The Invisible Elephant - undiagnosed Aspergers

This is a continuation of looking at the particular issues faced in relationships where one partner has a Neuro-typical brain and the other is on the Aspergers Spectrum - whether diagnosed or undiagnosed.

In this writing I will look specifically at the unmovable nature of people on the Aspergers Spectrum and how in relationship, they often need their partner to bend to their wants quite significantly for the relationship to 'work'. The curious thing is that while their NT (neuro-typical) partner is constantly working hard to accommodate their wants and needs, they truly believe that they are being the most considerate, flexible and helpful partner possible - even when the facts of their behaviour could prove otherwise. They might pick examples of their own helpful behaviour where they have given lifts, cooked a meal or sorted a practical issue for a child - what most people would consider to be just the normal things we do for one another in life.

For all of us, the truth is as we see it to a degree, however an NT brain can usually adjust to an altered perspective. But for the AS partner, this is the only way it can be seen because to their mind there is no other truth or explanation.  These same people can in business matters often see all perspectives, and are known for being fair and considerate.  It is in the couple relationship/marriage where these rigid ideas are most often seen.  The idea of fair and unfair becomes very skewed and despite their often careful logical assessment of a situation, unfortunately that logic is often 'faulty'.  They find it almost impossible to see a situation from their partner's perspective.  It is as it seems to them.  Black and white, no shade of grey, no room for an alternative perspective.

I liken this unbendable mind to a bar of steel.  It is as if the AS partner is made of steel - he/she has a set solid form which cannot be bent or coaxed into any other shape.  The NT partner is often a softer, warmer character who melds and accommodates in order to create the most harmonious relationship possible.  In order to better fit with her partner she will also adapt her behaviours to something less soft and more business-like which might give her a harder edge than she naturally had before the relationship.  I liken the NT character to a malleable sheet of lead such as is used on roofs to shape and fit the form it is nestling against. 

The NT lead partner shapes herself to her steel like partner to increase the harmony in their lives.

In doing so she will become a different shape to what was natural to her - she will be bent out of shape and in doing so can start to have some ongoing health problems as her body carries the stress. The likely illnesses to occur when she is bent out of shape are ME, depression, neck and back problems and eating disorders. Typically she will be less fit and well as she was before meeting her partner.

These patterns in the AS/NT relationship are very familiar to me because couples frequently arrive in my consulting room when they inevitably hit a period of crisis.  This usually happens when the NT partner is exhausted by the lack of understanding and love coming her way: or when the AS partner decides he is not making his partner happy.  These two things are often intrinsically linked. I often hear AS men say - I am happy when she is happy.  So when he is hearing 'criticism' for not getting things perfectly right in his partner's eyes he believes that she is not happy with him and he decides he's had enough.

There are challenges for both partners in this AS/NT coupling which can only be overcome by a more thorough exploration and understanding of how each of their minds work.  Only then appreciation, accommodation, acceptance and love can shine through. 

When there is an invisible elephant in the room, one is from time to time bound to trip over a trunk - Karen Joy Fowler

Aspergers needs a specialist counsellor

As a couples counsellor, I see certain familiar patterns of problems and behaviours occurring in many couple relationships. This is when one of the partners has an undiagnosed Asperger's condition.

The common theme is for there to be a persisting love for one another and a desire to be together - and yet certain parts of their relationship feel all wrong. There is plenty of room for misunderstanding and hurt in both directions.

Often, the neurotypical (NT) partner will feel neglected and unloved by her partner and will get frustrated and impassioned by the lack of emotion, appreciation and physical affection coming her way.

The Asperger's partner will be perfectly happy in the relationship as long as things are calm and the only time they feel unhappy is if their partner shows that they are unhappy in an emotional manner. So the NT partner melds to the AS partner in order for things to stay harmonious, but in doing so she bends herself out of shape and is rarely feeling completely herself or happy in the relationship.

It is a complex dance. A situation where each partner's 'truth' differs wildly from the other's. They are both right but fight about the other being wrong. Both end up wanting to change the other because their truth is the only truth. There are often lovely harmonious parts of the relationship too which is why the couple continue to stay together. The nice times continue the desire to be together.

The destructive, unhappy part of the cycle can be demystified by working with a couples counsellor who has a specialist interest in Aspergers; who can explain the different brain workings of a NT and AS brain to help clarify what is happening in the couple relationship,

Once they know the 'facts', the couple can then work on improving their relationship - or they can decide that it is not possible to be together. Arguably this is a better position to be in than not understanding why the cycle of frustrations and resentment persists.

Amongst diagnosed AS partners there is a recognised need for counsellors such as myself who understand the particular challenges the Asperger brain brings to the relationship.

Freddi Manson - Specialist Aspergers counselling  07792 186720

Aspergers in your relationship?

There are so many aspects to a relationship and so many ways for misunderstanding and miscommunication to occur.

This week in a session with one of my couple clients, I realised it was as if one was a native french speaker and the other was a native German speaker and they were trying to communicate with each other in their own language. Imagine the problems this would pose. 

Misunderstandings in relationships can come about for all sorts of reasons.
  • Lack of time can create hurried, barky exchanges of information where offence can be taken and the meaning of the words can be lost.
  • Male and female speaking and listening styles differ (Venus and Mars).
  • Lack of respect in conversation can create real problems for the couple. The rudeness then gets in the way of the message and the love.
  • The brains can be ‘wired’ differently. This leads to misunderstanding after misunderstanding because each person cannot be understood by their partner.          

As with my couple, their brains and how they compute factual detail and emotional content are worlds apart - a language apart.

What I am saying is not a poetic idea without scientific basis.  There are many people (currently estimated at 1:86) who are on the Aspergers spectrum but remain undiagnosed as they are high functioning and camouflage their condition well.

One of the most frequently recurring themes I see in my couple clients, irrespective of their presenting issue, is when one of them has an undiagnosed Aspergers condition.

Aspergers Syndrome (AS) brains work very differently from Neurotypical (NT) brains and can present a high level of misunderstandings in verbal exchanges, demonstration of emotion and decision making within the couple’s lives.

Typically, at the beginning of a relationship a high functioning Aspergic will make a big effort to behave in an acceptable manner with their new partner.  This does not come naturally to them - it is learned behaviour from mistakes made in previous relationships. They may also display behaviours which mimic a relationship they have seen that they think works well.  It is all an act - a mask the AS person wears in order to ‘achieve’ the coupling with their chosen partner.  They like the ‘idea’ of a relationship but are often unable to actually do the relationship.

The trouble is that sooner or later the mask will slip.  The behaviours required to make the relationship work are impossible to maintain.

Signs of the presence of high functioning Aspergers in your partner:
  • Unable to truly empathise
  • Looks blank as though not listening 
  • Doesn't remember what you've said because they tuned out.
  • When asked a question about something they have done they receive it as criticism.
  • They justify their position or opinion instead of saying sorry.
  • Black and white thinking.
  • Think they are being considerate but it is not evidenced in action.
  • Lacking in facial expression
  • Mis-reading your facial expression as anger when impassioned.
  • Mis-reading your tone of voice as aggressive or hysterical.
  • Either disinterested in sex or treats sex like a sport or activity lacking in connection.
  • Unable to connect with any relational depth.
  • Makes decisions for themselves believing it has no affect on the relationship.
  • Likes to feel popular as this tells them they must be OK
  • Good at long-standing friendships but on a superficial level.
  • Can be perceived as cold and disinterested.
  • They need time out and will often desire their own company.
  • Need regularity in their lives
  • Need to be in control
  • When over-challenged will either shut down and look blank; run off ; or become disproportionately angry.
  • Turns arguments round so that their bad behaviour becomes yours.
  • Often is the last to get a joke.
  • Unable to demonstrate real pleasure.
  • Will often blame partner for being ’needy’ or over-dramatic.

All these behaviours can be explained by the fact (proven by experiments tracking the brain) that an Aspergers brain has no Theory of Mind.  This is evidenced by the inability to show true compassion or empathy. All thoughts are filtered by the left brain (logical brain) rather than the right brain which allows for empathic reaction. The couple are thinking, speaking and listening in different languages.

It is hard enough  to have a successful couple relationship where both partners have a similar brain working - when you add to that equation an Aspergers brain the relationship can be hugely frustrating for both involved.

If you recognise traits as highlighted here you would benefit from talking it through with a qualified couples therapist like myself, who specialises in Aspergers Syndrome.

'Emotional reciprocity, love and belonging are essential human needs, if these needs are not being met and the reason why is not understood, then mental and physical health may be affected. This is why self-diagnosis or diagnosis by a professional can make so much difference and have a positive effect on both in the relationship, because there is the realisation that neither is to blame.' Maxine Aston

When to end a relationship

It never ceases to amaze me how adaptable we are as humans.  So much so that we can quickly become used to negative and harmful behaviour in our partner relationships.

The typical example cited is that of the battered wife who keeps going back to her man because he says sorry, and she loves him. 

In a more moderate (but no less harmful) way we become used to more insidious abuse, normalising the hurtful words or behaviour of a partner as we get used to his/her disempowering passive-aggressive ways. When there is no physical violence it would be easy to think that the relationship is not abusive.  But there are many types of abuse and sometimes it’s the quieter forms which create a deeper damage. It is abuse by stealth.

Adaptation allows us to endure the atrocities of war, the threat of death, the loss of home and country as with the countless refugees currently escaping to Europe; these unfortunate dispossessed people have had to adapt and will continue to adapt as a necessity for survival.

It would seem that adaptation is very much part of the human condition when it comes to survival. In the couple relationship, this adaptation creates a lowering of expectation, allowing us to get used to our partner’s damaging behaviour. Yet these are damaging behaviours which should not be tolerated and by doing so we condone them.  Any behaviours/words which gradually erode the core sense of self is harmful and dangerous to those on the receiving end.

So when do we draw the line? What needs to happen to signal the end of the relationship?

There is of course never one answer to this question.  When, in a rational mind, all hope has gone and the love is less important than the need to stop the damage - when the balance has tipped so far to the negative that there is no hope of changing the direction of the relationship - perhaps this signals the end? Or does it?

I have worked with couples where one partner was resolute in their decision to end their abusive relationship - despite sharing 2 young children, she couldn't go on, she reached her full-stop.  Yet somehow, during the course of working with me, something shifted and as a couple they fell back in love, the abusive behaviours stopped, and with a newly found understanding of each other they are now a loving connected couple with a joint vision for the future. 

So the answer is not predictable and we sometimes give up too soon.  It’s well worth seeking help to see if your relationship can be resurrected, like the mythical Phoenix from the ashes you may rise up together like a rebirthing of all that you once loved and admired in each other with the added benefit of a deeper understanding.

Hope rises like a phoenix from the ashes of shattered dreams - S.A Sachs

A passionate connection

When couples come to see me because arguing is wrecking their relationship, they are often distressed and confused as they don't know how to stop. I listen to their account of how the arguing happens and sometimes they will show me how this evolves.  These arguments, often about petty household issues, are what I call the battlegrounds. But what is the war actually about? Is it possible that the arguing is a displaced passion? Is a lack of sexual intimacy creating passionate connection in argument?

When sexual intimacy is absent, either or both partners can become angry and resentful.  This anger comes from a place of feeling rejected or unwanted.  Humans want to be wanted.  This desire to be wanted can also be satiated by words of appreciation and recognition from your partner but sexual intimacy has a big part to play.

Anger, resentment and a desire to connect on a passionate level drive the couple to explosive intense argument, the ferocity of which only equals the passionate, all encompassing sex that is missing.

The intensity of the arguing seems to serve a paradoxical purpose to bring the couple together in heated communication, whilst also blowing them apart with an explosive blast of negative passion.

Losing your head in an argument is not dissimilar to losing your head during sex.  There is a similarity between the 'letting go' that happens when the dam bursts and the anger and resentment pours out to the 'letting go' that results in a state of being fully turned on sexually.  The 'intercourse' during argument closely mimics the 'intercourse' during sex - both are expressions of passion.

For some couples the two activities join up.  The connection created during intense arguing leads directly to intense sexual connection.  This is known as make up sex.  Although this is not uncommon, I would suggest it is not healthy for a couple to regularly embark on sexual connection in this way.  

Once there is a greater understanding of each others needs for an intimate connection and a greater understanding of the passion dynamic, it will be possible to rebuild your sex life. When the sexual connection is re-established - and this is possible - the arguing has no place.  There is no longer any point to it.  In tandem, this leads to the dissipation of anger and resentment and further allows the sexual connection to flourish.

You knnow that when I hate you, it is because I love you to the point of passion that unhinges my soul  - Julie de Lespinasse

Sex Talk

Many couples who form an intimate sexual relationship together and choose to be together can, sooner or later, become too embarrassed to talk about their sex-life. How does this happen?

An ongoing, satisfying sexual relationship needs good communication from the outset.  Unfortunately not many couples start off in this way, so later, when it is all going 'wrong', they find it impossible to talk it through.

When a couple gets together there is often a strong sexual desire driven by each separate self-fuelled libido and driven by the excitement of a fresh encounter. In time, the self-fuelled libido will quieten, leaving the natural chemistry of the couple and the strength of the attraction to fuel further sex.  If the attraction is not strong enough sex will become less frequent.

 Sometimes the sexual attraction was not strong between the couple in the first place but as they were content with the rest of the relationship, they ploughed on whilst never being satisfied with their sex-life. The couple may be secretive about their own masturbating, are avoiding sex with each other and are unable to talk about the lack of sex or what's going on.  Fast forward a few years and perhaps two children later and there is no physical bond between the couple.  They may or may not be in love with each other; they may or may not love each other.  But they are not attracted enough to each other to allow sex to happen and communication has never been honest enough to talk about it now.

The couples I see for counselling bring a variety of relationship issues and many of them revolve around sex or the lack of it.  What I often notice is the embarrassment around talking sex with each other and with me in the counselling room.  In order to protect each others feelings and to avoid conflict, the truth about their disappointment around their sex-life remains unspoken  - it has become too 'difficult' and too 'embarrassing' to talk sex.

In the arena of the sexual relationship, one negative comment or expression of dissatisfaction during sex can create feelings of rejection or not being good enough for the other. If one partner is made to feel dirty or bad for suggesting a particular sexual act he/she will be unlikely to find the courage to suggest it again. If one partner does not feel 'turned on' enough for sex or rejects the other without explanation, sexual communication soon breaks down to a silent embarrassment with plenty of resentment on both sides.

This is not a healthy couple situation and needs working through to avoid a break-down in the relationship.  By not addressing the issues around sex, unsurprisingly one or both partners may seek their sexual satisfaction elsewhere - whether from another or from Internet porn.

Good open communication is so valuable to all relationships on all levels.  When sex becomes an embarrassing subject for you and your partner it's time to get help to break through the barriers that are preventing you from potentially having the sex you want with the one you're with.

'Sex without love is as hollow and ridiculous as love without sex' - Hunter S Thompson

Love at a Distance

How do you maintain your couple relationship when you are geographically separated.  How do you sustain connection, closeness and trust in a long-distance relationship?

You may be apart through work commitments or to look after an elderly relative. You may live in separate homes.  You may travel extensively for work and spend several nights or weeks apart. You may be a young couple attending different Universities. How do you remain close when you are apart?

The obvious potential problem with these long-distance relationships is the risk of one or other of you being unfaithful.  The less obvious potential is for you to become detached in more ways than just distance.  The opportunity for connectedness is limited due to the amount of time you can spend together.

When life is so tightly time-tabled, and life together is minimal then that time together becomes important and potentially pressurised.

The couple can feel the pressure to have a good time; pressure to sort out domestic arrangements; pressure to talk about difficult subjects which cannot be dealt with over the phone; pressure to please and pressure to be pleased; pressure to prove to each other that the relationship is working; pressure to have great sex; pressure to be OK, to not be ill and to be generally cheerful for the duration.

All this pressure can ruin the little time you do have together because there is no room to just 'be' together.

When the daily contact and physical closeness is absent for much of the week it takes time to reconnect in a shared space.  Soon Sunday comes round again and there follows the pressure and sadness of parting, the sense of separation and for some, the sense of abandonment.

Not much of your life is shared.  The pattern is of coming and going - of flux.

It may be that the most time you spend together is on holiday, away from domesticity and work responsibilities.  Holidays may work very well as time to reconnect and remember why you are a couple but this time away may equally be blighted by bottled-up emotions and unresolved issues unspoken for months because of lack of time.  The lack of time inevitably creates the need to hurry-up; to fit it all in; to make it work.

If this is a familiar pattern, and your relationship is suffering, it is time to re-evaluate your chosen life-style and ask yourself questions about how real is the necessity to live in this way. Is there another way to structure your lives? How can you maximise just 'being' and 'connecting' when you do have time together?

'Absence sharpens love,
 presence strengthens it' - Thomas Fuller