aspergers and social choicesHaving a partner with Aspergers when you’re a “neurotypical” can be challenging at times, and Aspies can sometimes be confused and frustrated by the needs of neurotypical partners. If you are the neurotypical partner, it helps to understand that your partner processes differently and has different needs and expectations, and is not uncaring, trying to hold out on you or deliberately trying to upset you. If you are the Aspie, you need to understand your partner’s needs, feelings and ideas are as important to him or her as yours are to you. You need to take these needs seriously if you want to be together.

Here are some rules for neurotypical partners of Aspies:

  1. Understand that your Aspie often won’t necessarily understand your need to feel gratified by connecting. He or she might go to an office and ignore you, for example. This doesn’t mean a lack of caring – it means that this meets his or her needs, and he doesn’t get it that you need something more.
  2. Your Aspie won’t “see” what you consider obvious. Expecting a recognition of what “needs doing” or is expected behavior is a setup for failure and hurt on both sides unless you make these ideas clear and concrete.
  3. Your Aspie might not “get” why something is important to you; it might seem trivial or not make sense. You need to make it clear that something is important and why. I once worked with an Aspie who had trouble understanding that showing interest and expressing concern were important even if he didn’t do something actionable.
  4. A caveat for the non-Aspie: you need to have realistic expectations. Expecting someone to be “more romantic,” to infer what you’d like or to participate fully in a social event is a setup for failure. You can’t expect an Aspie to be fundamentally different, inauthentic or untruthful.
  5. Be clear and concrete. If you want a present for a birthday on that day, say so. If you expect a gift to be “right,” offer a list of things you’d like. If you want a certain behavior, like a greeting, asking about the day, or some other demonstration of caring, be clear.If you feel resentful about having to ask, think of the larger context of your partner’s strengths, and what you value about the relationship.
  6. It’s not back to square one if there’s a miscommunication or disappointment. Sometimes it’s absolutely best to cut each other some slack (as is true for every couple!), but if if you hang on to bitterness, you’re creating a wall between you.  It’s better to wait until you’re calm and can clarify and address challenges more effectively.

In general, understanding what behaviors are related to a person being an Aspie and not emotionally withholding, an “attitude” or a lack of caring makes a big difference. I find partners often know the list of Aspie traits, but don’t translate that into everyday life. Get help from an expert if you need to.

A guide for Aspies with a neurotypical partner:

  1. Be aware that most neurotypicals want to feel connected, and that there are social behaviors that communicate connection. Behaviors like withdrawing send a message that you’re not interested. Stopping to say hello, ask about the day, and showing interest by listening and responding (even by just acknowledging what was said) are very important. Leaving without saying goodbye is also interpreted as rejection.
  2. Aspies often don’t understand that partners are looking for emotional support, and not just concrete actions. I often find my Aspie clients do care about their partners, but don’t say so. You need to say that you care, that you notice if your partner is upset, that you are concerned that a child is sick. It’s not just about fixing it.
  3. If your partner asks for something that is too general to have meaning, ask for him or her to help you by being specific. “You’re not thoughtful” isn’t meaningful; “When you’re going out, please ask me if I need something” makes sense.
  4. You need to check out your assumptions. You might think she’s just picking on you if she keeps asking you to repeat yourself, and she might just have trouble hearing you because you speak softly.
  5. Be clear about your needs as well. If it’s too hard for you to participate in something, if something is difficult for sensory issues or overstimulating, be clear and explain that.
  6. Remember that your area of interest might not be shared. If you’re talking about it, check in with your listener after a few sentences, like, “Do you want to hear more?”
  7. It’s important to avoid holding a grudge when frustrated, and to continue to work together to come to solutions when needed. As was true for your partner, holding onto bitterness just creates a wall between you.

It certainly is possible for Aspies and non-Aspies to have successful relationships if both are committed to making it work. A fundamental mistake in empathy in any kind of relationship is to assume that the other  person is like us, and to interpret behavior based on what it would mean if we did it. Mutual respect and appreciation are critical, as is the assumption that the other person fundamentally means well and cares. Keep the relationship framed in a holistic perspective of what you value in each other, and consider that many of your differences can also play out as complementary strengths.