Lessons from an Aspergers-NT Marriage (Part 2)

This is the 2nd part of a 4 part series about the lessons my husband (NT) and I (aspie) have learned during the 25 years we’ve been married.

——

Accept that aspies have good days and bad days.

I try hard to keep some of my more annoying aspie traits under control, but there are times when symptoms that I thought I had a handle on suddenly resurface or worsen. This tends to happen when I’m stressed or anxious.

A few weeks ago, an unplanned four-hour wait at the DMV triggered a bout of perseverative thinking. Even though I was aware of it, it was difficult to stop going over and over the situation in my head and, worse, out loud. It wasn’t like I wanted to keep recalculating our potential wait time based on the rate of customers being served times the number of people ahead of us factoring in the bizarre DMV numbering system that involved six different letter prefixes plus the periodic return to the queue of skipped numbers. It wasn’t that I was enjoying obsessing over each clerk who disappeared on break, thereby lengthening our wait time, or repeatedly pointing out how arbitrary the list of required identity documents was. I just couldn’t stop myself from doing it, even though I was aware of what was happening and aware of how my perseveration was making a stressful situation worse for both of us.

Anxiety or sensory overload can aggravate a wide variety of Asperger’s symptoms. When I’m stressed I find that I’m more clumsy, less open to being touched, more rigid in my thinking, less willing to deviate from routine, more vulnerable to perseverate thinking, more prone to tunnel vision, and more likely to struggle with auditory processing. Symptoms that don’t normally interfere with my functioning can become a big obstacle. I know it’s frustrating for my husband to find himself in a stressful situation and then have to deal with an outbreak of my aspie traits on top of everything else. These are the moments that really test our marriage and I’m still working on finding ways to make them less awful for both of us.

Try to balance the aspie partner’s touch sensitivities with the NT partner’s need for physical affection

Touching, one of the most important and fundamental aspects of an intimate relationship, can be uncomfortable for people with Asperger’s. Although I’ve made a lot of progress in this area, there are still times when I shrink away from being touched.

Certain types of touching in particular–light touches and those that come at unexpected times–are more likely to be uncomfortable. When I’m intensely engaged in an activity, being touched often registers as an unwanted distraction rather than spontaneous affection. I’m also more likely to pull away from touch when I’m stressed or anxious.

Then there are the times when my brain is so busy trying to figure out where a certain type of touch is headed that it’s hard to simply relax and enjoy the moment. Because aspies don’t get many of the nonverbal cues involved in intimate relationships, we rely heavily on the intellectual side of our brains to process how an intimate moment is going to proceed. Yeah, that’s about as romantic as it sounds.

All of this can be very hard on an NT partner who naturally craves physical affection. Although it’s hard to change how I feel about being touched at the “wrong” time, I try to compensate by initiating physical contact that I’m comfortable with at a time that’s good for me.

Author Liane Holliday Willey once took a lot of heat for including holding her husband’s hand five times a day on her “to-do” list. Putting handholding on a to-do list may sound cold and mechanical but that doesn’t mean that the action itself has to be mechanical. Since I’ve begun consciously looking for opportunities to initiate small touches during the day, I find that being physically affectionate has become more of a natural instinct for me and that feels good.

Accept that the NT partner may need to compensate for the aspie partner’s social skills deficits at times.

No matter how hard I work at improving my social skills, I still regularly miss nonverbal cues, resulting in everything from confused looks and awkward pauses to downright hostility from other people.

Here’s a recent example from when The Scientist and I met with a saleswoman about a new apartment:

Saleswoman to The Scientist  (who she’d met previously): “It’s good to see you again.”
The Scientist : “It’s good to see you, too.”
Saleswoman to me: “I’m Linda. It’s nice to meet you. Have a seat.”
Me (shaking her offered hand then sitting down): “Thanks, it’s nice to meet you too.”
{awkward pause}
The Scientist : “Oh, Linda, I don’t think you met my wife.”

I had no idea what was causing the awkward pause until The Scientist jumped in and offered my name to the saleswoman. What threw me was this: The Scientist had already met Linda and didn’t introduce himself. I must have been subconsciously modeling his behavior so I didn’t introduce myself either.

This sounds like a minor hiccup in the conversation but it happens frequently and it unsettles people. As an aspie–and an adult–it can be hard to accept that you need this type of help from your partner. Again, get over it. We all have skills that come naturally and social skills aren’t on the list of natural talents for aspies.

This is an area where practice can help. If the NT partner is willing, you can try roleplaying or talking through how unfamiliar events might play out. However, both partners need to understand that while aspies can work at improving social skills, it’s unlikely that they’ll achieve the sort of social proficiency that comes naturally to NTs.

Having to frequently repair social errors is hard on the NT partner and will probably continue to be an issue throughout your partnership. Acceptance can go a long way in situations where change is slow and inconsistent.

—–

In part 3: Compromise, communication aspie-style and understanding triggers

41 thoughts on “Lessons from an Aspergers-NT Marriage (Part 2)”

  1. Yeah, I’ve actually hit people who touched me unexpectedly, or who I thought were going to. It’s a reflex. I can usually reduce the force of the blow consciously just before it hits though.

    1. My suspected Aspie husband had these sort of closed fist, startled turns on me early on (when I thought I was being sweet and sneaking up to hug him from behind.) I always just reacted with a laugh, and a comment like “Really, honey, who do you think besides me is in the house with us?”
      Idk, so grateful for your blog and other similar sites as it’s been 17 years now with varying degrees of behavior I can’t explain to anyone else ‘NT’ without them wondering what the hell is wrong with me to stick it out.

      1. I suspect what’s “wrong” with you is you love him. Same thing that’s “wrong” with my husband. 🙂

        So glad you’ve found the blog and can relate to some things here. I’d like to think that in spite of the challenges of living with an aspie, with some effort it can be a really good thing for both people in the relationship.

  2. I think my fiancé may have aspergers and the section about touch totally makes sense and helps me understand him. I felt so rejected every time he shied away from my touch and when romantic moments turned awkward. Thank you so much for sharing with us!

    1. I’m so happy to hear it’s helpful! It’s been a big help for my husband and I to learn more about tactile defensiveness and sensory sensitivities too. Having an explanation really makes a difference in how we view certain behaviors.

  3. I never did figure out what was “wrong” in the conversation with the salesperson. I never would have, had you not explained it in the next paragraph. It never occurs to me to introduce myself to people, and I’m even worse at introducing anyone I might be with.

  4. “No matter how hard I work at improving my social skills, I still regularly miss nonverbal cues, resulting in everything from confused looks and awkward pauses to downright hostility from other people.” Welcome to my life! Fantastic advice. Thank you for introducing me to the term “perseverative thinking” – you learn something new every day and this one certainly hits home. :0)

    1. I’m glad you can relate! This series was one of the first things I ever wrote and it’s still one of my favorites because it touches on things that have been real sore spots in my life. It was good to finally have an explanation for so much of my social awkwardness and screw-ups.

  5. I feel stupid, but, I still don’t see what was wrong with the exchange. Is it because you didn’t say your name?

    1. Don’t feel stupid! Social rules are hard. Yes, it was because I didn’t introduce myself. Generally when someone gives you their name they expect you to respond with your own name in reply. I’m really bad at this, and with names in general, for reasons I don’t quite understand.

  6. Happens to me all the time. Paradoxically, (I find that the world, especially in relation to Aspergers, is full of paradox), my new diagnosis is bringing me closer to realize my life dream of studying behavioral psychology. Now I want to study Asperger’s and help to initiate greater mutual understanding between us and NTs. I truly believe that aspie traits are being selected by nature to help humanity adapt to our changing environment, and we are responsible for helping them understand us so Aspies and NTs can work together toward a brighter, more compassionate future for our species. Kim, your story is very similar to mine in many regards. Thank you for your thoughtful, sincere, and humorous memoir. I hope to be able to do something similar using my family (my husband and I are Aspies, I believe my 5-year-old is, and suspect that my 9-year-old might be, or at least carry traits). I hope that my story will resonate with people the way yours has with me, and provide more insight into a family where the condition is more prevalent. I would value any insight, advice, or resources you feel might help me on my journey. Thanks again!

    1. Thank you! I think it would be interesting to read your story, since both you and your husband are aspies, which must make for a very different relationship than an aspie-NT marriage. I hope you’ll let me know if you go ahead and write something. There are still so few positive helpful resources for couples where one or both partners are on the spectrum.

  7. i too have been married for over 20 years, but I was unaware of ASD’s when we married. I wonder if I would’ve married him if I would have had a diagnosis. I know I was extremely worried almost to the point of paranoia, I knew I had melt downs even though I didnt know what they were called and that I didnt handle social stuff well, We’ve weathered it all, although there’s so much stuff that I wish were different, you’re right, he does have to undertake when I cant function, and it feels like I’m not a full functioning partner in this relationship… 😦 Would like to be able to talk with other Mom Aspies, its so challenging and I just am not good at anything that falls outside the routine Ive managed to establish. Love your blog!

    1. It’s so hard to manage being in a relationship and parenting when you don’t have the benefit of a diagnosis to explain why things feel so “off” all the time. It’s good to hear that you’ve made it this far, even it’s been hard. I’ve often asked my husband if he minds that he sometimes needs to play a caretaker role and he genuinely says that he doesn’t so I try not to worry about it too much any more.

      If you’re on Facebook, there is at least one group for Moms with Aspergers: http://www.facebook.com/groups/MotherswithAspergers/

    2. Myra, I, too have experienced the neurosis and awkwardness you describe. That link for the Aspie mom group didn’t work for me. Not sure if it’s the link, or my device. I have a blog on WP. I’m not a pro at it, just hoping to make these kinds of connections with people. I’ve had very little time to post thus far as I am currently working 60 hour weeks, and got stranded, literally, three times in the last week. The last episode caused me to go to the hospital on Thursday, as it caused me to temporarily dissociate. Aspie problems. But, I digress.
      I enjoy contributing to these conversations, and receiving feedback. My husband and one (possibly both) of my children are Aspies, and I would also love to share perspectives with other Aspie moms. Participating in this conversation, particularly with musings, and autistic cook, have helped me a great deal to open up to society and communicate with my family more effectively! Thanks again, ladies.
      Feel free to check me out. I would appreciate your input, should you feel compelled.

  8. I don’t see the problem with not introducing yourself in your example at all. In fact, if someone has already met another person, I believe it is their responsibility to introduce you by your relation to them or by name. It does not need to be both. It is only polite. I think The Scientist is the one that realized his blunder here. Besides, I would much rather not have to remember and deal with a new person if it is just temporary – a person who is facilitating a transaction rather than someone who will stay in my life and create a meaningful relationship/friendship. Maybe that is my failing. I see business and personal as separate and don’t trust combining the two.

    1. That makes sense. Generally, if it’s someone he knows well, he always introduces me but this was a situation where he’d only just met the salesperson a few minutes before so perhaps that created a grey zone. It was more of a business transaction, as you say, so there weren’t the clear social niceties of a more personal exchange I guess.

      1. Oh, I see. Not every exchange is the same, I guess. Hard to tell in text format sometimes when so much of communication is contextual and non-verbal.

    2. I believe acceptance goes both ways, marriage is about making compromises and not blaming each other for things that aren’t exactly perfect. In this case, maybe the social faux pas was the NT’s responsibility, but what good does it do to point that out or to get angry about it? It’s not that big a deal. I believe it’s better to mention that it made me feel uncomfortable if I need to vent, but not to blame my NT partner for not holding up his end of the deal. We all make mistakes sometimes, and I’d like to get the same acceptance and forgiveness if I make a mistake that upsets my partner.

      1. Excellent point! My husband and I are learning to say “I’m a bit perturbed, be over it in two minutes”, if something is not that serious, Instead of having an argument over nothing. Who has the energy for that?

      2. I’m not really one to get miffed over the little stuff either. We’ve also learned recently that it’s sometimes best to table something bothersome and discuss it later when emotions are calmer. Much more productive that way.

        1. I am learning to only say something if I know I have the words (and spoons) to discuss it if things end up going the wrong way, or when it’s too important to leave it be. When I don’t have words I’ll just ask to talk about it later, or I write it out in private. I’m very aware of extending the same courtesy to my partner, even if I don’t always think of asking him how he feels. He is learning to not pressure me into talking about how I feel, and to volunteer information on his feelings because I won’t ask but I will listen. 😉

          1. The last part is a really good point! If people don’t volunteer their feelings and thoughts, I rarely think to ask about them. I’m trying to be better about asking proactively, but it’s a hard habit to establish.

            1. That’s so true — I’m terrible at it; I never think to ask. Partly because I’m not usually comfortable with being asked that myself. But I will listen when somebody volunteers. I think it is good advice to try to be proactive about asking.

  9. I can really relate to this. I always forget to tell people my name when first meeting them. Now that you mention it, I wonder if it’s a “theory of mind” issue; perhaps I just assume that they know my name because I know it. 😛

    1. As strange as it sounds, that could be part of it! Also, I rarely remember people’s names when i’m introduced to them so I guess I consider that to be not very important information when I know I’m never going to see someone again. 🙂

  10. my partner may or may not be an aspie, the verdict is still out, but his daughter DEFINITELY is. as the new person in his life, she and i have had some growing pains. your thoughts on relationships are so insightful! i hope she will read your blog too!

  11. I’m catching up on those lessons.
    I am a diagnosed “on the spectrum/PDD – not over specified” and have been with my NT partner for 8 years – ever since I’ve started to find out I was on the spectrum. (I’m 30 now)
    I am so grateful for your articles. It’s good to read you saying what we go trough and struggle with.
    Oh, and, the part about romantic situations? I laughed – although intimacy is quite a problem for me (and I wonder how much is due to autism).
    Thank you for telling things like they are – and even for the advices we might not want to hear 😉

    1. I recently reread this series (and completely rewrote it for publication elsewhere) and I found myself cringing a bit at how blunt I was when I wrote first wrote this. But it’s all still generally true. 🙂

      Intimacy can be really hard, both physically and emotionally, and that’s perfectly okay. Sometimes we have to get creative or find ways of being with a partner that are a little bit atypical. At some point I’d like to write more about that if I can find a way to do it that isn’t overly revealing.

  12. My Aspie hubby and my(NT)self hold hands when we are walking together. It helps stability, provides communication through a squeeze, reassurance, helps stop us getting separated. 25 years on and we still do it. NTs regard it as romantic. It’s far more than that.

  13. My husband is the exception to many of my rules, although at times even he is subject to “touch and die”. We’ve got it pretty narrowed down to understanding sometimes I’m not in the mood, and don’t sneak up on me. Working on the other two, he hasn’t accepted some things yet.

  14. I know I’m late to the party here – but such a lot resonates with me. I’m not touch averse and I don’t particularly seek out alone time. But I do struggle with certain social skills. I’m bad at asking people about their feelings – my sister finds it very hard to deal with – I think it’s true because aspies are not good at understanding their own feelings and find it awkward when NTs ask them how they feel, we don’t want to upset other people the same way we’d be upset. In fact it’s even wrong to say we have no empathy. Empathy is fellow feeling – I have fellow feeling with people I just can’t do that when people are processing feelings in a way that is alien to me.

    I struggled to know what the awkward moment in the salesperson interaction was too. To me you behaved impeccably!

  15. Oddly enough, my typ wife and I are reversed with the touch sensitivity. She has fibromyalgia, so certain touches she might enjoy or at least not mind on a regular day are terrible during a flare up. Facial touches freak me out when I have a cold or allergy symptoms, although I normally like them.

    1. I also tend, out of a desire to try to be more assertive, to beat my wife to the introducing myself, as if by not doing so I’m somehow letting her do all my speaking for me.

      “This is my husband…”
      (offer hand) “Ben.”

  16. I have been facinated by reading your blog.I have a 19year old grandson in his freshman year at college.He is ADHD and has fallen in love with a fellow freshman that has mild aspergers.If this does turn out to be a perfect marriage( ha,as if there ever was such a thing)what would be the chance of it working?Also,he wants to be a father someday.We have a lot of questions about that!! I realize it’s still early in the relationship,but more than one couple have met their husband/ wife in college…some even as early as grade school.I should add that he is a very sensitive young man and at the moment seem ideally suited to each other.

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