Navigating the potential pitfalls of relationships for people “with” Asperger’s / autism

In my last post, I wrote what ended up to be a (lengthy-but-basic) “tutorial” of sorts about relationships as seen from an Asperger’s point of view.  Although the goal of that post (and this one) is two-fold (I wanted to shed some light on relationships, written for Aspie/autistic people, as well as provide some insight for non-autistic people about how we might approach relationships), I ended up speaking mostly to the Aspergian/autistic community.

That’s OK; non-autistic people may still benefit from that information also.  But they might benefit (?) from this post even more, because although the previous post covered what generally happens during the dating, courtship, and commitment/relationship-building processes as seen through the lens of Aspergian/autistic challenges, this post delves more deeply into the potential pitfalls as faced by those of us on the autism spectrum.

The truth is, anyone–whether on or off the spectrum–can encounter any one or combination of these pitfalls, too.  But non-autistic (allistic/neurotypical/NT) folks tend to perceive, address/deal with, and recover from, these issues a little differently.  Of course these experiences, if encountered, are going to be different; Aspie/autistic and neurotypical populations are each running different neurological “operating systems” after all!

Having been in my share of dysfunctional relationships, seen too many “Dr. Phil” episodes, and read too many of my mom’s self-help books at a relatively early age, please know that if you experience (or have experienced in the past, or are currently experiencing) any of the subjects discussed below, you’re not alone.  You’re TOTALLY not alone.  And you need support.  The worse the situation is, the further in over your head you probably are (meant in a gentle way, not a condescending or crass way).

I’m debating whether or not to issue a potential trigger alert/warning, since the subject matter gets heavy; this post is about dysfunctional relationships, after all.  But I don’t plan to get very graphic, since I don’t plan on defining any terms (they’re pretty self-explanatory as they are), or vividly illustrating any examples.  If you’re particularly sensitive or your imagination tends to run away on you, you may want to exercise caution; otherwise, I think you’ll likely be OK.

The rest of this post is sort of a continuation of the last one, in a way, although these pitfalls can occur at any point in a relationship, not just after you’ve made a long-term commitment (if you even choose to do so).

Once you’re dating someone, or in a relationship of any kind, or even married/committed to each other, there are various situations/aspects to watch out for.  Not all of these are definite dealbreakers (although some are); some of these happen even in healthy relationships.  However, left unresolved, they can spell the end (for better or for worse).

Before I proceed any further, I gently remind everyone that I’m not a dating/relationship expert, nor am I a professional counselor or therapist of any kind.  I don’t have a degree in this stuff.  I have personal experience in most–but not all–of these elements.

Pitfall #1: Fighting/Arguments

I have yet to see a relationship that didn’t/doesn’t have a periodic disagreement.  After all, a relationship is composed of two different individuals.  The remedy is NOT to “never fight” or “never disagree”.  It’s unlikely that two people would agree on absolutely everything, so if there’s never any conflict or disagreement, it’s highly likely that one or both people is compromising or “giving in” way too often, which isn’t healthy.

Having a fight/argument/disagreement doesn’t automatically mean the death knell of the relationship.  Each conflict is actually an opportunity to clear the air, express your opinions/thoughts/feelings, and maybe even provide an opportunity for you to discover new things about each other or to develop new strategies, systems, ideas, and what-have-you.

The trick here is several-fold:

  • “Pick your battles” – it’s tiring and usually unnecessary to disagree about small details; if it’s about something relatively small (i.e., it doesn’t matter as much to you), then let it go; that’s when it’s OK to give in without compromising yourself too much.  Save your energy for disagreements about the topics that matter most.  Disagreements about money, children, laziness, etc, are probably (in general) more “worth” fighting over than whose turn it is to dust the entertainment center this week.
  • “Fight fair” – keep the conversation calm and clean.  Try to stick with “I” statements (“I feel”, “I think”, “it seems to me”, “the way I see it”, “I get the message that…”, etc).  Try to avoid “you” statements (“you always/never”, “you tend to”, “you always/can’t seem to”, etc).  Where criticism is justified, try to stick with constructive criticism.
  • “Just the Facts” – keep the conversation free from personal attacks.  Inflicting emotional pain on the other person leaves lasting invisible wounds that are tough to heal from.  Try to refrain from dragging the past into the current argument.  We Aspergian/autistic people have very long and detailed memories, and we’re also often excellent systemizers; this sets up the perfect recipe for a very long and arduous fight that may end up being non-productive and non-constructive.  Try to stick with what happened–the facts of the case, so to speak.  Try not to bring too much emotion into the fray (easier said than done, I know).

If I get bullied, cursed at, put down, or other hurtful statements are made to me during a fight, the first thing I do is let them know that this is NOT OK (ever).  It’s important to put a stop to that kind of behavior immediately.  I might also add that that is childish and infantile behavior.  I make these statements swiftly, definitively, and with full expectation that the behavior will indeed stop.  If it doesn’t, I then insist on professional counseling.  If that doesn’t work (or they won’t agree to go), I’ll leave.  That’s just plain self-respect.  Don’t be afraid to give yourself that same permission as needed.

Pitfall #2: Annoyance

Aspergian/autistic people are aware that our brains work differently; many of us are aware that our brains also tend to work more quickly.  This often breeds impatience.  Impatience is a major source of annoyance.

There are other, every-day sources of annoyance, too; we, the people on the spectrum, may be a little more prone to this phenomenon because we have our routine, we often have The Way Things Ought To Be preset in our minds, and we may have underlying anxiety; all of these ingredients add up to the potential to become irritable, impatient, and/or annoyed with our partners.  Living in close quarters and sharing the same space for extended periods of time often only ups the ante.

There have been times in a relationship (or sometimes entire relationships themselves) in which I felt annoyed 24/7.  In these cases, the more often I was annoyed, the higher the chances that I wasn’t “picking my battles” wisely enough.  In some of these cases, I simply needed to lighten up, live and let live, let (it) go, and all that.  My standards might have been impossible.  My timetable for getting something done might’ve been unrealistic.  Hell, I might have just been moody at times, looking for something to nitpick.

Don’t be like I was 🙂

Pitfall #3: Anxiety

Asperger’s/autism and anxiety themselves seem like an old married couple.  I don’t know very many people on the spectrum who don’t experience anxiety of some kind, usually at greater intensity than the rest of the population, and with greater frequency.  I know that genetically, I can’t deactivate (or “turn off”) stress hormones very quickly, so this leads to a build-up of active stress hormones in my body, and as long as they’re active, they exert their stressful effects, one of which is anxiety.  This is a really common genetic variant, affecting 30-50% of the population in general, and probably a much higher percentage than that, in the Aspie/autism spectrum population.

But no matter what the cause may be, the fact is, most of us report having anxiety, and seems to be chronic.  Anxiety can rear its ugly head, altering our relationships.  We may get easily suspicious (sometimes justified, sometimes not).  We may experience erratic sleep patterns, which may disrupt our partner’s sleep.  We may appear insecure (whether we really are, or it just looks that way).  Our anxiety may, at times, translate/convert to irritability, and–if it gets intense enough–anger, possibly leading to outbursts or meltdowns.

It helped my partner, my marriage, and thus myself to explain to my partner the “anatomy of a meltdown”, the true underlying process behind them, and other related information.  Once he knew that, he stopped taking my irritability and meltdowns personally; he stopped interpreting them as personal attacks on him, perpetrated by me.  The explanation(s) helped him understand.

Pitfall #4: Misunderstanding

Yeah, speaking of understanding… Being misunderstood is a common pitfall among all relationships/partnerships, but especially between two people running different neurological “operating systems”.  Whenever one tries to read the other’s “messages/files”, this can generate errors in that person’s “system”, because those “files/messages” are in a different “file format”.  If you put two computers, one running a Windows OS and the other running a Mac OS side-by-side and attempt to share files back and forth, issues will probably arise.  The files won’t read (i.e., get interpreted) properly, and there may be a loss of “formatting” (nonverbal context), and maybe some gibberish symbols mixed in with the clearer text/words.

The same can happen between people, especially if one is on the spectrum and the other isn’t.  Misinterpretation happens all the time, and when communicating across “mixed” “platforms”, it can happen more easily and with greater magnitude, leading to bigger consequences.

My best advice here is to communicate as clearly and openly as possible.  Say what you mean, mean what you say, and insist that your partner do the same.  There’s no harm in expressing the truth and getting it out in the open.

Pitfall #5: “I wish you would…”

This is often a legitimate statement; after all, one partner is expressing open, honest communication and semi-constructive criticism to the other.  However, there’s a line, and that line gets pretty blurry.  Some of these statements are quite reasonable, while others aren’t.  The trick is discerning which of these are more of the “constructive criticism” type and which ones are of the  “put-down veiled in passive aggression” type.  (Examples of the latter include having anything to do with physical appearance, invisible disabilities, additional demands, anything discussed before that the person has indicated they can’t do, anything that would cause undue hardship, etc etc).

“I wish you would clean more often” is a legitimate statement, if the other person is a slob or is genuinely lazy.  “I wish you would socialize more” or “I wish you would lose/gain weight” is a direct hit on the social fatigue aspect of the person’s neurotype; to comply would create hardship for that person; thus, it’s an unfair request.

Pitfall #6: Double-Meanings, Passive-Aggression

Both of these just suck.  They’re usually counterproductive and completely uncalled-for.  They’re also completely unnecessary; they accomplish nothing.  People play games, and this kind of thing sickens me.  Double-meanings are essentially a head-game and passive-aggression is a form of belittling and “crazymaking”, a term I first came across in the 1980s, whose meaning and context are akin to “gaslighting” now.

It would be simplistic to say that Aspie/autistic people don’t pick up on double-meanings; sometimes, we do; occasionally, we’re even quite good at it, on a regular basis.  I can smell passive-aggression like a fart in a car.  However, some people have actually accused me of being passive-aggressive when I was absolutely (honestly) NOT intending to be (I don’t really have a passive-aggressive bone in my body.  I reckon I could conjure one up, but if I did, it would be so ginormously obvious that it would essentially lose its snark-punch).  So this can go both ways; people can be passive-aggressive to us, or misinterpret what we’re saying and assume that we’re being passive-aggressive toward them.  And of course, the same goes for double-meanings; it drives me up a tree when someone assumes that there’s a double-meaning or hidden message in what I’m trying to say.  I want to shake them and say, “look, you dolt; that’s not what I meant; if I meant it that way, I would’ve said it that way!  Just listen to my [insert expletive here] words.”

Pitfall #7: Commitment Phobia

This usually applies to long-term relationships that have not yet been filed “legally”, or have not yet become exclusive.  If one person wants a commitment and the other doesn’t, this invites trouble.  If you’re the person who doesn’t want to commit and the other person does, let the other person go so that they can be free to pursue someone with compatible goals (which means, of course, that so can you–find someone who wants a looser relationship, because you don’t want that person to seem like they’re “hanging on”/”clinging to” you).

If you’re the person who wants the commitment, but the other person is dragging their feet, again–let them go, so that you both can seek out a more compatible companion.  Remaining with someone who doesn’t want to commit when you’re ready for such commitment is only going to make you feel “crazy” (gas-lit).  If that person swears up and down that they want to remain in a relationship with you, that’s kind of a red flag, in a way.  I can’t think of anything in particular that that might indicate, but it wouldn’t make sense to me that someone would want to remain with me, yet resist making a commitment if I’ve indicated I’d like them to.  The cognitive dissonance exhibited by people like that would be cause for concern for me.

Pitfall #8: Honesty/Lies

None of the first six pitfalls are quite as heavy (except maybe instances of unfair fighting) as this one.  We Aspie/autistic people tend to take people at their word.  After all, our brains reason, why would someone bother saying something if they didn’t actually mean it?

That’s a very rational argument.  Unfortunately, that’s not the way it frequently happens.  People do say complete crap, they usually know it’s complete crap, and yet, they say it anyway, and with a straight face besides.  Yikes.

The problem with lying is that “for every rat you see, there are 50 you don’t”.  This means that if you catch somebody in one lie, everything they’ve ever said or done now comes under suspicion, and it’s now (probably) your job to blow it wide open and explore every proverbial dark hallway down to its last centimeter.  A liar might say that that’s the only lie they’ve told or thing they’re hiding, but now that you know they’ve been dishonest, how can you trust that they’re suddenly telling the truth now, about that?  You can’t.  Again, everything is suspect.

That’s why a lot of us do have trust issues.  Usually we were considered “gullible”, and when someone sensed that we were (how do those people DO that??), then they targeted us, and told us lies, which at first, we believed.  When we later found out that they were lies, we recoiled in disgust, fear, and betrayal, and launched into a Trust No-One Mode.  That’s what happened to many of us, and it’s usually due to experiences like these.

Liars have to clean up their act (for real, and for good); otherwise, you’ll feel “crazy” (gas-lit) after a while, not being able to trust anything they say or do.  Every “I love you”, every “everything’s just fine”, every “you’re the only significant other in my life”, every “yes, the bills are all paid”, every “I’m going to Chicago on business”, every, “don’t mind her; she’s just a stalker who won’t leave me alone”, every “I had to work late”…ALL of it…becomes suspect (as well it should).

If you catch your significant other in a lie, here’s my best advice:

Try to find out how long they’ve upheld the lie – the longer it’s gone on, the more chronic the problem is, and the less likely they are to “fly straight” and the more likely they are to lie again.

Try to find out how far the “rabbit hole” goes; what else may they be lying about?  (Review bank statements/records, credit card receipts, check their computers, email, phones, PDAs, etc); I’ve even thought about hiring a PI (Private Investigator) at times.

Try to find out if there’s anything that made them want to lie (some things are obvious, like infidelity or a hiding an addiction; other things, not so obvious, such as stress/anxiety, a job loss, etc).

Try to gauge how they feel about lying; are they remorseful, or nonchalant?  (This may be hard to ascertain; after all, you just caught them in a lie!  So it’s tough to tell if they’re being honest when they say they’re sorry; many know how to put on a really good act.  One telltale sign (but not the only one) is whether or not they seem extremely apologetic and self-deprecating BUT then try to justify their behavior.  Occasionally there are legitimate explanations, but these should be pretty clear-cut, and they should be verifiable; if they justify doing it because they “felt” a certain way, or “felt they had to” do a certain thing, then–no dice.)  Nonchalance, obviously, indicates no remorse, and they’re not even going to try to fake it.  Others may put on a good show, crying and everything, but they may only be devastated because they got caught and now they’re scared/crushed.  Don’t mistake that for any altruistic feeling on your behalf.

Insist–firmly–on some type of professional counseling; your partner for sure, but also for you, since you’ll need help dealing with the stress of this event, too, and there are emotional/psychological repercussions of having something like this happen to you.  We’ve been advised to go through individual counseling, one-to-one with a (good) therapist, before coming together in a couples’ counseling arrangement.

If counseling doesn’t work, or they won’t attend, or they’re unremorseful (in which they might be sociopathic), or the severity of the dishonesty was great enough that you’re not sure you could ever trust that person again, then don’t be afraid to end the relationship entirely.  Even if you do so, however, I do recommend individual counseling for yourself so that you can process what happened more effectively and move on more quickly to live a happier, healthier, baggage-free life.

Pitfall #9: Manipulation

I will say this: I’ve been manipulated before, and it blows goats.  I have absolutely no time or room in my life for manipulators.  I’ve been manipulated personally (friends, family, significant others), as well as professionally (clientele who ended up to actually be true malingerers, actually having the audacity to fake chronic illness–we caught this on our office’s security camera).

Manipulators can cause serious and far-reaching damage to a person’s life.  They can be thieves, liars, cheats, and of course, gaslighters/”crazymakers”.  They pretend to be something they’re not and they can give genuine people a bad rap.  These are control freaks who with ulterior motives who seek to play other people like marionette strings.  As significant others or life partners, they can be utterly disastrous, leaving their partners feeling powerless, abandoned, chaotic, unstable, depressed, anxious, self-doubting, and broken.

My personal opinion: leave ASAP.

Pitfall #10: Abuse

I’m not going to go very much into detail on this one, for a few reasons.  The first is that it’s pretty familiar; most people don’t need much explanation here; people know what abuse is; too many people have been through it personally.  The second reason is that it’s a common and severe trigger (sometimes, including myself).  The third reason is that it’s a “no-brainer”, in terms of why this is a pitfall and what should be done about it (ensure your safety by getting together emergency overnight bag and important documents; store these in various places outside your house; and LEAVE.  Call the police if you want an escort or assistance.  Call the hotlines and tell them your plan so that they can get you to a safe house ASAP.  And then DON’T contact the bastard at all!  Your first 72 hours after leaving are statistically the most dangerous for you; get past that, and your odds improve.)

Navigating a relationship successfully is like charting ocean waters, sometimes through thick fog or violent storms.  It ain’t easy, there are a lot of “casualties”, you can’t always see clearly, and sometimes you feel like you’re hanging on for dear life.  But it’s a pretty magnificent journey.

It can be worth it.

Be good to yourself; make sure it’s worth it for you.


(Image Credit: Cyril Rolando)



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