Sunday, September 21, 2008

Letter Writing in Relationships - Communicating in Aspie (Part 1)

Its almost a cliche that when you have problems in a relationship, you write a letter to your partner. Unfortunately, too often, in Hollywood movies, the letter says;

"There's some food in the freezer - see if you can cook it yourself 'cos I'm gone gone gone..."

In other words, the letter is being used to terminate a relationship, rather than to save it.

Letter writing in relationships is a great thing which should not be saved as a last resort. In fact, writing letters while the going is good will actually strengthen your relationship.

Why is Letter Writing in Aspie Relationships Particularly Useful?
We've all heard of the legendary communication problems between couples due to gender differences. They're well documented in books like "men are from mars, women are from venus" by John Gray and on talk shows like Oprah and Dr. Phil.

The Aspie world takes all of this and puts a spin on it. Suddenly, not only is the gender difference a problem but all the aspie things are too.

Common Aspie problems which can impact on relationships include;
  • Difficulty reading non-verbal expression

  • Difficulty displaying appropriate expression

  • Difficulty showing and feeling empathy

  • Inappropriate stimming behaviour

  • Impulsive behaviour

  • Differences in perception of problems

  • Meltdowns

  • Difficulty concentrating on non-core subjects

  • Overanalysis and reliance on logic

  • Thinking about special interests - instead of your partner.

How a Letter can Compensate for lack of Expression
Its often said that Aspies can't read facial expressions and tones of voice. That's true - although we are certainly able to detect extremes.

A lot of shouting, throwing and smashing things will quickly let the aspie know that you are angry. Of course, if it reaches that stage before being detected, there's a big problem.

The main problems that aspies have in these areas are mainly around non-verbal expression - both reading expression (tone, body language, facial expressions etc) and expressing them ourselves.

Written letters are great levelers. Sure, you can try to read between the lines but essentially there's usually nothing in a letter that isn't obvious in print. This makes it much easier for the aspie to understand meanings and feelings and to make themselves understood in return.

In my next post, I'll try to get more into the mechanics of the letter itself.


Anonymous said...

I'll be signing this "Anonymous" because I haven't yet figured out what Google/Blogger & the OpenID, etc. is all about.

As a NT who was in a relationship with someone with AS, I'd agree with what you say about using written communication to avoid problems with facial expression and tone of voice. It does level the playing field between the two communicators. And it means composing a response isn't pressured by time, and things can be re-read and thought over, before a response is written.

However, I discovered that there are huge opportunities for misinterpretation, if written communication is used too much in a relationship. I think, by the way, that the same opportunities for miscommunication are there with all three kinds of couples: AS/NT, AS/AS and NT/NT. In other words, I don't think the communication problems come down to AS/NT differences or AS, or NT.

My experience using written communication heavily with my AS friend doesn't fit this sentence in your 9/21 blog:

"Sure, you can try to read between the lines but essentially there's usually nothing in a letter that isn't obvious in print."

My AS friend certainly did read between the lines, and because I was for a long time getting only written communication from him, I had no idea that he was doing this (since he gave me no evidence of it in what he wrote). I also had no idea what he was reading between the lines. Not knowing that, I had no chance to clarify, corroborate, correct, hear, or accept what he was reading between the lines. Nor could he test his interpretation, except by reading between the lines of what I wrote. At my end, I struggled hard not to read between the lines, and indeed it was hard not to. I was only partially successful but tried hard to take him literally.

As it turned out, my friend put more stock in what he decided was between the lines, but that I didn't intend, than what was written.

The result was not good between us. It came down to him discarding what I wrote as not literally true, in favor of what he thought I was intending.

But at my end, I had been rereading and thinking over what he wrote, and working hard, sometimes rewriting, to find the best words I could to write the literal truth, and to write out my intentions and attitudes in truthful descriptions, so that he could see them. I had read that that communicating literally was a good thing to do with people with Asperger's and I thought before I met this guy that telling the truth was a good moral habit to be practicing.

I know about my AS friend's reading between the lines, and depending on his own interpretations much more than on either what I wrote or on any corroborations, such as asking me to explain myself more, or watching how I conducted myself in daily life, because he told me face to face his conclusions, which were based on a relationship that was 90-95% via the written mode, what my attitude and thoughts were.

He also read between the lines a lot what I said or did when we were together in live time, but that's another topic, and I think he did that because he had already gotten himself a "starter package" of conclusions as to who I was, from presuming that I was not telling the truth, or was writing things with a certain attitude, before we got together. I trust what you've blogged, that people with Asperger's say it the way they think it in live conversation.

I was sad and felt absolutely at a loss to do anything to help clear up his misunderstanding of me; writing and telling the truth in writing hadn't worked with him. I should say, I'm talking about two years of written communication, which is a lot of material for the other person to look at. If two years of effort to write the truth hadn't worked with my friend, if instead he chose to read motives between the lines that weren't there, I was really defeated, because he was interpreting me live based on his between the lines conclusions.

This meant that he ended up not giving me credence at ALL, for anything that I said or did.

I do not generalize this to all people with Asperger's, not for a minute, nor do I think there was something "wrong" with him. I do very much think that a lot of the misunderstanding was actually fostered by using writing too much between us, in the absence of other means of learning about each other.

Gavin, I would agree with everything you said, but strongly emphasize a condition that you mentioned in your opening remarks, that writing helps only if it supplements an offscreen ongoing relationship. The letter writing only has a chance of helping if there's a relationship that has other things going on in live speech, or observing daily life, difficult as it can be, so that the two writers can ask or doublecheck the meaning of things written. I'm very firmly of the belief that writing can be a help, but only as a supplement.

If in the future I ever were in a relationship that was for the most part ~offline~ with a person with Asperger's I'd want to use written communication as a supplement, for the reasons that you give. I really like, and I think the person with Asperger's would also appreciate, the opportunity, in part of the relationship, to say it without facial gestures, or time pressure.

This was not intended to debate your assertions, but to describe experience, and what I concluded from going through it, that was pertinent to what you wrote. I appreciate your blog a lot and especially your willingness to talk about your life with Asperger's. I read you often. Best wishes.

Gavin Bollard said...

That's an absolutely brilliant comment which raises some issues that I really need to cover in more detail. I'll try to cover them in a later post.

I can understand the problems of reading between the lines since I've done exactly that myself - aspies tend to do this more than NTs.

I've seen relationships between perfectly compatible people fail because they've been conducted at a distance but hadn't fully considered the implications of conducting a relationship at an "emotional distance" rather than simply a geographic one.

You're absolutely correct in saying that writing is a supplement to a relationship - not a replacement.

There's a lot of aspies who read this blog - hopefully by making this sort of info available to them, they can be aware of such pitfalls and improve their own relationships.

Thanks again for such a thoughtful comment.

Daniel E said...

I've found that I have a lot of trouble expressing how I feel in "live" conversation, as I get flustered and don't end up saying what I mean, but rather get off-track. Hence, I've found that especially when faced with a difficult relationship situation, I'll write my wife an email, as that way I can spend a bit of time to ensure that I say what I mean, without anything extra.

I've found that this helps me a lot in stressful situations, as I can say my mind without having to do it live.

Bose said...

reinforcing the positive attributes
Letter writing

Anonymous said...

Hi Anonymous,
I have just stumbled across this now, but I feel like you have been dealing with the same AS as I have. In fact the similarities were so many, that I wondered if it was indeed the same person.

I have been communicating, predominantly online for a year and a half now. I have only just learned he is AS, though he has never told me but after studying the subject it is crystal clear and explains - everything.

This has been the most heart wrenching, confusing, maddening experience of my life, especially as I really didn't understand anything, and actually thought he was playing the most twisted mind games, and that I was going mad.

I only came to the AS realisation by accident, through a cognitive project that lead me on a trail of reading material and blogs, and now I understand that I am not mad at all.

We are still in contact, and I still struggle (daily) with his communication which varies from long monologues with hidden messages, to curt responses, or silence in response to my questions. It is a long distance set up and his unwillingness to answer anything in black and white is not only infuriating but hurtful.

After reading about AS, I too posed my questions in black and white, and he will ignore them. Perhaps he has his own dialogue in his head and forgets to tell me, or there is a double meaning in his silence that I am failing to understand.

I tried to get him on the phone, while respecting his need for stability, space, etc, by asking concise questions. I also told him that I would not call if I did not receive a response, that silence was no longer an acceptable form of communication if he wanted to communicate and get this on good ground. I of course received silence, followed by an angry monologue, followed by one line stating it would be nice to talk.

I am reading all material I can get, but I am at my wits end. I feel like I am caught in a perpetual game where the rules keep changing.

I love this AS and want to make it work but could do with advice. Anonymous, I'd love to hear from you and ask you some questions as the similarities are so great!

Thank you.