Seeing as how I’m only around 8 years into this marriage business, I’m not even going to pretend I have it all together in this department. In fact, I’d say I’m still flying by the seat of my pants most of the time (mad props to my incredibly patient husband who reads this blog). But there are a lot of autistic adults out there trying to work through the craziness of relationships and marriage and so, as an aspie (very happily) married to another person on the spectrum, I thought I’d share some things I’ve been working on and what’s helped.
The thing that’s been the most difficult for me is dealing with conflict. Conflict is frustrating for pretty much everyone, but when one or both people has difficulties with communication, it’s especially hard.
A healthy conflict would probably look something like this:
conflict–> communication –> resolution
Of course, in the real world, there’ll be some heated exchanges involving someone bringing up something that happened 10 years ago that has no relevance to the situation but makes the other person feel superior, or someone will imply that the other person’s mother smelt of elderberries. But eventually things get worked out and resolved.
But there are social, emotional, or communication challenges that, for me, have caused this process to break down:
Alexithymia. People with alexithymia have difficulty describing and identifying their emotions. So when one person is doing or saying something that affects the other person emotionally, it can be extremely difficult to work out what that is and what to do about it. Sometimes hurt feelings can come out as frustration, anger, or resentment, leading the other person to feel hurt and angry at us, which leads to a feeling of disconnection that can make conflicts hard to resolve.
Low self-esteem: When you’re hanging on to your last shred of self-worth with everything you’ve got, it can be very hard to admit that you’ve done something wrong (not that I would know anything about that…) That’s when defense mechanisms kick in, things like denial and minimizing and projection. This can lead to a lot of confusion, frustration, and hurt that further damage the relationship, leading us to feel even more guilty and defensive. It’s a vicious cycle.
Anxiety and catastrophizing: We autistics have a tendency to catastrophize, meaning small things can seem like a huge deal and lead to a lot of anxiety. This can make small everyday things seem like a major issue-and because our anxiety and adrenalin levels are running so high, it can then easily become one. This can also make it hard to walk away or just let things go.
Expressive language difficulties: Forming thoughts into words and then saying those words is hard at the best of times, but when emotions are running high, it feels impossible. This can lead to serious misunderstandings and hurt feelings that cause the conflict to escalate or go unresolved.
Sensory/emotional overload: Raised voices, rushing adrenalin, confused thoughts, frustration at not being able to get your point across-all these things make conflict overwhelming. Often our first instinct will be to either get away or just shut down completely, which usually comes across to the other person as avoiding the conflict or being difficult. This is when the conflict has reached the boiling point; if it goes on much longer, a meltdown or withdrawal is often the result.
So then the conflict looks more like this:
conflict –> communication breakdown –> meltdown/withdrawal
And it can be very hard to break out of this pattern.
Now this is no substitute whatsoever for good, solid professional advice, especially when it comes to something as messy and complex as relationships, but here are the things that have helped me the most:
Walking away. This, for me, is probably the single most important thing. For anyone, but for us especially, it’s important to have that time to process and work through the situation and our feelings about it. If the other person wants to talk right away, try saying explaining that you need time to think and set a time for later in the day.
Writing it down. This can be really helpful if you have trouble understanding your feelings or communicating. There is a world of difference between my speech and writing.
Owning up to my mistakes. This is one I’ve had a lot of trouble with, but I’ve found that it makes the whole process go so much faster because it makes both people feel closer. Working on self-esteem issues can help with this-it’s something I’m trying to work on right now (of course, not owning up to mistakes can also result from being an giant asshat, in which case you’ll need to work on that).
More helpful resources: