What I Learned from Dating a Man with Asperger's
The relationship I had with Don was by far the most challenging, the most rewarding, and most importantly, the healthiest I’ve ever had with any man in my life. The process of learning who he was, the process of learning about Asperger’s and how to build a successful relationship with someone on the spectrum resulted in my developing far greater communication skills than I thought possible. What I learned from that relationship benefited me in all my relationships and in all my communications.
I’ve written extensively about the challenges I encountered on my blog. Getting to a comfortable place in our relationship was a painful, arduous process, with many setbacks. In the end, the effort I invested in the relationship with Don has proven invaluable to my personal growth, and I know for a fact to his as well.
#1: Don didn’t express how he was feeling unless I asked, and even then, he often did not have the words to tell me
It wasn’t long before I sensed Don just wasn’t getting me. He valued me, I knew that from the get. He consistently and deliberately sought me out for relationship. He very much wanted me to be part of his life, but he never expressed that in words. I looked up this condition and found a name for it: Alexithymia.
I started asking questions, which is, thankfully, a habit of mine, particularly when getting to know someone. It was immediately clear it made him uncomfortable when I asked, “what are you thinking?” or “how do you feel?” After a short time, I didn’t ask so much, because I didn’t want to put him on the spot. Instead, I focused on reading his behavior. I found that indeed, actions do speak louder than words.
Once I figured that out, I realized how important it is to look at a man’s behavior and not just his words. That prompted a big shift in my perception. I often used the term “walk the talk”, but until I learned it from Don, I listened to what a man said. Because I am a very verbal person, it was always easy for me to rely on words. Plus, many a neurotypical man knows exactly what to say to get what he wants, and unfortunately, his actions might not line up. There’s an aspect of hearing what you want to hear, believing what you want to believe when you’ve got a smooth-talking neurotypical on your hands. But it’s not safe. Actions are a far more accurate measurement of a person’s character. This learning has been invaluable.
#2: I couldn’t rely on non-verbal communication — flirting just did not work
I had no idea how much I relied on non-verbal communication until I started dating Don. I flirted my ass off with that man and he was oblivious. I was frustrated beyond words that my usual feminine charms had no effect on him. It took me a while to figure it out, then I was forced to try a new angle. When I was direct, when I asked, “Do you want to have sex?” he was all over it. Thankfully!
After a while, he knew I was pretty much always game to the idea and routinely initiated. It quickly became the one area of our relationship I knew I could count on him to be clear and obvious about what he wanted and when and where and how. But that was the only area.
#3: Don always tells the truth, and sometimes the truth is incredibly painful
If I asked a direct question about myself, Don always gave me an honest and direct answer. Sometimes, I was taken aback. Sometimes, it really stung to know how he felt about a particular aspect of my personality or my behavior. I quickly became very judicious about the questions I did ask. After a while, I only asked questions when I really wanted or needed to know his answer.
A few months into our relationship, we began discussing how he was always completely and transparently honest. I recounted for him some of the times he’d said things that really really stung. He was always surprised. He would apologize, but by then I firmly trusted he’d never ever hurt me intentionally, so there was no need. It was important I point out to him the impact of what he said to me, but it wasn’t important he apologize, because I knew beyond a doubt his motives were always good and true.
I also got into the habit of giving him very direct, not always flattering information about what I felt and thought about him. It was a good lesson for me not to take my usual approach of beating around the bush or couching information in a kinder, softer way. I was a bit harsh upon occasion. He never seemed to be taken aback. He simply took in the information and acted on it accordingly.
I once asked him if I’d ever hurt his feelings. He immediately assured me I had not. I remain surprised by that to this day, because man, did I let him have it sometimes. But again, he simply took in the information and acted on it accordingly.
#4: Don has low self-esteem, and no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get him to see the truth about who he is
I have suffered tremendously from low self-esteem most of my life. I’ve spent years, decades of my life feeling like shit about myself, all without any basis whatsoever. It is only in the last few years that I’ve gotten a hold of some valuable truths about who I am and what I stand for.
I don’t know it all, by any stretch, but I’ve certainly figured out a few things. I have a great deal to share about how to overcome self-hate and self-condemnation, and I’m not reticent to share it. If I can help those whom I care about to avoid the suffering I’ve experienced as a result of not being able to get out of my own way, I feel compelled to do so.
One of Don’s favorite pastimes is Don-Bashing. I felt compelled to argue with him every time he’d say something negative about himself. I was arguing with him all the time! Because the more I’d argue, the more compelled he was to argue back and try to prove me wrong.
Well, you can’t convince someone you’re worthless when you’re not worthless, particularly when your actions showcase the fact you are a person of high character. Furthermore, and this one took me a long time to figure out, just because you think a thing about yourself doesn’t mean it’s true. The people that love you are always going to see the truth of who you are. And the truth of Don is that he is amazing and wonderful, and I can’t think of enough positive adjectives. The man is golden.
I had a great crisis of self-esteem myself, not being able to convince Don he was horribly mistaken in his self-assessment. I felt like I wasn’t doing it hard enough or I wasn’t doing it right, because surely my arguments were strong enough for anyone to take heed! I’d succumbed to the false belief it was my responsibility to convince Don to see himself differently. I felt like I was beating my head against a brick wall.
Finally, I figured out I’d fallen into my favorite pattern of codependency. Then I gave myself a break and acknowledged until and unless Don is ready to change, he aint gonna change. I am in no way responsible for the work that only he can do. I knew that full well. But somehow in my codependent frenzy, I’d lost sight of the facts.
Once I figured it out, I just backed off. When he’d say something self-deprecating, I had a practiced response: “That is not how I see it.” No matter his comeback to that, I’d respond, “That is not how I see it.” I’d like to say it stopped him from putting himself down, but it didn’t.
After a while, his self-flagellation did let up. He had heard what I’d said, some of it did sink in. He’s on his own path of self-growth and self-understanding, and some of the improvement is simply a result of the maturation that comes with aging. He’s most certainly on an upward trend. He’s truly beginning to see the truth of who he is, and how much he has to offer. He’s doing the work. He’s invested. He truly truly is.
#5: You do You and I’ll do Me
The biggest positive change was choosing to be confident enough in myself to let Don just be Don. Once I’d studied up a bit more on the condition, to the best of my ability, I didn’t personalize the behaviors that are so counter-intuitive to neurotypicals, but so typical of people with Asperger’s. If I was unsure how to interpret his words or his actions, I’d ask. Sometimes he could explain, not always, but more and more he’d be able to share what was occurring in his internal landscape. That had a lot to do with the ease people develop with one another over time. I also think I pushed him to expand his ability to express himself verbally.
We are both incredibly tenacious, and neither of us were willing to give up on the relationship without a good long fight. That, more than anything else, is what ensured our success. But my oh my it was painful at times. Knowing what I know now, I’d do it again in a heartbeat. Don is worth every effort. And I learned, without a doubt, so am I.
I said to him once, “Thank you for being so patient with me. I am not an easy one.”
Then I had a bit of a think on that and followed up with, “You are not an easy one either!”
Photo by Josh Couch on Unsplash