Loving a partner with Asperger’s
can be both challenging and rewarding
On my first date with Mike — we’ve been partners now for 24 years – he asked me “Are we on a date?” And the second date, he asked “Are we still dating?
I thought it was so sweet and endearing then. It took me nearly 17 years to realize having to ask someone to know exactly what was going on is typical of someone with Asperger’s syndrome (AS). The syndrome wasn’t even a diagnosis back then. Today it is considered a high-functioning form of autism. It presents in myriad ways, including obsession with details; social awkwardness; a seeming inability to recognize the feelings or reactions of others; and a flat, outward expression with few physical cues as to what the AS person is feeling.
I had no clue about this when I fell in love with Mike. I just found his lack of drama and histrionics calming, and a welcome relief from my own family’s constant antics and manipulations. He balanced me nicely: I was outgoing and verbally engaging, Mike was quiet and had no problem being alone. I was animated, he was peaceful. It wasn’t until we decided to move in together that I began to feel the tension around how truly different we were from one another. At the time I had a dusty, cluttered little apartment, Mike had a big house with a living room that looked to me like a hotel lobby — Georgian-style chairs carefully chosen for their shape and upholstery, tables placed just so. He wouldn’t allow me to put any of my stuff anywhere outside of a single room he had designated as mine … I wasn’t allowed not even put a nail in a wall!
Since then, of course, I’ve found out much about people with Asperger’s, who have affectionately been nicknamed “Aspies” (Dr. Tony Atwood has written many books on the topic, and one of the best articles I’ve read about Aspies). There are an estimated 30 million Aspies worldwide. Many are brilliant and highly accomplished. Mike is a member of Mensa, and has an IQ of over 165, and makes a great living as an IT person (many Aspies excel in this field). Typically, among other things, they have an extraordinary ability to focus on detail rather than the big picture; they are deeply loyal and dependable; they have a strong need for order and accuracy; and their conversation is free of hidden meanings and agendas.
Aspies can present challenges for others, though. For instance, after we moved in together we began to have some conflicts. He had rules for everything in the house — I love to whistle, for example, and he forbade it. He didn’t seem capable of extending himself for me. If I felt needy, he didn’t like that, and it triggered my own childhood experience of living with a family that could never stretch for me. Mike couldn’t come out of his comfort zone, and many things had to be on his terms. I couldn’t find the typical clues to show that he loved me that you expect in a partner. When I felt needy I would often ask him why he loved me, and he would say, “I just do, I can’t explain why.” He didn’t have the words, just the feeling.
Ever the therapist, I began to wonder if Mike’s flat facial expression and ever-present calm had some pathological basis, if perhaps he had been abused or traumatized in his youth. We went to couples’ therapy, and I could tell he wanted to change and was making effort, but his changes weren’t enough for me back then. I felt he was just like my family, and I was projecting my youthful trauma all over the green screen he presented to me.
Then one day I happened to see an obscure movie called “Adam,” about a man with Asperger’s, and I could identify with nearly every scene. Also, Mike loved the popular TV series, “Big Bang Theory,” and I would watch it with him. The show’s character, Sheldon, might as well have been Mike. Sheldon had a 50-page contract of rules for living with him, even one that stated, “no whistling in the house!” While the show never directly comes out to say that Sheldon has AS, it is clear to those of us who know what it is that this is exactly what is being dramatized by the actor.
And then it dawned on me—Mike has Asperger’s! I started to read more about it and it became clear how Mike’s mind worked differently from my “neurotypical” one, and almost immediately 50 percent of my problems with him were gone. I thought, “What am I so angry about? He is trying harder than anyone in my family to accommodate my needs.” Instead of thinking he had a hidden agenda or was playing games, like my family did, I realized Aspies are exactly who they are, and there was no attempt to manipulate me.
And so, after 16 years of difficulty with traits that I now know are AS related, I realized how much Mike had tried to make room for me in his world. I recognized how hard it was for him to be in relationship, and began to notice all his attempts, which were big for him. And the more he did, the more loved and secure I began to feel with him. Out of his unconditional love for me, he was offering more verbal and physical cues. I just had to pay attention to the way he demonstrated them, and not just seek what I was looking for. I started to see how hard he was working to override his Asperger’s with me and that enveloped me.
Long story short, these last 8 years together we have had very little conflict because I have been able to accept him for who he is, as he has done for me all these years. Despite those we’ve known who can’t imagine how we have remained partners all these years—even some friends we have lost due to misinterpretation of Mike’s ways— I have never met anyone in these 24 years I would rather be with. He is the perfect partner for me.
So, I learned an important lesson from being married to a man with Aspies that I want to share with anyone dealing with a partner: Put away your judgment. Learn how their minds work differently than yours, and accept them for who they are, don’t fight it. This doesn’t mean you won’t have conflict with your partner, but it will be easier to work through the conflict because it will lack the negative judgment about who they are that gets in the way of dealing with the issue at hand.