Atypical Marriage Challenges

So how does a nonconformist control freak fare in marriage?

Even before I met my now-wife, people who knew me wondered if I would ever find a woman willing to put up with me. And people (including me) who know my wife still wonder how or why she stayed married to me for so many years. As I understand it: I can be difficult to live with, at least in part because of my zealous reliance on systems and standards of my own contrivance, enhanced by blindness to non-verbal communication.

So how did I end up married to an amazing woman? As she sometimes explains it: I “tricked her.” I don’t disagree with that, but I emphasize that I did not do so intentionally: The problem is that people can be Special Interests. And when I became interested in my future wife, it didn’t matter to her that I was “a little weird.” Compound the blinding passion of an early romantic relationship with the focused attention an aspie brings to bear on his Special Interest: Detecting the atypical traits that will strain a life together under those conditions is like trying to pick out sunspots while staring directly at the sun.

I don’t think the challenges in a long-term ASD-NT marriage are different in kind from those of typical male-female marriages. At least in my case, it’s more a difference in magnitude. Remember this chart? It is with good reason that ASD is often classified as an extreme “male mind.”

All marriages face turbulence as the honeymoon phase winds down – the sun dims, and its spots become visible. In our case this phenomenon was magnified when my Special Interests, perhaps inevitably, began to wander. To continue the metaphor: My bright “Special Interest” light stopped shining directly into my wife’s eyes.

She says that I am not “emotionally supportive.” I don’t entirely understand what that means, but I know enough of my limitations to believe her. I gather that I was never “emotionally supportive” in the neurotypical sense. Rather, the intensity I brought to bear on her when she was my Special Interest could not be distinguished from neurotypical “emotional support,” and so it concealed the fact that I don’t provide or even grasp what that is.

But it gets worse: Review my posts on hypersensitivity and then imagine the effects of introducing the chaos of young children into my space and routines. Kids destroy ASD coping mechanisms when those mechanisms are needed most. With kids in our life, the mental energy reserves I had previously used to support my relationship with my wife were simply gone. She had to confront the previously unknown extent of my differences at the same time she most wanted a neurotypical husband.

Just as most couples struggle with the end of the honeymoon phase, most marriages are strained by having kids. Unfortunately, at least for my wife, those hardships were exacerbated by the concomitant discovery of atypical traits in her spouse that present their own challenges. Darling: I’m sorry.

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Order and Control as Coping Mechanisms

It takes mental energy to deal with hypersensitivity.  A major theme of my life has been creating systems and refuges that reduce that intrusive mental load and allow me to focus more on the things that I want to. (Also, my life would have been much easier if I had discovered earlier than a decade ago that ADD medications help a great deal in this struggle.)

Sometimes creating my own stimulus is a way to deal with distracting stimuli. If I can overwhelm my senses with something that I control, that’s better than suffering the weaker stimulus I can’t control. To a point: Sensory overload is exhausting no matter what.

For example: Distracting sound has been a life-long annoyance. I have frequently tried to drown it out with white noise (and brown noise, and pink noise), but that has its limits. If I don headphones playing music with which I’m familiar, that can cover most noise distractions, but it’s still tiring. I can sort of tune out familiar or monotonous sounds, but not completely, and not always. Hence, the ability to create and control spaces where I don’t have to suffer distracting noise is of great value to me.

I have always taken solace in having a “castle:” some place and space I control – whether it’s my home or even my own dorm room – and to which I can retreat. I know that in my castle, I can keep the things I want and need, organized in a comfortingly familiar order.

Do you enjoy travel? Few things provoke more anxiety in my mind. Part of what makes travel or new excursions especially difficult is the uncertainty of when and how my needs will be met. Are we going to get stuck overpaying to eat at mediocre restaurants, and ripped off for transportation? Waiting? Delayed? In crowds? Can I opt for 40 lashes instead? As a traveler I am at the mercy of systems and conditions I not only can’t control, but for which I can barely plan. And on foreign ground I have no castle to which I can retreat.

Systems as Coping Mechanisms

“Systemizing” is a common ASD trait, and I happen to be an extreme systemizer.

I have come to see systemizing as a compensation mechanism: The only way to justify and mitigate the burden of self-reliant reasoning is to create systems. I take the time to figure out the “best” or “correct” way to do something, and then I always do it that way.

Examples:

  • What to wear? I don’t want to ask myself this question every day. I prefer to find the single most practical pants and shirt that satisfy my work requirements, and then buy enough copies to last through a typical laundry cycle. They might come in different colors, but that’s rarely of interest to me: I just wear whatever happens to be at the front of the clean queue.
  • What to eat? I do love good food, but I don’t want to routinely spend mental energy on keeping myself fed. I become anxious if there is uncertainty about the availability or cost of sustenance (whether that be to purchase or prepare). So I have a list of dry cereals that make an easy and adequate breakfast for me. (I stockpile those when I find them on sale.) And for years I’ve fallen back on PB&J for lunch – using the exact same bread and spreads from Costco whenever possible.
  • How to load the dishwasher? This tends to be a non-trivial (NP-complete!) packing problem: For any particular dishwasher and set of dishes, there are many sub-optimal loadings which reduce capacity and/or prevent the dishwasher from cleaning everything effectively. I come up with relatively good loadings … and am continually confused when my wife and kids fail to see or follow those patterns.

It’s easy to see how systemizing could produce behaviors that resemble OCD. In fact, a key reason that I might be considered “high-functioning” instead of “impaired” is that my systems are functional and effective.
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Non-Verbal Communication Problems

Two generations ago psychologist Albert Mehrabian popularized the “7-38-55 rule” to emphasize how much (neurotypical) interpersonal communication can be non-verbal.

This “rule” has been overapplied in popular literature, but it is terrifying for aspies like me who are largely blind to nonverbal communication and who depend almost entirely on words for communication.

As one indicator of this chasm: I feel like I lose almost nothing by communicating via telephone as opposed to via video or in person. (In fact, the only datum I think I can glean from being able to see a counterparty is, “Are they visibly distracted by something?”) So for me the nonverbal/body-language element of communication is negligible.

I am not oblivious to tone, but like many aspies I don’t think I am as attuned to its nuances as are neurotypicals. I can get more information from someone talking than from reading a transcript of what they said, but I don’t feel like it’s much more. So if in the extreme a neurotypical communication distribution can be 7% words – 38% tone – 55% nonverbal, then I imagine my default communication distribution is something like 80% words – 18% tone – 2% nonverbal.

And it gets worse: At least in my case, non-verbal communication deficits go in both directions!

For example, I am told that the “first impression” I make on others is, above all else, one of smug arrogance. But those who get to know me well eventually realize – and marvel – at how inaccurate and unintentional are that and other of my superficial impressions. (To clarify: I might legitimately be characterized as arrogant, but not in the way I come off at first.)

I am told that I smile and laugh at inappropriate times. This really gets me in trouble. Even with my wife who knows that a wide range of reactions, emotions, and intentions can produce pretty much the same wry smile on my face: Confusion, bemusement, fear, dismay, remorse, contempt, amusement, irony, sarcasm, jest, surprise…. I still have to remind her when we have emotional conversations, “Just listen to my words!

My Place on the Spectrum

A large body of ASD research exists on “empathizing-systemizing” (E-S) theory, which examines the following two traits:

  • Systemizing: the drive to analyze, understand, predict, control and construct rule-based systems. Presumably this focus has several benefits: By deriving the underlying rules that govern a system one can predict its behavior. Also, constructing systems gives one deterministic control over them.
  • Empathizing: the drive to identify another person’s emotions and thoughts, and to respond to these with an appropriate emotion. Presumably this allows one to understand, predict, and control one’s social world. (This trait is often referred to as building “theory of mind,” since it is distinct from what we commonly consider empathy. It is probably best to think of it as a social or interpersonal analog of “systemizing.”)

Principle proponents of E-S theory are Simon Baron-Cohen and Sally Wheelwright out of the University of Cambridge. They have developed popular tests to assess SQ (Systemizing Quotient) and EQ (Empathizing Quotient). These measures are not sufficient to diagnose ASD, but when EQ and SQ are marked in two dimensions, significant clusters appear, as shown on this chart from one of their papers:

Neurotypical females tend to exhibit more empathizing than systemizing (Type E), and neurotypical males exhibit the reverse (Type S). ASD adults tend to fall into the “Extreme Type S” quadrant.

A few years ago I was professionally diagnosed with ASD (confirming what everyone who has had to live with me already knew). I’m also an outlier on the Autism Research Center’s standardized tests: Both my EQ and SQ are higher than 90% of ASD subjects. (However, my EQ is only at the 30th percentile for neurotypical males, and at the 10th percentile for neurotypical females. Meanwhile, my SQ exceeds the 99th percentile of neurotypical subjects.) So by these measures I am “atypically atypical.”

What’s the Attraction of Crowds?

I think I understand the attraction of “crowd energy,” because on occasion I have experienced it. But is that something that you get waiting in lines? Being packed together in mass transit, or on city streets or in busy stores? I assume not, but I recently realized that crowds may also offer two other attractions:

  1. There is a sense of safety in crowds. (Though I believe that sense is misplaced.)
  2. Neurotypical people can probably relax their minds in crowds. E.g., if you join a mass of people you can give yourself over to “the wisdom of the crowd” and not worry or think very hard about what you’re doing. (Not that you have much of a choice….)

I, of course, have different reactions.

“Strength in numbers” may be valuable during primitive warfare or frontier survival, but at the scale of modern society I only see crowds as a bad sign: In a crowd you are at the mercy of “mob dynamics” and mass logistics, both of which can shift faster than you can escape the crowd. (Perhaps this is why I dislike cities.)

Consider the “queue,” whether it be a line of cars or a line of people trying to enter a venue. For me, a line isn’t a crowd I can mindlessly join and trust that I’m taking the best course to whatever waits at the end. I wonder whether it’s on track. If there’s a problem at the front, will people even notice? Will they send word back, or take appropriate initiative to seek help or attention? (We know from crowd psychology that the answers to these questions are likely to be “no!”) Just because all of these other people are content to stay in queue, do they value their time as much as I do? Have they even considered that question? Is not the presence of a line prima facie evidence that something is not working correctly? And why is that person behind me standing so close? And is that jerk seriously about to cut in line?

The Burden of Self-Reliant Reasoning

I have already touched on the ASD character trait of self-reliant reasoning. For example, I noted (while humbly comparing myself to Elon Musk) that “I have to reason everything from first-principles.” The same underlying trait produces marked nonconformity. So far I have mostly focused on benefits of this disposition.

But it certainly has its costs and drawbacks. It is hard work to go through life questioning everything! There is a significant cognitive burden associated with “starting from scratch” and constructing a sufficient model or process for things that other people are able to just accept or intuit. And this isn’t just a matter of principle or abstract ideas. It also applies to both mental and physical skills.

The first day of Spanish class in grade school, I asked something like, “Does Spanish have an alphabet like ours?” A number of my peers turned to scoff, “Duh, it’s the same alphabet!” Of course that’s not exactly correct, but more to the point: This sort of thing happens all the time. I feel like my whole life I have been blacklisted from some orientation program that everyone else gets to attend where they are given the answers to fundamental questions that I have to ask explicitly.

When it comes to physical skills, growing up I typically did exceptionally poorly the first time I attempted any novel physical feat. Where many neurotypicals can “just do it” or “don’t overthink it,” I have a hard time not imposing a conscious overlay to proprioception. (The fortunate upside is that, after gathering some context from initial trials, if I can construct a good mental model of the intended skill, I can then pick it up faster and better than many people who rely on trial, error, and intuition.)

I was recently talking to a friend about the importance of applied vs. book learning. “Nobody learns to swim by reading a PowerPoint presentation.” Well … I think I would have learned to swim more easily if I did have a good PowerPoint on swimming! Here is a trivial example that is more than superficially illustrative:
Continue reading “The Burden of Self-Reliant Reasoning”