Saturday, November 26, 2011

Loving Your Introverted Husband with Asperger's

My husband zones out if too much is going on!
He's always focusing on details other people don't care about!
It's like he needs to hibernate after a party!
Am I the only one with social needs around here?

My name is Cary Terra, and I work with lots of couples on the spectrum. Of course I'm generalizing with the title of this post - many of my clients with AS are female. For the sake of simplicity (for this entry, at least) let's assume our Aspie is male.

So many partners enter into therapy feeling alone and exhausted. Often socially anxious themselves, they are tired of toting the social line alone. Without their efforts, I'm told, no holiday gifts would be sent, no brithday cards mailed, no housewarming parties attended. And I believe them. Their Aspie partners are often happy to hole up at home, friendless and isolated. There's only one problem: it only seems to bother ONE of them - the partner! Often the adult with Asperger's seems content, not only with his number of friends, but with the quality of his relationships. This can serve as a constant source of frustration to the more socially inclined partner, who feels building anxiety as the social circle shrinks over time.

So what to do? Can an introvert be coached to behave as an extrovert? Can your introverted Aspie husband be trained to enjoy cooking classes, weddings and the lindy-hop?

My a resounding NO!

There is a new trend amongst therapists, one of acknowledging the benefits and realities of introversion. Often passive and accomodating (though not always, of course), many men with AS will force themselves through work lunches, daily meetings, kids' birthday parties and holiday celebrations without acknowledging - even to themselves - their own anxiety and exhaustion. The truth is, socializing is not for everyone. Introversion is not pathology. Social anxiety is a reality for many, many adults - both introverted and extroverted.

In fact, many of my couples experience similar levels of social anxiety - with one member pushing through it (extrovert) and one less likely to (introvert). Unfortunately many introverted clients come to treatment convinced they have a fundamental defect, even shame and guilt. It is crucial that partners, despite frustration and sometimes social embarassment, resist the urge to shame their introverted partner. Husbands with AS often have few sources of emotional support, leaving them vulnerable to partners' guilting or shaming.

So why do partners guilt or shame their introverted partners? Sometimes it's out of loneliness, or a sense that things look "off" to neighbors or friends. Sometimes it's just being tired. But herein lies the key: the extroverted partner can meet her own needs by connecting with friends and maintaining relationships, all while respecting that her partner does not share these needs - and this might be part of what she found attractive in the first place!

While this concept may seem simple, it does often mean adjusting your idea of what your relationship should look like. What expectations do you have regarding your social circle? What fears do you have regarding being isolated? How much responsibility do you take for your own social life? Are you holding your husband responsible for your own hidden social anxiety?

Partners of adults with Asperger's often benefit, as much as do their partners, from learning that it is OK to be introverted: to pass on holiday obligations, to limit time at parties, to set boundaries on family time. In fact, such habits may be crucial to resource management for your relationship and for yourself.


Through working with many Aspie couples I've come to notice an interesting phenomenon. The apparent lack of emotionality of the Aspie partner seems superficial. After gentle questioning it becomes apparent that many adults with AS are quite emotional - sometimes even overly sensitive - and many of them are suffering in silence.

It is a fascinating thing to watch, indeed. The adult with AS, often times experiencing severe anxiety, becomes....quiet. To the neurotypical adult, who expresses emotions interpersonally, this silence can mean only a handful of things, from disengagement to disinterest. In fact, I have worked with only a few adults with AS who do not suffer with severe anxiety or depression. While a few clients exhibit anger, sometimes overwhelming anger, most do not. Rather they retreat, and become unreachable when they feel threatened. The untrained therapist might view this retreat as passive-aggressive, even evidence of sociopathy. However as I experience this behavior in many different kinds of adults with AS, it is becoming clear to me that the behavior is not only means of protecting oneself, it may be largely involuntary.

Partners of adults with AS may stray from the mid-line too, though in the opposite direction. The more their partners retreat, the louder they become, desperate to effect a response. The cycle is self-perpetuating, of course: the louder one becomes, the more the other involutarily withdraws. Yet who among us has been taught another approach? What options are there for cajoling a withdrawn adult to communicate?

Answers to these questions are not easy to hear. They are painfully complex in their simplicity. They arouse in partners emotions such as righteous indignation and outrage. But the answers are solutions to bridging what appear to be unbridgeable gaps. The foundation to this bridge, of course, must be basic emotional stability and, above all, humility. It appears to this therapist that usually both partners stray from the mid-line of thought-emotion integration. Recognizing this and strategizing ways to meet in the middle can help couples - even those who seem miles apart - come together in deeper and more balanced ways.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Can Aspies Write Science Fiction? Ask Katie Bridges.

Recently I received word that an ingenious woman with Asperger's had written a fascinating book called Warriors of the Edge: The Search for Stone. Intrigued, I learned more about this new author. So many of my clients dream of writing of the incredible worlds and plots swirling around in their wonderful minds. Here's a quick bio by a woman who (in April!) made it all happen.
My name is Katie Bridges and I am a science fiction author with a diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome. I’ve had the diagnosis since 1998. Long before Asperger’s syndrome became known to the public, I would search for ways to describe what life was like for me. I would often say, “I feel like I’m suffering from a chronic state of culture shock while living within my own culture. Why is it so difficult to figure out what’s going on around me and adapt to it?”
I had perplexing communication disabilities, with a huge gap between my ability to communicate verbally and in written form. Writing came with ease for me. Forming thoughts verbally did not. I also had an intense need for repetition and sameness in my routine and activities.
I lived a mostly secluded life. Being around people left me feeling anxious and awkward. Having no friends of my own, I was kept from utter loneliness by an understanding husband and three loving children.
But even at home things were difficult for me. To keep myself from becoming completely unglued during times of distress, I would rock back and forth for long periods of time. I also figured out early on that pressure around my midsection would help to soothe me. If my panic sky-rocketed on me, I would yell for my husband saying, “Hurry! Squeeze me tight. I need pressure.” Hugs didn’t help. I needed a certain amount of pressure to help me get through my distress, almost to the point where I could barely breathe. No one understood why this would be of help to me.
It wasn’t until I received a diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome that things began to turn around for me. I overcame difficulties I never thought would be possible to overcome. I didn’t do it alone. Assistance came from every direction as my husband sought out those who could help me.
The end result was that I was able to utilize the incredible focus I had and put it to work to write a novel. What had once been a problem for me was now an asset. I’d always been a writer, but I took that natural ability to focus and wrote a complex work of juvenile science fiction. My brain is wired to create details which can bring about a realistic feel, even when the subject matter is fictional. This has given my book a unique perspective. It’s what I have to offer as a person with Asperger’s syndrome. It has been thrilling for me to tell people about my book, which won the Rising Star award, a very rare designation for a children’s book. It’s not just the fact that I have a book on the market that makes me excited. It’s the fact that I overcame so much to get this far.
The name of my book is Warriors of the Edge: The Search for Stone by Katie Bridges. I hope you find it enjoyable!
To buy Katie's book (or just read about it!), click here:

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Badger and The Mole

When one partner in a couple has Asperger's, things can be....challenging. I often hear from partners of adults with AS statements like:

I fell in love with him/her because of a rare sweetness and vulnerability.

I never thought I'd find someone so authentic - he/she plays no mind games.

No matter how mad I get, my partner never shouts back or calls me names.

I love his/her amazing mind and intelligence.

So why then do couples struggle?

So many couples I work with are or were in love. But as daily stressors increase, or the demands of everyday life multiply, couples get stuck, then angry. One partner may be reactive and need to process feelings verbally. The other partner may, when faced with intense emotion, freeze, withdraw, go silent or even flee.

I sometimes picture these Aspie relationships as if between a badger and a mole. The more the badger digs, the more frantically he or she tries to connect, the deeper the mole retreats. The badger thinks the harder and faster he or she digs, the sooner the mole will be reached. The mole flees, hoping the badger will eventually give up and peace will be restored. It's as if each is operating on instinct, both wanting to connect, but unable to. This can lead the partner playing the beaver role exhausted and angry. It can leave the partner playing the mole role frightened and blank.

This system is not unusual. Therapists have for years been describing a common "dance" of marriage as one involving two roles - one pursuing and one distancing. Under stress the pursuer steps up her or her efforts to connect. Under stress the distancer seeks less connection. The two partners struggle with opposite instincts, which increases the stress on the system and adds feelings of misunderstanding, anger, even abandonment. The system is stable and becomes exaggerated over time, as both partners become more and more reactive to their partner's behavior.

In my experience, partners of adults with AS do well to unlearn the universal lesson of digging and relearn ways to communicate which are perceived as less threatening by their partners. Adults with AS, if they are to connect, must find a way to communicate with their partners in ways their partners can understand - usually verbally. This takes guidance and hard work.

Can this really be done? Absolutely! While adjusting expectations (the beaver may never sit quietly and mute, the mole may never chatter away) can be helpful, I almost always find that there is much room for change in both partners, contrary to much published information on Asperger's marriages.

Adults with AS often provide stability, loyalty, consistency. Others provide a childlike playfulness and an authenticity rare in adults. As with any marriage, accepting your partner while clearly communicating your needs can be crucial. A therapist familiar with AS may help you and your partner have these conversations and make real headway.