Friday, April 9, 2010

Getting Empathy (Back) into Your - Relationship - Part 4 (Final)

In my last post on this subject, I talked about getting to the stage where you really feel empathy. This is sometimes quite difficult to achieve - and sometimes, it's just not possible at all.

Sadly though, many aspies reach a stage of real empathy but are unable to effectively convey it to the real world.

Some Examples of Aspie Expression
I was going to start with an example of my own but I've been meaning to talk about Bev's videos for a long time and this seems to be an excellent opportunity.

Bev's videos are clear and to the point. They explain in a matter of minutes, things which take me hours to explain. They're also often just a little amusing and are always heartfelt.

Have a look at this video on Empathy. (

I can see myself in this. When I make a serious social mistake, I just want to get out of there. Sometimes I try to fix it but I usually just end up making things worse. It's common for my "solution" to involve a quick escape followed by a bizarre act of random kindness later.

in order to truly understand the video, you need to realise how much the parrot means to Bev. The parrot is a friend and a comfort. By offering the parrot, Bev is offering comfort. I guess it's like a child offering their comfort blanket to someone else.

Of course, although this is a particularly selfless, empathetic and kind act, the neurotypical reaction is a WTF? moment. The problem isn't that there is no empathy but rather that its particular form of expression isn't understood by NTs. It's over their heads though and they'll simply decide that the aspie has "no empathy".

Other Examples
Once, when I was at work, a good friend fell over and ripped the knees out of her suit. She arrived at the office in a flurry of tears, some of pain but mostly of embarrassment. I remember poking my head in to find out what all the fuss was about, finding myself overwhelmed by the crowd of sympathetic people and making a quick withdrawal from the situation.

I didn't go back to my desk though, I went out to get her some chocolate. She received it with thanks and I think, a bit of puzzlement. Years later, I'm asking myself the question - Why did I do that? Why did I choose such a bizarre form of expression? I guess it's because to me, chocolate is often a comfort food. I never considered what was appropriate for the situation, I just went for what seemed "right" for me. What would probably help me to take my mind off such a situation.

Another time, after asking a woman (who I'd never met) and who was returning from maternity leave "why would you come back to this place when you've got a beautiful baby to play with at home", I was told that the baby had died. I made some hasty apologies (and probably made matters worse) but I went back and made sure that she got our newest computer and gave her top priority IT support for the next three years, She eventually left the company to have her second (and third) babies.

Again, it begs the question - why such a bizarre form of empathy? To be honest, I really don't know. I didn't have a lot to offer her at the time. The other thing that's worth noting is that it carried on for three years. It's rare that I see NT empathy lasting more than five minutes.

It's clear in all of these cases that the aspie is not only feeling empathy but is also responding in an extremely empathetic manner. Unfortunately, those responses are too deep to be accepted and appreciated by the neurotypical mind.

Giving NT-Compliant Empathy Responses
Ultimately, the only empathy that matters to most NTs is personal empathy. Personal to them, not to you.

In my chocolate example, the empathy would be correct if the colleague in question had chocolate as a comfort food but in most cases, they really just want a bit of fussing over.

To give NT compliant empathy, you need to have listened to the other person and taken particular note of their grievances and psychological needs.

Sometimes, good empathy is just a matter of being a good listener. Sometimes it's telling them what they need to hear; "ie: You were right to do that...".

It's a very rare thing indeed when the need for empathy is a search for a solution or a request for resources.

Giving Empathy to Your Significant Other
My wife and I would raise our kids entirely differently. She tends to have a playful, unstructured and spontaneous approach while I'm rigid, timetabled and more prepared.

Both approaches are valid and while a structured approach makes handling children with aspergers much easier, spontanety prepares them for the challenges of life. Neither approach is better than the other, they're just "different".

I tend to let my wife drive the interactions with our children most of the time because she's with them when I'm at work. My approach tends to be reserved for weekends or for when I'm on holidays.

Quite often I'll come home to stories about how one or both of the kids did something particularly destructive or how their behaviour was appalling and caused major embassment.

My wife simply wants a sympathetic ear and usually I'll oblige but it's very difficult to stop thinking that such behaviour wouldn't occur under my rules. Similarly it's hard to stop myself from pointing out obvious solutions particularly if I've talked about them before or set them up only to have them remain unused.

Sometimes I fail. Sometimes, particularly when I'm tired, I give her solutions instead of empathy. When I do that, I know that I'm not being a very good husband. Solutions are things that I personally like to hear when I've got issues with the kids but they're not expressions of empathy that my wife appreciates. As I mentioned before, to give proper empathy, you need to give the other person what they need - not what you need.

Whenever you're giving empathy to your significant other, take a moment to think about what they really need. You'll find it changes a lot of things and improves your relationship.


Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg said...

I really like the fact that you gave your colleague chocolate and that you gave the woman whose baby died the highest level of IT support. I suppose it's because you didn't give the empathy in words. You gave it in actions, which are always much more powerful to me. I've learned, through hard experience, that to most people, words are cheap, plentiful, and in the long run, meaningless. (Yes, I'm feeling very cynical at the moment.) But actions are what count. When people give me things, or do things for me, and I don't understand at first, I try to discern what it means to them, and then I can understand what part of themselves they're trying to give to me.

Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

I think you may be overstating the case here. Or at least, in the same way that Asperger's is a continuum, being NT is a continuum. I'm NT and I'd react exactly the way you did -- with actions, rather than words. And another person's actions would mean more to me than words.

At the same time (do I contradict myself?) when I complain to my NT husband about the kids, and he immediately turns to them & reprimands them, it makes me angry; because I don't want him to DO anything about the situation, which I feel I've already handled; I just want him to say, "Oh, poor you! What a hard day!" and leave it at that.

Anonymous said...

I have never commented before but something in the section about empathy and the significant other "spoke" to me. I feel you are describing my husband!

Our 5 year old son has recently been diagnosed with PDD-NOS. I have noticed numerous things that the two of them share in common.

I am thinking of printing out this section of your blog and sharing it with my husband. How would an aspie react to something like that? What would they be thinking (in general terms)? Is this a bad idea? Maybe I should bring it up in another way? It just seems as though he never believes anything I say, but if I present it to him in written form, he is much more likely to take it in.

Any help greatly appreciated.


Anonymous said...

I think you've misunderstood how NT empathy works. Both chocolate and IT support can be used, but you have to explain why you are giving them ie 'have some chocolate, chocolate makes everything better'. However, I think going for three years is excessive unless something is your fault, and it was bloody serious.

And NT empathy does not just last for 5 minutes, or is it superficial.

aspmom said...

Thanks for your comment sharing the aspie perspective of NTs on my blog. It was exactly what I needed to hear.

Smiley said...

It is difficult to receive empathy and please everyone. I have a sister w/ aspergers & my parents are just like you and your wife. If my mom tells my dad about something that my sister did, sometimes he will try to correct her, & it will make her upset and she will cry. This causes a lot of stress on her & myself. Asking for empathy is like asking for a repeat cycle.

Anonymous said...

I agree that what you are describing is not exactly empathy. I'm sure you did and do feel very badly for the people you described in your post, but I think what you describe is more like sympathy. NT empathy is about imagining what the other person might be feeling, even if it isn't necessarily what you feel. NT people then base what they say or do on that, that is, what the other person might need someone to say or do to make them feel better. In a lot of instances all most people need is validation, to be listened to and understood, and to KNOW that the other person has listened and understood. You giving that woman preferential IT service for 3 years was certainly very kind, but it probably wasn't what she needed or wanted in the face of losing her baby. Continuing for such a long time was probably also not needed. With NT people it is often the quality, rather than quantity, thats important.

I don't mean to say that what you feel for these people isn't real; it is and it's important. The things you do for people to show you care are also important - sympathy is a completely valid part of human experience, and your actions were certainly kind. It's just that for NT people, empathy is extremely important as well, and all the sympathy in the world is no subsitute.

Anonymous said...

My best friend's empathy lasts for ever but her first best friend in SA had HFA and ADHD i suspect from what she told me so she is a special case. I do notice that many neurotypicals don't follow up but fake it. There is a friend who symbolically saved my life in Year 8 and it is to me a debt impossible to repay so i help her in little ways whenever i can and i will for as long as i know her. Everything she wants that i have, she can have even when i need it more. In return she lets me cry on her when i need to and offers me advice.
I think it depends on their personality and whether they really care for neurotypicals.

Anonymous said...

Gosh, if I'd fallen and torn my pants, I'd love it if someone gave me chocolates to comfort me. I'd get that it was intended to cheer me, and receiving chocolates would also probably take my mind off my ruined pants and my bruised ego (then again, I'm a clutz, so falling down wouldn't be that much of a stretch for me).

I'm NT, but probably with "shadows" of Asperger's, so maybe that makes me understand the giving of chocolates in that situation a little differently, I don't know. I'm also a professed chocoholic, so maybe that has something to do with it, as well. :D

I cringed a bit at the story of the woman whose baby had died. That's an awkward situation for anyone to be in. There isn't much one can say in that instance other than, "I'm so sorry." And whether Aspie or NT, I'm guessing we'd all feel terrible for the poor woman, and find that words are not enough.

I agree with the first poster here who said that actions are what counts.

Victoria said...

I really appreciate the way you expressed you empathy for the women you described. It is what I think matters the most. When NTs act empathetic it means much less to me than someone who is being empathetic through thoughtful actions.

The issue of empathy is a funny one in my relationship with my aspie boyfriend (I am NT). For example when he expresses an issue to me he wants me to commiserate, unfortunately my instinct is to offer concrete solutions or helpful alternatives. He often does not appreciate this. On the other hand when I have an issue he often is sensitive and commiserates, but what I want are helpful hints or solutions. Sometimes it feels as though I'm the aspie in terms of acting out traditionally assigned personality roles.

When we have arguments I am often quiet which he interprets as being upset but is actually me being logical and carefully considering what I perceive as our disconnect and how we can best resolve it.

Sometimes I find it hard to express myself because he is so gentle and tends to be more emotionally expressive. I, however, do not usually cry when upset. I think about my feelings or how I think a situation should make me feel rather than have an emotional display.

We are getting better at reacting to each other but I think there is some difficulty surmounting our stereotypes of each other (as a woman I should be more emotionally expressive/ emotionally driven) and an man and aspie (he should be more logical and emotionally controlled).

I love him just the way he is though and I know he feels the same. I think that our difficulties are also our biggest relationship strengths.

Miguel Palacio said...

Thanks for introducing Bev's vids. Watched and enjoyed every one of them. :-)

Anonymous said...

As much as I appreciate the fact that Aspergers doesn't mean lack of empathy, I have to be honest: I really do lack feelings of empathy towards people I'm not close to.

I feel empathy for friends and family, but everyone else.. Well less so. I can fake a normal though somewhat introverted NT response.. But it doesn't affect me as much as normal NT people.

In my case there is some truth to it.

Borboleta said...

I have a friend who I dated for a month and then decided to be only friends with for a while and I have a strong suspection he's an Aspie.
We've had fights every week and a big one was because I was telling him how there was a forest fire where one of my best friends was camping and I was worried because she hadn't answered if she had been evacuated etc, I hadn't heard back from her.
And I was appalled that he said things on the line of I don't have to worry about them because they're adults and can take care of themselves, and they're just living an adventure and it's all good.
I was indeed worried about my friend and her boyfriend and him saying it was just a fun adventure for them made me appalled. Really.
Then he said he couldn't worry about them or feel empathy because he hadn't met them.
I couldn't talk to him for days.
Considering that he might be Asperger's helps me to put in perspective why he's so difficult to get along with.