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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

Adult Aspergers Subtypes: The “Loner”

There are 3 basic subtypes in adults with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism:
  1. The Actor: This individual desires inter-personal relationships with others and has learned enough social skills over time to pass as a “neurotypical” (i.e., he or she can “act” like someone who is not on the autism spectrum).
  2. The Outcast: This individual desires inter-personal relationships with others, but has difficulty finding and maintaining friendships due to a lack of social skills. This person really wants to “fit-in,” but usually gets ostracized from “the group” due to his or her “odd” behavior.
  3. The Loner: This individual does NOT desire inter-personal relationships (except with a very safe/close family member or friend) and could care less about “fitting-in” with “the group.”

In this article, we will look at the “Loner”…

The “Loner” displays a persistent pattern of detachment from social relationships as well as a restricted range of expression of emotions in inter-personal settings. He or she (a) almost always chooses solitary activities, (b) appears indifferent to praise or criticism from others, (c) has little interest in having sexual relations with a partner, (d) lacks close friends other than first-degree relatives, (e) neither desires nor enjoys inter-personal relationships (sometimes including being part of a family), (f) shows emotional coldness, detachment, or flattened affect, and (g) takes pleasure in only one or two (solitary) activities.

“Loners” often engage in a rich, elaborate and exclusively internal fantasy world. They are frequently (but often unintentionally) standoffish, cold and unresponsive, which causes relationship problems. These individuals have trouble expressing their feelings in a meaningful way and may remain passive in the face of unfavorable circumstances. Because of their lack of meaningful and intimate communication with others, they are not able to develop accurate images of how well they get along with people. Such images are important for the individual’s self-awareness and ability to assess the impact of his or her own actions in social situations.

When the “Loner’s” personal space is violated, he feels suffocated and feels the need to free himself and be independent. He tends to be happiest when he is in a relationship in which his partner or spouse places few emotional or intimate demands on him. It is not “people” per say that he wants to keep away from, but emotions, intimacy, and self disclosure. As a result, the “Loner” tends to form relationships with others based solely on intellectual, occupational, or recreational activities (as long as these modes of relating do not require the need for emotional intimacy, which the “Loner” will reject).

“Loners” are sometimes sexually apathetic. Many of them have a healthy sex drive, but prefer to masturbate rather than deal with the social aspects of finding a sexual partner. Their preference to remain alone and detached may cause their need for sex to appear to be less than that of those Aspergers adults who do not have “loner tendencies.”

Treatment—

Unfortunately, the Aspergers adult with “loner tendencies” rarely seeks treatment, because her thoughts and behavior generally do not cause her distress. When treatment is pursued, psychotherapy is the form of treatment most often used. Treatment focuses on increasing general coping skills, improving social skills and interaction, communication, and self-esteem. Because trust is an important component of therapy, treatment can be challenging for the therapist, because Aspergers adults with “loner tendencies” have difficulty forming relationships with others – including a therapist!

Group therapy is another potentially effective form of treatment, but it generally is not a good initial treatment. Although the “Loner” may initially withdraw from the therapy group, he often grows participatory as the level of comfort is gradually established. Protected by the therapist (who must safeguard the “Loner” from criticism by other members in the group), the “Loner” has the chance to conquer fears of intimacy by making social contact in a supportive environment.

Medication might be prescribed, but usually only if the Aspergers individual also suffers from an associated psychological problem (e.g., anxiety, depression, OCD, etc.).

Social consequences (e.g., family disruption, damaged relationship with co-workers, loss of employment and housing, etc.) are sometimes disastrous for the “Loner.” Comprehensive treatment, including services existing beyond the formal treatment system, is vital to improve symptoms and assist in recovery. Self-help programs, family self-help, advocacy, and services for housing and vocational assistance supplement the formal treatment system.

Living With Aspergers: Help for Couples

Understanding Your Aspergers Spouse/Partner

Many undiagnosed men and women with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism are married with children. Some manage adult life very well, while others have significant problems. Living with an Aspergers spouse (or partner) can be very challenging because of the very subtle nature of the disorder. There are no physical signs from just looking at an “Aspie,” and it can be hard to explain to family, friends, and coworkers that his or her odd behavior is not intentional.

Here are 15 tips to help neurotypical (NT) spouses manage their relationship with an Aspergers (High-Functioning Autism) husband or wife:

1. Aspergers can be viewed as “a disorder of insight into the thoughts and feelings of others” (also called “mind-blindness”).Thus, it may be very difficult to engage your “Aspie” in the types of dialogue that marriage and family therapists use. These professionals may not have dealt much with partners affected by Aspergers and may need information from you in order to avoid misunderstandings. Also, it may be more useful to talk to a therapist on your own in order to have a chance to think through your feelings and decide potential coping techniques.

2. Aspergers is a complicated disorder. Thus, it is important that support is informed and understanding of these complexities. There are support groups available that can be very supportive. The benefit in talking to someone who understands should not be under-estimated!

3. Avoid personal criticism. A more impersonal approach in dealing with your Aspie will work better (e.g., instead of saying, "You shouldn't do that" …say, "Most people don't do that in social situations").

4. Have contact with other neurotypical spouses/partners in the same position for understanding, listening, support and advice.

5. If your Aspergers spouse acknowledges his or her social difficulties, it may be useful for him or her to see someone who knows about autism spectrum disorders and who can offer practical advice and social skills training, rather than “insight-oriented” talk therapy.

6. It may be hard for you to understand your Aspergers spouse’s needs. He or she may be interested in things that seem very boring to you, or may find seemingly normal social situations very stressful. Remember that he or she may not be able to read all the social cues that you understand without even trying. Thus, getting very upset may not be the best way to get through to your Aspie. A calmer, reasoned discussion – even writing things down – will work better.

7. It may be hard for your Aspergers spouse to change from routine; therefore, he or she may need plenty of notice when such disruptions are going to occur.

8. Know that you are not alone (although it may feel that way a lot). Use what help is available, through a support group or therapy.

9. Learn as much as you can about autism spectrum disorders. The apparently “hurtful” behavior by an Aspie may not have been meant that way, but may be due to an inability to read the NT’s thoughts and feelings. In telling your Aspergers husband or wife what you are thinking and feeling and what you need him or her to do in response, be very frank and explicit.

10. Many NT spouses feel overly responsible for their Aspergers husband or wife. Acknowledge that there is choice connected to that responsibility. If you choose to take on responsibility for others, decide on how much and when you feel it is appropriate.

11. Often times, neurotypical spouses spend so much time looking after others that their own needs are not acknowledged by themselves – or others. Decide what you want and how you can get it (e.g., where you can go for conversation, support, etc.). Take time to pamper yourself and reduce your stress.

12. The realization that one’s spouse has Aspergers often comes about when a son or daughter receives the diagnosis. This occurrence may be compounded with guilt and a lack of support from your Aspie. Taking time to talk through positive coping techniques with a professional will be paramount here. The feeling of not being able to change things can be overwhelming. Thus, look at the situation objectively and decide (a) what can change and (b) what will remain constant.

13. Understand that all the unwritten rules of behavior may be very confusing to your Aspie. Something that you think is obvious may not be to him or her. Aspergers spouses/partners may not be able to project their mind into a hypothetical situation or put themselves in someone else's shoes. They may not immediately recognize the needs of others. And they may have a lack of perception about other people's motives. But bear in mind that this is largely due to “mind-blindness” issues rather than blatant selfishness.

14. Understand that in many cases, the Aspergers spouse is simply not going to "get better" or be transformed into the husband or wife you thought you married. Even so, certain behavior can be modified or changed, which can make daily life less stressful for both you and your Aspie (e.g., establishing routines and agreed timetables, looking at how you talk and what language is used, etc.).

15. When communicating with your Aspergers husband or wife, don’t be vague or assume your wishes will be acknowledged and understood. For example, it may not be enough to remind your Aspie that you are having family over for dinner. You may need to go through the evening in great detail (e.g., “I need you to help me with _______” … “I want you to greet everyone as they arrive” …"I would really appreciate it if you did not go to bed before the guests leave" …and so on).

Living With Aspergers: Help for Couples

Aspergers: Disability or Unique Ability?

Any increasing number of men and women with Aspergers (High-Functioning Autism) are refusing to be classified as individuals with a disability, syndrome or disorder. They claim that Aspergers is not a disorder, but a “different way of thinking.” Many claim that a “cure” for Aspergers would destroy the original personality of the individual in a misguided attempt to replace them with a “neurotypical” (i.e., a person not on the spectrum).

The “different way of thinking” perspective supports the model of Aspergers that says that Aspergers is a fundamental part of who the Aspergers individual is – and that Aspergers is something that can’t be separated from the individual. As a result, some “different way of thinking” believers prefer to be referred to as “Aspergers people” instead of “people with Aspergers,” because “people WITH Aspergers” implies that Aspergers is something that can be removed from the individual.

Aspergers individuals with this perspective oppose the idea of a cure, because they see it as destroying the original personality of the individual, forcing them to imitate neurotypical people (which they believe is unnatural to the “Aspie”), simply to make mainstream society feel less threatened by the presence of men and women who are unique.

“Different way of thinking” believers assert that the “quirks” of Aspergers individuals should be tolerated as the differences of any minority group should be tolerated. When there is discussion about visions for a future where Aspergers has been eliminated, “different way of thinking” believers usually see this as an attempt to end of their culture and way of being.

“Different way of thinking” believers certainly would enjoy having fewer difficulties in life, and they find some aspects of Aspergers painful at times (e.g., sensory issues), but they don’t want to have to sacrifice their basic identities in order to make life easier. “Different way of thinking” believers strongly desire society to become more tolerant and accommodating instead of searching for a cure. These unique individuals:
  • think that Aspergers treatments should focus on giving them the means to overcome the challenges associated by Aspergers rather than curing it
  • support programs that respect the individuality of the Aspie
  • prefer the word "education" over "treatment"
  • try to “teach” other Aspergers individuals rather than “change” them
  • are in favor of helping make the lives of people on the spectrum easier

The “different way of thinking” perspective is related to the controversy of the movement. Some moms and dads see Aspergers as something that gives their sons and daughters great difficulty in life, and therefore see Aspergers as a “disorder.” Adults with this perspective believe that a cure for Aspergers is in their kid’s best interest, because they see a cure as something that will alleviate suffering. This is certainly understandable, but at a different level, insulting.

Many researchers and doctors have the goal of eliminating Aspergers completely someday; they want there to be a future with no Aspergers. But, many Aspergers men and women see Aspergers as a natural human variation and not a “disorder,” thus they are opposed to attempts to eliminate it. In particular, there is opposition to prenatal genetic testing of Aspergers in unborn fetuses, which some believe might be possible in the future if Aspergers is genetic. Many scientists believe there will be a prenatal test for Aspergers (High-Functioning Autism) someday. Our culture has started to debate the ethics involved in the possible elimination of a genotype that has both unique challenges and abilities, which may be seen as messing with nature in general – and natural selection in particular.

Many Aspergers individuals believe that society has an opinion about Aspergers that is highly offensive. This opinion compares Aspergers to a “disease.” Thus, one of the goals of “pro-Aspergers” adults is to expose and challenge those claims they find distasteful. Similarly, Aspergers rights activists reject terming the reported increase in the Aspergers (High-Functioning Autism) population as an “epidemic” since the word epidemic implies that Aspergers is a disease.

 If you are an Aspergers man or woman, and you're tired of hearing about all the "deficits" associated with the Aspergers condition – join the club! The world needs to know that there are many more positives associated with Aspergers than negatives. If Aspergers is “cured” someday – then there go all the positives out the window. These positives are well worth celebrating. Here are just a few:

1. How often do neurotypical individuals fail to notice what's in front of their eyes because they're distracted by social cues and random small talk? Individuals with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism truly attend to the sensory input that surrounds them. Many have achieved the ideal of mindfulness.

2. How often do neurotypical individuals forget directions, or fail to take note of colors, names, and other details? Adults with Aspergers are usually more tuned-in to details. They may have a much better memory than their neurotypical friends for critical details.

3. If you've ever joined a group or club to “fit in,” you know how hard it is to be true to yourself. But for individuals with Aspergers, social expectations are often irrelevant. Interest and passion are what really matters – not meeting other’s expectations.

4. Individuals with Aspergers tend to be less concerned with outward appearance than their neurotypical friends. As a result, they worry less about brand names, hairstyles and other expensive - but unimportant - externals than most adults do.

5. We all claim to value the truth, but few of us are truly truthful. But to most Aspergers men and women, the truth is the truth. A good word from an Aspie is the real deal.

6. Most Aspergers individuals don't play head games, and they assume their partners/spouses won't either. That’s a refreshing change from the emotional roller coaster that damages many neurotypical relationships.

7. Who's Richer? Smarter? More talented? Prettier? For Aspergers individuals, these distinctions hold much less importance than for neurotypicals. Aspies often see through such surface appearances to discover the real person underneath.