Aspergers Relationships: A Guide for the Neurotypical
Romantic relationships are tough enough to begin with, but throw Aspergers into the mix, and you’re dealing with a whole different animal. Aspergers is actually an outdated term that is still commonly used to describe a type of high-functioning autism.
Those with Aspergers Syndrome are on the autistic spectrum. Many refer to themselves as “Aspies”. It’s a positive term in the autistic community.
So, what does a mixed relationship, between an Aspie and non-Aspie, look like? Arguably, the biggest challenge is communication. Communication is tough between Aspies and Neurotypicals (NTs) because each perceives the world in very different ways.
They express themselves differently. These differences are neurologically based, so can be frustratingly resistant to change.
Generally, NTs are more emotional creatures whose behavior can easily confuse an Aspie partner. Their communication style relies more heavily on the emotion behind the words they speak and hear, while the Aspie will interpret the words based on their literal meaning. A writer on the spectrum wrote a great piece that goes over the concept of ememes and what the term means for Aspie/NT relationships. You can check it out here.
Aspies tend to be more literal, routine-oriented, and may need more alone time. These are generalizations, of course; but they describe general characteristics of each.
Communication is complicated by the fact that Aspies have trouble mentally putting themselves in another’s place, a trait known as “mind-blindness”. The concept of mind-blindness is discussed in more detail later in the article.
Intellectually, Aspies can understand another’s point of view, but it isn’t automatic or intuitive. Sometimes the Neurotypical will have to break it down and explain where she is coming from. The Aspie partner may need time to process the information in order to “get” it.
The need to deliberately explain things, rather than have your partner understand you immediately, can exacerbate an already frustrating situation. Lots of deep breathing and mutual respect can help the mixed couple negotiate misunderstandings due to mind-blindness.
If you are feeling misunderstood by your Aspie, stop and analyze the situation. Mind-blindness may be the cause. Try explaining your position in a different way.
Logical and Literal
Aspies tend to be logical and literal. They will interpret communication based on the words that come out of the other person’s mouth. They may miss nuances and body language that contradict the words.
For example, an Aspie inadvertently offends his girlfriend by saying something she interprets as judgmental. His gregarious girlfriend suddenly becomes silent, He asks if everything is okay. She tersely answers, “Everything is fine”.
The Aspie partner may miss the fact his partner is actually seething. If he does notice her snide tone, and he realizes she is angry, he may be lost as to what happened to make her upset.
When communicating with your Aspie partner, be as honest and direct as possible, even if it would feel better to punish them with sarcasm. (Your best efforts may be lost on them, anyway!)
If something doesn’t make sense to someone on the autistic spectrum, they may get stuck on it. I worked with a couple who related an interaction that I think illustrates this point.
The woman chose a route to drive that was out of the way. This didn’t make sense to her autistic husband. He questioned her on why she chose to take a circuitous route. His wife answered that she just preferred that route. There was no particular reason other than she enjoyed the scenery.
Her Aspie husband couldn’t understand why she would take a slower route through a neighborhood, rather than a major road that would bring her to the highway more quickly. He struggled to let it go and asked her repetitively “but why?” She didn’t have an answer that would satisfy his need for order and logic.
I think of his continuous questioning of her as a skipping record (for those who remember playing an LP album). Before she realized the way his brain processed information, she would have interpreted his questioning as criticism; but at this point, she had gotten to know him much better.
She finally used an analogy. She compared her route to preferring one color over another. She simply preferred one route over the other. Her husband was finally able to understand that.
If your partner with Asperger’s isn’t getting something, stop repeating it in a way that makes sense to you. Try using an analogy he will understand.
Another communication challenge between mixed couples is the use of open-ended questions. If you ask a general question like, “what do you think about…?” , you will likely get a blank stare. It’s very difficult for people with Aspergers to draw up answers to questions like this on the spot.
Communication may also be hampered by alexithymia. Alexithymia is the difficulty identifying and expressing emotions. Many people on the autistic spectrum experience alexithymia,
This concept is so foreign to most NTs, that it’s nearly impossible to wrap their heads around. Identifying how you are feeling in any given moment is as automatic as breathing to an NT.
If your Aspie partner struggles with alexithymia, you should realize it’s not that she “has issues” discussing her feelings; nor is she avoiding intimacy. Her brain simply doesn’t process emotions in the same way a Neurotypical’s does.
One autistic user on the Autism Forums site gave an excellent example that I think illustrates how it would feel to deal with alexithymia. You know that experience where you can’t remember a word, but you feel it on the tip of your tongue? That’s how he described the experience of trying to identify how he felt about something.
If you want to know what your Aspie partner thinks about a subject or is feeling, go with a closed-answer question that requires a simple “yes” or “no” response.
(Stopping here for a moment to plug the Autism Forums site. It provides fantastic feedback for NTs who are looking for support and feedback on how to navigate a mixed relationship.)
The Neurotypical may feel stumped when trying to read her Asperger partner’s body language and facial expressions. She will automatically rely on her intuitive knowledge of non-verbal cues to read him; but will very often misinterpret her partner’s expressions.
For example, she may misinterpret his quiet manner as his being angry with her, while he’s simply engrossed in his own thoughts. Alternatively, he may make an odd facial expression that she reads as critical, when he is simply processing the information she said.
Many misunderstanding can result of these faulty interpretations; that is, until the Neurotypical partner really understands her Aspie.
When in doubt, do not assume. Come right out and ask.
Many people with Asperger’s are passionate about a special interest or hobby. That special interest may seem to consume the person to the point the NT becomes resentful of the time their partner invests in it. If they don’t become resentful, the NT may simply tire of hearing chatter about the partner’s passion.
A potential solution for this is for the NT partner to join in wholeheartedly, or to pick up a similar interest that overlaps with their partner’s.
Eva Mendes, in her research on mixed couples, discovered an effective way for NTs and their partners to connect. She found that doing something fun and active gave the couple an opportunity to bond. In her conclusion, Mendes suggested that mixed couples seek activities that are novel and exciting.
Discover new or deepen existing mutual interests as a way to bond with your Aspie partner.
Down time is crucial for many people with Aspergers. The Neurotypical partner may feel ignored or neglected if their partner is spending a long period of time alone, but it’s wise to realize this apparent isolation from contact with the NT isn’t personal in the least.
Alone time is simply a space for the Aspie to process his day and remove himself from too much stimulation. If there is any question in her mind, the NT can simply ask if her partner’s need for time alone means he doesn’t want to be with her.
One amazing quality that Aspie partners have is the virtual inability to lie. When you ask a question, you can count on the response being true. Sometimes, they are honest to a fault, to the point of being blunt and that can be extremely tough for a Neurotypical.
If you ask whether or not your butt looks big in your favorite pair of jeans, be ready for the cold, hard truth. While hurt feelings can result, this inability to concoct white lies can be refreshing. It’s an amazing virtue in a world of omissions, half-truths, and bald-faced lies.
If your Aspie partner is declining invitations to spend time together, it’s probably because of his need for alone time, not because he doesn’t enjoy your company. Once you establish this is the case, and you no longer pester him about it, he will appreciate you giving him the time to regroup.
Remember that your Aspie partner’s need for time alone is about him, not about you!
Creatures of Habit
Your Asperger’s partner will likely prefer routines, preferring to go to the same places, eat the same things, and keeping the same schedule. Generally, they don’t welcome surprises or interruptions.
Knowing this ahead of time, you can inform your partner of a deviation from the schedule as soon as you become aware. It’s best for your partner to be prepared, if possible.
Some Aspies will be more tied to routines and schedules than others. The level of inflexibility will differ from one individual to another.
I knew one couple where the Aspie girlfriend was fairly flexible with change and could be spontaneous; however, her inflexibility showed whenever the couple would get lost en route to a location. If their driving route became interrupted due to construction or a Google maps error, she would start to melt down.
Be aware of how sensitive your Aspie partner is to change in plans, and communicate any changes accordingly, in advance!
People with Aspergers have trouble reassuring their partner emotionally. They tend to look for logical solutions to problems and don’t really understand the concept of emotional validation. For example, they may not understand that simply venting is helpful for their Neurotypical partner.
As the NT, you may start out on a rant about how your boss mistreated you at work, and your loving Aspie partner is there ready to solve the problem.
It can be quite frustrating to be confronted with logical solutions that you aren’t looking for! You simply wanted someone to hear you and agree with you, even if you are wrong. You can explain to your partner that you aren’t looking for solutions, that all you need is a sympathetic ear.
I use the analogy of a pressure cooker. Listening to an NT vent about something is like lifting the top off a pressure cooker. It relieves the internal pressure that builds when the NT is upset.
Before you start to vent about something, give your partner the heads up that you aren’t looking for solutions and remind him that he can just listen to help you blow off steam.
Point of View
NTs, especially those who have a high capacity for empathy, will consider another’s perspective intuitively. You may not be aware of that because it is an unconscious process that comes naturally. For Aspies on the other hand, they struggle with mind-blindness, an experience that limits their ability to understand yours.
Mind-blindness refers to one’s inability to infer the internal state of another- the other’s thoughts, desires, beliefs, etc. Mind-blindness hampers the ability to effectively communicate and interferes with closeness in relationships.
While Aspies can intellectually understand that your point of view is different, they won’t pick up on the usual clues NTs use to determine what that point of view is. You may have to explicitly spell out your perspective. Even then, your Aspie may not follow; or they may have a hard time accepting it. This is especially true if your point of view doesn’t make sense to them.
If your partner cares about you and is open to learning, they will try to “get” your perspective. It might take them a little while to process it, but if they care about you they will at least give it a shot.
Understanding another person’s viewpoint is a function of empathy – the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Some of us are so adept at understanding another’s point of view, that we know where to avoid trodding. We choose our words carefully. We proceed diplomatically.
Because those on the spectrum don’t naturally consider how their words will come across to others, hurt feelings can frequently occur. When this happens in a mixed relationship, it’s best to frankly inquire about the intent of the question.
One writer who has been in a mixed marriage for decades says she comes right out and asks, “Did you intend to hurt me when you said that?”
Because people on the spectrum tend to be more blunt and direct, their observations can come across as critical or rude. This is simply their way of communicating, and not the intent to hurt people. This tendency is likely due to their limited ability to put themselves in the other person’s place.
A member on the Autism Forums site amusingly pointed out that you should never take your Aspie boyfriend along when shopping for a new bathing suit.
Don’t automatically take comments from your Aspie partner personally. Ask for clarification before you react with hurt or anger.
Dealing with a Frustrated Aspie
Your Aspie partner may have a low frustration tolerance. When they reach their limit, they may have outbursts that can make you feel uncomfortable. You may even feel a little scared, especially when their reaction seems exaggerated for the situation at hand.
When these incidents occur, realize it probably has nothing to do with you. They’re probably on sensory overload or frustrated with something that doesn’t make sense to them.
Give them space and time to get re-balanced. If it’s something that made you feel uncomfortable, discuss it once their frustration has abated. If you are concerned that you triggered the episode, ask for clarification with questions where they can answer “yes” or “no”.
In moments of calm, you and your partner can work together as a team to tackle the problem of meltdowns. Explore which stimuli create frustration for them. Are there specific things that trigger “melt downs”?
The more aware you become of these triggers, the better able you can support your partner in avoiding or minimizing exposure to them. It will also allow you to depersonalize such episodes.
Become aware of triggers your partner’s frustration and help them avoid or minimize exposure to those triggers.
Troubleshooting Relationship Issues
In her book Troubleshooting Relationships on the Autism Spectrum: A User’s Guide to Resolving Relationship Problems, Ashley Stanford recommends managing relationship challenges through troubleshooting. According to Wikipedia:
“Troubleshooting is a form of problem solving, often applied to repair failed products or processes on a machine or a system. It is a logical, systematic search for the source of a problem in order to solve it, and make the product or process operational again. Troubleshooting is needed to identify the symptoms. Determining the most likely cause is a process of elimination—eliminating potential causes of a problem. Finally, troubleshooting requires confirmation that the solution restores the product or process to its working state.”
By troubleshooting, you break down a problem into smaller elements, find the root cause, and tackle the root cause with an action. Such a process makes much more sense to a person on the spectrum- much more than processing how each partner feels.
Stanford breaks down how a couple would apply the troubleshooting process to hypothetical problems. It’s an intriguing approach to tackling communication problems between two individuals who essentially speak different languages, or at least a different dialect!
When it comes to addressing relationship issues and solving problems, the onus will lie more heavily on the NT to navigate the process. That’s not to say that each isn’t 100% responsible for their own role.
Because Neurotypicals are more flexible thinkers, it will be easier for the NT to understand and alter their thinking than for the Aspie. Please understand that I’m not saying the NT has to do all of the work, but certain accommodations to improve the relationship will be easier for the NT to make.
I should point out that making accommodations for the relationship does not mean you should accept abusive behavior. Trying to understand your Aspie’s thoughts and behaviors is a loving gesture; however, if we find ourselves being abused or maltreated, we should not make excuses or enable it.
Evaluate the problem in your relationship. Identify the root cause. Implement a solution based on the root cause. If the solution fails, reassess the root cause. Continue until resolved.
You must maintain a delicate balance to avoid creating a parent/child dynamic with your partner. It can be tempting to assume that your partner with Asperger’s can’t understand certain things or that they are limited in some ways.
It is true that your partner has their limitations, but we all do. The Neurotypical can use her NT superpowers to anticipate things that may cause problems in her mixed relationship, but she can’t accept sole responsibility for the success of it. The NT should not use those abilities to parent her partner.
Part of maintaining a healthy balance of caring for your partner and the relationship is by putting yourself first. The thought of putting yourself first may be cringe-worthy to some NTs because it can come across as selfish.
Ultra-sensitive NTs are supremely comfortable taking care of others, but not so much with taking care of themselves.
One of the healthiest things you can do is to surround yourself with like-minded and supportive friends. These relationships can provide you with camaraderie and understanding. Sometimes NTs need this additional support because their Aspie partners can’t always provide it due to their tendency toward mind-blindness.
Engaging in a hobby or special interest where you are fully mentally present is another great way to care for yourself. Check out our article on unconventional stress management activities here.
The most important thing you can do to support your Aspie/NT relationships is to take care of yourself and to maintain and healthy sense of humor.
Understanding the Neurotypical
We’ve focused on how a Neurotypical can understand a person on the autistic spectrum; however, the discussion has been purely one sided. How about the Aspie understanding their NT partner?
Aspies have grown up in a Neurotypical world; thus, they learned about how NTs think and behave as a matter of survival. They likely have a better understanding of NTs than the other way around.
The understanding Aspies have gained by functioning in larger society doesn’t necessarily apply to the nuances of an intimate relationship, though. That’s why we’ve written a piece for the Aspie who is in relationship with a Neurotypical called Neurotypicals in Love: Why Do They Do That?
Interested in reading a first-hand account of a mixed relationship from an NTs point of view? Check out her story here.
Finally, for the person who wants to better understand how the Neurotypical thinks and perceives things, there’s a quirky book called A Field Guide to Earthlings: An Autistic/Asperger View of Neurotypical Behavior. At the time of this writing, the book is available for free with the Kindle Unlimited program.
We hope you enjoyed this brief guide for dating someone with Asperger’s and we would love to hear your feedback in our comments section.
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