What does it take to make a relationship work with someone who has Asperger’s? In my years of working with Asperger’s and Neuro-typical (NT) couples (one person has Asperger’s and the other does not), I’ve concluded there are four strategies couples must make use of in order to create a lasting and satisfying relationship.
Communicate Simply and Exactly
One of the biggest problems for couples is the expectation that the partner with Asperger’s will understand the language, both verbal and non-verbal, of the NT partner.
People with Asperger’s have great difficulty understanding what others are thinking and feeling. This creates a continuous state of confusion, which in turn leads to anger and resentment. Whatever conflicts, misinterpretations, or disagreements that occur in your relationship are magnified by this cycle of misunderstanding, exasperation, and more misunderstanding.
To expect someone with Asperger’s to know what is in your mind, no matter how long you have been together, is a recipe for frustration. You need to communicate simply and directly, expressing exactly what you want your partner to understand. Rather than saying, for example, “I’m so tired of all this work we have to do around the house. I feel like it’s never going to get done” something your partner is likely to interpret as a statement, say what you really mean, “We have work to do. I would like you to vacuum the carpets, take out the trash, and finish folding the laundry. Thank you.”
Don’t Expect Communication To Save Your Relationship
Every relationship has difficult moments. Most of the time, we expect talking will resolve differences and disputes. That is not the case in relationships with an Asperger’s partner. For that person, talking about emotional issues makes matters worse.
Pushing your partner to talk increases stress considerably because talking about relationships forces your partner to confront emotions that he or she simply doesn’t understand. The more you push, the more overwhelming communication becomes, until your partner avoids conversations at every occasion.
Resolving difficulties through talking with your Asperger’s partner is an exercise in trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. It doesn’t work.
Instead, focus on describing your own state of mind, your concerns, worries, needs, frustrations, etc. not for the purpose of getting your partner to change but simply to communicate what is on your mind. Taking off the table your expectation that sharing your feelings will prompt your partner to share his or her feelings can ease stress considerably and allow your partner to communicate when he or she is ready.
Play To Your Relationship Strengths
Planning, organizing, and decision making all add considerable stress to an adult with Asperger’s. Prioritizing decisions is equally difficult. Most people with Asperger’s lose track of the big picture, getting caught instead in details and losing the ability to finish a task on time.
When those tasks involve other people, the job becomes even more imposing.
It’s best to divide responsibilities up such that they take into account what each partner is good at. For the partner with Asperger’s, splitting tasks into smaller units that can be completed alone is an effective strategy. Tasks that require logic play to the strength of the Asperger’s partner as do tasks that require constructing and analyzing systems. For the NT partner, working with people, addressing the big picture, and decision-making is a better fit.
Be The Change You Want
If you stop responding negatively to your partner, whether you are neurotypical or the one with Asperger’s, your relationship is bound to improve. By being calm, patient, and positive your partner will be more able to listen to constructive criticism and feedback. When your partner feels appreciated and successful, he or she is more likely to respond similarly and to live up to your expectations.
If you want change in your relationship, you must start with changing yourself. Pay attention to what you want and need. In some cases, these may come from outside your relationship, through friendships, community involvement, independent projects, and other sources. Don’t give these up. You need them.
Try to be less judgmental with your partner. Instead, work to leave your resentments behind. Focus on not allowing your feelings about the past to interfere with your present commitment to your partnership. Learn from the past, but devote yourself to making a new and better future together. Reach out to others, whether it is an online support group or an involvement that has nothing to do with Asperger’s. And consider getting help from a professional who can assist you in working through the thicket of problems that inevitably crop up in a relationship.
Above all, be positive. Remember, you once felt love for your partner. It can be found again. All it really takes, in most cases, is the desire to find it.
Dr. Kenneth Roberson is an Asperger’s psychologist in San Francisco with over 30 years of experience. To ask a question or schedule an appointment, please call 415-922-1122.