Today’s post by Melissa, about negotiating her relationship with her husband who has Asperger’s, was the most enlightening post for me on this week’s topic of how we show love. Since Melissa and her husband literally have brains that function differently, they’ve had to refine their communication styles (through, funnily enough, good communication) to find a way to properly show each other care. And somehow, this post summed up for me the work we should all be doing in our relationships, to learn to love each other better.
When I was dating my husband, I didn’t think too much about the fact that he’d been diagnosed with Asperger’s as a child. I started to think about it more once we were engaged. And since we’ve been married I’ve become fixated on finding resources (both books and websites) detailing the experiences of others in my situation.
I have to say, those websites and books have been depressing! I stopped reading and seeking out advice when most of it ended up being, “My husband has something wrong with him. He was diagnosed with Asperger’s, and now we’re getting a divorce.” I knew going into my marriage that I would have to take on the challenges but also the benefits that Asperger’s entails, and I wanted to learn all I could so I knew how to react and respond.
My husband has Asperger’s, but I am what is called an NT (neuro-typical, or more simply “person without Asperger’s or any other autism spectrum disorder”). This is a fact of our married life, but I’m trying to strike a balance. I don’t want my husband’s Asperger’s to define him or our marriage more than any other traits we possess, but I also want to take it into account when we’re talking about things that matter to us.
Asperger’s can vary from person to person, as it (and other similar conditions) falls on a spectrum that includes autism and other pervasive development disorders (PDDs). My husband has a relatively mild form of Asperger’s, and through years of therapeutic coaching, he has learned how to recognize and express certain social behaviors that might otherwise come naturally to others. Most of our friends wouldn’t know he even has it. And importantly, he refuses to be defined by it. As a result I’ve worked very hard to not allow it to define our marriage, while also recognizing the potential challenges Asperger’s might present to our relationship.
The biggest challenges, obviously, have to do with communication. The biggest issue is our respective communication styles. My husband is often unable to read my body language to know when I’m tired, or bored, or ecstatic. As someone who learned at a very early age to communicate many emotions without speaking, I had a difficult time with this in the beginning of our relationship. I wanted him to see what I was feeling, but he hadn’t quite learned that language yet. Surprisingly, this is now becoming a benefit to me since it’s forcing me to improve my own style of communication. No more soft sighs and crossing my arms—I’m now able to more easily and assertively express myself (something I’ve had challenges with my entire life!)
We both consider ourselves funny people, but it takes him a little longer to realize that when I’ve crossed my arms and sighed, it means that I’m tired of the playful back-and-forth teasing. Communication is a two way street, however, and I’m slowly learning to use my words to assertively express what I’m feeling right in that moment. Our philosophy has become one of “just tell me,” which is improving my communication both with my husband and with others.
In addition to not being able to easily read body language cues, my husband is also careful when expressing his own needs. He takes his time fleshing out thoughts in his head before the words exit his mouth. It means that he is always thoughtful about every word. I am not quite as thoughtful. I talk a lot, working through problems and concerns out loud. Even the most minor concerns. Especially when they are concerns that vanish in a matter of hours. My husband, on the other hand, has a more long-term approach. He works through potential concerns before bringing them up with me. I’ve had to realize that he doesn’t think out loud like I do, and when he talks I need to make sure I listen. Nothing frustrates him more than when we’re discussing a big life issue (career, families, etc.) and I end up talking over him or interrupting him without realizing it. Over the years, I’ve gotten better at catching myself when I start doing this, but when the conversation gets intense it can be tough to just close my mouth and listen.
My husband also likes to focus on one task at a time. He doesn’t like having to jump back and forth conversationally. When we’re discussing something, he prefers that we discuss it, resolve it, and move on. As a result, I’ve improved my own focus on what’s right in front of me at the moment.
As I’m writing this, I’m realizing that most of the challenges we’ve faced together over the years have actually allowed both of us to grow our communication styles and come closer together. Before I met my husband, I was a person who communicated non-verbally, in somewhat passive ways. Since we’ve been together, I’ve developed a stronger and more assertive way of communicating. I’ve learned how to phrase my wants and needs in a way that makes sense to someone who lives outside of my own head. And, importantly, I’m learning how to truly listen to someone else.
It can definitely be frustrating at times when my husband and I aren’t quite on the same wavelength. And we still have a lot to learn about the best ways to communicate with one another. But we’ve grown together and made it a priority to keep open and honest communication at the forefront of our marriage. So long as we keep our marriage in mind, and keep the other person in our thoughts, we will continue to grow and improve together in the decades to follow.
Editor’s note: For additional resources and information on Asperger’s Syndrome, Melissa recommends checking out aane.org, experienceproject.com, or faas.org (clicking on any of those links will take you directly to their page on Asperger’s Syndrome).
Photo by: Moodeous Photography (APW Sponsor)