I recently read an article about the benefits of writing, and I decided I would spend some of my time off this Sunday writing down some thoughts. Valentine’s Day is coming up, so the topic of relationships is looming large. There are no romantic prospects on my horizon, but at least I’ve got my box and cards ready for the party at work. (I’m gonna be the coolest 30-year-old in the 4th grade).
I was a Christian teenager in the 90’s, so my shelf is lined with the usual suspects – Passion and Purity, I Kissed Dating Goodbye, When God Writes Your Love Story, etc. I’ve also been listening to the Boundless Show podcast a lot, which is geared towards Christian single young adults, so relationships are the most common topic of discussion. In addition, I’ve read a few books specifically about Aspergers and relationships, like Asperger Syndrome and Long-Term Relationships, The Journal of Best Practices, and 22 Things a Woman with Asperger’s Syndrome Wants Her Partner to Know. But most of what I’m sharing here I’ve learned the hard way.
“No man is an island” – and a couple shouldn’t be, either.
Like a lot of Aspie girls, my dating life began atypically late. When I had my first boyfriend in college, my best friend called me out on some stuff – but I wasn’t totally honest with her about the relationship. It turns out that was really stupid, and I vowed to not make that mistake again. I now have a team of trusted advisers that I consult in matters like this – my best friend (and her husband), my pastor and his wife, and my parents. This caused some friction with one guy, because he didn’t like the fact that I was talking about our relationship with them, but I’m still very grateful that I did. I don’t mean you should complain to everyone about your significant other – if you need some help discerning between seeking counsel and gossiping, check out my pastor’s book. But it’s important to have people in your life who know you well and can look at a relationship more objectively than you can when you’re in the middle of it. Choose them wisely. You don’t have to do everything they advise, but you’ll be better off having them as part of the process.
Communicate about what physical touch is okay.
When a guy nervously worked himself up to asking me if he could hold my hand, I thought it was silly/unnecessary. Yet I really appreciated that he respected me enough to ask about stuff like that (maybe he was just terrified, but still). My first kiss had been stolen from me, and that taught me a lot about the need to discuss boundaries, because after that all the guy wanted to do when we were together was make out. Which doesn’t *actually* help grow a strong, healthy relationship. This topic is especially pertinent for people on the spectrum, for a few reasons. One, we (generally speaking) have trouble reading the non-verbal communication that is a huge part of romantic interactions. This makes it more difficult to know what the other person is thinking and wanting, unless they spell it out verbally. Two, every individual is different when it comes to what kinds of touch we like and when, and sensitivity to touch can be a major issue for autistics. Some individuals absolutely can’t stand light touch (the kind that is common in flirtatious interactions) to the point that it can make them feel panicked or physically ill. Personally, I get kinda weirded out by light touch, especially if I don’t see it coming. I also dislike hugging people I don’t strongly like (I’ve written before about how I used to run away or fight with relatives who tried to hug me when I was little). Yet when I’m with someone I’m close to, I love physical contact – it’s actually one of my love languages. It needs to be on my terms.
So respect others’ rights to their own bodies. Find out about their sensitivities and what they’re comfortable with. You don’t have to make it super awkward, but be polite and keep those lines of communication open.
Emotional boundaries are just as important as physical ones.
What was that I said about learning things the hard way? Ugh. I really don’t have any specific, solid advice for this one. It’s honestly hard to know how to build intimacy in an appropriate way, aside from saying take your time and don’t talk about certain emotional topics too soon. It was a chapter in the book I Gave Dating a Chance that first introduced me to the topic of emotional intimacy, and I realized my good friend and I had crossed that line. I won’t go into detail here, but I still haven’t fully recovered from the aftermath of that. It resulted in one of the hardest times in my life (when I read the second Twilight book, I completely sobbed when Edward left Bella and there were those blank pages for each month, because I had lived that).
This one should go without saying, but I’m talking about more than not lying. It’s hard, because no two people are 100% compatible- there are going to be things we have to overlook or let go. But we need to figure out which things really do bother us, and be honest about them. At some point, if you try to ignore things, it won’t be pretty. They’re going to add up and poison the relationship, or you’ll get in a fight about something unrelated and suddenly those myriad little annoyances will come spilling out. I had a situation where I had said things were okay, but then I realized I was truly bothered by the low level of communication from a guy. When I brought it up, it got him really upset, because I had previously said things were okay. (Of course, it didn’t help that I sent a rather tactless e-mail instead of having a conversation about it, but that’s a topic for another day.) This is why I bookmarked page 103 in Rudy Simone’s 22 Things a Woman with Asperger’s Syndrome Wants Her Partner to Know –
There’s also “alexithymia,” the inability to identify what one is feeling and therefore, not being able to express it or describe it in words. If you tell her something that upsets her, she might not know it at first, or know why, so she might say, “Okay,” when in actuality, she doesn’t really feel okay . . . We have a reputation for “saying what we mean and meaning what we say,” but if we don’t now what we are feeling at the time, we can’t.
Simone then brings up the topic of the spectrum “sixth sense,” and how we can tell something’s wrong even when someone isn’t telling us. This is another reason I am bringing up the topic of honesty. I’ve been in situations where I know something is up, even though I might not have hard “proof,” and I’m an emotional wreck wondering if I’m imagining things until finally I get the person to explain and confirm my suspicions. Drag that kind of thing out long enough and you’re going to cause more hurt than if you had said something sooner. So be honest.
I guess that’s it for today. A final random thought – when I look back at my relationships, I see that each one emphasized one area of connection above the others – spiritual, physical, emotional, intellectual. It’s the spiritual connection I miss the most.