Saturday, January 14, 2017

Elastic Style Asperger’s and Neurotypical Relationships

Early relationships with people who have Asperger's syndrome quite often take on some very “elastic” properties. Sometimes they're really close and at other times they're quite distant. Sometimes it seems that the closer their neurotypical partner gets, the more the partner with Aspergers pulls away.

In this post, I want to look at the reasons for this behaviour.

Establishing the initial relationship 

For the most part people with Aspergers tend to be more introverted or at least, less comfortable around others. This makes it very difficult to establish the relationship.

Dropping hints generally won't work and person with Aspergers is likely to either completely miss any “signals” or alternatively, interpret literally everything as some kind of signal.

The best way to get the attention of someone with Aspergers is to “say what you want”. State your intentions clearly and concisely, leaving no room for error or misinterpretation. If you find it difficult to be open and honest about what you want in a relationship, write it down. 

The Honeymoon Stage

All relationships tend to start with a glorious “honeymoon period” which is when everything is new and interesting - and where both partners put everything that they possibly can into making the relationship work.

The honeymoon period is a very important part of any relationship because it lets both partners see what is possible under the very best of circumstances.

Of course, if things don't go well in the honeymoon stage, it's a good sign that the relationship isn't meant to be. Relationships settle but rarely show drastic improvements after the first few months - at least not without significant personal change.

In Aspergers relationships, the honeymoon period is doubly important because despite the “fakery” which is common in neurotypical relationships, this is often the best, and sometimes only, glimpse that their partners get of their “true selves”.

That's not to suggest that there's no fakery involved. The partner with Aspergers is usually doing their best to be as “social” as possible and it usually takes quite a bit of effort. It's not a level of social activity that they can maintain for long periods but it is the time when they’re the most communicative.

When Reality Takes Hold 

After the honeymoon period is over, both partners will usually be deeply in love and the relationship will seem to need less work. It's common for all partners to back off a little and the flaws in the relationship and their partners become more visible.

If your partner has Asperger’s, this is the time when they will be trying to recover from “social overload”. It means that they may completely “back off” and may try to avoid all social contact.

Often due to the stress of maintaining the relationship, they will lose confidence in their ability to continue. This is mainly because they're unable to find a way to meet their partners expectations due to exhaustion.

One of the big problems here is that they're generally responsible for the unrealistic expectations of their partners due to their “pretense” during the honeymoon period. Of course, their partners might be more understanding if they knew what was going on.

Unfortunately it's rare that people with Asperger's fully understand the reasons for their own defensive responses. It takes many years of experience and inward focus to really understand how Asperger’s affects oneself. It's very unlikely that a partner with Asperger’s could explain these feelings and motivations to someone else.

Solidifying the Relationship 

The way forward in the relationship is via discussion, compromise and understanding but it's a journey that only works if both partners are willing to adapt and change.

One of the first things to do is to establish regular and open relationship communication. There are two important things here;

  1. Regular communication: You must communicate regularly. It doesn’t have to be daily but it certainly should be at least more than once per week. If you both lead busy lives, then set aside some time when you know that both of you will be available, for example, 7pm - 8pm Monday, Wednesday and Friday.  Make sure that you take it in turns to be the one to initiate a phone call during that time and make sure that you are available. Don’t take other people’s calls or commitments on during your “couples time”.
  2. Open communication. You must be open to any kind of discussion during your communication period. If a sore topic comes up, you must be able to at least say why it’s a sore topic and why you don’t feel like talking about it.  Remember that you can also reschedule topics that you need time to think about, (for example, “can we discuss this one on Friday?”).  If you find verbal communication on some topics to be too scary or embarrassing, then agree to write a love letter or email instead. 

You need to also be thinking about your partner and your own role in the relatonship and you need to be willing to adapt and change and compromise.  For example, if your partner wants more social contact with you but you don’t feel that you can “face the world”, agree to have a “quiet night” where you go to their place (or they come to yours) and you have take-out and watch a movie at home. This is good quality couple time but it’s also low stress.

It doesn't end there though. The nature of relationships are that they are constantly changing as people and their environments change. In order to survive in the long term, relationships need to be re-evaluated regularly. They need constant work, communication and compromise.


Staci said...

The biggest thing a NT partner can learn is "Say what you mean and mean what you say!"!

Staci said...

The biggest thing a NT partner can learn is "Say what you mean and mean what you say!"!

Ana said...

Great, accurate article! Perfect advice.

Anonymous said...

In my personal experience, I wouldn't define my friendships/relationships as elastic style ones. Being an NT woman, in my two friendships with AS men, they usually both spent the first six months being extremely clingy and needing to see me every day. Then they suddendly disappeared almost entirely for many months and when they came back, the friendship was not at all like before. I was lucky if I managed to see them once/twice a week. So in my mind, something elastic is something that, when comes back, it comes back as it was before, that is, seeing each other very often as in the beginning. Otherwise, of course I adapt, but it hurts. Is there any way to help restore the friendship as it was in the beginning? I have already tried explaining this very clearly but the only answer I got was a very cold one. Thanks for your blog, it helps a lot.

Anonymous said...

My experience was similar. I'm an NT and became involved with a man who, I realized in short order, has AS. At some point he backed off seeing me for several months but called every third day. When I finally threw in the towel, he offered to see me, then backed off again. I enjoyed our phone chats very much, but I wasn't interested in a virtual relationship, and the anxiety of not knowing where I stood with him was eating away at my self-esteem. Then his mom became serioysly ill passed away. After a year of dating and helping him take care of his mom during her final illness, he broke up with me in a text message a few days after her funeral. I knew he was exhausted on every level, but but but ... Over the next several months, we slowly began emailing, and he refriended me on social media. So I phoned. My call went straight to voicemail, and shortly thereafter, I discovered I'd been defriended again. Following that, I received a hostile, emailed rant. It took me a long time to feel better, and the truth is, there are many things I miss about him. One thing I don't miss, however, is the anxiety I felt trying to accommodate his needs at the expense of my own. I'm now at the point where I can thank him (in my head) for the good things he brought into my life.

Judie Lauber said...

I have been living with an Aspergers partner for 27 years. The affect of an Aspergers
relationship when you perceive the problem to be yourself is devastating. The affect of
this Aspergers relationship has driven me to alcohol abuse and the enlistment of just
about every kind of therapy available. Aspergers can be undetectable for a long time
as it wears you out and erodes the relationship. I have educated myself extensively
on the psychological destruction inherent in mental illness and hope that there is a lot
of help on the way. Thank you, Gavin, for your insight and knowledge.

Anonymous said...

I'm gearing up to finally ask my AS partner of several years, who has been living with me for most of that time, to share household expenses. I see his failure to do so as a severe example of the lack of reciprocity--he doesn't seem to understand that room and board plus a great deal of emotional support from me, requires some kind of return. It isn't something that he just deserves because he's him. If he could agree it would signal acceptance of a more egalitarian relationship between us. I have hesitated to have the showdown--and it would be a showdown--because I feel it will provoke tantrums, a shutdown, perhaps an angry withdrawal from the relationship. I don't think he'd understand why I ask. Although I'd be devastated if he left--I actually love him a great deal and we so often seem to get on well--it's the anger I fear most.
Any ideas of how to get through to him without making him feel rejected, victimized and on the verge of a meltdown?

Anonymous said...

Man oh man. Im in an 10 year marriage with an Aspie. Im an NT. It has been heart breaking. I am always trying to figure out why I upset him and Im walking on egg shells. Ive been battling depression and exhaustion. it is SO hard. I really can't recommend it. If I see these signs again, Id run next time. My self esteem is so low as I had no idea it was asbergers until this year so for 9 years I just rode this roller coaster of he loves me! Nope he hates me...he's angry, leaving, yelling and I don't know why. Then he's the nicest man on earth again. Then I step on a land mine. NO ONE sees his other side. Except my family as on vacation it happens to everyone - he can only be patient for 1-2 days. He is SO SLOW to change so for over a year Ive been broaching asbergers with him. I need to know if this is the best this man can do and to understand its not that he hates me half the time. Ive read 5 books and and He reads one chapter a month in ONE book, which tells an NT mind how little he cares about me. But I know he's slow and struggles so I try another approach, and another and anther and another... He now says asbergers fits him. AND MAN DOES IT. But how can I ever know what is asbergers and what is just a very selfish man who has anger issues and just choses to not help me (with any bills)? This man Gavin who runs this blog must have the slightest autism in history as he puts his marriage first over his special interests, and communicates! My husband talks to me very little and spends 10 hrs a day on his special interests and maybe 1 on me including meals. It is so so hard because he can not know his feelings or communicate them to me. Almost never can he tell me how he feels. What do you do when this is the case??? I tried to find a marriage counselor who understands asbergers but there are none with in an hr drive of us so we went to two other people 2x's each and he refused to go back and will never forgive me he says. I could go on...undiagnosed asbergers on a 45 year old is VERY HARD on the wife. Im a mess. he's FINE! Julie Lauber - I hear ya'! I don't know how you are still standing.

Gavin Bollard said...

I can understand how frustrating it would be. I'm sorry that things are so difficult. I write my blog for those with Asperger’s and those without. It's meant to offer hope.

Asperger’s is not the only factor in play in any relationship. There are other factors such as upbringing, role models, life experiences and general qualities such as patience.

Asperger’s certainly doesn't make relationships easy but I'd both partners are willing to try their best, to listen to each other and to put the welfare of others before their own interests, there is hope.

I certainly wasn't a great husband for the first seven years of our marriage but I feel that after understanding myself and learning to listen and adapt, I've improved.

It sounds like you and your husband need to make a conscious effort towards continuous work on the relationship but unfortunately sometimes you have to hit "rock bottom" first; to "shock" the partners into making a change.

MarieParis said...

Wow Gavin, thank you so much for this enlightening blog! I'm an NT dating an Aspie (not officially diagnosed, but the doctor we met and I myself strongly believe he is on the spectrum).

Being in relationship and in love with an Aspie can be tough and challenging for both partners... I've read many of your articles tonight (it's quite late here, I live in France!) and it makes so much sense! One of the main issues in our relationship is the "I love you" part. I'm very needy emotionnally andI need constant reassurance (even with an NT person), so very early in the relationship, I said "I love you"...he didn't reply back then. Then I started telling him how hurt I was that he didn't love me. So he started saying "I love you" (but ahem, it was kinda forced, see what I mean?). Then I started telling him that saying "I love you" because you have been asked didn't count as a real "I love you". And so our fights began. :(
I know I put a lot of pressure on him and now I realize that Aspies don't do well under pressure. I'm so desperate for signs of love that I asked him stuff like "do you want to have kids later?", "Do you think we'll marry someday?",and now I see it only made things worse.
(to be continued...)

MarieParis said...

... part 2 of my comment... ;-)
Long story made short: I keep telling him he doesn't love me, I keep asking him if he loves me, and at this point, the pressure must be too much, because he answers "I don't know if I love you. I care a lot about you.". Once I asked him if he had ever been in love, he said he had, a long time ago (but apparently the relationship wasn't a full fledged relationship because the woman was already married), that kind of hurt me, because I felt like he *could* be in love, but not with me (and I've been taking good care of him for 2 years now... but I guess the frequent fights and arguments about "love" must have drained him).

But... the more I read on AS, the more I tell myself that all is not that dark between us. I've read on your blog that Aspies show their love with actions more than words. My boyfriend, in terms of actions, is indeed very sweet: he has taken me on very romantic trips (Rome, for example!), he has brought me flowers to work, he often has small gifts for me, or he also brought me breakfastthe other day (we don't live together, and he'd worked all night, so I know he was tired when he came to my place). When we had fewer fights and he was a bit more relaxed, he posted pictures of us on social networks (I know, it sounds childish to talk about this, but for a man like him, I guess it was an "effort" to display his feelings publicly so quickly... he says he can be kind of slow to warm up).

All in all, I'm wondering if I should just relax and consider that, in his way, he loves me, even if still says "I don't know"? Recently, I asked him if one day he'd be ready to move back to his own place (he's been living with his father for a few years now... but he used to have his own place, he even shared the flat with his ex girlfriend for a few months, then they broke up). He always said that right now he didn't feel ready to take that leap, but after another huge emotional fight where I ended up crying (again), he started looking at ads and he even visited a flat this week. So I'm kind of confused: he says he doesn't know if he loves me, that he *has* been in love before with another woman, that he did feel in love with me for a while (but then things got too complicated between us, if I understand him well, so he kind of lost that "in love" feeling). But at the same time, he's ready to force himself to move to another place because I asked him. And he brings me breakfast by surprise.
I know this is a very long comment, and you must be very busy, but if you get a chance, what's your point of view? I'm kind of lost here. :S
Thanks a lot for this blog! And I hope I expressed myself clearly... English is not my natuve language. ;-)

Anonymous said...

Looking for some help/suggestions.

I have been in a relationship with a man with Asperger’s, In the last 7 moth he is working a very stressful job, and is highly anxious and overwhelmed. His communication with me has changed significantly. About 5 month ago he had a hug "freak out" that was pressed and jumbled and he decided he needed a break to figure out "if he was even capable of being in a relationship". It's been hard ever since. I try to give hime space and support and understanding, but overtime he feels overwhelmed he tells me he isn't "cut out for having a partner". He feels he would be better off working and going home. He tells me he loves me, but he knows he is hurting me, and really wants to figure out "why he feels this so strongly".
We have an appointment to see a couples therapist tomorrow, but he seems less interested in figuring out why he feels this way and making our relationship work. but it was hi idea to see someone with me. I am so confused.

bluesje said...

Oh feels like I am reading my own story...My Asperger boyfriend just broke up with me, telling me exactly the same thing...
We are having a break, and it is up to him whether we continue or not...and I am not sure what would we best... His behaviour is very different too from the first month's, and it seems that he has already made his mind up that he cannot do this, as he had some really bad experiences in the past, which have left him very badly hurt.
That combined with having Asperger's, makes things very difficult.I do love him, and he is a really amazing human, but I am so confused too...