Disclaimer: Since, after re-reading it, I felt that the stance I've taken in this post was a bit strong, I just want to make the point that I'm not blaming either party in a relationship but am simply presenting a one-sided arguement to counter the many already strong and equally one-sided opposing arguements out there.
It's a pretty common thing, particularly on discussion boards of ex-wives of aspies, to see lack of empathy cited as a major issue. In fact, many such posts treat this lack of empathy as the primary cause of marital failure, totally ignoring other factors which lead to break-up.
In this post, I'm going to ignore the traditional views in order to try to look at things from the other side.
The Scenario It's been a difficult year for us so far. We thought that things were difficult last year when my son's middle-aged tutor unexpectedly drowned in her own pool in a "freak accident" on new year's day. Well, this year, it got worse.
The year started off with the death of my wife's cousin in a horrific motor-scooter accident. He was in his twenties and left a baby behind. Since he was in New Zealand and we're in Australia, we couldn't make the funeral.
Then about a week and a half ago, after a sudden series of strokes, my godfather passed away. He was only a few hours short of his 90th birthday. The last of his generation and probably my favourite indirect relative. He died in Queensland which is a long distance from Sydney and due to our recent "new house" expenditure and then difficulty in getting the kids minded, we couldn't afford to attend the funeral.
About three days after his death, my wife received a phone call from a stranger. He informed her that one of our best friends had suddenly died from an aneurism. She was 43. My wife pulled me out of a meeting at work to tell us that the girl we often referred to as "our other sister" had died. I had no reassuring words for her. All I could do was reiterate that it was a sad thing in my saddest tones. In this case, the funeral was in an even more remote location and there was never any chance we could attend. Luckily, there's a remembrance scheduled for later this week.
I thought that I was doing passably well tiptoeing around my wife and casting sympathtic glances until a few days later when my wife angrily retorted; "well, you haven't exactly been full of empathy".
Being on the "sending" end Most people in any kind of relationship with an aspie know what it's like to be on the receiving end of "limited empathy" but what is the sending end like?
I'm sure that minimal demonstration of empathy sometimes makes our partners think that we're cold and heartless. Sometimes I wonder if we are.
What really irks me though is the fact that I haven't yet shed a tear for any of these people - even though I felt really close to them. I haven't felt that wave of uncontrollable sadness that sometimes and unexpectedly rushes over you when it all catches up.
We aren't cold emotionless robots by choice and, truth be told, most aspies are nowhere near the levels described in the literature. Grief, like other emotions, isn't just a natural part of life, it's also a major contributor to the healing process. As I write this, I feel like I'm full of poison which can't be released until I can grieve properly. It's not that I'm unable to feel emotion - I can, and it's often stronger than a typical NT reaction. Unfortunately, I can't choose the time of its arrival.
I'm sure that I could "make myself feel sadness" if I sat and deliberately pondered on sad things until it caught up to me but that would be "cheating". Crocodile tears (fake tears) somehow just don't make the grade. My "inner-aspie" has enough issues with the idea of lying to others without me trying to lie to myself. No, it has to be real emotion and it will come in its own good time but meanwhile, I'm victimised because my body language isn't displaying the right signs and I'm not in a place where I can be the empathetic and supporting husband that my wife needs.
Needing to See One of my biggest problems is that I need to see/experience an event before I can feel empathy properly. Second and third hand accounts do nothing for me. Even now, though mentally I know that I've lost these people, I still expect a phone call or surprise visit. Not attending a funeral makes it impossible to internalize.
I should probably clarify at this point that I'm awful at funerals. They are times of intense emotion for me because for me, they bring home for the first time, painful truths that everyone else has had several days to get used to, I'm frequently reduced to a blubbing mess. It's on these occasions that I find the NT empathy equation considerably lacking. My wife seems to understand but I've had my mother suggest that I'm "over-reacting" at funerals because I didn't seem so upset when the tragedy first occurred. It's like she thinks that I'm crying for attention. I wonder, if my mother, who knows me better than most people, can think this, what does everyone else think?
I know that now I'm in danger of confusing emotion with empathy, so I'll try to clarify. Crying at a funeral doesn't necessarily mean that you are feeling empathetic towards others. Often, we're simply crying over our own personal loss - a person who was special to us.
What such crying does do however is;
1. Paint us (aspies) as human beings, not monsters.
2. Enable us to understand how others may feel.
Internal Feelings Sometimes, not being able to find the desired emotional response in myself "makes my blood boil". The worst times here are when I feel myself getting teary over the wrong things. This hearkens back to the point about needing to experience/see an event.
It's an awful feeling when even though you can't grieve for the loss of a person who was like a sister to you, you find yourself feeling sad because Artoo Detoo is going on a mission away from Threepio in the Clone Wars TV series. Worse still is when you can't justify it by saying that you're in a teary mood because you know in your heart that the moment would have made you twinge with sadness anyway. It's simply the way I experience things.
Concluding I guess that the main point I wanted to make here was that next time an NT starts complaining about the aspie lack of empathy being the cause of their relationship break up, spare a thought for the aspie in the relationship who can't lie about feelings they know are there but which don't appear until conditions are right.
Their inner conflict causes them just as much pain as the outer pain that NTs display only since they lack the facilities to convey the message, they can only watch in stunned silence as they are treated like unemotional serial killers and their relationship collapses around them.
Sometimes too, it's the aspie experiencing all the emotion and the NTs who are lacking in empathy.