise my limits. I've risen quite high in technical circles and I've had a taste of management but found that, similarly to many aspies, the social demands of management cause me too much stress and I'm happiest with a firm technical grounding.

Planning
It's widely acknowledged that aspies don't like change - and to an extent, that's true. We certainly resist change more than many of our NT counterparts. It would be more accurate to say that we don't like surprises - unplanned events.

I often walk around with an unspoken agenda in my head of things I'd like to do on a given day. I'll often ask my wife what she wants to do and the be a little miffed that whatever she says isn't quite what I had in mind.

Similarly, I'll sometimes come home to a suggestion that we go out for dinner or that we have a specific type of food. I'll often not be too keen on the idea because it's "not what I had in mind". Of course if my wife rings or emails around lunchtime with a suggestion, I handle it much better. I'm mentally prepared and have the rest of my time planned out accordingly.

Although sometimes I miss the structure of my mother's dinners (we always had the same thing on the same nights), I don't expect this from my wife - and she'd be horrified by such an idea anyway. No, it doesn't have to be a rigid timetable but a little routine and a lot of forewarning can go a long way.

Summary
In this post, I've looked at some of the things that aspies want from their relationships - though I've deliberately left out the obvious things in order to concentrate on the more aspie-specific things.

NT's obviously have needs too, which I'm not really qualified to discuss - so I'd welcome any feedback on these.

Next time, we'll try to see how some compromises can be made to meet both groups of needs without negatively impacting our relationships. I know I've strayed somewhat from simple conversation but for some reason, these other topics seemed to go well together.

10 comments:

farnel said...

This was a great blog. thanks

Anonymous said...

This was an extremely clear and well written post. Thank you for taking the time to be so specific. In reading, I discovered many things I did not know about Aspie's; some that even touch on the difficulties I have had in the past, that seemed incomprehensible to me. I'm particularly struck with what you said about touch. I would like to respond to your query about NT's, and our needs, particularly in relation to the difficulties of an Aspie/NT relationship. Although, as you say, everyone is unique. I would guess there are common areas of conflict inherent in the dynamic. It would be interesting if others would share their experiences as well. I'll get back to you when time allows.

angela said...

I have a question, yes I know I'm full of them. Do aspies have a harder time dealing with screaming and crying children than NT's?

Anonymous said...

I'd like to identify a few of the areas in which I, as an NT, have had difficulties in close relationship to an Aspie. I don't pretend to think that these are universal experiences. But I think we are not so very different in our basic human need for love. How that need is fulfilled seems to be the problem inherent in the Aspie/NT dynamic.

Communication

It seems to me that Asperger's is both a strength and a weakness. I have observed a steady, intellectual strength in my Aspie friend, which is both fascinating and remarkable in it's intensity; that is, until he has a meltdown. It seems
when there are too many stressors in his environment, he becomes a different person (not unlike an NT). These situations
often lead to depression and withdrawal, wherein he neglects communication between us...for days at a time. This type of neglect is very hurtful. It leads to sadness, disconnect and the feeling of being uncared and unloved by someone who is important in my life. During these times it would help if he would simply say what is going on. Even to write a note, or text message would be far more effective in keeping things in balance with us while he recuperates, than the silent withdrawal, which I experience as cold and uncaring. I need to know that he is willing to communicate with me, in good times and bad.

Listening

Everyone has special interests as far as I can tell. The difference being, my Aspie seems to think that his special interests outweigh in importance, things that are going on at that moment with other people in his immediate environment. If I am sad, or have had a particularly hard day myself, I need support and a listening ear. It may only take 5 minutes of his time, to sit down with me and merely listen. It would go a long way if he would acknowledge intellectually, that there is something he can contribute, even if he's not interested in the content of what I have to say. He can show his care by focusing on me for a short period of time,
before changing the subject, or disappearing into his thoughts and special interests.

Love and Attention

We all need love. What's hard to figure out is how to show each other that love, in a way that gets the message across, and that affirms our connection to one another. Some say love is attention. If so, then the sure way to show someone love is to give them your attention. Sometimes that takes the form of knowing when to leave each other alone. (Aspie's don't have the corner on the market for the need to chill after a hard day.) It's more about a kind of sensitivity to the other. And if you can't sense what is needed, get curious and ask. Getting curious about the other person, and expressing that curiosity, shows that you are paying attention. It communicates that even if you don't know what is needed, you are willing to find out. Even if it entails asking the proverbial, "how was your day?", it's better than nothing. Think quality versus quantity.

Fun

How to make time together to just relax and enjoy the moment. To linger over a nice meal, a walk in nature, or a special recreational activity. To be able to do so in silence, without having to fulfill the next plan. Just to be there....together.

Touch

Touch provides a connection through the body that cannot be experienced in any other way. It's one of the most direct ways to feel close to one another. And it only takes a moment. A hand on the shoulder, a hug, sitting together with arms touching, holding hands, even a quick hello kiss is better than nothing. BTW, I really enjoy the tight, hugs that come with this relationship.

Forgive me if this is too long of a comment. There is so much I need to learn and it helps to become part of the conversation.

wrongshoes said...

Your preferences line up pretty well with mine. Good post.

The Rambling Taoist said...

Personally, I d-e-t-e-s-t hugs, often even from my wife. A few years ago I was involved with several progressive nonprofits and, at the end of meetings, someone always seemed to suggest a group hug or holding hands in a circle. Yuk!

I always begged off the hugging and my comrades got used to the fact that I chose to stand outside the circle.

I can really, really relate to the alone-time. I probably spend 70% of each day alone -- at least from human contact. We have lots of pets (3 cats & 2 dogs), so I'm rarely truly alone.

I used to be a conference planner. Generally, lunch time was when attendees got together to network and socialize. The old joke at these events was "Where's Trey?" At lunch, I went home to decompress from humanity in utter silence. After the event had ended, I would need several days of alone-time before I would reemerge.

Nachtus01 said...

I actually read this post a while back, and while it was a good post, I left no comment, because I felt you had said things well enough.
After an update to my reader, it reset all the blogs that I had marked as read, an so I ended up re-reading it.
It was at this point, that I realized that you had left a topic out, that should probably have been touched on.
I know in your article, you wrote that you did indeed leave out the obvious, and maybe this is one of those things you consider obvious, I dont know.
For me, have a relationship with an NT requires something I dont get from everyone else.
A sense of, "belonging", of, "normality".
Does my wife know I'm "weird"? Yes, but rather than treat me like a circus show act, she doesn't just, "tolerate it", she accepts it as a part of who I am.
Unlike some friends I've had, who, at worst, treated me like something novel, and "neat" to hang around with, she allows me to be free without any sort of judgment from her.
So in that, I get the sense of "belonging", that I searched so long for.
She doesn't treat me like I have, "special needs".
Sometimes, when in a social situation, I might not get something, and She might have to explain it, or let me know I misinterpreted something, but she isn't doing it to make me feel less, she is actually trying to help me.
This is what makes me feel like I am normal.
In fact, we both realize the benefit that we provide to each other. We are wonderfully balanced.
You've all heard the saying, "You complete me".
Well, that's true for both of us. We realized it, even before either of us had heard about Aspergers.
In all the areas that I am weak in, she is strong in them. In the areas that she is weak in, I am strong. Ironically, none of those things are the reasons that we fell in love, or got married, these are things we began to see after we had been married for 5 years.
And, on the 16th of this month, we will have been married for 13 years, so we must be doing something right!
Cheers! and good luck to all of you trying to find that someone special to make your world better, just try to do the same back when you do!

Andreas said...

I've become more and more aware of the types of social engagements that I like and dislike. High energy or deeply intellectual; I feed off of those situations; with no need for eating or sleeping, I just keep going! (all the gusto of a special interest).

Despite the fact that I love socializing, I still have my 2 nemeses, Small Talk and Relaxing.

Fun
How to make time together to just relax and enjoy the moment. To linger over a nice meal, a walk in nature, or a special recreational activity. To be able to do so in silence, {...}. Just to be there....together.

The above makes me anxious. In these moments, I am uncomfortably aware of our differences, for I am not able to bond in this way. The silence feels like alienation, rather than contentment.


Touch
Apparently I may be hyper sensitive, because, when I was younger, I was told by my best friend, of 4yrs) that we never come into physical contact. He had always noticed; I wasn't even aware of the fact that I never initiated it.

Now I pat people on the shoulder, for reassurance, or when I'm attempting to 'demonstrate bonding'. Positive results: )

One quirk of mine, is that I cannot stand to touch people when they are in a highly emotional state. I almost feel like I will become 'infected' by their feelings. For me, intense passion is a mild repellent. Their feelings will sometimes seep into me, which can be very uncomfortable.

Jamie said...

I realize this is an older post but I'm new to it and I wanted to thank you. I believe that my boyfriend has undiagnosed Aspergers. I want very deeply to understand what I can about him without making him feel "other" which he seems to feel about the topic. I have been scouring the internet for clues on how to make him feel respected and loved in his own love language and have been sorely disappointing. Most of what I have found has been for Aspies about how to show their partner that they love them but none on how to "speak in aspie." Your blog has given me far better insight into how to show that I love my boyfriend because I understand how different our love languages are. I would love more information on this but you have filled in so much already. thank you!

Jamie said...

I realize this is an older post but I'm new to it and I wanted to thank you. I believe that my boyfriend has undiagnosed Aspergers. I want very deeply to understand what I can about him without making him feel "other" which he seems to feel about the topic. I have been scouring the internet for clues on how to make him feel respected and loved in his own love language and have been sorely disappointing. Most of what I have found has been for Aspies about how to show their partner that they love them but none on how to "speak in aspie." Your blog has given me far better insight into how to show that I love my boyfriend because I understand how different our love languages are. I would love more information on this but you have filled in so much already. thank you!