My wife is not my first: I’d been married before. I very rarely speak about my first marriage because it came to a spectacularly bad end: this is my attempt to work out why.
I only heard the term validation recently, but quickly realized that I was familiar with the concepts behind it. It is very much about recognizing and acknowledging emotions, both in ourselves and in others, something that I find difficult. This would be true for anybody with alexithymia, and I’d presume is fairly common across the autism spectrum as a result.
Why do I bother trying to tell you I’m overloaded and need to be left alone? That your soapbox monolog — the volume of your voice and your emotion-laden tone — are hurting me, costing me so much energy to maintain self-control that I am becoming rapidly exhausted. Are you listening to me? Can you hear me?
I gave up; I wasn’t getting anywhere. Again.
Unbroken path leads back
The way I came while on
Each side the land runs out
To fade in distant haze.
In front of me the void
That last small step of mine.
I don’t remember how
My feet conveyed me here,
Nor any of the turns:
Decisions lost in time.
On setting out the route
Lay wide and arrow-straight
As far as eyes could see;
We walked off hand in hand.
It matters not who first
Slipped from the other’s grip:
We each believed our paths
Led true. The distance grew
Until the day I found
We’d drifted out of touch:
I had never noticed
You straying from my side.
Glimpses offered hope that
Our paths would meet ahead:
I’ll wait for you forever,
Alone here on the edge.
Social situations are a minefield in which the slightest misstep can result in things blowing up in your face. I picture the situation as a narrow path – the “safe” area in terms of what I can say or do – with increasing danger of stepping on a mine – upsetting somebody – the farther I venture from the path.
Since I am risk-averse I do not often test the boundaries of what people find to be acceptable behavior – mapping out the danger area – and when I do, I tend to do so carefully and deliberately in the hope that any negative reaction will be small enough for me to handle.
I find it difficult because different people have wildly different standards of what they deem to be acceptable. Not only that, but the boundaries move depending on context. There is only a small patch of common ground on which the majority of people I encounter socially can agree.
My starting position with somebody I have not met before is to play it very safe – speak when spoken to, no slang or swearing, no physical contact. Over time I will observe how they act towards me and others, and slowly begin to introduce those behaviors that they demonstrate – the assumption here is that they are less likely to be offended by something that they do themselves.
This is not an infallible method. That’s people for you – they’re not always rational, logical or consistent. It can be a case of “do as I say, not as I do” – how confusing! But slowly, gingerly, I can explore the envelope and work out just how far I am able to take things with those I know reasonably well.
Over the past few months my relationship with a certain other person, whom I shall refer to as W, has been up and down so much that visualising the turns it has taken is enough to make me sea-sick. At the heart of the problem is difficulty in communication: W is neurotypical while I have Aspergers Syndrome.
When W is suffering with health problems or depression she will talk about it at great length in a highly emotionally-charged way and her language will become much more figurative and abstract than normal. I find this combination particularly difficult to handle. Because I know her so well I have learned to interpret the emotional cues in her voice – when she is feeling so tired and frustrated and even angry at her illnesses this comes through to me in her voice and mannerisms. I find the strong emotions very difficult to cope with and tend to shut down.
It appears that this response is not very helpful to W – how could I have known? My own reaction to pain – physical or mental – is usually to keep it all inside. I become more withdrawn – even though I might be yearning for some comfort, for a hug that will make me feel safe and less anxious. But in that state I can’t express how I feel or what I need to help me deal with it.
So it turns out that what I need at times like this is almost exactly what W needs too. And now we’ve figured it out. I know it sounds simple, almost trivial, but between my inability to speak about my feelings and my literal misinterpretation of W’s descriptions of her feelings – when I haven’t just shut down from the emotional overload – we’ve been failing to communicate. Which has been causing far too much unnecessary stress on both sides.
I’m not saying that we’ve completely resolved the problems – time will tell on that score. But we have reached a new level of understanding. I know it sounds contradictory but I’m learning to be more supportive by taking less notice of W – I have to partially block her out so that I avoid overloading and shutting down. So that I can continue to function and respond. Which all helps her deal with what she’s going through and in turn helps me.
Yes, it would probably have been easier for both of us to have ended the relationship rather than work hard at discovering problems and trying to fix them. But what seems easy in the short term often turns out not to be the best option in the longer term. We both feel that there is enough value in our relationship to make the effort of repairing it worthwhile, because when it’s working it is so strong and strengthens both of us.
The difficulties experienced by most people on the autism spectrum when it comes to social interaction are a major handicap when it comes to forming relationships. I’m no different in this respect – I have never “chatted up” anybody in my life and wouldn’t even know where to start. It’s not something you ever get taught. Besides that, approaching a stranger – even one that I find attractive – causes me too much anxiety and I can’t manage a conversation in that frame of mind. It’s hard enough for me to start a conversation and keep it going with somebody I know well and feel comfortable around. I should also note that “attractiveness” for me is a very subjective thing – for example, I never come up with names that people are expecting when asked to name a celebrity I find attractive. But that’s another subject.
The end result of my social difficulties was that I never had a girlfriend right through school and university. To be honest I didn’t even try – it wasn’t something that I felt I needed or was able to do. My first relationship began after I moved away from home to start work. I was about 23 and she made the first moves. Looking back I guess I got almost obsessively involved very quickly – this isn’t uncommon for people with Aspergers, but at the time I hadn’t even heard of the condition. Although we got married and had a daughter, the relationship didn’t last for a number of reasons – some of them related to my AS, others to do with a more basic incompatibility. The break-up was extremely stressful on both sides and I ceased contact soon afterwards – I just couldn’t face it because even thinking about it would overload me.
Understandably I wasn’t looking for another relationship after this experience, but a year or so down the line I ended up in one – only my second – with the woman who was to become my second – and current – wife. This one also started intensely and cooled over the years but we have proved to be rather more compatible than was the case in my first marriage. It was my current wife who first suspected that I have AS – she has some experience with neurological disorders which helps her understand me.
Our relationship began when she started chatting to me in a bar. We had friends in common and I believe that’s why I felt so comfortable so quickly. I never had any plan – any end result in mind – for where our friendship might lead. I just kind of got caught up in the flow and without having a clear idea of how we got there we ended up living together and, some time later, got married.
We have had times when we have argued – or, to be more precise, when she has got riled up and I’ve responded by overloading with either a meltdown or more usually a shutdown. But these have been rare and short-lived and in the main we get along very well. We complement each other’s strengths: I am normally placid and level-headed while she is emotional and impulsive. She instigates the majority of what we do while I keep our feet on the ground. She manages the household (finances and suchlike) regarding which I have a major blind spot.
What I regard as my biggest strengths: I am completely loyal and faithful, I care very deeply about her. My biggest weaknesses: I can’t show or express my feelings in speech, I fall into repetitive behaviour very easily. I know that life with me is difficult for her at times. Even after nearly ten years together, she still expects me to react “normally” in certain situations. But between us we are making a success of this relationship. One of the keys to that success has been the fact that she understands how having AS affects me.