Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Outsourcing of Emotions: Adults on the Autism Spectrum

What gets repressed will be expressed...
not by you – but by your partner.

There’s this interesting phenomenon I notice amongst couples I work with.  It involves emotions, and how partners work together to manage unmanageable emotion loads.  They may not see it this way, but from my perspective it looks as though they are unconsciously dividing up and sharing emotions such that their partnership stays, although maybe uncomfortable, intact. 

As you probably know, lots of clients on the spectrum describe feeling “flat”, or emotionless.  They seem to have identified only two emotional states: undistrurbed and disturbed.  Distrubed emotional states are extremely uncomfortable and difficult to recover from, so, logically, many try not to get disturbed in the first place.

Between the Aspie client and his emotions is an extremely effective dam, and he feels little control over how wide, if at all, the floodgates are opened. While there may not be an accurate sense of what feelings actually lie on the other side of this dam, what is felt is a real dread of the size and intensity of these unknown emotions.  Clients seem to spend much of their time avoiding this dread, and occupying their interests and attention to this end.  They may spend time thickening the dam walls, by caking on layers of avoidance through distraction, compulsive working or even substance use.

This might work well, if only the emotions didn’t somehow leak out from beneath the dam, or spill over the top.  But, in fact, the dam does develop cracks. Minor cracks can bring anxiety and irritability, while major cracks can bring panic and apathy.   The great, nameless fear is that if the dam breaks, one might be engulfed, or even annihilated.  And since, when feelings leak out, they really do tend to be overwhelming, this theory gains credence over time.

In times where pressure mounts, the adult on the spectrum often employ one of two methods for emotion management – 1) he more frantically pursues his interests (because he’s increasingly desperate to distract from the pressure of mounting emotion), or 2) he provokes the emotion’s expression in his mate. I call this last tactic the outsourcing of emotions. It’s effective in the short-term, but can damage the attachment between partners.

What might this look like in everyday life? 

Say a family is attending a holiday party.  Let’s invite in our favorite hidden autistic adult, Joe. 

Joe and his wife (we’ll call her Jane) and two kids are preparing to leave for the event, and unspoken tension is high.  Joe is experiencing anxiety, but it’s a mindless kind of anxiety – he hasn’t really named the feeling, and therefore hasn’t had the opportunity to really solve for it.  What he does internally is a kind of disconnecting from the people around him.

Joe is on auto-pilot, and has decided the family should leave at 3:00 PM on the dot.  He fails to communicate this to anyone but himself, and instead imagines his family members know, or should know, about the deadline.  Of course, 3:00 o'clock comes, and 3:00 o'clock goes, and no one is ready to leave for the event.  Except Joe, that is.  He’s been alone waiting in the car for half an hour.

Once Joe can silently stew that his family members are not meeting expectations (of course there’s no way for them to meet expectations they don’t know exist!), he has a reason – a righteous reason! – for disconnecting.  Joe hasn’t learned how to rely on other people as sources of comfort; instead, they often feel to him like sources of danger.  Read on how this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, once the afternoon continues to degrade.

When finally Joe’s family members join him the car their emotional states have all arranged predictably: Joe is sullen and removed, Jane is frantically positive (trying to save the day from the inevitable), and the kids are becoming increasingly hyper and disorganized.  Once on the road, Joe begins driving with too much intensity, his jaw set and his gaze focused solely on the road.  When asked what’s bothering him, his reply is “nothing”, though various sources of stimuli are now crowding in on his consciousness – the noises, the sights, the chaos. Joe might truly believe at this point that his irritation is due to the missed deadline.

He may snap at the children, park too far away for his spouse’s taste, "sneak" an obvious glance at another woman – whatever the behavior, chances are he’ll continue until some unspoken line has been crossed.  Once it has, Jane becomes angry, and loses her temper.  She’s exhausted by the game they’re both playing, but unable to move differently in this very familiar dance.  “So many outings go this way,” she thinks.  “Why do I even try?”. 

Once Jane is angry, Joe can finally feel the sadness that has been fueling his behavior all along; and in this, he feels saner.  This seems so counterintuitive, doesn’t it?  But from Joe’s perspective, you see, the situation – and his reaction to it – now makes sense.  Joe finally feels like what he sees (his angry wife) has justified his internal state (anxious, excluded). And Jane has become the expresser of his angst; while he hangs back from the family, she has become irritable and overwhelmed.  Unconsciously, she has taken on his unbearable emotions.  At her own expense, she has served as an emotional surrogate of sorts.  Now Jane is feeling many of the feelings Joe had in the first place – Joe has outsourced his emotions.

The down side of this dynamic?   It is unconscious – Joe has not slowed down enough to identify, label, and communicate his distress (many clients don’t, because they feel unaware or ashamed that routine family outings cause them so much anxiety and confusion in the first place).  This outsourcing technique may save Joe the ego hit of having such struggles, but prevents his true solving of the problem.  What Joe actually learns, unconsciously, is that these states really are unbearable – that his spouse can bear them better, and will do so for him. 

Jane is also unconscious to this process, and is thus operating in the relationship in a way that damages her sense of self and sanity.  She may find, upon careful examination, that she has functioned this way in relationships before, especially in her family of origin (where we tend to learn these habits).  Perhaps she’s so good at intuiting the emotional states of others, that she confuses them with her own.

It’s so important to realize that there is no perpetrator here – Joe and Jane are both victims of this unconscious system. These roles and ways of transferring around unbearable emotion loads develop organically, and both members of the partnership play along.  Each feels as if s/he has no other options – he hasn’t found a way to deal effectively with his suffering without transferring it, and conveniently, she’s confused his suffering with her own, and therefore can't resist feeling it for him.

The fascinating part about this is that, in general, the outsourcing goes both ways.  There are plenty of times when the spouse does some outsourcing of her own – I hear about it in sessions when couples are discussing how much anxiety builds when, for example, guests come to the home.  In instances like these the roles are often reversed, with the Aspie partner working hard to absorb her unbearable levels of anxiety, and her neglecting to slow down long enough to truly manage her own emotional state.  The process might look very different on the surface, but a similar unconscious transfer of emotion is occurring.


Can we learn to operate differently in these situations?  Sometimes the patterns have been relived over and over, over years and years, maybe even passed on from generation to generation.  It seems so hopeless.  But it’s not.  The first step is to slow down and learn how to label emotion states.  I have many clients who cannot tell if they’re hungry, sad, tired or angry.  They skip over finding out, because they’re not good at it immediately, and because it takes time.  But it’s a crucial step to avoiding these mood management techniques that exploit relationships and erode our attachment.

(BTW- thank you to B.H. for encouraging me to get back to posting!)

35 comments:

Anonymous said...

Ha! Another good post. This is familiar to me, as I can feel the tension build up but cannot identify it because my SO denies. I then end up exploding from the pressure and feel guilty. I am going to see if we can stop and check in on our emotions during this holiday season. Maybe avoid a few ruined parties!!!!

Anonymous said...

We also have a difficult time managing stress during outings. I feel the same way as "Jane". I am afraid to check in with him on his emotions because I cannot help him.

Anonymous said...

If my husband could at least admit how he feels this entire thing could be avoided. I don't think he KNOWS. And a lot of therapists cannot help him or us. I do end up feeling his feelings. I have always done this in my relationships. I do suffer but it is almost better than leaving him alone with it. I never thought of it this way but I do think this is what is happening. Incredibly painful for both of us.

Anonymous said...

Is it really fair to blame him. He is trying to manage the holiday stress as best he can. It is very difficult and she can't understand it. I feel like this is judging him for being sensitive. Even if he does tell her how he feel she will try to solve it for him which will only make it worse. There is nothing anyone can do. Maybe the holidays are the problem.

KK

Lacey Gibson said...

Wow..I am the Aspie in this scenario. Nail on the head! How do we identify these feelings that were feeling but have trouble labeling?

Caru Gee said...

OMG! This explains what I have been struggling with for years. My Aspie is in total denial of being an Aspie and having any feelings. It all falls on me and I am always the bad guy, even though she says that ain't so. I pay the price.

Anonymous said...

I'm a female aspie who was out of touch with my emotions for a long, long time. My husband would ask how I am or how I was feeling and I'd stare blankly, unable to identify anything. Sometimes I would come back days later with an answer, but mostly I'd just shutdown. At other times I would try an articulate, coming up with expressions like "I feel like lamp," which didn't work. He was patient, but would eventually get frustrated that we couldn't connect emotionally. I was determined to fix this. What helped me was visiting a social coach. The social coach would focus on reading and expressing emotions. We went through common positive and negative emotions, as well as what I feel when I look into someone's eyes (mostly like holding my breath). My "homework" was to develop a feeling vocabulary. I am still not the best with emotional nuance (e.g. I'll say "I am feeling something positive between happiness and surprise"), but that's often enough to let my husband know what is going on so emotions don't get "outsourced," as it were.

Katzedecimal said...

Alexythemia is a common feature among us Aspies - the emotions are there and they're usually healthy, it's just we really have trouble sorting them out and naming them.
But I've noticed one huge difference between the WAY that Aspies emote versus how NTs emote: NTs tend to feel multiple emotions at once, and this is normal for them. Most of the other Aspies I've talked to, they all experience emotion the same way that I do: One at a time, like turning pages in a book. We might stay on one 'page' for a long time, or we might 'flip the pages" quickly, but generally we feel one at a time. When we start feeling multiple emotions at once, it can be very overwhelming and can push us to the point of a meltdown. Couple this with the difficulty in naming what we feel and we tend to want to just avoid the whole "feelings" thing as just too messy.
I've found that, for us, it can be better to ask "what's on your mind?" rather than "what are you feeling?"

Anonymous said...

Wow, i was just trying to explain this to my husband last night. There is this 'thing' that happens to us and i can never quite explain it right, but you just did a great job of it! We end up arguing about who was acting cranky or anxious first, like the chicken/egg conundrum. It becomes terribly challenging to tell whether i am feeling my own anxiety or his, especially when he denies feeling any anxiety at all.

Anonymous said...

write a book, seriously. there is so much misinformation out there right now. i am a realist, but spare me all the doom and gloom that these relationships cannot work. this is refreshing.

cm

Anonymous said...

I really appreciate this blog. Some of these things make so much sense out of situations that have felt crazy to me. I love my husband with ASD and this blog gives me hope. Write a book!

Anonymous said...

Great post again. We go through this too. Write more! Maybe about how am adult with aspergers can figure out what they feel?

Anonymous said...

This is exactly what me and my SO go through every time we are going to socialize. It is the weirdest thing. I cannot explain why I get so upset but I somehow understand his anxiety and start feeling it. And I have my own anxiety on top of this. I do want him to express his feelings but I worry that if he does I will become even more overwhelmed. I kind of count on him to be calm and cool on the surface even if underneath it he is as stressed as I am. Thank you for the post. It is nice to have a place to come to read about this without having to read about what a victim I am!!!!!!

Anonymous said...

Too many outings end up exactly this way. I cant tell the different bewtween my partner's angst and my own. And yes I have always been this way so only so much is his "fault".

Therese M.

Anonymous said...

I hope you will write a post about relationships where there is a lot of fighting. We have a lot of fights that end in screaming.

Anonymous said...

THANKS for your wonderful, so useful and explanatory posts. So many people are saying you should write a book. I SSSSOOOOOOO think this is absolutely necessary, as there is NO such book available as of now. There are a few books on "typical" AS-NT couples, but NONE on "residual Aspergers", I read this term somewhere and think it describes exactly the phenomena you talk about (Joe). People with a "Joe husband" are even misunderstood by "typical" AS-NT couples and counsellors. It is SUCH a lonely place to be. We have had the "Joe in the car" experience to a T. He sat in the car for an hour and we had a long drive ahead of us. He told me he was going to pack the car and fix the roof rack and so on, and I was talking to a friend. I wondered why fixing the roof rack was taking him so long, and when I got to the car, he was in it with the kids, just waiting. What's more, the kids told me they had wanted to come and call me and he had not allowed them to. At the time I knew nothing about AS and cursed under my breath, saying "Just give me a break!!!" You explain SO much of what we have gone through, which others cannot explain, because my husband is not interested in dinosaurs either and wears huge smiles (albeit "fixed" smiles, always the same) with others but never shows us a smile, ever.

m said...

"It’s so important to realize that there is no perpetrator here "

I think I would agree - IF Joe had in fact communicated the "we should leave" deadline to his family. But he didn't.

And all the anxiety that the whole family suffered came from that.

As the post says - you (single or plural) cannot meet expectations you don't know anything about.

And I think a lot of folks get a pass on that.

And then their partners and families get blamed for the resulting anxiety.

A lot.

Maire said...

I agree with m, no one can meet or even refuse a deadline they do not know about. Then to blame them for getting upset about the negative energy and blame being beamed at them is not fair. There are kids involved and they are in shooting range too and put at risk by inattentive driving. Just because Jo is unconscious about his assumptions and his projection does not make it his partners fault although I agree that very empathetic partners are sitting ducks for this sort of stuff.

Anonymous said...

Why is it so wrong to blame the person who starts this--whether intentionally or unintentionally? I know therapists are generally not in the blame game, but I think it's pretty cathartic to say: Hey, this is where it started. It might be that at the end of the scenario both parties are the problem, but identifying the origination of the problem seems fine to me. I wish the trend in therapy would move away from the no-blame game. Most people with Aspergers are pretty straightforward and blunt, it could be doing them a disservice not to be honest. To clarify, I think of "blame" as he/she who starts a chain of events.

Lise Lotte M Almenningen said...

In my case I was about 13-14 when I started closing down as much as I could. There just wasn't any person I felt I could trust with my feelings. It hadn't worked out well over a long period of time and loads of trauma had come my way in one way or another. So survival meant shutting down.
I did a good job of it too. People called me never stressed and the most I really felt was irritated and mildly everything else.
Then I became pregnant for the first time. Slowly that chest that I had thought locked down so well started cracking open. Then I had to study psychology. All of a sudden there words on a page that explained to me about cognitive processes.
I tried a couple of shrinks but they sure as hell weren't qualified to handle an undiagnosed autistic woman. But with time and medication I have been able to accept all of my emotions as OK the way they are.
The downside to that - as some people might feel it to be - is that I feel all emotions on the scale. But most other people I talk to still do not accept that I feel them the way I do.

The Absent Minded Housewife said...

This was 18 years of my marriage. At my wits end I yelled at my husband, "I'm tired of your passive aggressive bullshit!"

I mean, once, on one outing after he'd been on auto pilot most of the day, he became angry at me for insisting we move our car out of the parking spot he'd chosen because on my side someone had been sick and there was no way to navigate around the mess for me.

When I realized that he was provoking me to express emotions that he could not, I took a different approach. He always had plenty of physical cues before he reached that point, so with a little quiet prodding we could work it out and relieve that anxiety and the rigid thinking.

I have a boundary now. If he's provoking me, when interrupting it isn't working, for my health and safety, I leave the room or even the house. He can process and I don't have to come down off an emotional outburst of my own. Both strategies have relieved a lot of roller coaster.

Anonymous said...

i totally agree with last paragraph she is correct i as an AS tent to have no clue what im feeling and just shotgun attempt to correct and or hide it and go for feel good food or what ever instead after being "insert feeling" when it happened im understand what im feeling now its helping with my bs levels and my day to day living
i figured outed to understand what i needed to late

JANE is gone doesn't even care to know that Joe has learned and grown

So don't BE LIKE ME

Figure it out Before What you love dies

Anonymous said...

someone said:

Why is it so wrong to blame the person who starts this--whether intentionally or unintentionally? I know therapists are generally not in the blame game, but I think it's pretty cathartic to say: Hey, this is where it started. It might be that at the end of the scenario both parties are the problem, but identifying the origination of the problem seems fine to me. I wish the trend in therapy would move away from the no-blame game. Most people with Aspergers are pretty straightforward and blunt, it could be doing them a disservice not to be honest. To clarify, I think of "blame" as he/she who starts a chain of events.




--------------------------------------------------------------------------Well i feel you are not understanding you have to move past Blame because it isn't helpful everyone was involved and chose to act in there role/manner and it was unhealthy for all and blaming is just pointless when working on something genuinely
if you are just out to say it wasn't me then you missed something reread and it

Anonymous said...

Its not our job to blame anybody anymore. We just need to accept the path we are given.

Anonymous said...

This blog and comments is very reassuring to read! My partner is on the spectrum. I love her to bits but cannot continue in this relationship as I cannot tolerate day to day life with her, even as I understand that we are living in entirely different neurological universes. So much is unpredictable; she is highly sensitive to sounds, smells in the environment that others are completely unaware of and can flee from a place on a dime, without warning because of being overwhelmed by a noxious sensory experience. She has tremendous difficulties in discerning/making "small" in the neuortypical world) decisions - e.g., what to pack for a trip. The other day we had to leave to catch a plane. At THAT MOMENT she opened her suitcase and went through EVERYTHING to see what she could leave behind as she felt it was too heavy!!! This is a common kind of occurence. At times she can so desperately lean on my me her survival that I feel entirely swamped and become self punitive, even banging my own head in the face of her overwhelming needs of me. Does this sound familiar to others?

Anonymous said...

"if only the emotions didn’t somehow leak out from beneath the dam, or spill over the top. But, in fact, the dam does develop cracks. Minor cracks can bring anxiety and irritability, while major cracks can bring panic and apathy. The great, nameless fear is that if the dam breaks, one might be engulfed, or even annihilated. And since, when feelings leak out, they really do tend to be overwhelming, this theory gains credence over time."

What is physically occurring with this metaphor? How does this emotional flooding occur as it relates to neuro-physiology? I don't understand the last sentence, because it says the evidence that becoming overwhelmed indicates the hypothesis (not really a theory) is relevant. Many kinds of people ignore their feelings in the moment and save them for later (police, firefighters, doctors, bus drivers, cashiers, ...) in order to stay on point. This is not exclusive to people on the autism spectrum. This is a human trait. Perhaps I am missing where a fork exists between AS and NT as it relates to outsourcing emotion.

John McGuinness said...

I think for most people, the arena in which they are allowed to release the emotions they ignore is in their intimate relationships. For may people on the spectrum, that is not an acceptable outlet either, due to perception, reality, or some combination thereof.

People on the spectrum have to constantly maintain this dam, and the stakes, at least as they perceive them, is enormous. This is surely hard on partners, but also requires a tremendous amount of energy and stress on the person on the spectrum.

Celt said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

This is my entre life, It helps to redd this, I am not the only one married to an aspie..... Please write more posts!

Anonymous said...

This s my life, too. 20 years..... I am so tired of it all, all the situations which end like this.... There can never be a GOOD moment, a nice time out with friends....

Unknown said...

I've been looking around for information on what you have called 'hidden' autistics for quite a long while. I'm so so happy to have found your sight. Your insight and ability to explain things so clearly, without judgement or negativity, is appreciated. Until I can get my husband to therapy with me, or until we can find one who understands autism, I will follow your blog. My husband is the antithesis of the stereotype for aspergers. I've always called him Metrosexual, because he is sensitive and wants to talk out our issues together, and has an excellent sense of style. After 14 years, I am seeing very clearly the exhausting burden he has, just to get along day to day. But, the way that you explain autism is super insightful. Your blogs on depression are particularly helpful. You got me thinking about so much: is poor hygiene a trait of aspergers, as many will say, or is it a symptom of depression from dealing with enormous stress and confusion and effort all day every day? Is the hyperfocus due to avoidance rather than JUST obsession on a topic. You help me to empathize with the husband I've been trying not to get rid of for the past year. He's an amazing, loving, handsome, creative man, who can barely function adequately most days. I can see how my husband mimics me, verbally, to the point of having the exact same illness or injury I have, right after I mention it. He ponders that it must be sympathy pains. I've accused him of just wanting to one-up me. He will repeat what I've said, days later, as though it's his thought, some conclusion I've come up with to an issue we are having. When stress is high in our home, he makes verbal lists of what needs to be done. This sounds simple and effective, maybe, but not for him. You have helped me understand, more soundly, the profound stress he is under, being hidden and not knowing, or wanting to know, why.

Anonymous said...

Thank you... I have to read this post regularly to tell myself I am normal, I have an Aspie husband. Exactly this happened AGAIN last sunday.. him, me and the boys in he car, he knows how to get me angry, so he ca yell at me, kids are crying, an d I end up beeing the bad guy, and the boys are blaming me... it is a strange game, which is impossible to stop ( before I leave him?) I wears me out.... he tells me I need to se a psycholog, so he can fix my head... I am so tired of this game...

Please, never stop writing these posts, I need them to stay normal ....

Anonymous said...

I hear you.... I'm so done with it after five. I can't imagine 20 years.

Anonymous said...

I have given up on going out, each time we go out he stresses over the drivers the people everything is bad, and even if we do make it to the place he wants to rush in and out the place and head home. I am in distress... I need help to manage his aspie tendencies, is so hard sometimes, i just want to cry ��

Anonymous said...

Stop going out with him, it's the only way, get yourself a life outside of joint socialising.