Finding a partner when you have an extraordinary brain can be difficult, and perhaps this is sometimes extra true for those of us who are autistic.
We live with a messy mixture of strengths and difficulties, and because every autistic person is completely unique, there are no simple guidelines. Many of us feel isolated, many of us are single, and many of us don’t even know where to begin!
But here I won’t outline the difficulties that we face or deliver a bullet list of solutions. It’s just my own story about a marriage that seems to be sustainable for our particular combination of two unique autistic brains.
Opposites on the same end of the spectrum
My husband and I are both autistic and highly intelligent, but apart from that we’re polar opposites in terms of strengths and challenges. Actually, we’re quite a comical illustration of how broad the spectrum is.
He gets overwhelmed by eye contact and can’t understand body language. I’m hypersensitive to social cues but often misunderstand them, and I maintain eye contact with an intensity that can penetrate the comfort zone of the most extroverted neurotypical people. I’m debilitatingly sensitive to touch, lights and sounds, whereas he fails to notice intrusive inputs and doesn’t know where his body is in space.
I pick up between-the-lines communication, but don’t know how to respond, and my sense of humor is sarcasm-based and rather bizarre. He can’t for his life pick up hints or understand irony, and likes slapstick humor and teasing. I use metaphors – he doesn’t.
He stims by touching his hair whereas I spin on chairs and walk in circles. I do it in secret; he does it without awareness. He is heavily into repetition and rituals, while I can’t easily form habits or organize my days. We both need to live in a small, simplified world, but for completely different reasons.
We’re both socially insecure. He shuts down in large groups and calls me his social wingman. I melt down after social events and hold on to him in public places.
My first impression of him was that he was overly opinionated, and his first impression of me was that I was quite intimidating. But we became friends and gradually got to know each other over a few years. But obviously, he wasn’t “my type” and I wasn’t his.
Fast-forward another few years and we’re married. How did this happen?
Challenging social expectations
I said to him from the beginning that I wasn’t girlfriend material. My internal template of a romantic relationship contained certain building blocks. Unconditional closeness, frequent or at least regular sex, babies… I just couldn’t see myself living in a romantic relationship without constant sensory overload.
I resisted, but we talked. We talked about our fears and dreams, about our weaknesses and needs. He was scared to lose his personal space and his other friends. I was scared that I’d disappoint him. We were both scared to end up suffocated. We were both scared of being heart-broken.
Once all our fears were out in the open, they were less of a burden. I began to think of our relationship as something that we were about to create, in our own way – not according to societal assumptions. Years later, we still get confronted by new challenges, but so far we’ve navigated through them together.
Merging sensory differences into physical connection
Naturally, one of our earliest challenges was that of our very different sensory experiences. Touch and intimacy are integral to bonding.
At first, I didn’t tell him how hard it was for me to be touched. In the meantime, he couldn’t read my non-verbal cues and adapt his actions to them. He was also facing his own battles, because he’d always been overwhelmed by physical contact and scared of making mistakes through his poor social intuition. This could all have gone terribly wrong, but we’ve tried to find words for it, and are gradually figuring it out.
I’ve broken down many times. I’ve hated myself, I’ve tried to conform, I’ve tried to let go. He’s faced the pain of never knowing whether I’d flinch or invite him. Intermittent, unpredictable rejection can be a deal-breaker for any relationship, but add some autistic inflexibility and you can probably imagine how lost he’s felt at times. What are the rules today? He just never knows.
We could’ve given up early on, but we keep trying to turn to our common strengths: verbal communication, honesty and loyalty. Understanding each other’s fears, reactions and limitations has saved our marriage.
Gradually, he has developed social interaction strategies for my different sensory states, and he simply asks if he’s not sure. This way, he uses his intelligence, pattern recognition skills and verbal strengths to navigate an otherwise tricky social territory. I, on the other hand, help him with his insecurities by using words, rather than my body language, to guide him, and I don’t get offended or upset if something goes slightly wrong. We can both feel safe.
Step by step we’re finding our very own ways of being close, and we are close. Every morning and every night, we wrap ourselves around each other and share warmth and peace. And every now and then we converge for a verbal evaluation of how we feel about our physical connection. We always agree that things aren’t perfect, but so far we’ve wanted to keep going.
Bridging communication differences
Our equally autistic but very different communication styles have clashed majorly! There have been times when things seemed impossible, and we still need to put some serious effort into resolving misunderstandings every now and then.
My personal logic is that potential issues should be addressed before they grow into a problem, and I prefer to just ask if I suspect that someone is burdened by frustration. His experience is that a problem has to be near-deadly before you confront someone with it, and he easily gets flooded with defensiveness and emotions upon direct confrontation. See the problem?
It took several serious clashes and a lot of talking before we began to understand each other’s perspectives. I had to respect that my confrontations caused emotional overload (the analogy with sensory overload really helped me understand this). I try to approach him a bit more carefully. He had to understand that I don’t build up resentment before bringing things up, and that my tone of voice doesn’t match my intentions. He is less easily threatened these days.
Other times, when I’m near a melt-down, I can get unreasonably passive-aggressive. He puts his foot down and tells me to stop lashing out at him, and this helps me take responsibility for my behavior. Once we’re on the same team again, he sometimes embraces me to help me through it. Other times it’s better if I withdraw to a dark room and wait for it to pass. The important thing is that we don’t get lost in irrelevant arguments.
We’ve come up with little tricks. They’re mostly verbal, because that’s how we roll. He might say “I’m feeling very attacked by you right now” or “What do you actually want me to do about this?” I might say “My tone of voice might sound angry, but I’m really not angry”, or “I’m trying to control a melt-down but it’s leaking out as aggression, I’m so sorry”. We’re coming up with strategies as we go, and we are trying to be patient with each other.
Both of us have a lifetime behind us of repeated misunderstandings and multiple flavors of social isolation. We both have a voice inside that says “You’re a failure and no one likes you”. Both of us can get completely stuck with this thought, and it can completely block progress in conversations. So for our relationship to work, we face the continuous battle (anti-battle?) of self-acceptance.
Embracing what can’t be changed
Sometimes we’re not on the same wavelength and just can’t be. Sometimes we wish that we could change each other, and very often we wish we could change ourselves.
I sometimes cover my ears when he speaks because I suffer from the volume. Sometimes I interrupt him in the middle of a sentence to ask him to keep his voice down. He’s somehow learned that this isn’t criticism. It isn’t easy for him to live with my sensory defensiveness, but he works hard to accept it for what it is.
He’s often wished that I could merge better with his family and friends. I’ve been known to hide from Skype conversations, withdraw from social occasions, and decline invitations to events we were invited to as a couple. In the beginning, I wanted to hide my difficulties and he had no way of bridging the gap between me and his friends. He was being crushed between guarding my privacy and preventing misinterpretations. These days I’m less secretive, so he can simply say I’m too overwhelmed to visit, while I can try to show my love in other ways. This problem won’t go away, and it’ll always require continuous mindfulness, in terms of expectations, flexibility and planning.
I used to wish we could share each other’s sense of humor better. But gradually that’s disappeared. Somehow, we are both learning to appreciate jokes that we don’t intrinsically enjoy, and we are learning to accept our own failures to “get it”. We try to focus on sharing the joy instead of focusing on what we don’t share. There’s definitely a lot of hilarity in situations when overt-seeming jokes completely fly over the other person’s head. I make fun of him and he makes fun of me. That’s fun. And we both have other friends that are better targets for the type of jokes we personally enjoy.
Another example of mutual accommodation is how we take care of our home. I have executive functioning deficits and can get disorganized, mildly speaking. He has obsessive-compulsive traits and wants things spotless. Luckily, we both make a real effort to meet halfway (although towards the tidy end of the tidiness spectrum because it’s way nicer there!). I keep my piles in one place and he makes an effort to not go crazy. And I happily clean the house as long as he reminds me.
It’s different for everyone, but for us, verbal communication is our best tool for figuring out how to live with each other and ourselves. That includes our continuous process of deciding what can be improved, what can be accepted, and how to learn to embrace all of it.
Nothing’s ever perfect, but that’s okay
There is a lot to the ongoing mission of keeping a relationship alive and healthy. Finding the right person is bloody hard, especially when you’re autistic. Once that barrier is overcome, it’s a continuous journey of social engineering and self-acceptance. Nothing’s ever perfect and it doesn’t have to be. I think a relationship can be successful through the creative use of strengths such as loyalty, morality, empathy, or whichever assets you can find inside yourselves. For me and my husband, the future can’t be certain, but so far… so good…