I consult the dictionary of human behavior every day.
I had to load it into my brain and make it learn
that you open doors with hello and
that you close them with goodbye. I had to learn
the mechanics of when to smile, when to laugh.
(From my poem, “You Don’t See It”)
As a woman, I have been aware (painfully at times) of the expectations that Western society and culture has placed upon us, both past and present. I mentioned some of these expectations in my last post when I talked about Aspie women and our unique challenges navigating the social matrix. Some of those expectations are also applied, along with a few others, to women in the realm of romantic relationships. This week,I will discuss those expectations and the challenges that Aspie women might have meeting them when involved in a close relationship.
Please keep in mind that I am speaking from my own experiences with relationships with men. I will try my best to address this subject across the continuum of sexual orientation, but please keep in mind that your mileage may vary – you know best your own history, challenges, and what you have undergone as an Aspie woman.
All’s Fair in Love? Our Challenges
Anticipating the Needs of Our Partners
I have been alive almost 34 years. In that time, I’ve observed that the biggest cited expectation of women is the ability to anticipate the needs of other people. This comes into play in all of our relationships – with friends, family members, partners, and children. Here is where we enter the realms of empathy and theory of mind difficulties.
It would seem to me that in order to anticipate the needs of others, one must have empathy. I maintain that Aspies and other people on the autism spectrum do not lack empathy. However, that does not mean that we don’t have challenges in this area. I proposed in a previous post that our difficulties may arise from a few different factors:
- difficulty with reading facial expressions and body language,
- having too much empathy to the point of being overwhelmed by the emotions of others, and
- not knowing how to express our empathy and care for others.
How might this work out in a relationship? In a variety of ways. First of all, how do we know what our partner wants or needs if we can’t understand his or her facial expressions or tone of voice? Liane Holliday Willey gives a great example of this with her husband Tom in her book Pretending to Be Normal:
“For example, if Tom were to tell me he was disappointed he had missed me at lunch, I would wonder if he meant to say that he was sad…unhappy…disheartened…mad…angry…furious…or none of the above. In order for me to really understand what people are saying I need much more than a few words mechanically placed together.”
Along that line of thinking, my fiance has made a wonderful illustration of how tone of voice can change the entire meaning of a sentence. Look at the difference between which words are stressed in each of the following sentences, which are all identical:
I’ll see you tomorrow.
I’ll see you tomorrow!
I’ll see you tomorrow.
If one were to hear each of those sentences out loud, one might possibly infer that the first may have been said in a suggestive tone, the second sentence in an angry tone, and the third in a general tone. But if someone cannot distinguish tone of voice and understand how it adds to the whole message, all three sentences might sound the same.
So it is with trying to decode unsaid meaning between two people in a romantic relationship. If I miss the tone of voice in which my fiance says, “So, what do you want to do tonight?” I then might totally miss his intent for a romantic evening and suggest a night of board games instead. But I will say that I have learned about tone of voice and facial expressions over the years through various means – a) my experience with performing (through oral interpretation and performing my poetry), b) extensive reading (I’ve learned to pair up various authors’ descriptions of facial expressions and tone of voice with real life expression through reading lots of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry), c) through watching actors in television, live theater, and movies, and d) firing questions at my fiance (with whom I have been for almost ten years) trying to figure out what someone is doing and why. You could compare me to Cmdr. Data from the Star Trek: The Next Generation series: observing, reading, studying, synthesizing, and extrapolating to understand the social dimension and how it all works. Basically, for me, a good percentage of trying to understand is done through mental work – searches in my mental database and then comparing what I have in front of me to my search results.
Secondly, there is the issue of emotional oversensitivity. This fits in with the “intense world theory” of autism that I mentioned in my post on empathy. If someone has too much empathy or is extremely sensitive to the emotions of others, this could cause her to shut off to the point of where it is difficult – if not impossible – to sense what someone else is feeling. And by extension, this might further hamper any ability to understand what our partner might need or want from us at that moment.
I know I have shut down when I have felt emotionally overwhelmed – sometimes, it’s my nerves being jangled or a bad day or my own feelings being hurt by something else that day – and to me, it’s like shutting off an incoming sensory channel through which I sense the emotions of others. I will know deep inside that something is very wrong, but it’s like walking around while encased inside a glass box – able to see, but unable to detect what others are giving off. When I am like this, I cannot tell if my fiance needs a hug, or if he is upset at someone, or if he is tired. I can maybe decode the look on his face and tell if something is wrong, but what it is will completely escape me.
Thirdly, we might find ourselves “getting it wrong” when we try to reach out to our partners as a result of the empathy we feel. I’ve mentioned theory of mind in my post on empathy – basically, a theory of mind problem means that someone has difficulty working out how others think and feel. Because of this, it’s easy to assume that what might help and comfort us will help and comfort another person; but because we are all different – each with our own unique wants, needs, and point of view – we don’t always assume correctly. I gave an example in that post of how I alienated a high school classmate by trying to push him to talk and get whatever was bothering him off of his chest. And why did I do this? Because I that’s what I would have wanted. Another great example is anmore recent, and a frequent mistake I’ve made: sometimes, if my fiance starts to talk about a problem he is having, I will immediately try to think of a solution – and will feel bad if I can’t. I later found out that he only wanted me to listen.
What makes this more difficult is that some of our wants and needs are universal, while some of them are not. Or even if our needs are universal, how we want them met is not. For example, if a loved one dies, some of us want to cry on someone’s shoulder, some of us want to talk about our good times with that person and remember his or her memory, and some of us might choose to grieve quietly or in private. This all makes for a confusing landscape – and if we indeed have, as Maxine Aston, the author of Asperger’s in Love puts it, only “half of a toolbox”, is it any wonder we keep getting it wrong?
I’ve mentioned before that sensory issues affect many aspects of our daily lives, but it became more apparent to me as I was writing this post that they can also affect us in romantic relationships, particularly in the touch/physical intimacy dimensions.
We are all different in our ability to tolerate certain sensations. I am particularly sensitive to touch – I don’t care for light touch unless it comes from my fiance, and from anyone else it’s an unwelcome invasion. I also find that I have to sometimes prepare myself for being touched: having someone touch me before I “psyche” myself up for it is a bit unnerving. Some people may not be able to tolerate hugs – the sensation of them may be too overwhelming. Others may be able to tolerate being held, but in small doses. This, of course, affects the dimension of physical touching and the showing of affection within a couple. And it can even cross over to sex: due to sensory issues, some Aspie women may love it, and some may dislike it entirely.
One Woman’s Solution
Of course, our challenges do not mean that we cannot function in a love relationship. The only conclusion I can make is that honesty is the best way to handle these kinds of challenges, rather than to hide our difficulties, embarrassment, or shame.
I’ll quote Holliday Willey in Pretending to Be Normal again to illustrate what I mean [bold print emphasis is mine]:
“He took each admission in stride, simply nodding as I explained what I was feeling when assaulted by certain sensations…Still, I worry that I am in some way leading him to feel he is missing something in me, a certain tenderness or smoothness, a softness or a kindness…a special something that only he can define, but that I cannot discern for myself or exhibit on my own. As a sort of insurance policy, as protection from the fact that I might not be as affectionate or as pliable as he might like, I work at asking him to tell me when and if he needs more from me than he is getting from me. But because I suspect he will never burden me with the notion that I am disappointing him, I have taken it upon myself to try something that so far has managed to help me make small changes in my behavior. Like other people make lists to remind themselves to pick up milk or get the mail, I make lists that tell me how to act. On my list are things like – hold Tom’s hand for five minutes every day; squint eyes when in an overwhelming crowd; say ‘Excuse me’ instead of ‘I have to get out of here now!’; count to five before replying; hug Tom three times today. When I review my list, I remember how I need to act.”
I know I haven’t quite put this into practice myself, but asking what one’s partner needs totally makes sense to me: it will help take the guesswork out of trying to figure it out on one’s own. Of course, this requires an understanding partner who is patient and who doesn’t mind that you won’t automatically “get” what is needed and who doesn’t mind you “getting it wrong” sometimes. This, I think, also requires some give from the partner as well – if you don’t quite understand what he or she needs or if it doesn’t occur to you to ask, then he or she might need to tell you. This openness and honesty requires love, patience, commitment, and practice from both sides: the Aspie partner should not be made to feel that she is defective or that the extra help she might require to understand and fulfill her partner’s needs is burdensome, and at the same time she should not become expectant of her partner if he or she forgets or lapses into old habits.
I’m not sure what to make of Holliday Willey’s practice of making lists to remember what to do. This is where I have to say, again, that your mileage may vary. I get the impression that this is something she does to help herself and to help her reach out to her husband Tom. If implemented in the right way, it can help someone through her Aspie-related difficulties in relating to her partner. If implemented in the wrong way, it can become another ritual, set of rules, or set of inflexible commandments. It all depends on how one looks at such a thing.
I hope you enjoyed reading along with me this week. I plan to continue this journey in the next following weeks, although I’m not sure exactly sure in which direction it will take me. Please stay tuned – and in the meantime, please talk back to me. What has been your experience with romantic relationships, and how has having Asperger’s affected your relationships? Have your partners been supportive and understanding? What have you done to make it work? Hope to see you next week – same Bat time, same Bat channel. Goodbye.