Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Adults with Asperger's: Why Freezing Strawberries Can Be Hard

In working with couples in which one partner is on the spectrum I'm often struck with how similar their experiences, both big and small, are.  Of course in initial sessions I get quite a different account from each partner.  Because one partner in the relationship is often both vocal and articulate, I get lots of information from him/her.   In fact, I depend on this partner to convey how s/he feels in the relationship. This ability to describe emotional states is a valuable part of therapy.

But gathering information from the Aspie partner goes a little differently.  Many folks with Asperger's have a difficult time recognizing and naming their emotional states.  Most of my clients know if they're comfortable or not comfortable, but distinguishing between emotions like guilt and sadness, or happiness and excitement, is trickier.  Funny that many of these adults enter into relationships with partners who are so highly empathic; I've heard couples report that the non-Aspie partner will know her partner is anxious before he does!

This difficulty naming emotions wouldn't seem like too much of a disability, except that we rely on our ability to notice and name our internal states constantly - throughout interactions with everyone from the mail carrier to our spouse.  Think of the lack of control that can come from not being able to name your emotion - how then can you modify your environment or the behavior of others to meet your emotional needs?  Here's an example of the kind of interaction that can emerge:

#1: I'm so angry with you for forgetting to freeze those strawberries!
#2: I didn't forget.
#1: Yes you did.  You always do. I told you to freeze them, and there they sit on the counter!
#2: That's because I haven't gotten to it yet.
#1: Well when did you think I wanted them frozen? After they've gone moldy?
#2: They're not moldy.
#1: That's not the point! I asked you to do me a simple favor and you just won't do it! I really do have  
      to do everything myself. Can 't you understand how that hurts me?
#2: (silence)...beginning to shut down
#1: Is that a "YES"?
#2: (silence)....shut down

In this example (as you may have guessed) Partner #2 is the partner with Asperger's.  As tension rises during the conversation, he is unable to identify his emotional state - things are moving too quickly, and she's waiting for a response.  There's no time to slow down and ask himself what he's feeling - to do so might even further escalate the situation.  Because accessing emotion takes time - more time than is socially sanctioned - he may focus on the information coming his way - because frankly, he can process information with lightning speed.  Once she's offered a statement that's untrue ("I really do have to do everything myself"), the conversation is largely over.  He cannot correct her statement without furthering their journey down the rabbit hole.  He cannot acquiesce, because the statement is not correct.  With no option, he shuts down.

In an effort to justify feelings, many of us exaggerate information.  Without doing so, it seems, we are not taken seriously.  But doing so invites debate.  Were the strawberries really in danger of going moldy?  Perhaps not.  Because she has expressed her feelings in terms of information, the validity (or lack thereof) of the information is relevant.  This debating of information is often a major way these conversations get derailed.

But there's an exciting twist to this story.  Healthy communication requires sharing perspective using reality-based language.  It requires resisting the temptation to read into behaviors, to assume motives.  Yet most of us are socialized to infuse our communication with emotional intensity when we feel unheard.  Of course this will not work in an Aspie relationship.  Nothing will close down a conversation more quickly.  Healthy communication is literally the only thing that will work.

If folks with Asperger's tend to miss emotional cues unless the cues are potent and unmistakable, it's natural for partners to want to amp up the intensity in an effort to be heard.  It's painful when this backfires for both partners.  Developing a system that helps you and your partner navigate conversations - and communicate intense emotions in non-threatening ways - is crucial.  Without systems to manage these moments, partners will feel both bullied and unheard.

While freezing strawberries may seem to be an inconsequential issue, it's often these everyday rough spots that couples address in sessions.  When simple interactions can veer so far south, the couple is at risk for chronic hypervigilance and reactivity.

More on these systems to come.


Anonymous said...

haha. i totally see this in my relationship. i tried canning with my hb and had to laugh. this is really good stuff. i hope to read more about the systems you mention. thanks for another good post. bb.

Anonymous said...

THANK YOU FOR ANOTHER POST ABOUT COMMUNICATION!!! I cant find any information about what works for my marriage. Please write more.

Jon said...

sounds like me and my boss. :(

Anonymous said...

Love the post. Typical template for things that go on with Aspies.

I did find a book today at the library that deals with things exactly like this (haven't read much of it but it sounds very much like what this post is about). It's called "What does everyone else know that I don't" by Michelle Novotni, Ph.D., published in 1999. Says it's social skills help for adults with AD/HD but may help us Aspies too.

Anonymous said...

Holy cow, you hit the nail on head! This is a great post that will really help NT/AS communication. It is so difficult to find helpful, positive information on NT/AS relationships. 95% of what's out there is doom and gloom, about how such a relationship will never work and you should just bail out now. Well, what about those of us who actually love our spouses and are committed to working it out? There's so little help available for us. THANK YOU!

Katzedecimal said...

Part of why he's shutting down is, she's just introduced an element that seems illogical to him - he's wondering, "Why would she feel hurt because I haven't put the strawberries away yet? How does my not freezing the strawberries hurt her feelings?" This makes no sense to him so he is puzzled and he is silent while he tries to process this - to him - illogic. Then she is insisting on an answer to a question he doesn't understand. He cannot answer, so he says nothing, and shuts down further in an effort to retreat from the situation that is quickly becoming overwhelming.

A way to avoid this is to be more specific about when she wants the strawberry chore to be done, and provide a reason why it shouldn't be postponed. "Please do this right away, because if the strawberries sit at room temperature for too long, they will become soft." If a task can be done later but still within a certain time frame, it's best to specify it: "Please do this by 4 o'clock." If one says something like "please do this by the time I get home," there is a chance it may not get done - not because the AS person is ignoring it, but because they got hyperfocused on another task, and lost track of time. Time goes smooshy for us when we're in hyperfocus; I can look up after ten minutes and discover, oops, actually it's been three hours. If there is a time specified, the AS person can put it into their timer.

For other AS peeps (I'm AS), I find it helpful to say something like "Sometimes my task priorities and someone else's task priorities don't mesh. It would help me if you can tell me exactly when you need this task done by." But with small tasks like freezing strawberries, it's best to just do it right away, then you can devote yourself to your other tasks and interests. I use the "Two-Minute Rule" -- if it will take 2 minutes to do it, do it right away.

Anonymous said...

Incredibly helpful post. The insight and relevance I encounter over your body of writing is so impressive to me. It makes me wish I had the resources to afford your services. Please keep doing what you're obviously meant to be doing.
~L. undiagnosed

ictus75 said...

I've had that exact same conversation/experience many times with my spouse. Yes, shutdown is imminent.

Anonymous said...

I know this is an old post but I wanted to comment - maybe it's my lack of empathy or something, but to me Partner #1 seems like a petty and irrational bully.

I find it astonishing that any self-respecting adult could get so upset and 'hurt' (seriously?) over such a trivial thing as strawberries, and actually spend time and energy berating their partner about it. It's that behaviour, not the AS partner's, that seems bizarre and disordered to me.

If that's what 'normal' people are like, I'm happy to be me!

Anonymous said...

Yes but your missing the point, that the nt partner expects him to be joining her in thinking. Aspies don't do that, but when typical people don't it's because they're hostile. She's just reacting to what she thinks he's communicating. You may not like it but this is how people communicate.

Anonymous said...

Thank for this. We have these arguments all the time. My friends tell me they are the same arguments every couple has, but they are not. I can't make anyone understand. Thank you to this blog for understanding, if not solving. KP

Anonymous said...

This is another great example of miscommunication in these relationships. One is talking about information and one is talking about feelings. We have these problems all the time, like we are speaking different languages. Adults with autism and Aspergers try but cannot understand the emotional part of the communication.

Anonymous said...

A really great example. I had a similar discussion with my husband a while ago (although the subject was a little less trivial) and stopped because I saw he started to get distressed. Because I kept wondering what went wrong I asked him a while later if he realized that I felt hurt because it seemed like he didn't think I was important enough. it turned out that he had no idea of the emotional side of the discussion and therefore didn't understand why I would get angry. But when I explain these things he feels like he failed so I also find it hard to do so. Not explaining leads to distance and suppressing my emotions, so I still don't know how to handle this best.

Anonymous said...

This is exactly why I stopped dating years ago. Too much work for everyone.

Unknown said...

Thank you for the help and insight, I'm NT but my husband has AS.

Anonymous said...

I know this post is years old, but I've found it when I need it most. Remarkable insights. I'm AS, and I've struggled with things like this numerous times. I'm soon to be pursuing a relationship with a highly empathetic NT girl, and I often worry about these kinds of problems. It is highly relieving to be able to prepare myself for this.

Anonymous said...

Here's the thing though. Person 1 doesn't want to know person 1s feelings, all they want to do is blame, for person 2 to state their feeling would be pointless, because person 1 has already decided that they are the victim and person 2 is the perpetrator.

Anonymous said...

" Anonymous said...

Yes but your missing the point, that the nt partner expects him to be joining her in thinking. Aspies don't do that, but when typical people don't it's because they're hostile. She's just reacting to what she thinks he's communicating. You may not like it but this is how people communicate. "
Well then why wont she accept that people are different? That's wrong. It's silly that NT's constantly whine about how "they feel" when they literally don't give a shit about aspies feelings.

Anonymous said...

The last commentators may be missing the point: is the probable larger CONTEXT of the strawberry discussion. Doing the domestic task (putting berries in the freezer) became an emotional issue because speaker 1 remembered all the other domestic work she had done alone, and that speaker 2 ignored this aspect of her life. These incidents, and discussions or conflicts over them, become linked into a pattern where the NT person feels alone with a lot of responsibility and work and no support.

Anonymous said...

A motivating discussion is worth comment. I think that you need to write more on this issue,
it might not be a taboo matter but typically folks don't talk about such subjects.
To the next! Best wishes!!

Anonymous said...

Eleven years of this.

I left.

For a month.

I married a brilliant 98%er who seemed to be quite capable of doing everything for us, so I figured he would be fine--no strawberry would go mouldy in that house with me out of it, I was quite certain. But he wasn't. He cried all the time and begged me to return. He sought out a counsellor (on his sister's advice, never listened to me on that)... and he told me everything would change if I came back. I did and it has.

He never took me seriously--I was convinced I was on the Spectrum, he was convinced that I was just quirky and needed to try harder socially.

We started marriage counselling. It went well (prolly because we both wanted it to work and had gotten through the hardest bits separately).

But...eleven years. I felt like I could do nothing right, which is hard for a young, perfectionist wife... and he could do no wrong. He "won" every argument because he is more outwardly passionate and more articulate than I am when irritated. It was demoralising.

But. Now he knows. And I can breathe.

Dave Muller said...

Your blog has been the most helpful and insightful thing I have ever read. This is literally a life changer for me. I'm AS, and struggling with communication and I've been trying to understand how I work to communicate better.

That thing about the exaggeration to show emotion helps so much. After reading this I realise that I get bogged down in the details without getting that there's another, bigger picture to see.

Thank you again!