Iris, a woman in her mid-thirties, was a successful quality and compliance manager who transitioned to working part-time from home so that she could be a stay-at-home mom when her son was born. Her husband, Andrew, is the head of health and safety for a leading facilities management company. They first met when they were in high school. Iris recounts, “We just clicked!”
At seventeen, Iris was working out who she was and what she thought about the world. She was immediately drawn to Andrew’s self-assuredness and his insightful, unique perspective about so many interesting topics. Their relationship grew and flourished, with strong communication and great support of each other over the years. Eventually, they married. Their relationship was not perfect, but they were happy, supportive, successful, and in-love.
Still, there were times when Iris was taken aback by what seemed a stark lack of empathy on Andrew’s part. She conjectured that maybe, because his older brother had Asperger’s, his family dynamic was different and that Andrew’s brand of communication was normal in their family.
Life, Society, & the Universe
Iris and Andrew were happy to learn that they were expecting; however, during her pregnancy, Iris began to sense a strain on the relationship. After a traumatic birth experience, she suffered from postpartum depression. It took her two years of therapy and reflection to begin to recover.
During this period of time, Iris had far less time and mental energy to accommodate her husband’s lack of emotional support, stubbornness, and inflexibility. She no longer could muster the focus to “engage in long, complicated, esoteric conversations about life, society, and the universe.”
She was too focused on taking care of her son, Eli, and navigating the doldrums of postpartum depression. Iris noticed that socially, Eli wasn’t developing at the same rate as other kids his age. After doing some research about autism, she realized that not only did Eli seem to be on the spectrum, but many of the traits applied to her husband, Andrew, as well.
She sought for herself additional therapy and found an emotional confidant in a mutual friend of her husband’s. She began to realize that Andrew wasn’t intentionally failing to connect with her out of a lack of interest, but because he was wired differently, he couldn’t relate to her in the way she expected. At that point, she resolved to adjust her attitudes towards her husband.
Polygamy, Liberal Values, & Counterpoints
Then, one evening, Iris had an epiphany.
She had watched a show about polygamy and was fascinated with what each individual in the household needed to contribute to make such an arrangement functional and for each person to be happy. She was also interested in the various legal aspects regarding state laws regulating polygamist families. As a woman and a mother, she could see the benefits of a collective arrangement like that of a network of “sister wives,” a village of trusted others who could share the load of raising children, dividing housework, and providing emotional and practical support.
Feeling well-rested and content, Iris approached Andrew with a conversation about polygamy. When she laid out her opinion, he refuted her position by listing financial and social reasons laws should not be passed to accommodate and provide financial support for what he referred to as “lifestyle choices.”
Iris was disappointed and annoyed, feeling that her liberal values had been attacked. Cognizant of Asperger’s and her commitment to try and better understand his perspective, she let down her defensive guard, took a breath, and asked, “Are you taking the counterpoint? Or are these your views?”
Andrew responded, innocently, “I’m just taking the counter.”
This is when it dawned on Iris.
My aha!! moment. This is how he connects with me. He wants to enter into and continue a long, in-depth debate with me. He’s taken the counter simply to continue talking to me. Before, I would have taken it personally, become more determined to convince him of my view point, and finally when he wouldn’t accept anything I said, I’d be really upset.
To my NT [neurotypical] way of thinking – I long for my thoughts and feelings to be listened to and validated. When someone has considered what I’ve said and can agree (or at least appreciate) what I’ve said, I feel heard and respected. I’ve realized my husband, on the other hand, would not enter into a debate with someone whom he did not respect. He views me as an equal conversationalist, or perhaps even a worthy opponent.
Iris is right.
Asperger’s, Empathy, & Identity
People with Asperger’s are, by nature, critical thinkers. Many would self-identify as critical over-thinkers. If anything is given serious, focused thought, it is analyzed and deconstructed from all possible angles and contexts. Mutual, collaborative debate and exploration of a topic is the love language of an aspie, their souls not engaged and their words not unlocked until there is a problem to solve.
To a neurotypical, this form of communication is usually seen as competitive, belligerent, or threatening; however, to an aspie, these debates are invitations into his mind, in real time, as a way to breech the threshold to his identity. It is a profound gesture of respect for an aspie to give someone the opportunity to have him challenge his thoughts and her own. To Andrew, it was the warmest offering of intimacy to extend his wife the opportunity to disassemble the foundation of position, even of his beliefs and values, then to rearrange them with her own insights and contributions as they occurred, organically, in the conversation. He was trying to give her the opportunity to make an indelible mark on his moral, ethical, and logical perception… on the part of his brain that processes empathy. This was emotional reciprocity in his language.
When a neurotypical person and an aspie are in a long-term relationship, most reach a point during which they find themselves at an emotional impasse, both feeling misunderstood, undervalued, and not truly seen. There exists a devastating lack of practical, tangible resources to help individuals navigate the neurological and perceptive differences of NT-ND relationships, leaving both parties flying blind and feeling perpetually at odds with their partners. The discord is even more palpable if neither party is aware they are autistic.
When I read about Iris’s joy at her newfound insight, I asked her if I could share her story. I had been planning to tackle inter-neurotype romantic relationships, and this felt like the right place to begin. Iris was happy to help, hoping that her experiences and insights would help others better understand their partners and themselves.
I realized I’ve been reading things wrong for a long time. All those occasions where I couldn’t understand why he’d been creating an argument for seemingly no reason, I realize now were attempts to reach out and connect with me. Knowing this gives me a lot of peace. By asking straight forward questions such as, “Is that how you think about it?” or “Is that your opinion?” or stating “I can’t have this conversation right now,” has helped us reduce the number of upsets.
Iris wasn’t the only one misreading the situation. Andrew was continuing on the path of having related to Iris in the way he had when they first met, when she had been enchanted by his insights. He didn’t realize how much different her needs were after she became a mother, especially when she was in the throes of postpartum depression. He hadn’t read her subtle cues that she was disinterested or becoming upset or offended. Iris finds it hard to be blunt, noting that it feels impolite. Having missed her hints, Andrew was surprised when his wife would become “suddenly” emotional, which to his mind read as irrational.
Unpacking, Equalizing, & Collaborating
Iris and Andrew have more than three decades of perceptions to unpack and rearrange, and they will likely spend many years mapping out the differences between neurotypical and Aspergian perception. But, they are feeling hopeful. Iris had been trying to communicate with Andrew in subtleties, intuiting that he was reading her cues and choosing to ignore them because that’s what it would have meant if he were a neurotypical. She was upset that he was failing to be supportive and sensed he was being oppositional or domineering.
Andrew was trying to provide his wife with the intellectual stimulation that had been more rewarding for Iris when circumstances were different. He was giving her what he intuited she needed because intimacy and intellectual exploration are inextricably linked in his perception. He was confused and felt dejected when his attempts at connection were making his wife upset. Not reading her hints, her eventual anger or emotional response seemed to come out of the blue.
Now that they know they’ve been playing a game according to two different rulebooks, they can compromise on the discrepancies and write their own rules. Collaboratively.
It was their son who lead them to this discovery, and unlike his father, he will grow up with the privilege of understanding his neurological differences and how to accommodate for them. As a family, they will grow and learn from each other. Iris will guide Andrew and Eli through understanding unwritten neurotypical code, and Andrew will be able to communicate and intuit his son’s perspectives and behaviors and translate them to Iris.
According to Horace Mann, “Education is the great equalizer.” It feels fitting that Iris’s epiphany came to her after contemplating the merits of a collective, trusted village of others working together to raise children and contribute meaningfully to each other’s lives. By sharing her story, Iris is contributing to what will eventually become a growing body of resources to help inter-neurotype couples better understand each other.
It is an honor for me to collaborate socially and in solidarity with her. Our combined efforts will ford a better, more tolerant, educated, and accepting future for our autistic children, her son and my daughter. We are doing our parts and combining what we both bring to the table, a village of trusted women contributing to the great equalizer.
You, as a reader, have participated in our collective effort by giving your time to read this article and broaden your perceptive horizon. Has Iris’s insight been helpful to you? If so, please share your thoughts by leaving a comment, and share this article on your social media to continue the sharing.