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Finding Conversational Balance - Part 2: What Aspies Want from a Relationship

Posted Nov 23 2008 12:00am
We've already established that aspies not only have difficulty with small talk but also greatly dislike engaging in it.

You can't change people, so there's no point in settling down with an aspie partner and expecting them to suddenly become socialites.

By the same token, there's no reason to expect your aspie partner to suddenly abandon social contact after years of reasonable participation. You're either born with aspergers or you're not and over the years you develop ways to lessen the impact of your condition. Sure, social interaction never becomes exactly comfortable but it can become bearable in small amounts. Having a formal diagnosis isn't a license to "give up".

Mutual Benefit
So where does that leave couples? Well, the whole point of being married (concepts like love aside) is to exist in a mutually beneficial and meaningful relationship. "Mutually Beneficial" can mean a lot of things; it can mean financial, family orientated, secure or any one of a dozen other meanings. The most important interpretation though, is that both parties should benefit from the relationship.

In order that both parties should benefit, we should be aware of each others wants and needs as well as things which make them feel sad, insecure or uncomfortable. These things vary considerably from one individual to another but there are some things which seem true for many aspies.

Here are some less talked about things that aspies want out of our relationships;

Hugs without Hands
Aspies are often quite sensitive to touch. A light touch on the hand or arm (or worse - for me at least, foot) can leave an itchy tingling sensation which can last for hours. On the other hand, we love tight hugs, they're a firm favourite - but play your fingers on our backs or necks while you do it and you ruin the effect. This is the reason why many people with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) ask for "hugs without hands".

Then there's kissing. There's a bit of a problem with kissing. After all, it's a type of touch. Sometimes you can handle it and sometimes it just "weirds you out". Aspies love hugs but often don't give them because often all we want is a hug but our NT partners expect a kiss as well. Sometimes when I'm greeted at the door with a kiss, it can make me feel really uncomfortable. I'll break it off abruptly with some mumbled excuse. If I was brutally honest with my wife in one of those moments, she would take it to heart. There's just no way that she could understand that it's not her, it's simply that sometimes, I'm more sensitive to touch than others.

It seems silly that a group of people who dislike small talk should crave discussion but it's true. The problem is that we're not good listeners but we expect other people to listen to us. Aspies hate small talk but can usually talk for a little while with family on specific matters of mild interest (such as how little Johnny is going at school). Of course, what we really want to talk about is our special interest.

In fact we'll talk about our special interest incessantly if we can. The trouble is, our special interests usually aren't terribly interesting to our NT partners.

Since movies are a special interest of mine, I'll want to discuss them after we've watched them. Unfortunately, since we tend to watch them late at night, all my wife wants to do is go to sleep afterwards.

Alone Time
When written down, it seems very selfish of us to want "alone time" from our partners as one of the products of our relationships but there it is - it's better that we admit it.

Whenever an aspie puts on a public persona and pretends to be social at an event, it puts them under a lot of strain. So much strain in fact, that we often need a bit of alone time immediately afterward to recharge our batteries.

Aspies who work in jobs which include a lot of social activities such as meetings, are often particularly keen on a bit of solitude when they get home. The more meetings (or the longer a meeting goes), the greater the need for alone-time.

Alone-time can vary greatly depending on the individual and circumstances. Sometimes, complete social isolation is required and we need to go to a room to be by ourselves. At other times, simply listening to music via earphones or watching television without discussion will suffice.

It can be a problem when an aspie is taking a break and the phone rings but at least that can be ignored. A much bigger problem is the fact that our partners, particularly stay-at-home moms, are often starved for adult conversation and their needs are not being met.

As children, aspies are often put into special classes, treated differently and assumed to be generally quite incompetent. This has enormous and long lasting social ramifications which can only worsen the symptoms of aspergers itself.

Aspies quite often have low self confidence and low self esteem. It's not generally admitted but one of the key things that aspies need from their partners is a low stress confidence boost. It is doubtful whether I would have had the confidence to leave my first job were it not for my wife's encouragement. Her words have been inspirational and supportive and they've always encouraged me to stretch my boundaries.

At the same time, I need that "push" to recognise my limits. I've risen quite high in technical circles and I've had a taste of management but found that, similarly to many aspies, the social demands of management cause me too much stress and I'm happiest with a firm technical grounding.

It's widely acknowledged that aspies don't like change - and to an extent, that's true. We certainly resist change more than many of our NT counterparts. It would be more accurate to say that we don't like surprises - unplanned events.

I often walk around with an unspoken agenda in my head of things I'd like to do on a given day. I'll often ask my wife what she wants to do and the be a little miffed that whatever she says isn't quite what I had in mind.

Similarly, I'll sometimes come home to a suggestion that we go out for dinner or that we have a specific type of food. I'll often not be too keen on the idea because it's "not what I had in mind". Of course if my wife rings or emails around lunchtime with a suggestion, I handle it much better. I'm mentally prepared and have the rest of my time planned out accordingly.

Although sometimes I miss the structure of my mother's dinners (we always had the same thing on the same nights), I don't expect this from my wife - and she'd be horrified by such an idea anyway. No, it doesn't have to be a rigid timetable but a little routine and a lot of forewarning can go a long way.

In this post, I've looked at some of the things that aspies want from their relationships - though I've deliberately left out the obvious things in order to concentrate on the more aspie-specific things.

NT's obviously have needs too, which I'm not really qualified to discuss - so I'd welcome any feedback on these.

Next time, we'll try to see how some compromises can be made to meet both groups of needs without negatively impacting our relationships. I know I've strayed somewhat from simple conversation but for some reason, these other topics seemed to go well together.
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