The challenges of relationships for people “with” Asperger’s / autism

This post would be a lot easier to write if I actually knew whether or not my own partner is an Aspie/autie or not.  But, despite my knowledge of Asperger’s/autism and my 17-year familiarity with my partner, I can’t tell.  So, I’ll proceed under the assumption that he’s probably neurotypical (NT), although, again, I’m not sure.

Ahhhh, yes….relationships.  They’re a common thorn in a spectrum person’s side.  I know that the subject was for me, too, given the (high) level of dysfunction in previous relationships, before I met my partner.  And truth be told, my relationship with my partner hasn’t always been a utopic path of rose petals, either (I don’t know of a relationship that is).  Many of us have simply given up; either we’ve never found anyone we could “click” with, or maybe we did, but the relationship fizzled or fell apart somehow, and we find ourselves alone, once again.  The way I see it now, if something were to happen to my partner, or we split up for some reason, I wouldn’t be so excited to get back into the dating game.  In fact, I’d probably join those out there who’ve remained single, either by choice or by default.

I’m writing this post for two reasons.  Both involve adding to the (semi-limited?) supply of firsthand information out there about NT-Aspie/autistic “mixed” partnerships, in hopes that 1) people on the spectrum might be able to identify (at least partially), and perhaps not feel as “weird” or “alone”; and 2) that people who aren’t on the spectrum might be able to gain additional awareness and insight from someone who is on the spectrum.

OK, with all that said, moving on…

Thought #1: Dating Sucks

No, it’s not you.  It’s not that you’re inept, or a failure, or unworthy, or anything else.  Dating sucks.  It’s stressful for neurotypicals, too, but it can be extra-stressful for us.  Why?  Because Small Talk Sucks(TM), as does flirting (more on that later), and so does the prerequisite to both Small Talk and flirting: finding a date in the first place.  Ugh.  Where does one look?  This baffled me.  Looking around, it seemed to me that most people got married at some point in their lives, and usually in their 20s or 30s.  How did they find these people?  I was clueless.  I’m an introvert.  I have an “extrovert mask” that I can put on when needed, but it takes an enormous amount of energy, and it doesn’t quite fit right–my awkwardness shows through.  In fact, the more extroverted I try to act, the more awkward I feel.  (The takeaway message here is to “Be Yourself”.  I know it’s cliche, but it’s crucial; the right person will like you for You.  If you have to mask who you are and act like something you’re not in order for them to like you, then they’re not the right person for you.  Of course, there’s a certain amount of acting/masking that everyone–on or off the spectrum–does early on in the meeting/dating phase (it’s important to know that the other person is masking and acting, too), but you shouldn’t have to diverge too much from who you truly are, and you should be able to let your true self shine through gradually.)

Being an introvert definitely eliminates a lot of potential date-snagging venues, like bars/taverns, clubs/nightclubs, even the workplace.  Many of us have extra-careful boundaries about not dating people in the workplace as it is, so that often eliminates any potential dating pool there.  And many of us aren’t even employed, much less at a place in which there are plenty of other people to choose from, so the whole “workplace dating” option becomes a moot point.

OK, so what’s left?  Some people land potential dating candidates in their neighborhood or through family friends (although please–family themselves are off-limits lol 😉 ), or perhaps high school or college/university classmates.  Others find them in religious entities, like a church, synagogue, or temple.  Not religious at all?  No problem.  Or perhaps you’re spiritual/a believer but don’t attend religious services?  No problem there, either.  Some people meet other people in the library or some venue in which a common activity or interest is shared.

The unfortunate part is that most of those situations involve leaving one’s house.  I understand; I’m not exactly excited to do that myself.  In that case, the internet becomes your freedom; you can pick and choose.  It sounds cheesy, but it’s almost like shopping.  Shopping for something big, like a house or a car.  If you’re looking for a long-term relationship, you may want to think of it like buying a house; you’ll be committed to it for a long time, so unless you’re the “carpenter” type, you might not want a “fixer-upper” (and I suggest not being the “fixer” type, if you can avoid it–too much drama, not to mention stress).  The internet allows you to search by gender, relationship type desired (anything from long-term/marriage to sex-only, etc), age or age range, and even within a certain radius of where you live.

Once on a date, it’s important not to say too much or get too deep too soon.  Even though Small Talk Sucks(TM), it’s an important step that shouldn’t be skipped over too fast.  The deeper you can get on the first few dates, however (and still keep the interest going), the more promising the relationship (although it’s important not to count your chickens too soon).  Small Talk Topics go beyond the weather, in a dating situation, because the relationship dynamic and its expectations are different.  Have a couple of brief, big-picturesque descriptions prepared about your interests, your likes and dislikes, your overall worldview, your occupation, etc.  Try to obtain theirs, too; you’re looking for compatibility, after all.

Thought #2: Flirting Sucks, Too (It’s Confusing)

Flirting is usually downright baffling.  It’s an art, and I would venture to say that most of us weren’t born with the instinctive knowledge.  I know that I sure wasn’t.  Sometimes I could hardly tell if someone was flirting with me.  Eventually, with a little help from my mom and some friends, I caught on, at least for the most part.  Some people are TOO subtle, and it’s hard to tell if they are or not.

But here’s the deal: a flip of the hair, a wry smile, an intense gaze, even theatrical motion while eating (i.e., making a “big play” of putting a forkful of food in one’s mouth) can all be subtle flirting cues.  Flirting means one of two things: they either like you genuinely, or they at least want to have sex with you.

Sometimes it’s really hard to discern exactly what someone is doing and what their underlying motives are.  What was that?  Was that a smile?  Why do they keep doing that (insert any movement/gesture here)?  Am I seeing/imagining things?  Should I make a gesture of my own?  Do I like them enough to even do that?

That last question is a good one…

Thought #3: How do I know if they like me?  How do I know if I like them??

Yeah….that question isn’t as easy as it looks.  Sometimes, I didn’t know if they liked me, and sometimes, I didn’t even know if I liked them!  It was a weird conundrum.  I’ve experienced that whirlwind, sweep-you-off-your-feet kind of love/infatuation before.  Beware that; for me, those relationships never lasted more than a year and a half.  Sure, it’s fun while it lasts, but it wears off, and there needs to be something else, a stronger-but-less-interesting(exhilarating) bond to keep things together.  If not, the relationships is going to fizzle at that time.  But I’m getting ahead of myself…

I’m a pretty “cerebral” Aspie; this isn’t to say that I’m “more intelligent”; rather, it means that I tend to process information (including emotions, where possible) through my cerebral cortex (the centers of logic, complex decision-making, and “higher” (non-animalistic) reasoning).  This makes me appear pretty distant and/or aloof at times, a characteristic I’m relatively aware of (most of the time) and take extra steps to (over?)compensate for.  What this means in the context of relationships is that I may not actually know when I’m starting to like someone.

I’ve had a few clues here and there, though.  I’ve done the following:

  • Found myself thinking them a more than I usually would someone else
  • Found myself talking about them more than I usually would someone else (usually to my mom or a close friend)
  • Become more curious about them than I have most other people
  • Found myself wanting to spend more time with them
  • Found myself looking forward to dates with them/seeing them
  • Admired them/looked up to them
  • Found myself smiling when I thought of them
  • Noticed the “little things” they do, and found those “little things” endearing
  • And when things become more serious, you might realize that you don’t need to keep looking–that you’re content with settling on (which is different than “settling for“) that person, and you start to plan your exit strategy from the horrid dating pool.

Sometimes, that’s about all the evidence you have that you’re interested in someone.

(To clarify, “settling ON” someone means that you’re choosing them out of a group/pool/short-list, because you like them best and they fit you best; “settling FOR” someone means that they may not be the best–hell, they may not even be good/healthy for or compatible with you, but you’re sick of being lonely or for some other reason, you feel a need to pick someone sooner, so you “settle for” “second best”, or what-have-you; you choose them already knowing they’re not ideal for you.  I recommend settling ON someone who IS ideal for you, rather than settling FOR someone just to have someone or be in a relationship.)

Anyway…

How do you know they like you?  Well, in a perfect world, they’d come out and say it directly.  But most people are apprehensive about doing that; they often think it might scare you off, so they keep it to themselves for a while.  Since we’re not mind-readers (no one is), this can pose the aforementioned conundrum.  It’s actually really hard to predict whether or not someone likes you.  Sometimes they won’t call for a while, and you’ll think they’re not interested, but then boom–out of the blue, you get the most endearing phone call, the type that warms your heart and gives you wings.  And other times, it doesn’t happen that way…or it doesn’t happen at all.

What worked for me is dating around until settling on (again, not settling for) someone.  This kept me in “dating mode”, which it was easier to get into and stay in, rather than jumping in and out of that mode (the whole task-switching or “switching gears” thing is difficult for us).  So if you’re browsing for a partner, I might recommend seeing several people at a time until you decide on one worthy of an exclusive relationship.  Dating several at once is NOT cheating if you haven’t committed to anyone yet.  You’re under no obligation to date one person at a time, if it’s casual dating and you haven’t yet had The Talk about Entering An Exclusive Relationship.

Who should you choose?

Thought #4: Finding an Intelligent, Understanding, and Suitable Partner

This is easier said than done.  It’s nearly impossible in rowdy venues like bars/clubs/sports environments/etc.  In the end, each person seeking a long-term relationship has to choose someone who “fits” them.  Someone who they “click” with.  You’re probably going to laugh–when I put my “ad”/”advert” up on the internet site I used, my Aspie colors were already showing through (unbeknownst to me).  My ad consisted of a short introductory paragraph that gave my first name, age, eye color, height, and town I lived in, followed immediately by three bulleted lists.  They consisted of:

  • What qualities/characteristics I’m looking for
  • What qualities/characteristics I bring/contribute/offer to the relationship
  • What I absolutely do not want/am not looking for (i.e., “dealbreakers”, AKA the “don’t bother” list)

This might have seemed curt and potentially off-putting to some, but my mindset was one of selectivity, and my thoughts ran like this: I’m not going to settle for just anyone; I’m going to be choosy–not impossible, but selective; and if someone doesn’t like my ad, well then, they can simply keep scrolling, because they’re not the one for me.

It wasn’t so important that the potential “candidate” shared my same tastes in superficial (by comparison) subjects, such as music, movies, TV shows, books, activities, etc.  It doesn’t have to be a perfect match; it’s healthy to complement each other, not necessarily clone each other.  What IS important is, within, say the first six-to-twelve months, find out (gradually) how you each “operate”–that is, your worldview, your daily routine, your preferences (especially home/environmental–do you have the same definition of “homey”–does one of you like bold colors while the other likes soft, muted colors?  Does one of you like carpet and the other prefer hardwood floors?  Does one of you play music or movies at loud volume, while the other prefers background ambiance?  Is one of you a “neat-freak” while the other is, by comparison, a hoarder?), your desire or lack thereof for children, your overall life journey and goals, saving/spending habits, as well as other potentially divisive (if not compatible) topics like religion and politics.

I was looking for qualities such as intelligence, drama-free, stable (mentally and financially–I’m not a gold-digger, but I’d had it up to here with job-hopping boyfriends), a deeper quirky side, animal-loving (especially cats), accommodating, possessing gumption/initiative, decent work ethic, soft and cuddly, politically independent, responsible and mature, loving and affectionate, a unique and intact identity/self-concept, who knew how to show respect and was interested in a potential long-term relationship with monogamous commitment.

I dated about seven or eight people within a two-to-three-month timespan before I found my partner.  From there, things happened faster than I expected (I don’t normally recommend this, but sometimes, you do “just know”).  I received my first email from him on February 28, we had our first conversation by phone in mid-March, we went on our first date on April 3, we became exclusive on April 16 (our third date), and got engaged on September 25….all of the same year.  And we got married on Halloween (October 31)…nine years later (lol).

I do recommend spending YEARS together before legally tying the knot, IF ever “making it legal” at all.  Depending on the laws and customs where you live, there are usually pros and cons to getting married.  By spending a long time together first, you don’t get “stuck” with someone you may not entirely know.  It takes an average of six months for their true colors to show, so that’s a good timeframe; however, my partner and I were together (unmarried, living together) for six years before I found out one of his dirty little secrets (he likes to hide spending and information about our financial status from me).  It’s always best to remain flexible and mobile (i.e., able to break things off without a lot of ramifications, at least until you feel truly comfortable with them).

So now you’re together, whether legally married or not, and regardless, you’re in it for the long haul…

Thought #5: Making a Life Together, Adjusting To Each Other, Meshing Routines

This is a tricky sticking point.  As an Aspie, I’m used to living a certain way, in a particularly-crafted environment, according to a carefully-constructed routine.  Any changes to that can bring varying amounts of upheaval and thus, upset.  That’s why the compatibility is so important, and why it’s incredibly crucial NOT to settle for someone.

Suddenly, someone is sharing your living space.  Suddenly, there’s someone else to consider in practically every decision made, whether it’s what to do on Saturday or what to have for dinner tonight to how the dishes should be washed.  If we’re used to directing our own lives and we have our own systems down-pat in our heads, it can be pretty tough adjusting to the background-influenced whims and habits of someone else.  Different people are raised differently, in different environments, and have different life experiences and different mindsets, etc, and this can all be very overwhelming to take in.  The learning curve at first can appear damn near vertical.

But it doesn’t exactly have to be as dire as it sounds.  There will most likely be an element of adjustment challenges, but it may not be as hopeless as it sounds, depending on you and your personality and communication style, as well as that of your partner.  The best advice here is, do your best to adjust your routine some (but not entirely) to your partner and their needs, so that both of your needs are met, and also: when in doubt, talk it out.

Thought #6: Communication (Eeeek!)

Communication styles will probably differ.  We, the people on the spectrum, often have different ways of expressing things.  We may say things that bewilder or confuse other people.  We may be too direct.  We may talk in movie quotes.  We may use semi-surreal expressions (for example, a surreal expression from an autistic child might be, “I feel the sad all around me”.  We adults have our own version of that tendency at times).  We may hold things in.  We might blurt things out.  It might take some getting used to on both sides.

The best advice I have here is to:

  • Wait for a second, and “filter” what you want to say through a “gentle(r) lens”.  That doesn’t mean lie or distort the truth, but soften it some so that it comes across less inflammatory, if needed.  This will also help YOU find your words, and the right ones that accurately express what you mean.
  • Choose those words carefully, with plenty of “prefacing” as needed.  Prefacing might be something like “I mean this in a gentle way…” or “I mean this in a positive way…” or “I know you’re really trying…”.  Speaking in terms of “I feel” or “I think” when it comes to expressing yourself, and then coming up with solutions in terms of “we could…” or “we might consider…” are often helpful.
  • During a non-intense moment, describe to your partner tendencies you know you have.  I’m pretty straightforward, so one time, during a relaxing time, I simply brought that fact up and out into the open.  Calm, uneventful times are excellent times to approach various discussions along the lines of “for the record if I say/do/act (this way), it actually means this____”.

Communication also depends largely on empathy and let’s face it–although Aspie/autistic people get blamed for our supposed “lack” of ours, the truth is that mind-blindness occurs on both sides.  It goes both ways.  The neurotypical secret is that they don’t understand us, either; they can’t get inside our heads any more than we can climb inside theirs.  So if anyone is to be “blamed” for the miscommunication that often results from this, it’s both sides…or neither.  But a double-standard isn’t fair, nor is it correct.

But communication is crucial to a healthy relationship.  If it’s not happening verbally, then it needs to be happening (successfully) in non-verbal form.  Don’t let either of you hold back information or keep secrets from each other.  Be open, be honest, be proactive.

Thought #7: Aspects of Life Together

This “thought” covers three general categories:

  • Activities
  • Alone/Apart Time
  • Touch/Affection/Sex

I’ve found it highly beneficial–even necessary to strike a balance between time together and time apart.  There’s even a sort of “in-between” category, where we’re not exactly together, but also not apart.  “Time together” would be time we spend doing the same activity, in the same room, such as eating dinner or watching a movie.  “Time apart” would be when we’re in different places, doing different things, such as one of us traveling to attend a weekend conference while the other stays home, relaxing and watching the cats. And the “in-between” time would involve both of us being home, but perhaps in different rooms, each doing our own thing.  A lot of our down-time is spent in this third category.

What do you do when you’re together?  Hopefully, you’ve got enough in common that you can engage in some shared activities–at least enough such that you don’t get bored or clash with each other.  My partner doesn’t share my interest in music and I don’t share his intensity of interest in amateur radio, but we both come together to watch plenty of mutually-loved movies or agreed-upon TV shows, or I’ll read his study material to him, or maybe we’ll go on a day-long road trip, or maybe we’ll just sit around and shoot the breeze, talking about whatever.

Touch is an interesting subject, especially for those of us on the spectrum, because we can be more selective or more sensitive about what types of touch we can handle, from whom, and the timing of the touch.  Personally, I’m a hugger and a cuddler.  I cuddle until I get too hot or too bored or too restless.  But I’ve been known to cuddle for several hours on end.  Hugs are great, as long as their medium-firmness and still (i.e., not moving).

Sex for my partner and me is mostly nonexistent, but it hasn’t always been that way.  We sort of go “in spurts”, where we might not do much for a year or two, and then share intimacy several times in a month.  It’s important that our partners are really respectful of this, and don’t use it as an excuse to be rude or to treat us badly (in any way).  They should not hold it against us; after all, as much as we chose them, they also chose us, and all that comes with us.  It’s a package deal.

There is kind of a “Part 2” to this post; next up: Pitfalls of relationships for people on the spectrum…

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