Communicating Differently: Intimate Relationships With Adults Who Have Asperger’s, Part II
Previously, I wrote about a type of communication that occurs often between non-Asperger’s adults (NT) and their Asperger’s (AS) partners. The NT partner, hoping to be understood, validated, and cared for, seeks different ways of eliciting intimacy and closeness from the AS partner. Typically this involves asking for more direct expressions of love and affection, reminding the AS partner of this need, providing instructions on how to be more emotionally engaged, and encouraging behavior that leads to emotionally close, reciprocal interactions.
Relying on these prompts becomes the primary strategy that NT adults use to deal with their partner’s emotional unresponsiveness.
In turn, the AS partner comes to depend upon these continuous prompts as signals of how to behave. What occurs then is a repetitive communication cycle, termed a “roundabout” that neither partner can exit from. The NT adult keeps trying to prompt the behavior he or she desires, the AS partner reciprocates only when prompted, this intermittent success encourages the NT partner to continue prompting, and over time the couple becomes locked in a mutually unsatisfying, intractable communication pattern.
Three significant features of this pattern are worth examining.
As noted in the original study, AS partners tend to react to prompting by withdrawing, stonewalling, acting defensive, and reacting passively to the requests of their partner. Not surprisingly, this generates considerable tension between the two.
One subject in the study noted:
If he doesn’t want to do something he just doesn’t do it. You cannot force him to do anything he doesn’t want to do…I feel helpless…You cannot get past the rigidity. He has no comprehension of the damage that he has done…there seems to be no understanding of the emotional side of things.
The repeated pattern of prompting by the NT partner and reactions by the AS partner result in both partners disengaging and disconnecting. As one AS partner stated:
There’s no making up and there’s no saying sorry…because I’m not wrong and she obviously believes she’s not wrong either and therefore what’s to be sorry about.
Needless to say, stonewalling and defensiveness, in reaction to repeated prompting, generates considerable tension, conflict, and unhappiness between the partners.
NT partners who try repeatedly to get their AS partner to engage and communicate with them assume a dominant role in the relationship, many comparing their relationships to that of a parent/child or teacher/student.
One NT partner noted:
He feels like a child and I am the parent. He can’t cope without me. I have to praise him. I have to prompt him. I have to guide him. I have to teach him. I feel heavy and overburdened.
Typically, the NT partner experiences a profound sense of frustration with the considerable effort required to achieve brief fragments of connectedness, leading at times to their own desire to withdraw.
In many ways, I suppose I’ve given up on trying to have any more of an instructive role because to me it feels like I’m just being a teacher and a carer (caregiver) and not being a partner.
The consequences of the prompting cycle are mainly negative. The NT partner feels perpetually frustrated and emotionally depleted. Many question whether to stay in the relationship while others feel trapped in it. Guilt over their dissatisfaction is common. Others see no alternative to taking care of a partner who appears unable to exist on their own. As one subject in the study described:
I really don’t see the solution. At this stage in my life, splitting up (isn’t an option), we’ve been together too long. I just feel if I walked away from it he would be this lost person. He would be by himself with no connection to the outside world.
AS partners experience their own dissatisfactions. Some see their NT partner as having become domineering and controlling towards them. They resort to various strategies to avoid communication, as expressed by the following:
I have learned to give up, it is not worth the hassle.
I would communicate by taking some sort of action rather than talk about it.
(Our communication breakdown) doesn’t do anything for the confidence or anything or the ability to do things…It puts your confidence down, in your abilities.
Because of their unmet needs for intimacy, NT partners resort to prompting their AS partners to provide the emotionally reciprocal relationships they desire. These prompts take the form of reminders, instructions, and explanations. When the desired communication doesn’t occur, the NT partner tries more prompting, resulting in taking a dominant caretaking role, resembling a parent/child relationship.
Not surprisingly, the AS partner often feels pressured into behaving according to what the NT partner wants. Under this pressure, the AS partner resorts to withdrawing; reacting angrily, either directly or passively; complying superficially and/or acting out, rather than communicating directly.
In my next blog, I will discuss how couples can exit the “roundabout” in productive and emotionally fulfilling ways.
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.