Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Hidden Autistics IV: Relationship Counseling

One of the frustrating things I encounter in my work is witnessing the damage done to clients (and to their relationships) by well-meaning therapists and books who believe Asperger's and relationships are incompatible.

I know, you think I am exaggerating.  Really, though, people do think this.

Consider a client I'll call Eloise, who came to see me in a "last ditch effort" (her words) to save her relationship.  Having already visited two couples therapists for help in understanding how to relate to her Aspie husband, she was in the process of resigning herself to the "truth" they had shared with her: her relationship could never meet her emotional needs.  Her best bet would be to reframe her relationship as a platonic partnership, and to get her emotional needs met elsewhere.  The ideas of knitting clubs and online forums had been proposed, and Eloise was in a state of panic.

After offering this brief history, Eloise stated her purpose in seeing me.  She wanted help in moving through the grieving process. She needed to mourn, she said, mourn the normal relationship she would never have.  She wanted to know if  I could help her with this grief work, so she could move towards acceptance of this stunted marriage.  She couldn't leave, she explained, because her husband was a wonderful person, though sadly therapists (and books!) had revealed that he was incapable of connecting to her emotionally.

In responding to Eloise, my first task was to breathe through my outrage.  The two therapists who had offered Eloise this glimpse of her marital destiny had not even met her husband.  Both had "comforted" her by explaining that his withdrawal and disconnectedness had nothing to do with her - rather this was his neurological disorder at work, and nothing could fix it.  Beyond the irresponsibility of this crystal ball therapy, their predictions made little sense given recent research on brain plasticity.  (See this great TED talk on the subject at http://www.ted.com/talks/michael_merzenich_on_the_elastic_brain.html for a brief introduction.)

The truth is that Asperger's, and its impact on relationships with self and others, is poorly understood, especially by many clinicians. And certainly no clinician should ever give a prediction for an individual's lifelong functioning, especially if that person has never been evaluated. Aspie couples come to therapy looking for tools and answers, and are often instead given prescriptions for hopelessness.  It's one thing to talk conservatively about treatment goals; it's another thing to throw out goals altogether.

Therapists often tell clients married to ASD adults that their partner cannot feel empathy and cannot truly love. Perhaps the reason I take such exception to this kind of dangerous feedback is that it's simply not true.  All of my clients feel empathy, and all are capable of love.  In fact many times my Aspie clients are shocked to find that their partner's faith in their love and loyalty can be compromised by a forgotten good-bye or missed eye-contact. One Aspie partner remarked: "How can our whole relationship hang by a thread? It makes me afraid to open my mouth for fear I'll accidentally destroy my marriage."  Of course this anxiety furthers ASD clients' reluctance to establish connection, which furthers their partners' feelings of being ignored or neglected.

Partners with Asperger's have often spent a lifetime making unpredictable relationship mistakes that carry real repercussions.  When the probability is high that your efforts to connect will be met with rejection, it's awfully hard to justify the logic of continuing to try.  Successful relationship therapy involves identifying triggers so that both partners can work towards feeling safe together.  This is the foundation of building connection.

Clinicians are trained to use good communication to build safety, rather than building safety to facilitate good communication.  I'm proposing the notion of working together to establish safety first.  This is crucial for creating a context in which people with Asperger's can experiment with being vulnerable, and non-Aspie partners can experiment with interpreting behaviors in brand new ways.




19 comments:

Anonymous said...

This is also a good posting on aspergers. I am really impressed. Wish we lived in WA. I know you could help us. Why dont you consider doing some webinars.


Christy

Anonymous said...

My husband, we are both sure, is an Aspie, although he is not officially diagnosed because he avoids the medical profession like the plague! We had a really rough go of it for many years. What helped the most was both of us finally coming to accept the other as they are, realizing that we were not going to agree on many things (though we do agree on many others). He will never be the physically affectionate man I would have liked, and I will never be the totally agreeable and agreeing wife he thought he wanted. He shows his love in unusual ways sometimes, but he definitely feels deeply and loves his family tremendously.

There are certain things he will never do with me. His need to avoid feeling crowded and hemmed in means he will never attend the symphony with me, or any other crowded venue. But I am free to do those things, to find friends who will go with me.

As a neurotypical, I won't say it's easy - it has been very, very hard sometimes. I'm glad there are therapists who specialize in working with adult Aspies and their families.

Anonymous said...

This is a very good way to approach therapy with asperger adults and couples. thank you for your writing.

seo melbourne said...

Better info on your blog than what I have seen so far elsewhere. Thanks for sharing and... Keep up the good work. I know from experience it's not always easy! :-).
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Melbourne Counselor said...

Marriage counseling helps couples of all types recognize and resolve conflicts and improve their relationships. Through marriage counseling, you can make thoughtful decisions about rebuilding your relationship or going your separate ways. Thanks.

Katzedecimal said...

I've been in my relationship for twenty-five years. One of my co-facilitators at our Asperger's workshops has been in her relationship for thirty years. We handle our relationships differently from what's typical and expected by NT people, right from dating, but in ways that have proven to be successful. We now work with other AS people and with AS youth, to help them share in that success. We hope to dispel this myth that AS people can't have successful, sustainable relationships.
What a lot of people seem to forget is that a relationship is comprised of TWO people. A large part of the success of our respective relationships has been the acceptance of our NT partners and their willingness to accomodate our needs, as much as our willingness to accomodate their needs. They fell in love with us because we are different, and they accept our needs as part of the difference that they love. That's the key right there.

Dui Laws In Florida said...

Relationship Counseling is the best process which can help you in the saving your marriage.This is the process which can be taken harsh decision of divorce.

Spen said...

Thank you for this blog entry. This is so true, sometimes we really are trying as hard as we can to be there emotionally but it just hurts too much or we don't know how. Dialing things back a bit can give us a chance to connect like we really want to, and that is what our partners want as well.

Anonymous said...

please dont ever think it is easy for us aspieS! For many aspies , being married to an NT is like being married to an insane person or an uncontrolled bipolar individual on no medication! Many of would rather take christ's place on the cross, than have to try to find new ways to try to please an NT spouse with all the logical ability and insecurities of wild-eyed despot. Believe me when I say being married to NTs is NEVER the picnic you NTs think it is for us aspies.

Anonymous said...

This makes sense, but how do you build safety before good communication? That's what I really want to know!

marriage counseling nyc said...

“Greetings! Very helpful advice on this article! It is the little changes that make the biggest changes. Thanks a lot for sharing!”

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Colleen Thiel said...

From what I learned from my days in therapy stamford, there is no absolute counselling, only pre-determined philosophies for each therapeutic patient. Relationships in all aspect are unique and the includes diverse factors.

doris alonso said...

I would just like to share. To some, long distance relationships actually work. A friend of mine met her boyfriend from an online dating site. Actually I would have to mention that I read an adult friend finder review is great. They seem to cope up well with the there distant love.

Jonathan Park said...

I happen to have this conversation with my friend who is also an intuitive counsellor and there's a common notion that asperger's and relationship aren't really good together. We think otherwise. Everyone should have a fair chance in love and relationship.

Nicholas Boucher said...

I keep forgetting to read anything after ...TED. I love your writing, but that is ADHDAspie bait! You must consider putting it at the end, lol.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this, you are so right. Not only therapists but friends meaning well also, you begin to think it just isn't possible to make an NT/Aspie relationship work.

Your blog is exactly what I needed to today to get back on track and try to make it work because it can and we want it to!

m said...

I am ... grateful to have found a therapist who is at least willing to acknowledge that therapists -- and not just laypeople (some of whom have AS themselves) -- do this.

Some therapists are completely unwilling to acknowledge that they have this blind spot. And if you, as a potential "co-client" in relationship or contemplating relationship with someone with AS dares suggest it -- then to those kinds of therapists, you are characterized as the "troublemaker".

And since they have positioned themselves as the "authority figure", it is very hard to get out from underneath that.

I ... would be extremely interested as to whether the blogowner has any suggestions as to how to counteract it when that kind of thing happens.

(Other than "find a new therapist" -- as the kind with the blog-owner's perspective and willingness to acknowledge these patterns is much, much more rare than that ... other kind.)

Hannah Anderson said...

Thank you for helping to clarify the disconnect between ASs and NTs that NTs interperet as lack of empathy. I especially needed to see the truth being spread because I recently came across this definition of ASD on my Japanese and Korean translating app: "an abnormal absorption with the self; marked by communication disorders and short attention span and inability to treat others as people"

Giulio Baistrocchi said...

you words are soclear both from a logical and emotional way. i think it is just reuniting the 2 aspects of the brain . thank you so much you are great