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.