This is the 3rd in a 4 part series about the lessons my husband (NT) and I (aspie) have learned during the 25 years we’ve been married.
Being alone is how people with Asperger’s regroup. When I retreat to my home office and close the door, it doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy the company of my family. It has nothing to do with how much I love my husband. It doesn’t mean that I’m disinterested, selfish, cold or insensitive. It means I’ve hit my limit for social interaction and need to recharge.
Somehow, The Scientist figured this out years before we knew anything about Asperger’s and has learned to recognize when I’m nearing my limit, sometimes before I do. If we have guests staying with us for a few days, he makes a point to build time alone for me into the schedule. If he sees that I’m starting to tire or withdraw during a long social event, he’ll suggest that we do something away from the crowd for a short time to help me refocus. He’s also come to accept that when I say I need to leave a social situation, I’ve truly stuck it out as long as I can, and staying longer is going to cost me more than it’s worth.
I probably sound like a social tyrant. Maybe I am. I’m certainly not an average wife who thrives on entertaining and socializing. But I’ve learned that being realistic about my limits–and pushing at them where I can–is less destructive to our relationship than overreaching and ending up in tears.
Good advice for any marriage, but especially important when one partner has Asperger’s Syndrome. You may find that some of the compromises you make are unconventional. For example, The Scientist and I have realized that we need to compromise about which social occasions I attend. He gets invited to a lot of work-related dinners, cocktail hours, award ceremonies, etc. We’ve concluded–after much arguing, discussing and agonizing–that it’s unrealistic to expect that I’ll attend every event (his preference) or none of them (my preference).
Our compromise is that I’ll attend the important events and he’ll go to the less important events alone. This means that I’m going to be uncomfortable some of the time (talking to strangers–oh no!) and he’s going to be uncomfortable at times (making excuses for my absence). Like most compromises, no one is completely happy with this arrangement, but it’s the least bad option.
Compromising can be a hard skill for aspies to master. I’ve found that it helps to take a cost-benefit approach. What is doing this for my partner going to cost me? What would not doing it cost him? What are the potential benefits–for him, for me, for our relationship?
For social occasions, the biggest costs are usually the anxiety in the days leading up to the event and the physical exhaustion I’ll feel afterwards. The benefits tend to be a happy husband and some enjoyable moments of social interaction. By listing the costs and benefits as concretely as possible, it’s easier for me to find places where I can compromise rather than reflexively rejecting every social invitation as being too much work.
Triggers may seem odd or even incomprehensible to the NT partner. Case in point: I don’t like having the bathroom fan on while I shower. The drone of the fan and the feel of moving air on my wet skin are unpleasant sensations. Complicating matters, the shower light and bathroom fan are on the same switch so to avoid the fan I have to shower in semi-darkness. The Scientist thinks this is silly. He rolls his eyes when I flip the switch off. He says I’ll get used to it. He points out that the fan is on the other side of the bathroom. He understands a lot of my quirks but not this one.
All aspies have triggers–experiences that elicit a stress response. Some people have many and others just a few. Triggers can be environmental/sensory (sounds, smells), social (crowds, public speaking), or situational (new places, unexpected changes). Some triggers, like the bathroom fan, are mild. They cause discomfort or low level anxiety, but we can live with them if we have to. Others are more severe, leading to angry outbursts, crying jags or mute withdrawal.
If the aspie partner has clearly identified and communicated her triggers, the NT partner needs to do his best to respect them and make accommodations if necessary. Sometimes an accommodation is as simple as not explaining yet again why something would be fine if only the aspie would give it a try. Other accommodations can be more stressful on a relationship. If the aspie partner can only get a good night’s sleep by sleeping alone or she finds grocery stores intolerable, both partners need to be open and honest about what kind of accommodations are feasible.
You’ll find this advice at the top of most “secrets to a happy marriage” lists. The thing about being married to an aspie is that we have serious communication deficits. The NT partner may think he is communicating but most of what he’s saying doesn’t seem to be getting through. NTs communicate in subtle ways that aspies find difficult to interpret.
Here’s a typical example: One day I was making lunch and the following exchange took place:
Me: “I found this great new recipe for chorizo and grits. Do you want to try some?”
The Scientist: “That’s okay. I’m not very hungry.”
I was a little hurt that he didn’t want to try the new recipe I was obviously so excited about but I went ahead and made enough for myself. Thinking he might like to taste it, I offered him a bite.
The Scientist: “Wow, that’s great. Is that all you made?”
Me: “Yeah. You said you didn’t want any.”
The Scientist: “But I hoped you’d make me some anyhow.”
Me: “I asked you if you wanted some and you said you weren’t hungry.”
The Scientist: “I didn’t want to make extra work and I wasn’t sure if you had enough for both of us.”
I was stunned. It would have been no extra work to double the portion and I had plenty of ingredients. Why hadn’t he just said “yes” when I asked if he wanted some? Apparently I was supposed to know that his “no” meant “yes.” Apparently this is what “good wives” do. We both felt bad afterwards–he felt like I was being selfish by cooking only for myself and I felt like I’d been tested and failed.
Keep in mind that we’ve been married for twenty-five years and know each very well. Yet, this still happens now and then.
Aspies need explicit communication. Forget about dropping hints. Forget about body language and inferences. We need to be told exactly what our NT partner wants, needs, or expects. And we may need to be told more than once, in slightly different ways, until we get it.
In part 4: love and acceptance, aspie style