HOW TO TEACH EMPATHY TO SOMEONE WITH ASPERGER’S SYNDROME part 2-2

Part 2: You can only teach yourself 

 

I always wondered what it would feel like to have cameras rolling every day, documenting my life as it played out.  With all of the insanity in our home, I used to tell John that if we had a camera crew following us around, the ratings of our reality show would be through the roof.  I imagined if I ever had that opportunity I would be able to show the world how my marriage was only failing because of John and his behaviors, and that only then, would he feel sorry for the pain he had inflicted on me all these years.  I also thought it would awaken the world to what it is really like for an Aspie-NT marriage and perhaps draw light on Asperger’s syndrome in general. 

                Since I am no one special and that clearly was not going to present itself as an opportunity for us (I am so lucky it didn’t), I decided to at least create reality tv for John. 

                The day we purchased the Go-Pro camera and I strapped it to my forehead like a coal-miner, was the day I had to stop pretending it was all his fault. 

                I had already been dancing around my bedroom singing angry love songs and writing the secrets to a happy life on my walls in the weeks before John and I almost officially called it quits (lost a lot of airline miles on that cross continental flight he never took). I felt empowered when I put that camera on my head.  I felt like I was finally doing something to fix us instead of searching for help that didn’t exist. I felt like I was finally taking action!

                I was bound and determined to capture everything I experienced in our home and then play it back for John to see.  In the past, when we would fight John would always reflect on the exchange in a completely different manner than I perceived it.  He would deny saying things that I clearly heard him say, or making facial expressions that told me he was annoyed, angry, or not telling me the truth and then tell me I was imagining things.  He would accuse me of being nasty first, or an emotional basket-case.  He would tell me I never told him something that I thought I had clearly stated.  Our conversations would shift from one important topic to a million other small ones that had no bearing on the initial issue.  Asking about what we should do on my day off could easily snowball into how he doesn’t clean the house or I alienate him from my life on purpose and my day off would be spent scouring the internet for help and crying.  Neither of us ever appeared to be on the same page when we did try to talk with one another, so I prayed this personal documentary would help explain why. 

                At first John was uneasy with the camera rolling and it was evident he was annoyed and wanted me to stop filming.  He spoke with a softer tone and was very selective about his words.  This lasted all of one day.  By the second day he was avoiding me and asking me to take the camera off my head.  After reminding him that he agreed to this and what the alternative was, he stopped asking me to remove it.  I made it clear to him that this camera was going to remain on every minute that I was awake and he and I were interacting with one another.

                By the fourth or fifth day, the camera was ignored entirely and John and I were having the same blow up arguments and fights we had before he packed his bags.  If you really want to know if your husband is doing things on purpose or can control his behavior… a camera is a sure way to get answers.  Since I believed that John was truly unaware of his behaviors, I knew that after a few days of trying really hard to behave accordingly, he would continue being himself even with the camera rolling.  If someone is really a manipulative and purposeful ass, they will never let it show with a camera in their face.  

                During the first two weeks of filming, I did not play back a single second of the footage to myself or John.  Since I was in control and knew I would not be showing this to anyone else, I had no difficulty being myself (I forgot it was on so often I would forget to turn it off when I used the bathroom).    

                After filling up two data cards, John and I sat down one evening to look at some of our interactions with one another.  We went right to the footage of an ugly argument that had led to typical harsh words, yelling, and crying.

                John, for the first time, was able to hear the way he sounded when he spoke to me and look at his own facial expressions and hand gestures.  He was able to see how he appeared, which was in stark contrast to how he thought he appeared.  This was still not easy for him and I had to point out some of his facial expressions and how I interpreted them at the time.  He was able to point out what he was thinking when he was making those expressions.  I think it really bothered him to see himself in that light and he asked if I could please erase the footage.  He never watched much of it after that evening, as seeing only small bits seemed to be enough for him to realize he DOES respond defensively and with hostility the moment I speak of anything pertaining to emotions… even when they are small things or important things for a husband and wife to be able to talk about or share. 

                I watched most of the footage over the next week (I kept filming as well during this time).  I was absolutely dumbfounded when I realized I rarely ever use clear words with my husband when I am attempting to communicate something that is important to me.  I use so many hints and colorful descriptions and a ton of other nonverbal methods of communicating.  When I watched that footage I had finally identified that despite being COMPLETELY aware of John’s cognitive empathy deficit, I was still continuously using 90% nonverbal language to communicate overall.  I learned that whenever John tried to speak to me in a calm way, I was often the one to turn the conversation hostile (more than I realized) because I was reading too deep into his nonverbal language and could not process that it was not reflective of what he intended to communicate 90% of the time.

When John does try to “hear me out,” I interrupt him or start talking a mile a minute every time he is silent for a moment and I try to force the conversation to keep going.  I never gave my husband a chance to try to decipher what was happening “in the moment” so he COULD communicate effectively.  Instead I came at him with machinegun fire dialog that he couldn’t keep up with causing him to instinctively defend himself.  I could have been ranting about wonderful things, but my words came at him so rapidly he couldn’t take them in fast enough to see that I was not attacking him.  With his quick-fire retaliation, I turned any good or meaningful attempts to talk into disaster.  I had no idea I was doing this (in the moment) until I was able to see it for myself.  All those years I thought I was communicating effectively, I realized I was failing miserably.  I had no idea how awful I was in communicating with a man who lacked cognitive empathy and finally understood that without intending to, I was the one causing most of the breakdown.

                I felt like a real dirtball. 

                I felt embarrassed. 

                I apologized the best I could to John, but I don’t think he really understood all of what I was apologizing for.  Armed with this new insight I had to sit down and focus on all of the things I would need to fix if I wanted to effectively communicate with my husband.  This was not an easy thing to do. 

                The very first step was to take all of the years of anger, frustration, and sadness and put them away to address at a later time.  This meant being willing to start over fresh and pretend nothing had been a failure in the past.  I had to be willing to do this or I was not going to be emotionally prepared to take the baby steps required of me to alter the way I communicated. 

                Step two:  I had to stop mincing words!  When I did this (and I always did this) they were not getting through.  I also knew I had to learn to walk away.  I am an emotional person and my feelings really did (and still do sometimes) get in the way of ever being heard by my husband. When I was feeling a strong emotion at any time when I was interacting with him, I had to immediately prevent myself from vocalizing them.  I began to walk away and dissect what I wanted to say into the simplest language I could come up with. I had to watch the speed by which I said things, because if I did not, John was going to latch on to the first thing that made sense to him and use that as his focus and gear the conversation back to a place he could participate in (and not in a good way).  I had to learn to suppress my immediate desire to fire back if he didn’t seem to be listening to me, or said something I found hurtful.  Once I had a grip on doing this and found the right words to say, I began to say them… and then immediately walk away.  I would give him time to process what I said.  Within a week of working really hard at this, John began addressing what I said to him shortly after I said it.  In the past, he would never address anything I said and pretend we never spoke.  Mainly, I realized, this occurred because he really had no idea what I was ever trying to say to him so he had no ability to address my words. Eventually John began to acknowledge things I said, tell me how he felt, or that he understood what I was saying, sometimes apologize for inadvertently causing me to feel hurt, and work on resolutions with me. 

Holy crap… my husband was beginning to show me emotional empathy! 

                I had to work incredibly hard to not use my body language or facial expressions to send messages to him (I still do).  Of course I continued to use all of those nonverbal means because I do it naturally, but I became aware that they were not assisting in my communication and were effectively useless with my husband without the right words being said.  I had to work even harder at not using any hidden language to communicate.  It took a while to realize I had expended so much energy in the past using hints and indirect means of getting points across when I could have just said them with simple words.  I began to say things like, “I am feeling angry with you right now for A or B” and then say, “Maybe we can talk about it a little later so I won’t feel angry anymore and we can have a good day together?”  Then, you guessed it… I would walk away.  I got my points across without being mean or sarcastic, and I gave my husband time to process them without standing in his face forcing a response.  The more I did this, the sooner he would return to talk to me about things.  My husband never wanted me to be angry or upset, so when I told him I was (with a clear non-accusatory reason) and then offered a solution to fix it, he always took advantage of that opportunity.  My husband never wanted to fight with me all these years, he just did not understand why we were fighting or how he could prevent or fix any of it.  He is not perfect and still irritates the snot out of me, and I’m sure I annoy him as well.  We are still a married couple and are not about to agree on everything or have perfect communication by any means. 

                Cognitive empathy and nonverbal communication are not functioning abilities for my husband and the moment I began to understand what that meant (and work around it) was the moment things began to improve. 

                This concept doesn’t seem very difficult, right? 

                IT IS! 

                It is beyond difficult to learn to communicate without using nonverbal means. I promise you, even if you think you are doing this… you are not. If you were, you would already be on the road to an improved marriage. I truly believed I was accomplishing this basic means of communication with my husband and he just wasn’t responding appropriately to me. It took watching actual recordings of myself to realize how far from this I was. Even after watching a specific argument or failed attempt to talk with John, I STILL had to go back and watch it several times to pick up on all of the ways I tried to talk to him through nonverbal means. 

I begin to express how difficult it is for me to learn a new language. I cannot accurately guess how challenging it will be for you to do it. Just as everyone is different when it comes to their capacity to become fluent in one or more foreign languages, everyone will be different with this. 

                I am not suggesting you are the cause to all of your problems, as I was not the cause to all of mine. The cause was a lack of knowledge about cognitive empathy. With the majority of our communication toward our husbands being nonverbal, or verbal but with a whole lot of words that came out fast and obscure… our husbands weren’t hearing us.  When you compile that over years, you get two people on two different pages with so many misunderstandings and subsequent shitty behavior that everything turns to misery.  You get a wife who feels unacknowledged and unloved and a husband who feels attacked and afraid.  The wife than attempts to communicate with even greater emotion and confused/mixed messages waiting for her husband to just “get it” and the husband builds up more fortified walls and stops all efforts. 

                Communication is the key to any successful marriage, and quite often, using simple words works to begin fixing NT marriages.  In an NT-Aspie marriage, it is the only way to communicate.  Your husband is not going to suddenly get to know you so well he can pick up on all of the nonverbal ways you communicate, he hasn’t the ability to do so. 

So you have to make the change. 

                I still do not know if John is sold on the cognitive empathy theory and he still shows zero interest in discussing it with me.  I am fine with this because it does not matter if he agrees or disagrees with me, or simply does not want to think about it, he is trying now and it doesn’t matter if he comprehends why.  I think to John, I am just being more rational and finally communicating effectively with him.  He likely has no urge to figure out why I am suddenly a happier person, he is just happy with the changes. 

                Since I am now applying this knowledge daily, I am seeing positive changes in every aspect of our lives.  John is more motivated than he has ever been and I am finding myself more accepting of his quirky behaviors and more encouraging and supportive toward him than I had been.  The better I get at this new method of communicating, the better we get.  He is in a happier marriage because he is finally able to begin talking more and getting a response out of me that shows I care how he feels.  He is willing to approach a conversation if he senses I am upset or angry or he may have inadvertently said or did something that upset me.  Sometimes he overthinks things now because he is finally aware that he does not always come off the way he intends and tries to explain himself (something he did or said) without my saying a word.  He is trying so hard to identify feelings I have before I say anything to him so he can show me he cares and this is something I always prayed for.  Every day that I watch my husband try harder to communicate with me, I feel motivated to try harder myself. 

                That is how this marriage thing is SUPPOSED to go, right?

                To date, John and I have not gone back through the years of miscommunication and hurt feelings we both had.  I initially thought I would someday want to hash out all of the years of pain to be able to finally let them go.  A strange thing happened as things began to improve… I began to understand all of the circumstances and instances that led me to be angry and hurt before and they didn’t hurt so bad when I reflected on them.  I no longer saw a cruel and insensitive man who was selfishly and purposely causing me pain.  I stopped feeling the need to address any of the past because I realized they truly were all caused by a series of unfortunate misunderstandings and fear.  With a better means of preventing them from reoccurring, they no longer weighed me down.  We both know we hurt one another, John may still not understand how or why, but he is no longer causing that hurt in me so it doesn’t matter if he ever understands how I perceived things when they were at their worst.  He used to get so angry when I brought up the past and say, “How can I begin to get better if you won’t stop bringing up the past?  I can’t win with you!”  I would then respond that I couldn’t stop bringing up the past because he kept doing the same crap in the present.  Now, the past is in the past for the most part because the worst parts are over.

                I doubt if your husband is going to agree to the Go-Pro experience, so it may not benefit you to suggest it.  Perhaps if he was willing to read these posts he would see that it served to wake ME up to start changing my ways.  I think the reason we hit a dead end when we try to get our husbands to make changes for the betterment of our marriage, is because everything comes out as blame and finger-pointing in their direction (who wouldn’t want to fight that?).  To be able to tell them (or show them through an example like mine) that the fault is on both ends, as are the solutions, perhaps they would be more willing to entertain the idea of change. Afterall, this is not going to be an easy thing for you to do and your husband will need to be patient with you as you begin to shift the way you communicate; he will need to back off himself when it comes to firing back when you are coming at him with intense emotions.  John was able to do this because he saw the footage of himself, but I imagine it would have been more challenging for me to begin communicating better if he was still dodging all attempts at trying.  If John and I were not truly calling it quits, I doubt if he would have agreed to me filming our daily lives, so don’t be discouraged if your husband says “Hell NO!” to the idea.  It is not easy to wear that sucker on your forehead every day either and it got a little uglier before it got better; I almost hurled that camera at the wall a few times.  Not everyone is in a position like I was, whereby I am the main financial provider for the family and could afford to risk ending our relationship if it came to that.  For my marriage, the camera was a necessary thing because neither of us would have believed our own actions until we had them shoved in our faces (especially me).  It gave us the time out we needed to experience humility and desire a personal change.  That’s the hardest thing about our dynamics… neither of us want to change ourselves, we want to blame the other person for what is going wrong.

                If you are unable to get a Go-Pro type of reality check, that’s ok.  Try to really become more aware of yourself.  Read everything you can about cognitive empathy and how much of your daily lives are focused around this ability.  Try to put the hurt on hold.  Learn to speak slowly and clearly.  Learn to walk away until you can communicate effectively.  Be patient.  It may take a while for your husband to begin trusting your new method of communicating.  He may be suspicious of your motives at first, or instinctively put his guard up anticipating hostility or a meltdown on your behalf.  He is justified in being leery of your new behavior.  Don’t get discouraged.  Eventually, if you really make an effort at doing this every day… you are going to get a positive response out of him. Even if you think your husband is the most stubborn of all Aspies, I promise this can help.  I still believe John was the very worst example of what can go wrong for an adult Aspie (as far as negative behaviors are concerned) and if you don’t believe me, go back and read some of my other posts (See: WHY AM I SO ANGRY?).  The very first time your husband comes to you to resolve a conflict or try to make you feel better, you are going to have an “Ah Ha” moment and feel a little more inspired to keep trying. 

                Give it time, and give it your best efforts.  You might be very surprised with the outcome…  I was.

 

 

 

 

 

This is the size of the camera I actually had strapped to my head for weeks!


8 Responses to HOW TO TEACH EMPATHY TO SOMEONE WITH ASPERGER’S SYNDROME part 2

  1. Avatar Kellie
    Kellie says:

    Thank you for your words of wisdom, and positive insight on loving an aspie man!

  2. Avatar Marcy
    Marcy says:

    Thank you for sharing your knowledge and experience. This year, my husband had some bad experiences and we ended up in this vicious loop. I thought I was getting a divorce for my tenth anniversary. He was ready to leave me, but couldn’t give me solid explanations WHY. He shut me out, overnight earlier this year. And it was looking OK in my books, because I thought he was a sociopath who had zero feelings for me/us, other than annoyance and spite. There was a lightbulb moment, when I came across an Aspergers article. My husband is not formally diagnosed, but we had briefly discussed (years ago) he most likely is on the spectrum.

    I have been reading every thing I could snap up and all the puzzle pieces started falling in place. My hubby had been telling me he was pretty sure he wanted a divorce, but there were doubts. His reasons for keeping me around felt rather impersonal, too. It hurt. Despite so many hurts, I love this man and have had signs, that it wasn’t hopeless. My brain was telling me to GET OUT, because the man obviously had no empathy and he was obviously not right in the head.

    I brought up our past discussion on Aspergers and how stupid I felt, for not researching it then. I thought all our problems stemmed from his drinking. He is a recovering alcoholic. He has since let me know he loves that I’m trying to understand him more. It’s my own “special interest” in a way.

    We’re just wired differently! And, I began my apologies for the way I have unknowingly been treating him, due to communication break downs. I started changing my approach and expectations and he slowly started letting his walls down, letting me back in, pieces at a time. He has apologized for emotional abuse, throughout this ordeal. I didn’t realize I was emotionally abusing him, too. It saddens me.

    We’re both learning, but we’ve been a heck of a lot more in sync, over the past weeks. We both understand there are challenges ahead and agree that ultimately we want us both to be happy, whether it’s together or apart. And my 10th anniversary gift from him? “Thank you for not giving up on me. And I have not given up on you. I really want to see us work.” He has said and done many things to show he means it.

    One day at a time, but I am so thankful for others sharing knowledge, that has helped possibly in saving my marriage and my own sanity (his too). So many people have told me to run. My brain is telling me otherwise. We just have to learn each other’s language. The love and will is there and we’re both learning a lot about ourselves (and each other..I’m not sure how much he’s learning about me) in the process.

    Phew. Needed to vent! So helpful knowing there are others walking similar paths…

    • Vent away! You are not alone and I assure you that many will read your comment and feel like you were writing about their own relationship. The strikingly similar experiences we all go through convince me that the road to happiness can be paved with the same materials (we just have to keep sharing them with one another). Thank you so much for sending a message of hope to those who fear it is lost.

  3. Avatar Rachel
    Rachel says:

    Hi Kara I am so so so so grateful for this, I prayed for a solution and here you are.
    Whenever I wonder what to do about my challenging marriage I always thought the answer from G-d would be “just get out”. But how can you get out of a marriage to an Aspie, with kids and no money? It’s not as easy as it seems. Plus there’s always the hope, the endless undying hope and belief that it doesn’t quite all make sense. if he’s not a psychopath then what is he? And if the NT-AS websites are so comforting, why do they all seem to say RUN RUN RUN or find happiness elsewhere? I like how you wrote about that.

    Anyway back to me, I read your website late at night and your posts are LONG! But I’m glad because I was really desperate to find quite where the solution was before stopping to read. And I am so impressed with your ideas. I really appreciate how you bring a lot of things together, finding that answer.

    So I wondered, if I just walked around recording myself, instead of with a camera, it would probably also show me how I’m communicating. Instead of the focus being, as it would have in the past, how poor-me sounds so justified and blaming because he is obviously so so so so mean, I”d just drop that for a while and focus in on how I am NOT being clear, kind and calm. And the reminder that Clear, Kind and Calm can really get through to him, because he loves me. (I hope). Is there anything else I should remember as I try to improve my ways? Give him time to process, you said. What else? You mentioned a phrase: I’m angry with you about A and I would like to talk with you about it a little later, and that will make me happy. Is that correct? And seriously, what else? Do you have a little phrase book somewhere on this website?! Thanks for saving my marriage. ( I hope!!)

    And yes, if overly emotional is a condition I TOTALLY have it, and did not realize how it impacted everyone around me. How it made my husband so much more Aspie-like than he otherwise needed to be.

  4. I admire how much work you have done to save your marriage, how much thought you have put into this, and how much you have had to change. And I wish it would give me more hope. But after trying for so long (almost a quarter of a century), I am just tired of the burden of communication always being on me and the methods I have to initiate to communicate. I did figure this concrete speech translation to an Aspie out about 15 years ago. It is a lot of work. My husband shut down in childhood and became a very quiet person and this quietness continues into our relationship, despite the concrete speech. I feel I have to pull emotions and words out of him and, frankly, several years ago, I just stopped because I needed the energy for myself and the return on investment wasn’t there. I went numb on the relationship and decided to meet him at his lower level of engagement because it was just easier on me.

    But you are right, he is not a mean spirited person. He is a good man and someone I care about, but I still cry into my pillow at night because I am just so so tired of having to work hard at communicating my basic needs and very rarely having them met. Again, I have numbed out on the relationship just to protect myself and I don’t see a lot of future in this state. Emotional connection is never going to happen with me too tired to try and him being who he is, yet that is what I crave more than anything. I literally hurt inside when I meet men who seem to be emotionally available.

    I have resigned myself to my marriage and changed my expectations of his capabilities in this relationship and I can live with that for a while longer. But someday I hope I have the guts to be alone instead of lonely in my home with him next to me. Silence isn’t always golden.

    Thank you again for your posts. Maybe one day I will have enough hope and energy to pull myself up off the floor and try again. Until then, thank goodness for my girlfriends and their endless capacity to talk, laugh, and keep up a great conversation.

    • Thank you for sharing your pain with us, it hits deep with every wife who can empathize with such feelings (myself included). You really did a lovely job of portraying the sadness that comes from trying so hard, feelings so deflated, and living with an uncomfortable balance of numbness and longing for a life that you know you deserve (that everyone deserves). I think that after finally understanding all of the anger and fighting… I felt the same devastating fear that I would come to live in a world just like the one you described. I cried myself to sleep a lot (even when things were going “good” between us) because I was so afraid of just existing together without the emotional reciprocity I so desperately craved.

      I commend your strength because I don’t think I had the selflessness inside of me to continue down that road much longer; I am not a kind enough soul to allow for a life of feeling unloved to exist and I would have left my husband if I did not think he could love me the way I needed him to. I do not think you (or anyone) should be considered selfish or unfair if you opted to leave your relationship in favor of one that could provide you the feelings of love you warrant (or even to be alone in lieu of sad every day). I encourage you to look toward change (one way or another) because you deserve better than a life of numbness.

      I am fortunate enough that my husband has been slowly providing me with more emotional connection and verbal communication than I initially thought possible, and every day I find it better than the last. I admit this is slow-going and not at the level I need to truly feel connected to him, but the forward progress continues to make my efforts worthy each day. I realize this may not be the norm and it does often feel like the majority of effort comes from the NT spouse. I also readily acknowledge that the effort my husband puts forth (small as it may seem to an NT) is likely equal in exhausting effort from his side of the fence.

      A part of me believes that the length of a marriage and age of the individuals are not reflective of the capacity for change that does still exist. Another part of me questions if the dynamic between two parties is worth the effort to change when it has been the norm for so many decades… as I imagine change would be even slower and less apparent than it may be for those of us still in the infancy of a NT-Aspie relationship. The jury is out on this one and I hope that I will hear more stories of people who can validate that change is possible at the same pace and level regardless of the age and time spent in a marriage together.

      Thank you again for sharing, I wish nothing but strength for you and the energy to transform your life into the one you desire (regardless of what direction you take). Everyone deserves to feel loved, connected, valued, and peaceful inside and sometimes we have to make incredibly difficult choices to claim that existence for ourselves.

  5. Wowzas. We have been struggling with communication in our relationship for the last 13 years of our marriage, and even while we were dating I felt like “crazy” things were happening that were unexplainable to my family and friends. I was embarrassed and dumbfounded. How could someone that loved me lie to me, ignore me, and abandon me? Why did I/do I still feel so lonely but sharing a home with someone? We had no honeymoon phase. I can truthfully admit I have never felt a deep connection to my husband. I am hanging on for the kids. Sadly, admittedly, I am “in it…for now”. It is painful. I have recently connected with a new friend who shares the same struggles with her husband.. but hers date back 40+ years. Just today she quietly mentioned that I look up Aspergers, just to see if it sounds familiar. This was ballsy of her to do, as a new friend, and I could have been easily offended, but I found myself nodding my head in yes to every “checklist” and “traits” article that I found. I am mixed with relief and fear. So many things just didn’t add up, and his selfish and manipulative actions just didn’t match up with the hard working, honest, and amazing father I know him to be. What am I missing!? Then I stumble upon your blog, when all of this is so new, and I am filled with empathy (both kinds) and sadness for how difficult my husband’s childhood must have been. How abrasive and attacking I must seem when I feel lonely and am hurt and accusing him of not caring. How isolated he must feel to not really be seen or understood. He has actually said “I am really a good person inside. I promise.” This breaks my heart. I am only 3 posts in on your blog and it has already started to shift my perspective.. I have spent many tearful nights in the few years scouring articles and books, for something that speaks to me. Your story is the first. I can feel it reshaping into something new, perhaps it is hope that I feel. I will continue to read, and learn. Thank you for being unfiltered. Thank you for sharing.

  6. Avatar Anna
    Anna says:

    Thank you for giving me some hope