In working with lots of couples in which one partner is on the spectrum, I cannot help but notice that many Aspies are coupled with highly relational people. Perhaps this seems a common phenomenon – opposites do attract, after all. But in these cases, partners seem more than just “opposites”.
Partners of people on the spectrum often are more than just social – they’re often socially gifted. These people can make friends with strangers in the checkout line, start up random conversations with people with seemingly no effort. They’re often good with language – very good – and the path from their brain to their mouth seems short and straight (no pausing to find the perfect word, no searching for how to articulate a feeling). When they’re angry, these partners are often even more articulate than usual – so quick with words that the Aspie cannot drum up a response before the partner is on to the next point.
I often refer to these non-Aspie partners as 98 Percenters. These individuals are willing and able to do 98% of the work required to connect to another person. Of course there are exceptions, but I find that the idea applies often. So, who is the 98 Percenter?
- Often extroverted, or a socially extroverted introvert
- Can be emotionally labile – shifting and reactive moods
- Socially adept – can fit in with many different kinds of people
- Highly communicative of emotional states
- Can seem very angry one minute, then pick up the ringing phone and seem cheery
- Knows how to make people feel good
- Often skilled with remembering details about people’s lives
- Highly sensitive to others’ perceptions and judgments
- Quick to anger
- Prone to anxiety and/or depression
- Excellent at chit chat (though s/he may not like it)
- Often interested in social justice (animal rights, etc)
It’s interesting that in sessions this highly communicative partner is often the person who answers my questions. Sometimes they serve as a kind of bridge for the Aspie partner. If I ask the Aspie partner a question that requires emotional analysis, s/he will often look to the partner to answer it. Of course this does make sense – it’s much more efficient, and the partner will be (perhaps) better at articulating the answer. The truth is, the Aspie partner is just fine with answering – but allowing himself enough time to answer accurately would cause the conversation to lose its rhythm – and in general, this is a social no-no.
The 98 Percenter is often the kind of person who will “put herself out there” – risking rejection for the chance of connection. S/he might reveal more about details Aspies consider to be personal (and therefore private) to casual friends. The 98 Percenter can be good at establishing what looks like instant intimacy. I often hear from clients that “the party starts when she walks into the room”, or that people seem drawn to her. It’s a sometimes dazzling level of attunement – the 98 Percenter can chit chat away while constantly monitoring how she’s being perceived and how others are feeling and perceiving. That’s a lot of complexity, and it sure comes in handy. However, when you’re 98% exposed, lots of things are revealed – including feelings like anger and resentment. The Aspie partner experiences the lion’s share of this, and cannot usually understand why.
Sometimes this level of output comes at a price, and the 98 Percenter is exhausted after interacting – sometimes s/he has a hard time interacting at 50%. In fact, if s/he’s not up to it, s/he may isolate until s/he can interact at her comfortable 98%.
Being a 98 Percenter sometimes means the individual is willing to do 98% of the work to connect to someone. If there is an emotional space between two people, this person will just about fill it in order to connect – with emotional availability. This works great for Aspie partners, in general, who seem less interested in letting it all hang out there – actually most of my Aspie clients seem more comfortable providing 2% - but an often pretty perfect 2%. It seems like it should be a great system – because between the 98 Percenter and the complementary 2%, the whole emotional space should be filled, and partners should be able to feel connection. But there’s a problem.
After a while, the 98 Percenter reports feeling tired and resentful. What worked beautifully at first becomes mundane, then unsustainable. As the 98 Percenter expresses relationship fatigue, then frustration, then desperation, the Aspie’s 2% seems unchanged. This confounds, then enrages the 98 Percenter, who has felt willing to do so much work for so long, and is now looking for a little payback.
My opinion is that most of my Aspie clients are not unwilling to offer more than 2% emotional availability. Under the surface they’re already offering more. Most truly seem unschooled as to how to offer more (or in what form), and cannot tolerate much rejection. S/he needs help understanding how and what and when to offer connection, and needs a recipe for success.
In typical relationships the percentages of emotional connection offered by partners differ, of course – but they do tend to wax and wane. With Aspie relationships there’s less flexibility – but under the surface there’s also less variability on the part of the Aspie. We can’t always strive to be a 50/50 relationship, but we can certainly find ways to limber up the system. And we do.
If you consider yourself to be a 98 Percenter, I really encourage you to think about how this ratio works (or worked) for you, and why. Remember that it can translate to 98% of the emotional control and 98% of the emotional competence. Finding ways to help your partner experiment with offering up more means you’ll need to give up some of that control and accept what is offered, as your Aspie partner experiments with the very scary process of revealing an imperfect self.