Empathy is often the worst and hardest part of any relationship with a person with Asperger's syndrome. You might feel that your partner lacks empathy entirely but if you could see inside their mind, you might be surprised to find that they are far more emotional than you are. Obviously this isn't the case for everyone as we are all individuals but quite often people who display very little empathy are actually full of emotion.
So why then, is it so difficult for people with Asperger's sympathy to "show a little empathy"?
There are three major problems relating to empathy that can really cause problems for people with Asperger's syndrome;
Identifying Your Emotional State
People with Asperger's syndrome have a huge amount of trouble determining your emotional state if you don't tell them specifically how you feel. If you're crying, then most likely you're sad. If you have a "sad face" on but no actual tears, then who knows.
People in an upset state of mind often turn and hide their face. This makes their body language even harder to read. People with Asperger's syndrome often avoid making eye contact and frequently avoid looking at faces. If that's the case then there's a pretty good chance that your partner with Asperger's syndrome may have no idea that you are unhappy. This is particularly true if you use a lot of sarcasm or if you wave them away with "I'm ok" or "it's FINE!"
If you start shouting, then your partner might realize that you're angry but if you're simmering or crossing your arms or doing the "angry look", it won't be noticed.
Nobody can offer decent empathy if they don't know what is going on with the other person in their relationship.
Providing What is Required
The needs of a person with Asperger's syndrome will be quite different from the needs of a neurotypical (normal) person. If things are tough, people with Asperger's syndrome need to be left alone. If they're angry, they need to be left alone. If they have a problem, they usually need to deal with it by themselves.
Neurotypical people, particularly females, need to hug and talk things out. People with Asperger's syndrome need exactly the opposite.
For example, if a person with Asperger's syndrome goes to a hospital, then most likely they will just want to be left alone. I can remember being in hospital on a few occasions and feeling quite annoyed with my wife or my mother because they wouldn't take the hints to leave my side. I struggled with myself because I was feeling overloaded but I didn't want to be rude. The more they stayed and talked and touched me the more stressed I became. I think that on some occasions I snapped and they went off in a huff, feeling like I'd rejected them.
Years later, my wife was in hospital and I paid her a visit and stayed and chatted a while but after a couple of hours I started to leave. After all, I knew that's what she'd want (because that's what I wanted). She became quite angry because she felt I just wanted to go and get on with my life but really I was giving her exactly what I'd need in the situation.
Sometimes because our needs conflict so much, things which look very unempathetic and self-centered are actually intended to be empathetic and caring.
Avoiding the Urge to Fix things
People with Asperger's syndrome tend to be fixers. They often believe that problems are there to be solved and rather than sitting around and talking them through with sad faces on, we plan and then we fix.
It's taken me a long time to realize that sometimes my wife doesn't want me to fix things. She just wants me to understand her position and agree that she's going through a hard time. To us, this is the same as having our car run out of gas near a petrol (gas) station -- and then instead of filling it up, we stand around and shake our heads and rub and hug the car.
It's completely crazy to us -- it makes no sense at all.
Sometimes what others need for empathy is just so crazy for us that we can't bring ourselves to do what is wanted. Sometimes it's so reaches the point of being so crazy or weird that it becomes a little funny and we find ourselves smiling or laughing at terrible situations.
Sometimes when things can't be fixed we start becoming agitated. Instead of being huggy or listening, we find ourselves pacing the room, becoming annoyed or simply dropping the subject altogether and finding something else to do. This will usually be related to our special interest because this interest takes our mind off things and protects us from the outside world.
If your partner with Asperger's syndrome appears to be ignoring your feelings in favour of reading a book, watching TV or playing a computer game, it might not be ignorance, it might simply be that they've decided that the problem you face cannot be "fixed".
People with Asperger's syndrome generally respond to their problems by "fixing" them. Empathetic responses don't come naturally. It doesn't mean that they can't provide them but it does mean that they often need reminding when the urge to fix things kicks in.
Helping your Partner with Asperger's Syndrome to Show Empathy
The best way to help your partner with Asperger's to show empathy is to ensure that they understand exactly how you're feeling and what you need. You might do this by saying;
"I don't want you to fix this, I just need you to stay by my side and tell me that you understand how I feel and that you feel sad about it too".
At first, this will feel wrong, because after all you're telling your partner what to do rather than having them figure it out for themselves. You might consider this to be "cheating" because you want those feelings to come from within. This is not cheating though, other people can read your body language but your partner may not be able to. If anything, then telling directly will simply be "leveling the playing field" to give them a chance to respond.
The more often that you communicate in this way, the more your partner with Asperger's syndrome will come to understand your needs. You may find yourself in the future needing only to say, "I'm feeling sad" in order for your partner to start giving you the sort of empathy you asked for last time you were sad.
One final point. Now that you understand how different your partner's needs are in difficult times, do you think that you can provide them with what they need instead of what you need when the hit tough times? After all, this partner thing needs to work both ways.