Sunday, April 29, 2012

How the rules of relationships need to change to accommodate the needs of meltdown-prone adults


Last time, I talked about adult meltdowns and how they're just as real as meltdowns in children but are usually more controlled (due mainly to experience and self-knowledge). I also talked about how both physical and emotional restraint can bring about a more explosive and dangerous meltdown.  Today, I want to discuss how meltdowns occur in relationships and how keep your family and possessions safe.


I've had new couples tell me that they're getting married and that they've "perfect for each other" because they've never had a fight - or even a disagreement. I'm usually far from impressed with this degree of "love" and suggest that they at least wait until they've had a few fights. You see, some people fight dirty. Some people give in too easily and some people hold grudges. It's really not a good idea to settle into a long term relationship without a good idea of how you and your partner fight, what tips them over the edge and how to calm them down.


This is very true of meltdowns.  If you have meltdowns, then it's important that your partner knows about them before they happen - and especially, before you get into a long-term relationship.

The Long and Short of it
Meltdowns are weird beasts, they usually occur due to long term issues with short term triggers.  For example, a partner may have a low sense of worth, perhaps they were never able to do anything succesfully in handyman areas.  Home repairs may not come easily to them. This is certainly the case with me.  You may find yourself volunteered into various activities by your partner. For example, painting a room, fixing a tap or even helping out at a working bee.  All of these are potential meltdown events, they are full of short term triggers which could cause a person to go into a meltdown state.

As partners, you need to be acutely aware of your partners long and short term issues.  You need to know what things are likely to trigger meltdowns but you also need to understand how  a small issue, for example, a failed repair, could balloon into a giant one.  These triggers need to be avoided.  If your partner has issues with something, then don't make them do it. Remember the "restraint" that I talked about last time?  Requiring your partner to do something that they clearly have issues with is a form of restraint.

Leave it well enough alone
When the inevitable meltdown starts, all restraints need to be off and your partner needs to be able to calm down in their own way.  In our handyman example, here are a few things that you should most certainly not do;

1. Say "I knew this would happen" or "I knew you couldn't do it"
2. Say "let me have a go"
3. Say "forget it!, I'll get someone who knows what they're doing to do it"

All of these responses belittle your partner and simply make things worse.  They'll also worsen any situation both in the immediate sense of making the meltdown worse and in the long term sense of affecting self esteem so that future meltdowns become more likely.

If you've "restrained" your partner into the job, then you have to accept that it's at least partially your responsibility. You need to back out and give them an escape clause.  Ideally, either leave them alone or call them inside for lunch or some other kind of break to allow them to unwind.  When they're fully calm, suggest that you call someone for help.

Widening the Example
This is not just a post about home handymen. Meltdowns occur in all sorts of arenas.  Some people have issues with open spaces or with public speaking. Maneuvering them into one of these areas can trigger a meltdown.  Similarly, some people don't function well in a party atmosphere - so the choice of a home party versus an external party needs to consider whether they have places to retreat to. For some people the trigger is sudden change, for some it's computers and some people simply can't handle vacations.

Whatever the causes, the important thing is to know your partner and understand how your actions and requests could put restraints on them.  Try to avoid sending them into potential meltdown situations and always leave them with a way out. Remember too, that if a meltdown occurs, it is often your own actions which will determine its strength and the degree of damage it does to both your relationship and your posessions. Standing in the way of a partner in meltdown's retreat is a sure-fire way of being hurt or having a hole put through a wall.  Shouting at them or throwing objects is pretty much guaranteed to escalate words into violence and shouting at a retreating back is certain to provoke a return.

Leave them alone, give them time to calm down and remove any restraints on the situation.  Don't send them back into the battlefield when they've calmed down. They need to stay away.

Make a note of what caused the meltdown and try to avoid similar situtations in future. A meltdown-prone partner can become a very good partner with just a little careful planning and avoidance.

19 comments:

Anonymous said...

"I've had new couples tell me that they're getting married and that they've "perfect for each other" because they've never had a fight - or even a disagreement. I'm usually far from impressed with this degree of "love" and suggest that they at least wait until they've had a few fights. You see, some people fight dirty. Some people give in too easily and some people hold grudges. It's really not a good idea to settle into a long term relationship without a good idea of how you and your partner fight, what tips them over the edge and how to calm them down."

Indeed.

If you would have to go out of your way to keep your family and possessions safe from this person, then do you really want to have this person be your partner in the first place? It's good to find out *ahead of time*, instead of only finding out after the fact that (for example) you've had children with someone you need to protect your children from!

wishihadakarmaanghia said...

Fair point to Anon above - it's not for everyone. Being in a relationship with someone who has the above "issues" can be very challenging. I am married to the kindest, brightest, most loyal and thoughtful man who has exactly the issues above, particularly around Handyman issues but also around many other things that make him feel trapped. He's never physically aggressive but can be verbally vile if we get it wrong. Knowing the reasons why, the triggers and the restoratives makes this surmountable in our relationship. If I'd written him off at an early stage because he wasn't totally perfect (neither am I!!) then I would have missed out on all the good stuff.

Patty O. said...

What a fantastic and enlightening post! My son is only 8, but I want to teach him these skills--to advocate for himself, to know his limits, etc. These ideas are great for those not on the spectrum, as well. Frankly, when I am super, super stressed, I have been known to have a meltdown--maybe not the same as my son's but a meltdown nonetheless. I like your suggestions of making a note of triggers, etc. I need to learn to do this for myself as well.

Anonymous said...

I like your post about meltdowns and relationships! If you have time, could you do one about shut-downs and relationships or advice for those who are trying to support someone in shut-down mode? I ask because I am more more likely to shut down then melt down, I rarely have meltdowns, it is much mroe often have shutdowns and was wondering how many others' also experience these more-so? I am also female, which may be worth noting, I am not sure how much gender may play role in way one either goes into shut down or melt down, only because there are so many more males diagnosed with Aspergers nad from what I hear, it is largely becaues the criteria for Aspergers was based off biological males, and that females display differently, causing major under or mis-diagnosising...

Trey Smith said...

I really, really, really need to get my dear wife to read your blog regularly!

Anonymous said...

"...If I'd written him off at an early stage because he wasn't totally perfect (neither am I!!) then I would have missed out on all the good stuff."

Try reading this paragraph again:

"If you would have to go out of your way to keep your family and possessions safe from this person, then do you really want to have this person be your partner in the first place? It's good to find out *ahead of time*, instead of only finding out after the fact that (for example) you've had children with someone you need to protect your children from!"

Writing someone off because you'd have to go out of your way to keep your family and possessions safe from him or her is *not* the same thing as writing someone off because he or she isn't totally perfect.

IRL lots of people are *neither* totally perfect *nor* potential threats to their potential partners' families' and possessions' safety.

Henric C. Jensen said...

thank you for this post. both my wife and i have as (i have adhd as well). and yes the first handful of years (before we got married) we lived in a roller-coaster, mostly because neither of us had been diagnosed. we learned how to deal with each other and ourselves, simply because the pros of the relationship far outweighed the cons.
we based our life on four concepts: Commitment, Communication, Compromise and Compassion.
1. we are committed to each other, so not working through what is happening is not an option.
2. we talk about what is going on while it is going on to the best of our ability - basically expressing needs in each situation.
3. we look for the third way. not the half 'n half way, but a completely different way of doing things, when we disagree.
4. we accept the other as they are and do not try to change them.

we do have rules about behavior:
throwing things AT the other is a no-no. name-calling is a no-no. even just before a meltdown and during a meltdown it is possible to make that choice. really. it is.

@ Anon who spoke about having to protect the children - what a load of bull - this is not about being in an abusive relationship.

Karrien said...

Thank you for sharing this great article Gavin! This is such great advice! My seven year old daughter was diagnosed with aspergers and I am doing all I can to instill good social skills for her. One website that offers a lot of information about dealing with aspergers. I hope that this is helpful for your readers that are looking for aspergers advice. I will definitely be coming back to read more of your blog!

Anonymous said...

"@ Anon who spoke about having to protect the children - what a load of bull - this is not about being in an abusive relationship."

It *is* about *adult meltdowns*. Over at http://life-with-aspergers.blogspot.com/2012/04/adult-meltdowns-and-problems-of.html?showComment=1334867573656#c5323956309974776880 , Jay W described his own meltdowns this way:

"...At those times anything I do is not enough to sate my anger. I have been arrested and charged with domestic abuse because my ex-girlfriend got me into such a meltdown state. Being placed in the cells did not help me at all - it actually made my meltdowns a lot worse and I was threatening people with rape of people close to them, and with murder. I look back now and am shocked that I would have even came out with such things, but when I am in a meltdown stage, it is like I cannot help it..."

Jay W is the one who's full of bull, not the people who don't want themselves and their loved ones stuck having to endure that behavior.

Ketutar said...

@anonymous, AS meltdown - how ever violent - is not something you would "have to go out of your way to keep your family and possessions safe from". It is something you need to be aware of and something you need to learn to deal with, for the best of everyone. If you bother to understand the mechanisms behind the AS meltdown, you will be able to enjoy the positive sides of having a relationship with someone with AS.
But if you are of that opinion, I think it's a great idea that you do your best to avoid people with AS.

I find your posts a confirmation of that the "normal" world sees people with AS as psychopaths, and to me that attitude, expressed in this blog especially, is deliberately hurtful.
No wonder you choose to cower behind "anonymous" option.

Nevertheless, I agree with Henric. This blog entry is not about warning people from entering a relationship with people with AS, because of their meltdowns, but about reminding people of that relationships are not just pink clouds and roses. There was an American doctor called Joseph H. Peck, who wrote a guidebook on how to live with women, and another on how to live with men, and he said that you should marry the person whom you'd have as a friend. And there's an Arabic saying "don't call him a friend before you have argued with him". You don't really know a person before you have been in a conflict with him/her. Anyone can be nice and friendly when things go well, but you shouldn't count on that life goes well all the time, and what would you do when you get in a tough spot and the person you believed you could share your life with, the good times and bad, thick and thin, sick and sin, disappears? Acts as if nothing's wrong? Makes you feel even worse? Blames you? Makes you pay time after time after time after time? You won't know before you have had an argument - which is the sort of "fight" that is referred to here. Not domestic violence.

mymorninglatte said...

yes, anon, it's so easy to use ONE example as a generalization about all, - i believe that is called profiling.

Anonymous said...

Who said it was a generalization about all?

"@anonymous, AS meltdown - how ever violent - is not something you would "have to go out of your way to keep your family and possessions safe from"."

Tiptoeing around ordinarily harmless stuff that triggers your partner's meltdowns sure seems like having to go out of your way to avoid a meltdown.

*If* your partner is one of the few whose meltdowns *are* something to keep your family and possessions safe from, *then* having to go out of your way to avoid a meltdown = having to go out of your way to keep your family and possessions safe from his or her meltdown.

I know Asperger's doesn't hurt academic skills, so go ahead and use your academic reading comprehension skills for the comments in this thread instead of jumping to the conclusions that they're all about everyone. ;)

"This blog entry is not about warning people from entering a relationship with people with AS, because of their meltdowns"

Yeah, the original entry *leans more towards* accepting a potential partner's meltdowns no matter what than about considering whether or not a potential partner's meltdowns are acceptable. It would not surprise me one bit if a single person decides over the years that he or she cannot accept potential partner A's meltdowns, can accept potential partner B's meltdowns, and is happy that he or she stayed single long enough to meet B instead of settling for A.

Anonymous said...

Have you ever read looked at a leaflet in domestic violence? How ABUSERS often tell their victims that they hit tg because tge victim "made them do it" or say stuff like "if you wouldn't nag me, I wouldn't hit you".

That's pretty much what you're suggesting people do!! Blame the victims! Aspergers is an excuse for being a spouse abusing jerk!!

Gavin Bollard said...

@Anonymous, I'm not sure if your comment was directed at me or another commenter but it's a fair point - and one that I covered in July of 2010.

See: The Danger of Allowing Aspergers to Excuse Wrongful Behaviour.

It's worth reiterating that Aspergers is not an excuse or licence to do wrong.

Laws and morality still exist and we are all subject to them.

I'm suggesting that there are some non-harmful things that you can do within your relationship to make it more enjoyable to live with a person who has Aspergers Syndrome but accepting domestic violence is certainly not one of them.

Neither is living in a relationship that is full of fear or hatred.

Anonymous said...

"Have you ever read looked at a leaflet in domestic violence? How ABUSERS often tell their victims that they hit tg because tge victim 'made them do it' or say stuff like 'if you wouldn't nag me, I wouldn't hit you'..."

Sadly, I wonder how long before some of *them* learn to say "[she or he] hit a 'trigger' for my 'meltdown'" instead of "s/he made me do it"... :(

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately my asperger's husband has violent meltdowns. The kids and I have learned to scatter, walk on egg shells to not provoke a meltdown. It's no way to live. (I use an anonymous tag because of fear.)

TeyunaSe said...

Thank you all for the comments and the back and forth struggle with the distinction between "abusiveness" and "meltdown" behavior. I am glad to have discovered this site.

For me, accepting that AS is a particular neurology that will not change was what made all the difference in my approach. Early on, I wanted my son to conform to the rules of the "neuro-typicals" in my household. This is ridiculously unrealistic once the "meltdown" state is approached, or even the beginning of one. In most cases, what's needed is a single sentence about what is acceptable behavior (as opposed to acceptable thinking, feeling, or being), followed by backing off and allowing them to gradually calm down. The "normal" communication advice often does not apply at all. Active listening does not work during a meltdown. Assertive I statements don't work. Long-winded speeches about the needs of the neurotypicals does not work. What does work is limiting what I say to one sentence at a time, and waiting for his response (or retreat) before I go on.

I think it is very natural for those of us who love an Aspie to be the strong advocates for them, and to appear defensive. I spent my son's entire childhood (and I do mean it was daily, not even weekly) defending and interpreting him to teachers and administrators who wanted to stupify him with Resperdol and put him in the "lock down" facility. I believe if I hadn't done all that I did to prevent this, my son would likely have just been "tracked" as a "bad boy" and may have been on the famous "school to prison" pipeline.

Those of us who are the parents, partners, sisters or brothers of Aspies know how beautiful they are, and it is heart breaking when all that is seen of them by others is their anger. It happens a lot, because school is enormously stressful to a person with AS.

I appreciate the fierce and loving defenses here, and I appreciate the legitimate question regarding "abuse." It's a delicate tightrope we walk between insisting that we are treated with respect, and knowing that this insistence has to have its own careful timing and skill. Judging the Aspie as willfully abusive is to completely mistake what AS is all about. At the same time, neglecting to communicate limits and your own self love and self respect is also a mistake.

Omer Reis said...

Thanks for the sharing. I have a fresh relationship with a 39 aspie woman (3 months) and a month a go we met our biggest challenge yet: we found out that she is pregnant.
This wasn't our plan yet. We are not leaving together and She is a mother for two girls and a student with a lot of deadline pressure. We decided to keep the pregnancy and we were starting to understand that we are going to have to escalate our relationship into a family, with all that it means. For two weeks things was in control though she became more distant but it seems like every day person would act for this kind of a life change crisis. However - two weeks ago, she (as I understand it) had a serious case of meltdown as she was in a lot of pressure with the way my mother react to that she has asperger (not knowing about the new pregrency!) and since than she de touched from me, almost as I'm not there. We met for once but she was very far, though she talked about the near future together. We don't speak and merely text. I know I should give her time alone to recover but this is going for two weeks now and as I mentioned before - there were two weeks earlier of somewhat distant.
What should I do ? When is the time to talk with her about it? I know that she's having trouble with dealing emotions right now, but I don't know what that it means for the future. As time goes by, we are becoming more and more distant and I'm afraid that it will destroy our love. Not mentioning the baby issue.....
Hope you can share some of your thoughts with me

All the best
Omer

Chantè said...

If you are in a new relationship, how do you know the trigger if that person don't communcation it to you? I, as well as you , can't read minds. fineashell20012001@yahoo.com