Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Other Side of Empathy

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.

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.


Mrs Spock said...

As if experiencing a death of someone close isn't traumatic enough, being aware of your own 'unusual' reactions means you're probably spending the first days/weeks just being hyperaware of your behaviour around others. There is no way for the news to actually sink in when you're watching your actions so carefully.

I lost my grandfather and aunt in quick succession and on both occasions I did not react until their funerals, basically when I saw the physical reality of it. I actually happen to think that's quite standard for NTs and Aspies alike.

The thing is that everyone experiences grief in their own ways and there are no hard and fast rules. It also varies from experience to experience - I have had long grieving periods that I think are over then wash over me all over again, other occasions I have waited for the grief to take over the numbness and it just never happened.

My partner and I also have disagreements over the expression of empathy - I sometimes find it difficult to understand how he can be moved to tears by a piece of music but appear unconcerned at times when I have been visibly distraught.

Likewise he is very frustrated with me when I appear to show no concern for things important to him. I have to constantly remind myself that he cares underneath, it's just not always in his face, and I suspect he has to do the same with me. The thing is, it takes constant awareness to remember things like that, and in times of stress it's all too easy to forget.

I'm so sorry for your loss. Hang in there.

Erin said...

Thank you for writing this. It's extremely enlightening. It's good to take NT's to task sometimes...I'm NT, and that was a very refreshing read.

Angela said...

I like your last line about the NT's exibiting a lack of empathy.

I can feel the pain in your post, how frustrated you are. To me it reads like you are greiving for your inability to express your feelings like your wife wants you to.

These things can't be forced and I see nothing offensive about what you have written.

As always I enjoy reading your blog.:)

Anonymous said...

I relate.

Rachel said...

This ia a great post, and it reminds me that everyone, whether NT or autistic, experiences grief differently. One of the most difficult things for anyone who is dealing with a loss is the expectations that other people have about how his or her grieving should go. A lot has been written about how people feel pressured to react in certain ways, and how hurtful it is to have others judge them according to some arbitrary standard.

My husband is NT, and before we got together, he was a widower. We were friends, and I had seen him go through the loss of his late wife. In the weeks immediately following her death, he dreaded going to the grocery store, because people would come up to him asking him how he felt, with the clear expectation that he must be in a state of constant and unabated pain. And often, he was in terrible pain, but for a few minutes or hours, he might be feeling all right. If he felt all right when someone asked, he said so, and some people just couldn't handle it. After all, how could he not be inconsolably crying all day long?

But that's not how grief works. It's very unpredictable. Sometimes, you feel just fine, and sometimes, you just can't stop crying, and sometimes you have a million other emotions that follow no discernible pattern.

You're fine, Gavin. We all are.

Anonymous said...

I found your comments very interesting and informative about the way aspie's feel inside.

My 15 year old son tries to explain to me how much he is hurting inside and it seems to be a little 'over the top' sometimes but what you have written about it seems to echo how he feels.

It will certainly help me to be more sympathetic to him in the future.


Malanie said...

My first thought is; you need to give yourself permission to express your grief in your own way and without judgment.

I have a feeling from what I read you are being too hard on yourself and maybe judging yourself. I recommend the book, A New Earth. It brought a lot of clarity in my own life.

I am not an Aspie, and personally I think its a good thing not to have attachment to things/people to the point that it wrecks your world when you loose it.

CelticRose said...

I like your last line too. Aspies aren't the only ones who need to work on showing empathy at appropriate times. In fact, I've often seen more empathy from Aspies than froms NTs.

Gavin, has it occurred to you that so much has happened to you lately that you are still in a state of shock over it all? One day you may just find yourself crying it all out -- don't beat yourself up because that hasn't happened yet.

I'm sorry to hear about your losses and I hope that things start to go better for you.

CelticRose from WrongPlanet

Anne said...

My heart dropped as I read "the other side...".
Hello, this is the first time I have read your blog and intend to be a follower if you don't mind. Im a middle aged mother of an aspie son who is 11 years. I live in the US and caught in the web of confusion over physicians and treatments right now, and search for answers continually. I often worry as to when my son grows older, what it will be like for him: career, marriage, life in general.Will society be more accepting? Will there be more tools available for him? etc. etc.
Im hoping I can get just a glimpse of what it may be like for him through reading your blog.
I appreciated your open, honest and courage most of all.
In replying to the response of horrible circumstances you have been through, it may be caused by medications. Myself on depression medicine and I definately lack the tears I once had. I seem to have it bottled and it won't come out when I need it to. And I ask myself "am I getting colder, whats happening to me?". Its very confusing to me, and I do not have Aspergers...

Anonymous said...

I have been following your blog for awhile and have gained a lot of insight from what you have to say. I am NT and my husband is a newly diagnosed Aspie. I have learned that he is not "non emotional". His emotions are full and strong. He just doesn't express them like an NT and it isn't fair to expect him to. I promise when I say that I have failed him in the emotional support area. There are so many times that I forget or become aggravated that he is terrified of crowds. Any time I become uspset he at least makes an attempt to comfort me. Most of the time it is a hug and nothing more. I am in awe of the effort Aspie's put forth into anything. It takes a rare NT to adapt the way you do.

Gavin Bollard said...

Welcome aboard.

I don't think that my issues have anything to do with medication because I rarely take anything - even for headaches.

I've always been able to "switch off" low to medium levels of pain, so I don't need painkillers. As far as anti-depressants are concerned, I've only been on them once (at a very, very low point in my life) - and even then, only because I was forced. As soon as I was in control of the medication, I abandoned it.

I'm not against medication and my eldest son is on Ritalin. I just believe that whenever possible, you should try to get by without it - and save it for when you need it most.

My reactions here are pure aspie.

Djiril said...

It's been interesting reading this post and the comments. I was diagnosed with Aspergers recently, and while I feel it explains a lot, there are many people around me, including my parents, who are skeptical.

I identify almost exactly with the experience described in this post, though. Usually for me, the news of someone's death feels like I've just cut myself, but it doesn't hurt yet, but I know it will eventually, and sometimes it does take a while. I've been wondering how many people experience grief this way. I always thought it was somewhat normal, and that maybe the media gives us a false image of what it is supposed to look like. I was somewhat surprised at the number of NTs on this thread for whom this appears to be new information.

I've been listening to a lot of Garnet Rogers lately, and find that some of his songs really help me get in touch with my more painful emotions. The way he writes about grief and sadness just seems very familiar and very honest to the point of being almost physically painful for me.
I made the mistake of listening to one song in particular recently when I really has to cram for finals, and it almost completely shut me down for a few hours before I managed to drag myself out of it and summon the will to study.
I've been wondering if other Aspies would have similar reactions.
These are the lyrics to that song, in case anyone is interested:
(And yes, I'm sure personal taste in music comes into this as well.)

Gavin Bollard said...

Well, we've had the remembrance and although I did finally shed some tears, I still don't feel "released".

Part of the problem was that this particular friend had a difficult life and would sever connections suddenly when people had families. She always wanted kids and it quickly became too painful for her to be around people who had them.

In the last two years of her life, she had a fight with her father, who was moving away from his third wife. She'd been unlucky in love and the idea that her father could simply throw something like that away upset her greatly.

She met another father figure and shortly after, she met the man of her dreams.

Her parents had been at the actual funeral in Queensland but did not come down for the remembrance. Instead, the ceremony was conducted by the "father figure" and the boyfriend both of whom had only known her two years. My wife and our friends had known her for twenty.

They said a lot of things about how she felt and what she believed in but we knew they were all wrong. She'd become bitter in her last few years but she'd been different for the eighteen that preceded them.

It was like listening to horrible lies about someone you loved and not being able to defend them.

I think that's why I don't feel any better.

JJ said...

gavin, have you thought of doing some kind of farewell ritual of your own? one that caters for your needs?

i'm an aspie myself and have always had a very personal attitude towards death. to me, death is just the logical consequence of life and i have always been immune to the common perception that death is a bad thing. when i was 7, my grandfather died. He had been my best friend for all of my short life and i was able to say goodbye to him just a few minutes before he died. the days after his death and the funeral were very confusing for me, as everyone seemed devastated and i couldn't understand why. after all, he was gone, and he wasn't going to come back, no matter how upset everyone got. when i was 20, my other grandfather died, with whom i'd also had a very strong bond. i was living in switzerland at the time and didn't have the money to go to his funeral in england. i also dreaded the reaction of my mother's side of the family, as they are very strict and unforgiving on behaviour. i knew they wouldn't understand my pragmatic attitude towards death and i couldn't have coped with having to squeeze out crocodile tears for their sake. on the other hand, it didn't seem quite real to me yet, as i had recieved the news on the phone. so i set up some candles, a picture and a few small things my grandfather had given me and held my own little ceremony with my boyfriend. that really helped me to make the whole thing real and to say goodbye to him in my own way, without having to force myself to act the way i thought other people wanted me to.
as for empathy, i have never met anyone who has been able to empathise with the way i feel when someone dies - neither nts nor aspies. just because i dont' grieve the way others do, doesn't mean i'm cold-hearted. i feel peaceful, not cold. it's just a different reaction. on the other hand, because i react so differently to those around me, i have an extremely hard time empathising with others in grief. to me, everything people say in these situations sounds too soppy or pretentious or over the top in some other way. and just hugging someone seems like not enough. basically, i have no idea how to react and that's where it gets really stressful for me. but i do actually think about what i could do, in fact, i think about it so hard that i put myself under pressure to such an extent that - to use an expression rachel used recently - i end up acting like a rabbit caught in the headlights, meaning not doing anything at all because i'm utterly at a loss as to how to go about empathising. my experience with nts in these situations is that they not only can't empathise with me but worse, they don't even try because my reaction is so different to theirs, and even worse, their complete lack of empathy leads them to judge me and condemn me. people should be reminded that every time you point a finger at someone, there are always three fingers pointing back at you.
gavin, trying to force out a reaction can lead to exactly the opposite. just be yourself, accept the way you deal with things and let it come naturally. there is no right and wrong.

Gavin Bollard said...

Thanks JJ. You're right. I think I do need to do my own thing. Once I work out what I need, I'll do it.

Magick Monkey said...

My dad died when I was 15. I was emotionally numb for several hours. An uncle told me it was ok to cry, but I just didn't feel like it. Later on, when I was basically alone, I grieved very intensely. Then, during the funeral, I could not force myself to feel sad. I felt guilty about that for a while, but it occurred to me that my dad wouldn't have wanted me to be intensely sad anyway.

My brother, who I suspect is much more an aspie than I showed no signs of sadness. Luckily, I don't have a family that gives us too much crap for not displaying emotions.

I imagine that an evolutionary psychologist could give an explanation of how delayed emotional reactions are actually beneficial for males in certain circumstances. Back in less civilized times when men had to hunt for food and engage in tribal warefare, and even now for soldiers participating in combat, its easy to imagine how an immediate emotional reaction to a fallen friend may prevent one from performing one's duties.

While such a trait isn't generally useful in modern times, I believe many traits exist in humans that no longer serve a purpose. We simply haven't yet evolved past those traits. I know I have a strong desire to hunt animals despite the fact that meat is readily available at the grocery store.

I think it is important that NT's accept that aspies often display delayed emotional reactions to death and other bad incidents, but there's no need for an aspie to feel guilt over a delayed emotional reaction or the total lack of one.

High Quality Mothering said...

The last comment about how NT's are actually lacking in empathetic emotions towards Aspies is so true & appreciated by this NT that is married to an Aspie.
I feel your blog is my worksheet on working my way through my husband's emotional minefield.

Thanks once again! Love your blog! Have you written any books? You really should consider it! Your info is invaluable to someone like me!

If you need website/blog promotion, let me know, as that is my specialty... I fully support your "future" book!

Kelly Kravitz

Gavin Bollard said...


Thanks for your comments. A book is definitely on the cards at some point - if I ever get to a situation where I have free time again.

Angela said...

I understand that you experienced grief later and differently from your NT wife but did you eventually feel/show any empathy for her? She seems to understand that your emotional response is delayed and expressed in your own way (and her patience may have gotten thin hence her snapping) but empathy is about being concerned for OTHERS and not just your own feelings. And yes NTs obviously have difficulty empathising with Aspie behaviour as well as vice versa but two wrongs dont make a right. The truth is that NT women need empathy and if they choose to go looking for it elsewhere then thats their shout.

Gavin Bollard said...

The funeral ended up being run by two people who'd only known our friend for five years - albeit closely. My wife and I had known her for twenty.

They made a lot of generalisations about her religious and spiritual views and described her in some negative ways. While it's true that our friend had been in a depression towards the end of her life, we'd known fifteen "sunny years" with her.

My wife and I both felt that we needed to say something at the funeral. She got up and I went with her for support. She broke down while talking and I made a "flippant" remark which was true of our friend but just off the wall enough to give my wife a "WTF moment". It enabled her to regain composure and continue.

I'd considered whether taking the paper off her when she broke down and finishing it myself was the right thing to do but in the end, I figured that it was something she needed to do herself.

She understood about the flippant remark afterwards (when I explained it to her), though I'm sure that most of the people at the funeral thought I was crazy.

My wife and I talked on and off for weeks after the funeral about our feelings on the service and the way our friend's death had affected us.

It was strange but I really couldn't be empathetic about it until the funeral because until then, it wasn't quite "real" to me.

Angela said...

Gavin, I think you've just hit the nail on the head. Could it be that other everyday issues just don't get that "focus" (eg death/funerals) and therefore may never be "real" to Aspies? And so they find it difficult to show empathy in more "trivial" situations but this is construed as disregard by NTs. Active attention is so important to NTs that lack of it can be detrimental to their health. So how can NTs make things "real" to Aspies without nagging and sulking? Is this too much to expect from Aspies or do NTs have to choose to accept the apparent neglect or choose to leave. Can there truly be a fair compromise in the Aspie/NT relationship?

eaucoin said...

Gavin, this is a very reassuring blog for me. Before I knew I had Aspergers, I thought of normalcy as a kind of holiness that I could struggle with but would never achieve. I realized this from the age of about seven and felt alone for many years after. That so many other people share my strangeness challenges my shame and certainty that I must hide myself at all costs. For the anonymous woman whose husband was just diagnosed as an Aspie, it sounds like he may have "sensory integration" issues (often co-morbid with Aspergers). I say this because of his fear of large crowds. However, for NTs reading this column, you need to realize that one of the consequences of any disability is that you get to see how thin the veneer of civilisation really is, which can also create fear.

shocked said...


I've been pouring over countless information and Aspergers blogs all day.

I must say this one has been extremely enlightening.

Empathy is very important word for me right now.

I've just left my partner of 11 years (for the 4th time) after realizing that even my recent cancer diagnosis and pending surgery won't shake him enough, after 11 years, to finally move in, take his place by my side and show me something, anything, to give me confidence in his feelings for me....His actions and behavior have never been in line with what I would interpret as being a person in Love....

(desperately trying to make a long story short)

I came across Aspergers by mistake early this morning, and have barely left my computer all day.

My jaw dropped....fits him like a glove ( as much as it can, I do understand it's meaning and manifestation varies from one individual to another)

Even in reading this blog, the suggestions and advice given to "NTs" (guess that's me?) I can recognize how what I say, do, expect, how I communicate - goes over his head or hits a wall

And in desperation, sometimes by mistake, I've done or said some of the things suggested to get something out of him - and it has worked.

Reading this I feel like all of you are living my relationship in some form or another.

Here's the dilemma - he has no idea ( he really does have it - physical tics, socially awkward, one sided conversations about his own interests, inability to pick up innuendoes, can't read social cues or body language, obsessive tendencies, unable to clue into others thoughts and feeling, difficulty expressing his own...and so much more)

He really insisted that if I thought he should have moved in after my diagnosis, taken the week off for my surgery etc. that how was he supposed to know if I did not ask?


In my world that's a given. I am compelled to wonder now, if there exists a world where, this is not a given - even if you love someone?

He cries like a baby at weddings...yet we're not married...

I'm off on a tangent here, my apologies.

The point - I've left. I have this information now.

He has no idea about himself.

Being an extremely emotional person, with strong need to show and act on my love in a big big way, and have it reciprocated - I've struggled and suffered to much pain in this relationship for far too long and it has died for me. It's not a choice, it's tragic, and I wish it wasn't so.

He still sends emails insisting we work it out...I can't do it anymore, under these circumstances - I feel like I have to tell how and when to love me. I may seem like I am the one with lack of empathy here, but it is not so, it is because I think I understand now better what he needs from me, and I know I cant be that woman.

How do I - how can I - send him off in the world so to speak, when he doesn't know or realize this about himself??

I have no self pity about having cancer, but, it is what it is, and being alone now, need all my energy to get thru it - under other circumstances, I would tell him, try and help him with this, support him as a friend, despite leaving him as a lover and life mate.

That's just not an option. But leaving him with what I know, and not telling him is not acceptable either. It's just cruel


Anonymous said...

You have to express more your opinion to attract more readers, because just a video or plain text without any personal approach is not that valuable. But it is just form my point of view

Anonymous said...

I'm an NT dating an Aspie and I also found your post "The other Side" really moving and helpful. And courageous. It is important for us to remember how difficult it must be on the other side. My boyfriend hates upsetting me and gets frustrated when he hasn't realized that he has.

I'm taking courses in meditation at the moment and it strikes me, that he's quite Buddhist without trying (which of course is the point). He lives in the moment. Doesn't let attachment or emotion consume him. Lives in the present with what is physically and literally happening.

We NTs can learn a lot from you Aspie folks and partners if we can put ourselves and our emotions aside for a second. That's empathy too. ;)

Anonymous said...

The droids are alpha-numerically named. R2-D2 and C-3PO