Friday, March 26, 2010

Getting Empathy (Back) into Your Relationship - Part 1

It's a point that I keep reiterating, Aspies are not incapable of empathy. We feel. We don't always recognise those feelings for what they are and we don't always respond appropriately but believe me, the empathy is there, waiting to be tapped.

I know that I've covered empathy dozens of times but it's usually been from a "complainer's" point of view. It's usually all about how aspies DO have empathy and how NT's don't recognise it. This time, I want to do something practical. In this series of posts I plan to discuss ways of getting that empathy (back?) into your relationship.

Where did it go?
You may have noticed that in several cases, I've used the word "back", implying that there once was empathy but that now it's gone. This isn't necessarily true of all relationships but I believe that it's the case in at least, some.

If you're in a relationship, particularly a long term one, then regardless of the feelings between you and your partner now, there probably was a time when your love felt stronger. A time when you both seemed to care more for each other's emotional needs.

The Perils of Modern Society
One of the biggest losses to modern society is family time, particularly, "partner-time". The past few decades, like no other in history has fragmented families in ways that even the world wars of the past failed to do. Our society is often referred to as a super-connected society and we're in constant daily contact with people all around the globe via telecommunications, news and radio broadcasts and via social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook. Unfortunately despite, or perhaps even as a result of, this amazing level of global contact, we still lack good family contact.

Despite the utopia promised by our advanced technology, our working days are arguably longer than ever before. Working days which were once 9 to 5, five days per week now start earlier and almost always include mandatory weekend work. Unpaid overtime is expected rather than exceptional and with the unemployment rate as high as it is, there's no shortage of willing replacements should we attempt to simply work standard hours. Economic pressures at home have forced many women to work where in past decades, they would have been "stay-at-home" moms. Our kids are at school for many more years and for much longer hours. There are even a multitude of "after school care" options for working parents to take advantage of. Even the grandparents and retirees of the previous generation are too busy to take on their traditional roles of extra helpers with the kids.

Somehow it all feels as if society doesn't want us to talk to each other.

Today's families have two cars, which makes separation between mom and dad so much easier. Our weekends are too often filled with (separately) driving our children to and fron a diverse range of sporting and intellectual pursuits. Any time we have left tends to be claimed by television and the internet while our children are sucked into various game consoles.

Speaking of game consoles, the fact that kids can now carry them literally anywhere means that our window for "family talk is smaller than ever. Portable consoles (gameboy/ds etc) and mobile phones with a multitude of games - and more instantly downloadable from the net make it easy for today's kids (and adults) to become lost in their own isolation.

Now, before I leave the subject of portable devices, I still need to cover "dad's blackberry" which is supplied by work and keeps him in constant contact with the office and customers - even when working hours are over. It also keeps him hooked into the constant flurry of emails and it never, ever goes quiet. Why? Well, because of globalisation of course! Since so much of the work is done by underpaid and undernourished labour in third world countries, there's always a lot of after hours "tail-chasing" to be done.

Then of course, there's Mom's phone and the house phone. Both tend to ring off the hook all night long. Why? Well because women need to talk and often, particularly because they work during the day, that talk needs to happen at night. Sometimes it's because husbands are working nightshift or out of state - and sometimes it's because their husbands are simply lost in their blackberries.

The Problems of Time
These aren't aspie problems I've been talking about - not yet. These are just the day to day problems that our "crazy" gadget-filled, work-obsessed, globalised, "keep-up-with-the-Jones'" society imposes on us.

It's hard to listen to each other in those brief moments together when we really only have time for a quick summary of our daily events and problems. It's even harder to find empathy. Let's face it, we spend much more time each day being social with our business partners than we do with our own families. It's obvious why we can show more tolerance, patience and empathy towards them - and it's obvious how unhealthy relationships begin.

It's hard to be empathetic with someone you almost never speak to.

Don't Forget the Kiddies
One final note before I start looking at ways to deal with these issues. The kids...

Do you realise that your children need to see empathy in action before they can develop it themselves? Do you realise that those long hours in daycare and after school care only expose them to the undevelped empathy of other children. Even their carers and educators aren't displaying proper adult empathy, they're too busy looking after their charges.

If you're not able to role-model empathy in your own relationships - and in front of the children, then what hope have they got of bringing it to their own future families?

Tune in next time...
I've barely begun in this post. Truly I've only restated the problem in terms of time. It's not an aspie problem, not yet, it's a global problem.

In my next post, I'll talk about ways that you can make family time. Hopefully there, I'll start to cover some of the aspergers connections too.


Elaine said...

Thank you for your terrific article. I have the pleasure to work with many students on the autistic spectrum, in my theater program. I experience my students with autism to be among the most sensitive, empathic kids I have ever known. It may take a little time for them to feel safe enough to show their feelings - but their feelings are deep and Real. Thank you for explaining this so well.
Elaine Hall

Anonymous said...

my oldest (soon to be 19) is an Aspie and shows great empathy - youngest is somewhere on the spectrum and shows even more - it really tweaks me that people refuse to see what is right in front of them simply because it looks a bit different!

Great post :)

Anonymous said...

I apologize if this is out of place, but I am somewhat disturbed by your hetero- and gender-normative assumptions: namely "Dad's Blackberry", "Mom's phone" and Mom's compulsive need to talk.

None of these things are gender-specific in any way. (Including the need to talk. A decent amount of research has been done on that one.)

I bring this up primarily because, in the context of autism, it seems even more important to me to recognize the limitations and assumptions of what we consider 'normal'.

I am also hoping that your next article will address some of the ways that technology can bring us (back) together.

Outside my minor critique, however, I am enjoying your articles and looking forward to reading more!

Gavin Bollard said...


My apologies for the hetero- and gender-normative assumptions. I was using figures of speech and in fact, those two descriptions fit my family (my wife and I) extremely well. I'll try to cover the "need to talk" as well as I can in the future of this article.

Of course everyone is different and those sorts of roles are no more gender-specific than anything else in life. I can't speak for the differences in non-hetero relationships because I really don't have a lot of experience in that area.

Thanks for your other pointers btw. I'll see what I can do to incorporate them.

Hartley said...

Thanks for the article Gavin -- I will forward it to my husband.

Those roles, like in your family, fit mine PERFECTLY as well. Easy to relate to.

I look forward to your pointers!


Caitlin Wray said...

I'm looking forward to this topic Gavin. It is timely for my husband and I, who have been so wrapped up in family issues that we have already noted the need to reconnect.

I'm also thankful for Mania's willingness to point out her discomfort with gender generalizations, and your willingness to share that you did not intend them as generalizations but rather a reflection of your own personal relationship.

I am home on leave to raise my kids right now, but my husband and I both work for the same government department. Even though we both have what are considered 'important' positions, his male bosses have often made remarks indicating their discomfort when I expect him to pick the kids up from daycare when I have to work late on a time-sensitive project. I even had one of his supervisors comment that because my husband made more money than I did, I shouldn't expect him to share parental duties and should take on the majority myself.

There is still a lot of pressure on women to take on a maternal role at the expense of their career, even when they have a husband who is perfectly capable of sharing parental responsibilities 50/50. We've come a long way but have a long way to go yet in terms of social equality. Much like people on the spectrum :)

Miguel Palacio said...

Caitlin, before I even read that you worked for the government I knew that you did because you said that you were on "leave" to take care of the kids. That's govvie lingo. ;-D