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Understanding Intimate Relationships on the Spectrum

By Dr Michelle Garnett

Being in an intimate relationship with someone is one of the most intensely joyful and painful experiences we can have. The ecstasy of finding love, being in love, and loving someone is so incredibly uplifting that most people would declare that they ”would rather have loved and lost than never have loved at all.”  Being in love with someone with Autism is one of the most intense love experiences possible. However, discovering that the person with Autism has a different definition of love to oneself, and a different way of expressing that love, can lead to deep pain and a sense of loneliness.

In group therapy for couples where one or both of the partners have Autism, Prof Tony Attwood, and I are always fascinated to discover the different definitions of love from Aspie partners compared to neurotypical partners. We find that the love felt by both partners is incredibly powerful, but it is not necessarily expressed in a way that the other partner can feel. Many couples stay together with intense loyalty and commitment, but both can be suffering if they feel lonely and disconnected from each other. A common theme is that the nonspectrum partner feels that they are not important, and not cared for or considered. The Aspie partner often feels that he or she cannot get anything right and is constantly criticised. When there is so much love going on, what is happening here?

We find it helpful to be translators between nonspectrum and Aspie cultures to allow clear communication between the partners. One of our aims is to distil the key messages for each partner about their partner’s needs, taking away the emotional content, the need for a language for emotions, and eliminating the need to read nonverbal communication. We try to put the message to each partner in a way that they will be able to hear, understand and act on. Slowly but surely couples begin to understand each other better, start to forgive and let go of past hurt, and to build bridges toward each other to establish a new kind of intimacy that feels like speaking a foreign language at first. As each person begins to feel understood, validated and cared for, trust can begin again. The new language starts to feel familiar over time, and with continued attention and nurturing care, love and joy can flourish.

I include in this article some examples of the messages we have translated from one partner to another, in hope that these may be a useful tool for a conversation if you are lost and lonely in an Aspie relationship.

What nonspectrum partners often say they would like their Aspie partners to understand about them…

  • I need to deal with the reasons for the stress and tension in our relationship so that we can resolve them and move on. Otherwise the issues fester and we are both unhappy.
  • I need acknowledgement from you that you understand that I need to deal with these underlying reasons, and reassurance that you will help me deal with the reasons for the stress.
  • Please show me that you can hear me and understand me, sometimes I feel I have to yell or cry before you will listen.
  • I need you to notice that I am upset before I cry and to show me care and concern when you notice.
  • I need you to try to understand my point of view, and even when you do not understand it, to tell me that you respect and value me even if you do not understand why I could think that way, and even when you do not agree with me. For example, “ I love you and I highly value you in my life. I do not understand or agree with your perspective, but I respect your opinion, and I agree to differ.”
  • I want you to value outsourcing some of the jobs, to an agreed to budget, for the trade-off of a happier and less stressed homelife.
  • Please believe me when I say what it is like for me, even when it is different from what it is like for you.
  • I want you to hear what I think and feel without perceiving it as criticism. I am not trying to criticise you, I am trying to be heard and to seek resolution on issues that are getting in the way of our happiness together.

What Aspie partners often say that they would like their nonspectrum partner to understand about them

  • I would like it if you were open to listening to me when others are around (e.g. children).
  • It is difficult and stressful to split my attention when I am already doing something (e.g. getting ready for work).
  • I like to get things completed and get things over with.
  • I find it difficult to keep going on a topic when I think it is resolved.
  • Sometimes I think the conversation is finished but it is not.
  • My partner often tells me when I am stressed and anxious (my partner knows me very well and can suggest something that will work – “home psychologist”).
  • I find it stressful when my partner’s expectations of me change but I have not registered this and consequently get into trouble for disappointing them.
  • I find that my partner’s anxiety can be infectious for the whole family.
  • I find it stressful when we have different priorities around time management.
  • I like to keep to time or to be early.
  • Solitude lowers my stress.
  • Special interests lower my stress.
  • Physical exercise lowers my stress.

Please feel free to share this information with couples you know where on or both have Autism. I hope it will be helpful!