Tuesday, December 15, 2009

How Brutal Honesty about the Future Affects Aspie Relationships

It's funny but you read quite a bit on the internet and in books about how "aspies cannot lie". As discussed in a previous post, that's simply not true.

Aspies can tell lies - it's just that lies don't come naturally to us. We tend to be truthful, even when the truth hurts - and we expect** others to be truthful to us.

**I don't mean "expect" in the discipline sense but rather literally. We automatically assume that people are telling us the truth without question. That's one of the reasons we seem so naive. It's also the reason that "is it really?" becomes something of a catchphrase for many aspies.

When you read about aspie "brutal truths" and relationships, the books always seem to use the example question, "does this dress make me look fat?". This is very misleading because many aspies do know how to "lie" for this question - and really, if that was the level at which brutal truth operated, we could all live quite happily with it.

It's not this question that is the problem, it's other, deeper questions.

Confusing Questions About the Future
When couples are courting, they often ask confusing questions to which the answers are indeterminate.

They aren't seeking lies but they aren't seeking absolute truths either. As it turns out, these questions are intended to gauge hopes and reactions.

Aspies however tend to answer these sorts of questions with absolute honesty - and with devastating results.

Examples - and wrong answers;

Q. Where do you see us in the future?
A. I don't know

An aspie will often answer this way because he can't see the future. In fact, the asker is asking whether the aspie would like them to be together and whether he is willing to work as part of a "team" to achieve that result. An answer of "I don't know" is misleading for the NT. It makes them think that you're undecided about the relationship and unwilling to commit.

Q. Will we be together forever?
A. No.

Ok, nobody lives forever and most aspies get the fact that "forever is subjective" - although some don't.

The partner question to this one asks if the couple will be together for their lifetime. A lifetime is a long time and aspies may give poor answers which take into account, the possibility of divorce and issues of commitment. Such a response can kill a relationship before it begins.

Q. Do you love me?
A. I don't know.

This is one of the real "relationship killer" questions. Most people struggle with the concept of love but it's a real problem for aspies because there's no clear confirmation that an emotion they're feeling actually is "love". Many aspies have difficulty finding the boundaries between strong friendship and love.

I remember asking one (suspected) aspie if he loved a particular girl. He said, "no, we're just friends". My wife then asked him if he had kissed the girl in question and following confirmation, asked for more details. It turned out that the kissing had been fairly passionate.

The aspie was quite stunned when we pointed out that people who were "just friends" generally didn't engage in such behaviour. That was the domain of love. When we explained to him about the signals he'd been sending to his "friend" and how that impacted her expectations of the relationship, he began to get quite agitated.

It was obvious to us that he didn't have a clear understanding of the boundaries between friendship and courtship.


Clarissa said...

I sense a lot of condescension towards people with Asperger's on your part. I always give the answers you enumerate in response to similar questions. But i do it not because I "don't understand" people's expectationss and boundaries. I do it because I havee no interest in letting other people's expectations run my life and control my responses. If they choose to be "hurt" by honesty, they are the ones with the problem.

Hig-Quality Mothering said...

I have nothing but positive to say about this post. I understand it after 13 years of marriage to it!
I appreciate your observations & that you share them with others so they can understand, too.
Thank you!
Kelly K

Gavin Bollard said...


My apologies if the post caused offence. I'm not trying to be condescending to anyone.

It's obvious that everyone is unique for both genetic and environmental reasons.

The lack of understanding described in this post tends to apply more to male aspies than female, hence I didn't worry so much about saying "them" instead of "him" throughout the post - normally I make my language gender-neutral.

Even then, males are just as unique as females and the blog is a guide only. I'm always grateful for corrections such as your own because they widen our points of view.

Many of the answers here were given by me to my (then) girlfriend. The motivations behind those answers were as I've written. If anyone is naive or misunderstanding, it was probably me.

Lindsay said...

I also do all of this, and, like Clarissa, do not feel that I am wrong to do so.

I think my transparency is one of my good qualities, and I would not wish to lose it just so that I could be more like most other people.

It might be a somewhat different matter for me, since I never try to pass as normal, and always explain to new friends/potential lovers how my autism affects the way I see, think about, and react to things. I tell them about my literal-mindedness, and this typically leads to a relationship in which all parties are brutally truthful.

Sometimes the conflict can be solved just as easily by adding more transparency to a relationship, as by the truthful party learning how to lie.

Anonymous said...

High-Quality Mothering, how do you cope with being married to it? We're not married (i think this is because the idea of it symbolising love has no relevance to my partner but i could be wrong) but we have two children. I am finding it increasingly difficult to cope with. I don't know if it's because i am giving up or because my partner is becoming more extreme and engaging in converstaion even less. He seems to have absolutely no idea that things he says have an imoact on my emotions. Tell me what secrets you have for coping?

Therapeutic Ramblings said...

Very interesting post. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

This post reminds me of this SAPL post: http://stuffaspergerpeoplelike.com/2008/11/30/28-brutal-honesty-aka-rudeness/

Don't take it too seriously, it's only satire. I've been known to piss people off due to my lack of ability to sugarcoat or lie...

Anonymous said...

So, Clarrisa, it sounds like you're saying that you are going to give your answers in the manner that you choose regardless of whether the other person's feelings are hurt (or, as you say, they "choose to allow" to be hurt) - it makes you sound very self-centered and uncaring. I am not trying to put you down, I am merely giving a possible perspective of the person on the receiving end of your answers. It's not so much about anyone's expectations, as it is about kindness. For example, there is such a thing as letting someone down "gently", as opposed to "being brutally honest" - while still being truthful in the process. I appreciate your open-mindedness in considering my comments.

Vanessa Suzanne said...

I find that as far as relationships go, it doesn't seem to be so much that I don't know how to properly answer these questions, its that I see no point in playing 'relationship games.' What I mean by 'games' is couples being unclear or misleading about their feelings. I think that we just view this as being pointless and somewhat wrong. Also, I think that we don't understand these games as well as other people might, another reason why we don't wish to be involved.
It could also just be a variation between what we believe is right and what our partners believe. We believe its not right to play games by lying to an extent, our partners may believe that brutal honesty isn't right since it is often hurtful. We may counter that being hurtful but honest is more right than trying to decieve people of our intentions. Part of hte reason that we are different is that we view issues from different perspectives such as this one.

Nathan K. said...

As an adult with Asperger's, I think this is a really good post! The examples you have given are exactly the sorts of questions I have trouble giving ready answers to.

(The "picture yourself in the future" question is one that also shows up in job interviews, and I know the interviewer is hoping for something specific to show interest, but how can I honestly give any answer but "I don't know where I will be in the future"?)

This post has given me a lot to ponder.

Anonymous said...

Hmm, I've been called brutally honest and I've given very similar answers as described in your post. I'd say that sometimes I do it because I truly don't get it, and other times I get it but I feel weird lying.

I agree that aspies can lie when their intention is to lie. The adage "aspies can't lie" probably applies to situations where lying is not in our intentions. In such cases, I'm often a little brutal even when I try to be nice. Sometimes I feel defensive about my oddity and my coping mechanism is to "own" my oddity and be honest, whether brutal or not. Perhaps that's what Clarissa is describing too.

As for the love issue, I still don't know where the problem lies. Is it that I've not fallen in love yet, or that I'm not capable of feeling the same emotion others feel as love, or is it that I feel what everyone else feels but just can't/don't want to express it the same way?

A spiritual guru whose advice I often read says repeatedly that "our nature is to love." Even if you feel like you're not loving enough or not being loved enough, don't doubt the love and let go of the worries. What many people call "love" can actually just be attachment. It's better to stop doubting love and work on the technicalities of the situation.

I find this advice makes sense to me and has helped me worry less about such stuff. It certainly might not work for everyone, and I'm not preaching this view.

Anonymous said...

Just wanted to add another thought...

Sometimes I feel like I do understand relationship dynamics and that I am capable of expressing and empathizing like any NT person. However, in practice it still turns out that I'm often not perceived as the person I think I am. And that's when I realize what it means not to not be able to process social cues. Sometimes I might doubt that an NT's strategy will work, based on my understanding and logic, but as it turns out it does work! And I learn that I have a lot more to learn about relationships.

aspiegirlfriend said...

Gavin, these posts of yours are incredibly useful and quite beautiful. You remind me of my bf's better intentions every time I read your blog. He too refers to me as his "friend" even though we have been going out - that is, socially, emotionally and sexually intimate - for two and a half years. And I know he loves me. He told me once, though he prefers to say I "am important to him," and that rarely.

I've found that although I am quite rational, evenhanded and intellectual in my approach to things, since I've started my poor blog I have become weirdly inarticulate. I've been dealing with a lot over the past couple of years, and I need all the help I can get.

The passage in the blog you linked to about laughing when the guy dies in the film made me laugh out loud! I think I did hurt my bf's feelings once when, not understanding about his AS (which is undiagnosed but very real), I told him he only liked films "without affect." It's kind of true, though. I loved what you said in another post about watching romantic comedies to learn about relationship expectations. I wish I cold get him to do it.

Clarissa, your blog is very useful and interesting too. But believe me, the communication problems are steep enough that your remark about "letting other people's expectations run your life" comes over very unhelpful. Communication is actually about heelping people's emotional responses chime more exactly with what you intend. It's about accuracy. And it has to be two-way, or it isn't communication. And if it isn't communication, you are instead kind of CONSUMING the other person - treating them as a commodity from which you will get what you need, without regard to the fact that they too have needs.

I think everyone reading this blog agrees that it is better to be happy than unhappy. People with AS seem to be saying they would rather have partners than not, for the most part. Well, why would you want to behave in a way that you KNEW was going to make your partner unhappy? Why not work as a team - relationships are teamwork - to find a way of giving each of you space for having your needs met?

Anonymous said...

I love my Aspie. However I wish he would be honest with me. He says he does not have an attraction to young women, (we are both 50 Yrs old), but when we are out, he stares at them until he can no longer see them. He has this problem with the neighbor girl. This is a turn on for both of them. I have watched the reactions as if I wee somewhere else. He wathed the "Girls Gone Wild " commercial until I told him it bothered me. He forgets I exist when he is staring. Help me please.mlduncan1960@gmail.com

Shamaal said...

I think this is a fabulous post! I may not be a true Aspie, but I have this exact view of honesty. I am brutally honest and often get burned because it doesn't occur to me that other people aren't honest back to me. I totally agree with Vanessa Suzanne that I know I am supposed to lie sometimes but I just don't want to play those games. It has worked for me in life: I sleep at night knowing I have integrity.

The only difficulty was when I divorced my husband. He thought nothing of lying in a legal setting. The hardest thing for me to understand was that no one except me thought this kind of lying was wrong. No one. Now I expect it intellectually and plan for it, but I still don't get it. I guess the real test will be how I act if I find a new relationship...

Anonymous said...

My boyfriend believes he has Aspergers. I have similar traits and was once described as 'terminally truthful.' But even I find it breathtaking that he will tell people negative things that other people have said about them. He honestly thinks that he is being helpful. On one occasion someone who really likes him became so upset by this treatment that she hit him in the face.He was forced to take notice but thinks it's her problem.

What is extraordinary is that he is generally a wise, caring, sensitive soul.Maybe he expects others to be as mature, dispassionate and rational as he is. They are not, so he tends to get wrongfooted.It is imposible to persuade him that this behaviour is - usually-hurtful and destructive. He gets angry. I will just have to put my fingers in my ears and sing 'la' when he next does it to me.

Unfortunately, only last night someone was encouraging him to think this is the right way to act and that it would be dishonest not to spill out everything you have heard.I think this trait has been reinforced by attending counselling courses which stressed the importance of honesty. He has taken it very literally.

anonymous said...

My partner believes he has Aspergers. I have similar traits and have been described as 'terminally truthful' but even I am astounded by one thing.

My partner is generally wise, relaxed, mature and lacking in malice. The only drawback to this is that he expects others to be like himself and is often wrongfooted.

It is astounding then that he often tells people the hurtful negative remarks that other people have made about them. He honestly thinks he is being helpful.

One person who realy likes him was once so upset by this treatment that she hit him in the face. He had to take notice of this but he thinks it is her problem.

It is impossible to persuade him that this behaviour is destrucive. He get angry. Unforunately, only last night someone told him he'd got it right and it would be dishonest not to spill out everything he heard.

This has been reinforced by going on a counselling course which stressed the importance of honesty.He's taken it very literally.

It's obviously incurable. I'll just have to put my fingers n my ears and sing 'la' the next time he does it to me.

Anonymous said...

You can always do honesty with kindness, but since you put it that way about being hurt as a choice, then let me put it frankly to you. You will end up losing people you love and care about. This is negative perspectiveffects.