Welcome to our very first blog about intimate relationships between neurotypical (NT) individuals and their partners with Asperger's Syndrome (AS). My name is Amanda and I am married to a wonderful, funny, handsome, loving and complex man who has AS. When we met I didn't know he had AS. In fact, he didn't know he had AS. Our courtship was wonderful. Like any couple, we had a few of disagreements before we married. On each occasion I remember being surprised by his relentlessly self-focused perspective. His language was also petulant, childish even; he did a lot of point-scoring and seemed far more interested in winning the argument rather than resolving the issues at hand. In fact, it seemed he couldn't even properly recognise the issues. It was weird. But we made up each time and I viewed those as isolated incidents. I didn't consider his behaviour to be an indicator of traits that would damage us long-term. Perhaps I was naive but we were really in love and the disagreements paled in significance to the warmth and joy of our new relationship.
Then we got married. Sadly, at the end of our honeymoon we had a terrible argument following a conversation that should have been far more straightforward than it became. Now, I know I'm not perfect and as such my communication isn't always perfect. But amongst my friends and loved ones, I am known for being quite an eloquent communicator. I'm pretty balanced and good at seeing things from the other person's perspective. I am rational, not driven by emotions, and I tend to focus on finding a resolution that benefits everyone rather than getting my own way. So, for the life of me I could not understand why my husband was having such a volatile and irrational reaction to what I felt was my very fair and well-reasoned point of view. Only a few days after our amazing wedding, our honeymoon ended in disaster. Unfortunately, that argument was the first of many horrible post-wedding disagreements to come. Married life soon descended into chaos, a vicious cycle of periods of idyllic peace followed by all-out war. It was a nightmare of an emotional rollercoaster. We were miserable. Our house was a battleground. And it was sad because we really loved each other. But no matter how hard we tried, simple conversations would become explosive in no time at all.
It is difficult to put into words just how broken and disheartened I became. I thought to myself, 'Oh my gosh, WHO have I married? Did I make a mistake?' But I couldn't accept that. My decision to be with him was not the result of an emotional whirlwind. Our relationship was well thought-through and carefully planned. We had premarital counselling. We made sure we discussed everything important in advance - spirituality, values, visions for our future, children, sex, our pasts, finances, where we wanted to live, etc. Our connection was genuine and we had a lot in common. I believed he was a good guy and this view was reaffirmed when things were good. When he was calm he was absolutely lovely - sweet, dedicated, hard-working, considerate. But during those arguments he seemed a man possessed. He tended to interpret situations so wrongly and communicate so destructively that arguments were unavoidable. At times I felt suicidal, completely devastated by what my home life had become. Surely death was better than this. Before him, I was happy. I was content. My life was stable, my environment was safe. With his arrival he brought rage, aggression, cruel words, dissension and abject confusion. I hadn't recovered from the damage from the previous altercation before I was being destroyed by the next one. I got to the point where I just couldn't take it anymore.
I didn't want to be one of those wives who blames all of my marital issues on my husband. I was willing to work on myself and do whatever necessary to make things better. But as time went on, it was clear that something was wrong with him. I put it down to his childhood. He is the product of divorce and had a particularly acrimonious relationship with his mother. When we met he was also estranged from his father and siblings. I didn't judge him on those things, though, because I also had a difficult family background and I knew that didn't automatically make you a bad person. However, his background seemed to be the only reasonable explanation for his behaviour. Whatever the reason, I could no longer cope. This was a debilitating situation; I was so, so unhappy and I felt very, VERY alone. I decided that we needed help from outside and while I felt I would benefit, I believed that HE was the problem. I told him that if he did not agree to go to counselling I was ending our marriage. And I meant it. I really didn't want a divorce. I loved him. But it was a matter of my sanity and by that time we had run out of options. I prayed and asked God to help us.
So, there we were. Our first session. We sat there, feeling a mix of nervousness, hope, and pain from the problems that brought us there. About an hour or so into the initial assessment, which was conducted by two counsellors (one of whom was a consultant psychiatrist), I noted that they had moved from asking my husband questions about himself to asking me very specific questions about his behaviour. Without knowing him they seemed to be identifying attributes that were exactly his. Eventually they said, 'We know what this is,' but they continued the assessment. After a few more questions, I couldn't bear it anymore. I said, 'Well? What is it?!' They both said, 'He has Asperger's.' I tell you. Both our mouths hung open in shock. As we turned to look at each other it was as if that moment was moving in slow motion as our lives transformed from one reality to another. After a while my husband calmly said, 'I always knew there was something wrong.' He accepted his diagnosis without hesitation. We had found our answer. And how fortuitous that we found it at the moment that I was so close to giving up. THANK. YOU. GOD.
The diagnosis made perfect sense but it was still so hard to believe that he was... autistic! I mean, he was so sociable, made good eye contact, was chatty, friendly, physically affectionate... none of the typical things you associate with someone on the autism spectrum. But at the same time, he had other symptoms that were undeniable. Firstly, Asperger's is a social communication disorder and the biggest issues we had were with communication. Then there were the other traits - his self-focused attitude and self-interested behaviour, emotional outbursts (or 'meltdowns' as they are called with this condition), impulsiveness, irritability, depressive moods, difficulty concentrating, problems completing some simple tasks, irrational thinking, forgetfulness, difficulty reading social situations, excessive attention to detail, over-sensitivity to certain sounds, smells and at times touch, hoarding... the list went on and on and he ticked virtually every trait on the AS list. What a relief to know that he wasn't just this awful guy. He actually has a neurological disorder that makes his brain different from mine. VERY different. Suddenly, there was reason to hope.
I would love to tell you that everything was magically perfect between us after that night but of course it was not. We continued the counselling sessions for 9 weeks, which was needful as our relationship was very broken at that time. After that, I had some sessions on my own and together we attended some therapeutic art workshops, which we really enjoyed. We still struggled. We had a lot of residual pain and anger and it took time to learn to communicate with each other more effectively. Although it has been a very difficult road to recovery, the diagnosis was the beginning of change and healing for us. It has taken time to develop a new 'normal'. For me, amongst other things, it is an ongoing process of learning to reinterpret behaviours that on the face of it just seem callous. For him, he has learned more productive ways of communicating. He has found ways to manage his emotions more effectively and he is growing in his capacity to consider the thoughts and feelings of others. We've both had to adapt in numerous, significant ways. He still has AS and I am still NT. Neither will ever change. But it is possible to develop practices and ways of communicating that bridge the differences between our brains. We are daily amazed at the progress we have made.
A lot of people say that AS is not a disability and that people with AS are just different. I do not agree with this entirely. I think it very much depends on where a person is on the autism spectrum. Whilst there is a clear diagnostic criteria for AS, people express symptoms in their own unique way. As such, AS may not always negatively impact relationships but in very many cases it does. For an NT person, being with an AS partner often means being with someone who speaks so bluntly that their words cut like a knife on a daily basis... who lacks the ability to empathise with you, consider your views or ever put your needs first... who communicates ineffectively or not at all... who is more preoccupied with hobbies and personal interests than with family life and responsibilities... who is grumpy, easily-agitated and often argumentative... who is completely disinterested in sex... the long list of challenges that NT partners face goes on. This is not to suggest that all NT partners are perfect or blameless in their relationship problems; our reaction to our spouses can be destructive. We also bring our own flaws and failings into our relationships which need to be addressed. Nonetheless, the particular experience of NT partners must not be minimised or ignored. There is even a name for the emotional trauma that NT partners experience called Ongoing Traumatic Relationship Syndrome. Thus, it isn't enough to consider people with AS as merely 'different' from their NT partners because these differences often create damage and that's a problem. Sometimes these relationships even become abusive and violent. There is also the impact of AS on parenting and this can further complicate relationships. So, acknowledge the challenges of AS/NT relationships we must. In particular, if the NT partner's experiences are acknowledged, and these individuals are subsequently supported, the outlook for their well-being and relationship is potentially much improved. We're here to help make that happen.
Are you NT in a relationship with someone with AS? Or do you suspect yourself or your partner of having AS? We hope that through this blog you can find the help, guidance and information that will help you in your AS/NT journey. To learn more about the diagnostic support service we used, please visit the The Mind Cafe Facebook page. Please share your comments and experiences below and keep an eye out for new blog posts.