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Surviving Relationship Conflict & Misunderstanding: Tips for Partners Affected by Asperger's

The theory of mind perspective holds that many adults with Asperger’s (AS) and High-Functioning Autism (HFA) will have difficulty seeing the world through another person's eyes. This creates problems in relationships. The AS/HFA partner may act inappropriately in some situations, and appear to be insensitive and inflexible in other situations. Also, there are problems with reading body language and the “hidden messages” in conversations. All of these problems are greatly amplified in intimate relationships. 

Many “neurotypical” partners (i.e., people who are not on the autism spectrum) easily assume that the AS/HFA partner is doing these things intentionally, but the AS/HFA partner is usually surprised or shocked to hear how his or her words or actions have been perceived.

Surviving relationship conflict and misunderstanding: 

1. All good relationships involve a degree of compromise, and there will be many things a neurotypical partner can do to ease the situation. Objective non-emotional expression of frustrations and expectations will work much better than lecturing or arguing. For some couples, writing things down can work remarkably well. Writing it down defuses the emotions, it’s a visual strategy that works well for AS/HFA adults, and can be kept for future reference.

2. AS and HFA have wide-ranging effects, and your affected partner is not choosing to make life difficult for you. Learn all about autism spectrum disorders and understand why your partner has trouble understanding social situations and reacting in appropriate ways. Try to meet each other half way and work on strategies that will make things easier for both of you.

3. Don’t underestimate the impact of relationship counseling, especially when both partners acknowledge there is a problem and want to do something about it. When problems have been going for some time, it’s natural for both partners to become defensive and simply blame each other for the situation. Counseling is a great way to get a balanced perspective again. A fresh objective angle from the counselor can work wonders. Ideally you will find a counselor familiar with autism spectrum disorders.

4. Don't allow your diagnosis to be an excuse for behavior or social interaction that hurts or frustrates your partner. Use your knowledge of autism spectrum disorders as a basis to learn the skills you need to minimize problems. It’s true that having AS and HFA can be like living in a foreign country where it’s hard to understand the language, customs and “rules for behavior,” you can always learn to adapt to living in this “foreign country” if you work at it. Sure, you can simply stay just the way you are, but relationships always involve compromise – so you may be forced to make a choice!

5. It’s rarely all the other person's fault, even though AS and HFA can create huge difficulties at times. YOU would like your affected partner to minimize the problems caused by AS and HFA. So, it’s only fair that you minimize any problems you might have with emotional manipulation, being overly controlling, passive aggression or volatile outbursts with harmful insults.

6. It’s only natural for a partner without AS or HFA to think all the trouble lies with the other person, but some of your reactions could be contributing to the problems. Relational issues usually trigger insecurities, so you may need to look within yourself at how you need to change too. For example, if tend to be passive-aggressive, you will tend to show your dissatisfaction by treating your AS/HFA partner coldly or with sarcastic comments. But you need to know that these poor communication strategies will probably not be understood by someone with AS or HFA.

7. Leaving someone can be very difficult, especially for those that took marriage vows seriously and vowed to be with someone in sickness or health, for better or worse. The sad truth is that in some cases, the effects of AS and HFA, and the inability of others to cope with these, will end some relationships despite the best efforts of both. For other couples, these best efforts will keep the relationship going, and both parties will eventually emerge the stronger for it. That is why any decision to leave should be first discussed with someone that has been there (e.g., an experienced therapist) and after all possible options have been tried.

8. People rarely make the decision to end a relationship frivolously. In most instances, it usually only comes after excruciating guilt, depression, frustration and having tried every option to make it work. Talking all of the issues through with a qualified therapist will help you make the best decision in your circumstances. If the relationship does end, there may be years of hatred, resentment or pleading for a return to the way things were. In some instances, there may be threats or actual violence which can’t be tolerated in any circumstances. If this happens, check with the police or legal system in your area for how to best protect yourself.

9. Relationships are not easy for anyone, and having a form of autism is just one of many factors that can bring relationships to the breaking point. While many neurotypical partners believe that commitment is lacking in relationships with AS/HFA partners, the truth is that most AS/HFA partners do their best to keep a relationship together until they believe it can’t be rescued.

10. There are many support groups for individuals where one or both partners have AS or HFA. This can be a great opportunity to learn from others and find strategies that may work in your relationship. You can’t underestimate how talking to others can defuse the worst of your negative emotions and allow you to start doing positive things to get your relationship back on track.

Living With Aspergers: Help for Couples

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