Couples With Partners Who Have Asperger’s Or An Asperger’s-like Way Of Operating Emotionally In Relationships Need A Particular Sort Of Couples Therapy
In our couples therapy practice, couples in which one or both partners have Asperger’s or an Asperger’s-like way of operating emotionally in relationships confront all the same issues as any couple. However, Asperger’s is an issue that affects both relationships and communication, which means these couples need a particular sort of support.
As with everything we do, understanding what each couple needs to thrive is much more important than defining a disorder. This is why we speak not only of partner(s) with Asperger’s, but also partner(s) that have an Asperger’s-like way of operating emotionally in relationships. Very few people in this category will likely check all of the boxes, but a common set of themes for people who have an Asperger’s-like way of operating emotionally in relationships can include: Not sharing emotions, using overly blunt language, under-investing in social conventions, being reserved in social situations or avoiding social situations altogether, difficulty with tolerating frustrations, particularly social frustrations, insisting on rigid ways of interacting or getting things done, and being obsessive over details.
Communication May Be Challenging When One Partner Has Asperger’s: Couples Therapy Can Provide Support
When one party in a couple has Asperger’s-like ways of operating emotionally in relationships, communication can be especially challenging. In couples therapy, we look at the ways that communication has been negotiated in the past and has created certain norms in the relationship that no longer work.
We help the individual with Asperger’s or Asperger’s-like way of operating be more aware of how certain things can come off as hurtful or curt when not intended. Much of the process of helping someone see how he or she comes off is about creating a space in which it can be named. Most people don’t want to be insulting. We often assume that if an adult speaks in a rude or curt manner that they surely know they’re being rude, but choose to do it anyway. For individuals who lean Asperger’s-like, this isn’t always a fair assumption.
As this plays out in the context of a relationship, a dynamic emerges of hurt feelings that are reacted to with reciprocal hurtfulness, shutting down or both. Over time, couples form and tighten a knot and questions of good intentions and misunderstandings get lost underneath the layers of hurt. In our couples therapy practice, we also support the other member of the relationship to be less reactive to these off-putting ways of communicating and provide leadership around directing the other partner to express things differently.
Exploring Ways Of Approaching Asperger’s-like Rigidity Differently
Couples of all sorts get stuck on rigidity, but rigidity as a fact itself is often just the deal with folks who can be Asperger’s-like. Rigidity is one of those things that if you attack it straight on, it gets more solid. In a sense, what couples are saying to one another when arguing over rigidity is “I can’t be with someone like you!” (And it’s so important to recognize that both partners are saying this to one another–they’re equally irritated with each other). But that can’t be so–a couple has likely been together for some time and have made it work in all sorts of ways. It’s also worth considering that “I can’t be with someone who is so rigid” is, in itself, a form of rigidity.
We encourage couples to explore ways of navigating rigidity differently, accepting it as a creative offer. In our couples therapy practice, we work with couples to break out of the linear power struggle around being more or less rigid–about money, sex, intimacy, planning, etc.–and instead, look more creatively about how couples might coexist as two people with different relationships with rigidity and structure.
For example, if a couple is having a fight over whether they will be more or less rigid about planning a vacation, the fight often ends up being laid out in a linear way with each partner on opposing ends of the line. But, what if they stepped off the line? Are there ways of being more playful with planning a vacation? Not playful as in less rigid, but seeing other possibilities. What if the more rigid partner tackles the travel and lodging details, while the other partner is in charge of the fun? As couples therapists, we like to think of this as master choreography. Surely a choreographer would tell you that rigid dancers are not preferred and yet, if given an assignment to create a dance piece wherein one party was stubbornly rigid, could they create a beautiful dance? Of course. They would need to begin by accepting that rigidity, not just as a given fact, but as a creative offering.
Couples May Need Certain Kinds Of Help Around Expressions Of Emotionality
Emotions and communication are inseparable. Sure, alone in our bedroom, for example, we can find ourselves thinking thoughts and feeling feelings, but feelings really only have meanings when we share them. In couples therapy, we help couples look at how they share and receive emotions together and why that is important to their relationship.
People with Asperger’s or who are Asperger’s-like can certainly be loving, emotional partners. However, they may need certain kinds of help and understanding around just what sorts of expressions of emotionality to their partners are welcomed and wanted, as well as the ways in which those can feed a relationship and build closeness. They may also need help recognizing and being open to receiving emotional offers from his or her partner.
Couples express and receive love in different ways. We work to help couples figure out what assumptions have been made about what sorts of expressions of feelings are desired. There are, then, two directions for each person in the relationship to move–to both learn to express and learn to receive expressions of emotionality in ways that work for their partner. In addition to that, though, it is important to learn how to better ask your partner to both give and hear things differently.
For instance, we all have a set of understandings about what being appreciated looks like from our own emotional experiences, culture, how we were raised, past relationships, the way we express appreciation ourselves, etc. You may find yourself saying things like, “If you appreciated my cooking, you’d put your dishes away and help clean up.” But, maybe that’s not how your partner expresses appreciation or maybe they don’t think appreciation needs to be expressed at all. Discovering this–that your partner sees things differently–doesn’t mean that you should simply shrug and accept things on whatever terms they’re given. But an awareness of just how different your partner may see things can help inform how you approach getting your needs met. It’s likely the case that there needs to be a mixture of seeing the appreciation in different ways (in this example), learning to look for it and choosing to value it, while also asking your partner to do appreciation differently.
Navigating Sex and Intimacy With Partners Who Are Asperger’s-like In Couples Therapy
People with Asperger’s often don’t like being touched, or only like being touched in certain ways or under certain conditions. Couples in this domain may also have a hard time sorting out what usually happens organically for couples–learning to read each other’s signals, about when they’re into sex, what feels good, what doesn’t, etc. That awkwardness can be painful, but there are ways we help couples recast that awkwardness by relating to it more creatively and playfully.
Sometimes just talking about sex, aloud, in a couple therapist’s office goes a long way toward recasting this awkwardness. Many couples have never spoken aloud with anyone else about their sex life–heck, many couples haven’t talked about it with one another. For other couples, they’ve talked about it in ways that have become stuck.
Introducing a sense of play and laughter is also important. While improving emotional intimacy improves physical intimacy, there also can be value in relating to these separately. At times, couples need help detaching physical and emotional intimacy, looking at the possibility that physical intimacy might exist “just for fun” without the complications of emotional intimacy. Detaching physical and emotional intimacy, not altogether in the relationships, but for defined periods of time (best called “play”) is a great way to open up possibilities of doing sex and physical intimacy in ways that are more fun and can help couples get unstuck. This of course isn’t unique to couples where Asperger’s is in play, but it can be particularly tough to negotiate when one or both partners have rigid ideas about sex.
To Say Partners With Asperger’s Lack A Capacity To Be Emotionally Close Is A Myth: Couples Therapy Can Help Emotional Intimacy
It’s a myth to say that individuals with Asperger’s lack a capacity to be emotionally close. Every couple is unique and in these areas, the specific chemistry between two parties distilled over time needs to be examined. What does it mean to connect for each partner? What kinds of connections does each person want and how can we navigate those differences?
There are so many ways couples can connect. Cuddling, sex and emotionally infused conversations are one way this can look, but other couples share hobbies, exercise together, or connect in the shared task of building a home or raising children. This doesn’t mean one partner should simply resign to the currency of connectedness his or her partner is offering, but rather that there needs to be an openness to the idea that these things aren’t merely an objective right or wrong (or good or bad). We also help individuals with Asperger’s give emotionally to someone in ways he or she may not enjoy, but find enjoyment in the giving and the meeting of their partner’s need.
Above all, couples, at times, need someone–like a therapist–to give them permission, in a sense, to help them see that they can be loved in a whole range of ways. There are a lot of blind spots when it comes to love. Sometimes we feel like love brokers of sorts–helping couples negotiate in an almost formal sense how to give and receive love.