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Relating to Someone with High-Functioning Autism: 20 Tips for Partners

You have a friend or love with High Functioning Autism (Asperger's), and you don't understand him or her, so it's making you crazy? It doesn't have to be that way. Remembering a few things will enable you both to have a very rewarding relationship:

1. Accept that people with HFA are intelligent, and may have extraordinary skills that you may or may not understand, but very possibly lack what will seem to you to be common sense. The best way this was described to me one day was this way: “HFA is one of the 'unkind' disorders. Most individuals can't understand how an HFA adult can solve very complex problems, but doesn't know to get out of the rain.” What this means in your relationship is that the partner you care for is intelligent enough to come up with solutions, even complex ones. Making things simple is the harder part. Accept that if he/she says ''I need help with ___'', that is what he/she needs help with, even if it doesn't seem possible. The other side of the coin is if your partner says ''I am capable of ___'', it is a good idea to trust that. A diagnostic measure of HFA is that these individuals must be of at LEAST average intelligence. As such, the man or women you care about is more likely to know his or her limitations.

2. Accept that HFA people need love and understanding. Individuals with HFA (despite what has been widely written) do have emotions. In fact, more often they are rich with emotion, not devoid of it. More modern literature is starting to reflect this more accurate position. The difference is that the response is different in them. Individuals with HFA are often very lonely and can become depressed as a result of feeling out of place in the world.

3. Accept that you and your partner don't think alike. This means that you are likely to misunderstand each other. Knowing this will enable you to do three things:
  • When he/she says or does something that seems hurtful, you can trust that it may not have been intended the way you thought, even if it seems very clear to you.
  • When you say/do something that your partner takes offense at, you can trust that he/she is misunderstanding you honestly and not trying to be critical.
  • When family members, co-workers or friends seem to be having a ''group opinion'' in the negative about your partner, you have the insight to be able to say, ''It may appear to be that way, but I think it's a big misunderstanding''.

4. Accept that you don't experience life the same way as your HFA partner, so his/her obstacles, interests, complaints, frustrations are likely to seem illogical to you and those around you. There are many issues which contribute to the way HFA people view the world around them. There are communication issues, stigma, sensory, stereotypical interests, unique responses to social issues and stressors ...many more things than you may be able to imagine. If you look at it as if they are dodging paintballs all day long every day (paintballs which are invisible to you), it may make a little more sense that they move the way they do, talk the way they do, and make the decisions they do.

5. Adjust your non-verbal messages. If your HFA partner seems to be misunderstanding things (e.g., your tone of voice, body language, pauses, breaks in communication, expressions, etc.), you can educate him/her to understand your messages in a non-threatening way. 

With regard to body language, be sure to make an exaggerated connection between the motion and the emotion. If for you, crossed arms mean you are thinking and not angry, you could nod thoughtfully (with arms crossed) and say, "Hmmm.... Yes, I'm thinking about that." The same goes with leaning in, turning away, etc. Make the connection clear. The good news is that with this type of "lesson," your partner is likely to learn your messages fairly quickly. 

Communicating tone, pitch, volume, etc., is a little more overt. If you are cognizant of the misinterpretations, simply say how you are feeling or thinking at the time. The way this is different from the above is that it's direct information instead of strongly implied. If your tone of voice seems to frighten your HFA partner, simply say, "I know my tone may sound firm to you, but that is because I am very worried about this situation" ...or, "I'm pausing for a minute here to think." With this type of information, your communication is likely to need to continue, as tone of voice, etc., is a very subtle change and has more room for frequent misinterpretation. Body language is a little more consistent.

6. Adjust your words. Once you know whether your HFA partner is relying more on words or non-verbal messages, take an extra step to be clear in that area. Use specific words, think about how you want to explain what you want to say, communicate in email if practical, so the words can be read and re-read if necessary. If you believe you are being misunderstood, ask! Check for clarity. Phrases like "If I understand you correctly, it sounds like you are saying..." and "Help me understand what you mean by..." On the other side, you could also say, "Does that make sense?" ...or, "I'm not sure if I'm getting my message across." This opens the door for your HFA partner to say, "Actually, could you explain further?"

7. Agitation, or a sense of nervousness, being hyper, etc., is often a result of stress in the individual with HFA. If you see increased activity, you can actively participate in dialing down the intensity by saying things which might be relaxing (e.g., "Ok, let's take a step back here").

8. Be aware of your HFA partner's personal space. She or he may have a space defined differently, spatially. If you see that your partner seems agitated or diverts gaze when you are within a certain distance, you can trust that you are within her or his personal space.

9. Consider your verbal vs. non-verbal communication. Most HFA people will fall into one of two categories with this regard. They may either rely more heavily on your words and less on body-language, or they may rely on body-language, but result in higher frequency of misinterpretation. Find out which your HFA partner does. How? Listen. If you find that he/she is frequently misunderstanding you without stopping to consider that he/she is completely off base, he/she may be misinterpreting your body-language and otherwise non-verbal messages (e.g., expressions, tone of voice, conversational pauses, etc.). On the other hand, if your HFA partner repeatedly asks questions about what you are saying, he or she is relying more heavily on your word usage.

10. Don't be afraid to ask questions. When a remark sounds ambiguous, it's perfectly fine to say, "What do you mean, exactly?" People with HFA know that "neurotypicals" (i.e., people without autism)) have a hard time understanding what they say. You are likely to raise more flags if you don't ask questions about their meaning than if you do.

11. If the HFA individual you are communicating with is not very close to you, it may be helpful to maintain a more formal tone in your communication. Not that it is necessary, but the type of communication used in more formal verbal communication can be very comfortable to adults on the autism spectrum.

12. Intellectual icebreakers can put individuals with HFA at ease. Discussing something you learned or read about can reduce the stress in this person and very likely improve the success of the conversation.

13. Keep your eyes and ears open for signs that your HFA partner is trying to understand. Communicating is not a one-way street, and the responsibility of connecting with information should not rest solely on your shoulders. Although it may seem like it sometimes, you might not be aware of what your HFA partner is doing to try to understand. You process information differently, so the things you would do to try to understand him or her may not be the same things he or she would do. Watch for things like concentrating intently in a conversation, questions about what you are saying, and repeating back to you what you just said. 

Using "big" words is another way that adults with HFA try to be very clear. They are intelligent and don't always realize that their neurotypial partner may not understand the difference between close synonyms. 

Another trait which might be frustrating to some neurotypical partners is when HFA people over-explain. If you can see this as an attempt to be clear, you can re-frame your perspective and possibly feel more comfortable in saying, "Ok, yeah, I gotcha." You may be surprised to find your dear HFA man or women a little bit relieved that you get what he or she is saying!

14. Individuals with HFA don't respond to criticisms, threats and manipulation the way typical people do. Even if you don't think you are, if your interaction is perceived this way (even falsely), you are likely to get an unexpected response. Diffuse the situation by saying something caring or suggesting a break.

15. Put aside what you "think" you know. Communicating with someone who has HFA (while holding on to what you think you know about how people communicate and what certain things mean) can create unnecessary stress. The individual on the other side of your message is also an individual -- a person who thinks about things in a different way than you do.

16. Reaching out to someone who has HFA may open more questions for you than provide answers, but a greater effort is likely to yield a greater reward in the long run.

17. Stress increases behaviors you may find frustrating. Decrease the stressors, however small, and you will decrease behaviors which you both find frustrating.

18. The more comfortable an HFA person is, the more likely he/she is to be relaxed in conversation and easier to communicate with, understand, and be understanding. Trust the individual with HFA who demonstrates a wish to do something relaxing in the face of important issues. Reduction of stress can be critical in important situations, and might not be considered as a lack of understanding about the urgency of the situation.

19. Think about your words. Many people with HFA listen to each word which is spoken, and they interpret your meaning based on their understanding of the definition of the words you use. Most neurotypicals are able to generalize a little better when someone says, "Put a pile of mashed potatoes on my plate ...I'm starving." Say this to a person with HFA and you might get a blank look. When the message is in words (rather than body language), it pays to be as specific as possible. Doing so can save time in the long run, preventing repeat requests or lengthy explanations, when a more precise word or phrase is all that is really needed for the HFA partner to get your meaning.

20. When an HFA person looks away during communication, see it for what it is: reducing visual stimulus to be able to better process what is being heard, or to more clearly determine what he or she wants to say. Shifty eyes do not necessarily mean deceit!

Living With Aspergers: Help for Couples

33 comments:

  1. Great site and useful keep going!!

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  2. This is amazing thankyou so so much for this. i suffer from high functioning asbergers and i think you may have solved a hell of alot of stress for me and my friends. xx

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  3. My husband is a man of routines and expectations. As a couple, we are suffering because I do not meet his expectations and it is hard on both of us. He is quite aware that he expects too much from me but he hasn't been able to change his thinking habits. Any suggestions?

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  4. Awesome article. I have been married to a HFA for 29 years and never knew it. I have learned much of this by trial and error, but plan to read this several times and implement as many as I can. Josie, my husband lives in absolute disarray, but for many years his behavior could have been labeled emotionally abuse with expectations through the ceiling and rage to equal it. It's been a trip, but the think that has helped me most besides the Lord, is realizing I'm not responsible for his expectations, his unhappiness, or moodiness. I can approach the line of his behavior, but I will not enter into it and try to rescue him. That is just a rabbit hole you will never find your way out of. Try to see clearly what is his baggage and don't pick it up. Choose your battles carefully because most things just don't matter in the grand scheme. And remember, you are helping one of God's kids make it through this life, that is actually an honor though it may not seem so at times.

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    1. Wow, what a beautiful response. As someone thinking about marrying someone who I believe has HFA, your reply really encouraged me that even though it will tough, there can be a God honoring marriage.

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    2. Don't. It is too difficult. The pluses do not outweigh the negatives in the long run.

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    3. What makes you say that? Do you have specific examples?

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    4. I'm trying to decide that as well. Everyone I know says don't marry him. HFA need love too!

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    5. I am high functioning yet I have issues with having to play"the nuro typical"in my life. I have a husband who was diagnosed at 60 and he is non verbal quite a bit and avoids to the point he leaves and doesnt come back. It is so much work for my self. I have to remind him that I aswell have issues understand peoples motives and intent when they are not straight forward with what they need or want. I find the my background in systematic councling is help full in dealing with issues but I feel like a counselor befor a wife. Its hard having to be the one to try to figure out how to have a relationship and not be wasting life waiting for him to deal with his low self esteem and other mental health issues from his past. I understand the meltdowns,the not comprehending others,having troubles expressing in a way others will understand and respect you for your side of opinion. I am so frustrated as I am a positive person and love the the thought of opatunity and progress and he halts all of that in our marriage. I tried councling but it ends up where they do not know much about aspergers or autism in people like my self. I am so extremely self aware and intune with my self and needs. I have worked so hard with cognitive tharapy for my self and educated my self to be an advocate for my son and my self. I feel so crushed down by how I am told to always put the other persons way or needs befor mine.Having to understand their way of whatever. I am at the point of tears writting this because this wide lable of autism,runs my life. And I see so many glitches in the systems of society for people to receive the love support and proper care to be able to function to the best of their abilitys. All the so cold nuro typical Dr.s that my husband has been seeing have done more damage with drugs they prescribe to him,and not having any understanding of him or his true challenges. All they see with their eyes is a older man who dresses odd and works at the University and is managing ok. He is not. I am exsosted with the money time wast of life energy theis Drs have taken from us. Thank you for reading my post. I appreciate the information on this site.

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  5. I cannot thank you enough for these insights. Veey clearly stated and lucid, and TRUE. After five years in very similar circumstances, an honest conclusion is that I had learned too few of these strategies by myself. I am very relieved to read them here. Thank you for the excellent site.

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  6. Hey I'm Isaac I was diagnosed with autism. In 2011 and I'm married but I want friends that I can relate too.

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  7. I have been dating a guy online living in Korea who has Autism and lately he seems to be so mad at me thinking that I am not acting like an adult. He says he wants to break up but I do not think he really does and I want to work things out with him. I love him very much. I need to talk to someone who can help me on him. He is a famous Dj in South Korea and is a genius.

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  8. I have an MA in guidance counseling. As a consequence a woman that relocated to our area and became a family friend disclosed to me that she was an aspie. I knew the syndrome but did fully understand the full implications. She is very intelligent if and if no one knew she was an aspie you would never guess it. We became to close because she did relate to me very well. The other factor is that my wife has cancer and it will eventually kill her. Hence the relationship with our friend developed into more that a friendship, (not physically). I told her that we need to back off and I basically withdrew. It has been very hard on both of us. We have tried to reconnect as friends but the emotions of love start to redevelop. We both have finally reached the point where we can communicate with respect but there is still the anxiety I see in her when we do visit now. I really appreciate some of the suggestions herein and plan on employing them in the future. This is the best sight I have encountered in my endeavor to understand my friend. Thank for the hard work

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  9. Do you find that HFA partner's drop their social "act" around their mates to a degree where it's difficult to read their body language! And their tone of voice is contrary to their words?

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    1. Yes. My SO do it all the time. His hfa seems to be direct at home only.

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    2. I want to come home and relax and be "me". I'm "on" all day with other people - it's so cognitively taxing to be around other people all day. To come home and still be going through all the same mental gymnastics just feels like I'm still working when I'm home. It's really nice if my wife gives me some slack and doesn't expect as much from me. She has to tell me this, as I most of the time I try to keep up the "normalcy act" for her. But when she gives me a night off, I feel so relieved I almost want to cry. Well, sometimes I actually do.

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  10. I feel so alone and unloved. I'm almost sure my husband of 20 years has aspergers. He has really bad mood swings, completely ignored me, haven't had sex in 5 months, and wants to quit his military carrier of 15 years. Nothing I say seems to register to him. He plays card games from the time he gets home and takes it to bed with himni feel like I've done something wrong everyday. So now I just don't say anything to him to resist conflict.

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    1. It does feel lonely some days. But realize that his behavior is not an accurate reflection of love for you. If he is feeling like he's failing you then he will retreat just like you do. Pick up this book and read it, you will be glad you did. Going Over the Edge? Life with a partner or spouse with Aspergers Syndrome.

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  11. My boyfriend refuses to see that he has symptoms of anything. At first I thought he just had ADD bUT a friend of mine saw Asbergers in him so I decided to research the disease. I haven't said anything about it to him because I don't feel he will acknowledge or accept the "diagnoses" as he's still in deni a lot about the ADD. Weven are breaking up because he won't get help and I am having a very hard time dealing with his "issues". I'm very sad about it and will miss him dearly but how do you handle the constant problems? I am physically disabled and cannot do everything. He seems incapable of doing anything although he is highly intelligent. Any suggestions on how to help either him or me? Thanks!

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  12. Thanks this is so useful, and so much more full of helpful advice than the other sites out there. I think I'll go through this with my partner tonight and see which of these he'll want me to try.

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  13. So far I have been lucky. My AS partner has read about Asperger syndrome and even suggested that he get medically diagnosed. We have been together for 8 months and I am 7 month pregnant. It has been rough. If I was not pregnant I would have left because it is a burden to give love to someone the demands it but incapable of returning the love. Learning about as have given me the strength of patience and understanding. I no longer take things personal even though his words may hurt and the lack of affection worries me I still believe our love is strong enough.

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  14. I've learned so much in the 3 years I've been in a relationship with my BF. We've been living together for 4 months now and it was really good to have realized that he is a high functioning aspie early on even though he's never been diagnosed. So many of the web sites out there seem to take a very negative view of HFAs and had I taken them to heart I might not have stayed in the relationship. Instead I took more of an attitude of acceptance and try to remember to see the remarkable qualities that he demonstrates. He isn't a person that has tantrums and makes huge demands usually so it is easier to look for the good, which is always close at hand. The most important thing I learned is to stay strong in myself and ASK FOR WHAT I WANT with him, never assume anything. It really works. Even with our intimate relationship, although we're still working on that one. If I fall back into "I can't ask to be touched like that or kissed like that" intimacy can go by the wayside and I can start to think that I'm not attractive, etc. By staying clear about my needs with him, without making him wrong hopefully, we have a stronger bond with a lot of trust. My girlfriends and I joke about most men being on the spectrum somewhere and that's where "Men are From Mars and Women are from Venus" came from. I ask him a lot of questions to get a greater understanding and have to use my intuition a lot. Being over 50 really helps somehow; I'm not as emotional and am a lot more appreciative about having an intrinsically good man in my life.

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    1. Thank you for that comment. I feel like that is where we are at too.

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  15. I am really hoping this will help my husband really understand me! I am HFA and could never figure out the right way to explain it to him in the 10 years we've been together! Thank you to whomever wrote this article, you took the words right out of my mouth!

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  16. I suffer with high end asburgers and live at home! But still have debts and still battling with relationship issues and bills! Plan is to become all that I can be and change the world with Christ Jesus!"

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  17. Please no judgements, but I am realizing that I have been married to someone with HFA for 10 years. He will never admit to it, or self-evaluate. When brought up in the most loving way, he get furious and for days after accuses me of being a mean person.
    I know that I have somewhat diagnosed him myself, but need some help. I am at my whits end and have been extremely unhappy for years.
    Here are the most common things for him: He does not pick up on social ques. When someone is in a rush, needs compassion, he does not pick up on it in the least. He does not connect on a topic of discussion, but will add in off-topic statements and innuendos that are intelligent and over peoples heads. I can tell he tries but is off target. He's been accused of being dry & rude... but also he tries to adapt to peoples personality (as he interprets). I think he senses something is off because it's like pulling teeth to get him to be social.
    He'd rather be alone. He will get angry with me for making plans outside the house, but loves to get lost for hours in political or sci-fi youtube videos.
    He has no time management skills. It's not irresponsibility, it's literally just not there. For example, he won't start to get himself ready until the family is loading into the car, it doesn't make sense for him to do anything before that.
    He forgets conversations very quickly. For example we will send hours budgeting and making the family schedule, but shortly after act like the details of it are brand now concepts and get angry with me for being surprised that he doesn't remember.
    He doesn't understand, relate to or have compassion over our children's emotions. For example, he and our son spend hours building a rocket. My son was extremely excited to launch it with his dad. At the park it would not launch and he was heartbroken and crying. Instead of my husband being comforting, he became stressed and angry at our son for crying.
    As a wife he will pick at me all the time in a sarcastic manner. When I express that it hurts my feelings, he tells me that my feelings are my fault because he was just kidding. He expects me to be mushy loving all the time, which I just can't... there's too much damage. The communication is null. He says things to end a conversation but doesn't mean them, so there's no resolution.
    I know this is a lot and I am leaving so much out, but I really need some help here. I know he has a good heart and is loyal, but I have fallen out of love and have wanted to leave for years... but the kids, family and the fact that HE literally wont leave have kept us together. Please help.

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  18. Hector N Jess Ambriz your husband sounds like the mirror image of mine. I have been married for 20 years to a man that I always knew there was something wrong with but I could never pinpoint a diagnosis. After reading your description of your husband I thought he sounded exactly like mine.
    My husband has very limited social skills and a lot of social anxiety. He doesnt like to go out where there are large crowds and be with people he doesnt know.I have resorted to going to most events by myself because he cant handle the stress of going out. He can talk to someone one on one, or be in a very small group setting, as long as he knows the people that are going to be there. I have been covering up for him for years, never wanting to admit that he cant attend events because he cant handle the social anxiety.
    His mothers side of the family are all on the spectrum to some degree, so it makes sense that he falls somewhere on that spectrum but for years I thought he had ADHD and some personality disorder.He could never sit during dinner, he always got up and left in the middle without telling anyone where he was going. Usually he would go somewhere quiet and play on his phone, not talking to anyone unless he was spoken to. His mother never thought better of that, so hes done that for years and I constantly have to tell him that its rude. He doesnt seem to understand or process that.
    He completed high school with his GED, dropped out of college, and has bounced from job to job. Now he has been unemployed for almost a year and a half, and shows little motivation to get one. His parents enable everything he does, so we have been living on their dime because I worked for 20 years, supporting the family because he couldnt get it together. I refuse to do it anymore, my children have suffered, I have suffered, and I felt that enough was enough. All 3 of my kids have characteristics of high functioning autism, but thankfully I have been proactive with therapy for them. My daughters have very few friends, and the ones they do have are socially inept and strange. My husband is very out of touch with any problem they seem to have, he has no patience so most of the time he tunes them out. If something interests him or has to do with something he feels he's good at, he'll help. He puts my son down all the time. He acts strangely when my son's friends are over by trying to joke with them, but he just ends up making them feel uncomfortable.
    Why did I stay married, you are probably thinking? The answer is I had no choice. My kids were all very needy and each had their issues and I couldnt do it all by myself. His parents have helped us, I hated it, but because he cant take care of himself or a family we have relied on them. I thought he was different when I married him because he was so loving and at the time was holding a steady job. Wow was I fooled. I wanted to leave after the first few months. It was almost as if he and his family were on this perfect charade and it all came crumbling down shortly after we got married.
    I am desperately unhappy and wish every day I could take back the decision I made to stay with him becuase I was afraid to be on my own. I wish I could undo the huge mistake of marrying him, because there has been nothing but misery that has come out of it. For anyone who is reading this and is dating someone with HFA, I beg you to reconsider your relationship. It never changes. I thought I could change him and here I am after 20 years and everything is still the same. I am alone emotionally, physically, spirtually. He provides nothing except heartache and grief. I wish that someday I would experience what it would be like to not have to play a caregiver role and really feel like a wife with a normal existence.

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  19. My husband was diagnosed last year with mild Aspergers, I feel since he got the diagnosis that what ever her does he uses the Aspergers as an excuse and I seem to be always telling to do do stuff over again, which does end up in arguments. He talks down to me and my daughter and tries to tell me how I should raise my child as she may have ADD and or dyspraxia, I feel so unloved and he's not the person I fell in love with, everyday I wonder why I'm still in this marriage, we haven't had sex for 9 months and I seem to get is excuses why we can't or he can't, (is anybody else's partner like this?) he also keeps signing up to adult dating sites (does anybody else's partner do this either?) he's done this continually since we got married over 4 years ago. Don't know what to do ��

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  20. Does anybody else have a partner who seems to use there Aspergers as an excuse to the way the behave? My husband doesn't make an effort with me we haven't had sex for 9months and all I seem to get is excuses, he tells me how to bring my daughter up, and does put her down quite a lot, she may have ADD and dyspraxia. He also keeps registering on adult dating sites he has continually done this since we married over 4 years ago, I can't cope anymore and I don't know what to do 😭

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  21. If it were only that easy... I'd run and never look back.

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  22. Hi Fedup I can really relate to you as I endured 16 years - a third of my life - the good years, my 20's & 30's! I look back at how frustrating it all was, futile and tiring. While I like this website and its helpful tips, the reality is anyone who gets mixed up with a partner of HFA will suffer much! Throw children into the mix and you do become carers of everyone else without getting your own needs met and that is stressful, demoralising and deflating...and unacceptable.
    My ex had no idea of social cues and on top of this appears to have gay tendencies. So picture this scenario, a grown man turns up to another grown man's small bbq gathering with our teen daughters in tow. He decides to sing Katy Perry's Roar song as he enters the group and wonders why the other grown men isolate and turn from him. He then goes to hang out with his embarrassed daughters who also reject him!
    There are loads of examples like this. When we were together and I would try to correct his behaviour because it impacted my life, our kids' lives, he would usually deny, deny, deny and then get passive-aggressive with me. Turn it back on me saying I was negative, a control freak, and either ignore us and go off to another room or another place. He would not play fair. He would just remove himself and I saw his tactics as infantile and painful. He would not engage with me. He would be mute. I am a very warm, empathetic person, a people person, having good connections is so important to me - even with strangers! Over and over how frustrating it was not to have a good connection with my own then husband!? He didn't like to be touched, didn't touch me. He expected me to kiss him but wouldn't show the initiative. Sex, what sex? Then he would go into denial mode with other male friends and make out he was some kind of lothario as I was chasing him for sex. Yep that's what he told me he told some male friends! I do consider our youngest a miracle. He was good on paper with figures but when it came to money he would spend it like water. Thought nothing of buying food and coffees and alcohol. He bought an expensive coffee machine and would still waste money buying coffees at his work. I was filled with anxiety with not having any savings. It got so bad I opened up a secret account. He wasn't a gambler; he just wasn't a saver. Credit he loved. Whack it on the credit card he would. Not make regular payments or anything. So the interest would mount up. More debt. He just had no sense! So picture this scenario, he decides to study at university but has made no plan to pay for the fees so whacks the terms fees on the credit card and puts us into debt without talking it through with me. He just told me what he had done. He would come home from working on computers then hole himself up in a room to do his study on computers. He did that or rather we did that for 7 long years. So no sex, no money, no vision, no holidays, and I ran out of respect and hope and we finally separated and have since divorced. It has not been easy to co-parent with him but I remind myself at least I don't have to deal with the stress and idiocy on a daily basis. Anyone having hints of weird, bizarre, unexplainable, inconsiderate behaviour from wannabe partners, run and don't look back!!!

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