Be like a train.
There’s a common stereotyped complaint from men about women, that by and large women are just irrational, and their behavior and feelings unexplainable. Even neurotypical men often give up trying to understand their spouses, and choose to ignore, dominate, or become compliant because of this pervasive belief. This sense that one’s spouse is “unknowable” may be even more prevalent amongst partners who have, or live with a partner who has, Asperger’s neurology. With that in mind I believe I have an interesting story to tell that speaks to this situation.
About five years into our relationship, I realized that Tim was studying me. On one hand that felt incredibly wonderful: I was the subject of someone’s study! Tim’s desire to know how I work, to understand why I feel as I do, and to map how I act when I feel different things, his clear wanting to know me, was healing for me. The experience of having focused attention directed my way soothed lingering doubts about my worthiness “to be known.” His deep interest in me helped balance the deficit of loving and curious attention leftover from my family of origin. Never before had I lived with someone with such a deep willingness to inquire about, and to then to do what was necessary to actually understand, me.
On the other hand, it was, and continues to be at times, somewhat disconcerting, uncomfortable, and even scary, to have anyone pay such close attention to who I am, how I feel, and to observe how I cope, or don’t cope so well, in various situations. I have felt emotionally triggered at times, feel vulnerable to judgment and what emerges is shame and deep fears of rejection. Perhaps in the end he will discover what I’ve always feared might be the truth: I’m not really worthy of such attention, not worthy of the patience it requires to understand, and at times adjust to, or accommodate to, my weaknesses and vulnerabilities, my unhealed sore spots, and my weird eccentricities. Having a spotlight directed at me has the potential to shine a light on all those things I still have shame about. And if I’m not worthy, he may grow frustrated and/or bored and/or disgusted with me. And then, as was true of my family of origin, he may leave, abandoning me emotionally if not physically.
Aren’t close relationships just the best? Everything I want and everything I’m terrified of, all wrapped up neatly together.
I have disclosed what seem to be my most unworthy traits. Tim’s track record of devotion and steadiness, in spite of those traits, has allowed me to relax into, and trust, that I can depend on his full, undivided, and non-judgmental attention on a regular basis. Especially if I ask for that attention in a clear, forthright manner, instead of nagging or complaining about his inattention. This seems at times miraculous. I wasn’t sure during much of my adulthood that it would ever happen. Weirdly enough it happened with someone with very different wiring from my own.
It’s helpful to understand that the majority of people with Asperger’s have “special interests,” areas of intense focus and study from which they derive a sense of fulfillment and mastery and experience predictable, positive stimulation rather than over-stimulation. Trains are a common special interest of many people with Asperger’s neurology. With the understanding and language that has come with his Asperger’s assessment, I can see now that without realizing it, I became one of Tim’s “special interests.” Early on in our relationship, I had “become like a train,” and in so doing, I had made the grade as a topic of study that could be a special interest for him.
What does that mean, to “become like a train?” Many, many autism spectrum children develop and sometimes maintain into adulthood a special interest in trains. They love the spinning action of the wheels, which can be a calming sensory experience. Trains line up for them, connect, and then act together in predicable ways. Trains run on schedules and have routes. But trains aren’t boring: they come in a vast assortment of models, types, and sizes, and can be sorted and organized into categories. They have lots of gears and pistons and other interactive parts that can be studied and understood, parts which function predictably together. Trains have history, and development over time. But the biggest appeal, according to Tim, is this: trains run on tracks. They don’t behave in wild and unpredictable ways. They can be known, and their ways understood and forecast. Ah, if people could just be like trains: connected, interactive, interesting, predictable, soothing, and knowable. I managed to become those things to Tim. So he was fascinated. And he studied me.
If you want to be known by someone you love who has Asperger’s neurology, “be like a train.” Be knowable. Be understandable. Be predictable. Let your Asperger’s partner see clearly your inner workings in ways that can be understood and forecast. Create, in fact, as much predictability as you can, even if that means simply alerting your partner to times of unavoidable unpredictability, like when something has got you out of sorts, afraid, or distraught. Go off the tracks in a predictable way and then figure out how to get back on the tracks without yelling. Ask for what you need and tell your partner how to help you in clear, concrete, doable ways.
This is, to be sure, not a small order. Because to let your partner know you requires first that you know yourself. I was able to let Tim know me from the beginning because I had been “working on myself” for thirty years before we met. I’d engaged in a score of years of my own therapy, and had come to understand, and in many ways deeply accept, if not fully love, many of my wounded places and vulnerabilities and weaknesses. I had studied interpersonal communication, raised two children, and spent over 10,000 hours sitting with clients as a therapist and counselor, and had participated in professional supervision over many years. I’d learned to take responsibility for “my part” in conflicts and was pretty sober about my limitations and shortcomings as a human being in relationship. And I was highly motivated to create a relationship that would work over the long term.
If this sounds daunting, I apologize. I don’t want to suggest that 30 years of self-reflection is necessary for creating a workable relationship with someone with Asperger’s, because I don’t believe that is true. I do think being sober about one’s own limitations and foibles, and being able to articulate those clearly and vulnerably, IS necessary, not only for a developing a viable relationship with someone with Asperger’s, but for developing a deeply meaningful and workable long-term close relationship with anyone.
Here’s what I’ve come to, in a nutshell.
1) Stop expecting anyone to read your mind. That’s what babies need, and in the best of circumstances, rightfully get: parents who anticipate their needs and respond to their non-verbal messages. As fully formed adults, we can no longer claim that right. As challenging as it may be, each of us is responsible to know and then articulate clearly, and without blame, how we feel and what we need.
2) If you want to know someone, whether you have Asperger’s neurology or not, study them, like you would a mechanical thing, if you will. Gently, respectfully, request that they open up to you. Notice and question your own tendencies to judge and put those tendencies aside. Watch how the “other” works. Ask in a quiet, matter-of-fact way when you don’t understand why they are acting the way they are. And then listen carefully and keep asking, in an ever more non-judgmental way, until you can understand how they work, how they think, what their deepest beliefs and feelings are. They may not know at first. That needs to be okay.
3) Stop labeling the other as “irrational,” and therefore “unknowable,” just because you, and perhaps the other as well, can’t yet see or speak of their inner workings. Take your part of the responsibility for not having made it safe for them to reveal to you just what their inner workings are.
4) Consider what the “other” needs from you in order for them to experience enough emotional safety to open up and disclose to you how they work. Ask them if they are afraid of being judged by you, and then listen to their answer. Consider the whys and wherefores by which you may reflexively jump to judgment or dismissal, when it would serve both of you to adopt an attitude of real curiosity and openness.
These things have not been easy for me, or for Tim. But they are not impossible either. And it has been freeing to step into the possibility that I could both “be known” and “deeply know” my partner, in our vast differences, and build a real relationship where the differences could be not only accommodated, but even positively utilized in ways that could make for a fulfilling and mutually supportive relationship.