Aspie-neurotypical relationships often start out with intense passion, then fizzle and devolve into disaster. For the purpose of this article, I have used the word “aspie” instead of “autistic;” however, the two terms should be considered interchangeable in this article. The reason for this word choice is that most searches about adult autism use the words “Asperger’s” or “aspie.”
Notes: they/them pronouns used for inclusivity/generalization; not all neurotypical-Aspergian relationships will fit this exact trajectory, but this speaks to a trend many might find relatable. No one is expected to relate to 100% of this; however, hopefully it will highlight the different perspectives and provide some helpful tips to rescue your relationship in coming articles in this series.
For the neurotypical: When you first got together, you had never felt so seen, validated, and understood. Your partner asked you questions you’ve never been asked, caused you to explore parts and depths of yourself you’d never before explored. The focus was much deeper than on the superficial. This relationship was different. This person was different. The relationship felt like magic.
For the first time, you weren’t experiencing jealousy or fears of infidelity anymore because this was a person who was authentic, genuine, real. You found that truth-telling vulnerability, worldly wisdom, and zealous wonder refreshing. You learned to trust.
You felt like you were on a new wavelength, and so you were absorbed in this world with this new love who had so many interesting insights and strong feelings. But the best part was that they loved those parts of you that you had to hide from everyone else. They didn’t want you to behave. They had no judgement about what most would consider to be broken or weird.
You started feeling free to say what you really felt, to talk about things dark and uncomfortable, things that would make most people think you were crazy. But, those flaws seemed to be their favorite parts of you. This person was a paradox, somehow more mature than everyone else and yet vibrant with a childlike innocence.
With this person, you became the best version of yourself. You felt evolved, and you were so immersed in this uncharted territory, you fell into this fascinating new world that made your other relationships feel like they lacked depth. You pulled away from friends and family because they couldn’t understand what this new world, this new you, was like.
For the aspie: At the beginning, you were amazed. You found this person who seemed to you like this treasure hidden in plain sight. No one else had realized how amazing this one person was. You felt like the luckiest person on the planet.
This person had been abused, overlooked, mistreated, and devalued. You could relate, and the past injustices against your new love caused you such intense anger and heartbreak. You felt so intensely, you’d give your life to prove to your partner their worth.
With this person, you were euphoric. Your depression and anxiety were all-but-cured. The sensory issues that used to overwhelm you didn’t seem to have as much power as they used to. You had a purpose, and the purpose was to prove your love and devotion. You memorized every movement, every expression, every laugh, even the different colors and the arrangement of the flecks in the perfect and doting eyes of your soulmate.
And in the intoxicating whir of this new relationship, your existential despair became a thing of the past. You were energized and felt healed by this love. Determined to do everything right, you did what you do and dove in head first. You were going to be a hero, and you finally had a way to make all that was good about you useful.
A Slow Tension Building
For the neurotypical: Eventually, things started to get weird. There was this big thing that had been planned, this trip or a friend’s wedding or a family holiday, and you had your first real fight. This person who had previously been willing to assume all the guilt and throw themselves on a sword for you was suddenly cold and distant, harsh and unfeeling.
You quickly made up, and there were a lot of tears from both of you. It was a passionate resolution, and things seems righted. Then, there was another fight. It didn’t even make any sense to you why you were fighting. Your partner had seen the worst of you and loved it deeply, but suddenly this tiny detail was catastrophic. You felt attacked.
The arguments increased. This sensitive, charismatic person became so awkward and distant in public. At home, they weren’t trying as hard anymore. You saw shifts, where the eyes that once glittered with unbridled passion and wonder went flat and dark. The grand romantic gestures faded into small rituals. The magic was being replaced with a dull routine.
You felt like your partner was sabotaging and gaslighting you, embarrassing you on purpose in front of your friends and family. They found the smallest ways to ruin things for you, like wearing the wrong clothes to a semi-formal occasion or spending an anniversary playing video games.
Where before you could do no wrong, now you began to feel that you could do no right. Your partner who had cared so much about your feelings was now annoyed by them. You felt like you were with Dr. Jekyll and Mr(s). Hyde.
For the aspie: There was that first big fight that happened. You were being accused of something that had nothing to do with you, and the more you tried to explain, the angrier and more unreasonable your partner became. You tried to ask questions, tried to understand, but everything you said was wrong. You feared that the fairy tale was over.
Once the smoke cleared, you tried hard to understand why your partner was so upset. You thought about it, rationalized, and gave them the benefit of the doubt. There was a resolution, but it never made sense to you what the actual problem was.
Then, this person who had seemed so open and so honest started to change.
It was confusing for you to see these two different people emerge, one in public and one in private. They would hate someone privately and yet cling to him or her in public. You worried about how honest and genuine your partner was. If they were putting on an act for others, were they doing the same with you?
Suddenly, they began to take everything personally. You were living your life as usual, but your partner began feeling like your independent actions had something to do with them. You felt like you couldn’t go to work or fix a meal or watch a television show without your partner feeling like it was some sinister personal attack with some unspoken motive.
You tried to reassure them at the beginning, but they wouldn’t believe anything you said. Before, they loved everything that made you different, but now they were trying to change how you dressed and even control how you behaved in social situations. You felt like they were ashamed to be with you.
The worst came when they started attacking your core character. You were accused of lies, emotional abuse, and of not caring. They may have even suspected infidelity. You took it for as long as you could, reasoning that they were insecure and suffering from mental illness.
You weren’t judgemental; you just wanted them to get help. You tried to suggest therapy, but they accused you of gaslighting and more emotional abuse. Where once you were a hero and life-saver, now you were being considered a terror.
Self-help guides and traditional couple’s therapy aren’t going to fix these differences. At the level of the neurology, the differences lend themselves to inevitable conflict. To even begin to resolve these issues, you’re going to have to understand each other.
And, this isn’t easy. You can’t just teach each other about your own differences if you don’t know in what ways you’re different or what those differences mean. You’re certainly not an expert in psychology or neurology just because you belong to a neurotype any more than a person with cancer isn’t an oncologist.
But, a person with cancer has millions of resources that are helpful to understand cancer and what it means and future options.
There are almost no helpful resources for understanding the fundamental differences between NTs and NDs. Many writers like Kathy Marshack and Maxine Aston write from the perspective of neurotypical supremacy, pathologizing, peddling paltry stereotypes, directly misrepresenting or ignoring research, and claiming [with painful irony] that aspies have “zero degrees of empathy” and simply can’t understand… well, much of anything.
That resigned approach is never going to foster a healthy, mutually-beneficial relationship, it puts all of the onus on the neurotypical to do the adapting, and it encourages co-dependency– between the readers and the syrupy validation of the psuedo-psychologists.
In part 2 of this series, differences in NT-ND identities as they apply to relationships are explored. Stay tuned.
Was this at all like the aspie-neurotypical relationship you’ve experienced, or is it similar to your current relationship? In what ways could you relate? Let us know in the comments.