Part 1: It can’t be done, can it?
Ok, so I know you NT wives wish there was some easy method of getting your husband to think the way you do. Hell, I think every couple out there wishes they could get their spouse to just “grasp” what they are thinking sometimes.
We think we want this but honestly, it would probably suck royally if our spouse DID know everything we were thinking on any given day. What we really want is for our husband to be able to empathize with us a little more; or in an Aspie-NT marriage… at all.
Why can’t our husband ever empathize with us? We have tried everything we could think of over the years (and decades for some) and yet we still come up short. They just don’t appear to comprehend or care how we are feeling.
As I have said before, there are two types of empathy we are waiting for; cognitive and affective (emotional) empathy (if you have not read that post, stop here and read THIS first). Nine out of ten times you need cognitive empathy to be able to feel the affective kind (Kara-Stat). The good news is your husband already has emotional empathy. So you don’t have to teach that one; sweet, we’re halfway there… unless the Kara-statistic is legit, then we’re only 10% of the way there.
Yeah, yeah, I know. It doesn’t always “feel” like he has even 10% of his empathetic ability functioning. I get it. Remember, affective/emotional empathy is when you are aware that someone is hurting, it makes you feel hurt, and you want to alleviate that emotional anguish for the plagued person. Since your husband is very rarely AWARE that you are hurting, he can’t exactly respond appropriately or give a crap about feelings he doesn’t know exist. Your husband does not have cognitive empathy; the ability to pick up on facial cues, body language, and underlying meaning behind words that indicate what someone is thinking/feeling. No matter how hard you try to get your feelings across to him, unless you verbalize them in a clear, non-threatening and non-accusatory way, he isn’t going to be able to ever give you the emotional empathy you need to feel better and move forward in a happy marriage.
It is vitally important to comprehend the difference between the two types of empathy if you want your marriage to be happy.
Most professionals out there will dismiss my claim that those with Aspergers are entirely absent of cognitive empathy. Actually, I think almost every professional would tell me that I am not correct in this blanket assumption at all and there are so many other factors involved. I will also bet that these professionals are not neurotypicals married to an adult with Aspergers who went undiagnosed well-into adulthood. It is easy to say “No way, it isn’t that simple” when you are not actually living with this dynamic. These professionals can counsel, provide therapy for, or study hundreds of thousands of people with Aspergers, but until they are intimately involved and see what we NT wives do… they are just not in a position to discount something that really is so simple. They are definitely not in a position to do so when there is about as much information out there to back my theory as there is to refute it.
Neuroscience and genetics are still lacking in the study of empathy and those who have made it their life’s work to study empathy (Simon Baron-Cohen being one of the few) tend to lean more toward the idea that cognitive empathy IS entirely absent for aspies. Baron-Cohen also seems to lean toward the idea that affective empathy is also so far removed that he struggles to commit to the fact that Aspies DO have this ability. Again though, most professionals are studying those with Asperger’s syndrome and their interpersonal relationships from outside the box. If they don’t know what it is we NT wives saw in our husbands that made us fall for them in the first place, it is easy to dismiss that we DID see emotional empathy in the beginning. We knew the man we loved was different (and certainly not cunning enough to be a sociopath) but we felt loved by him once… and that kind of love cannot exist without emotional empathy. Due to misunderstandings and a lack of knowledge about what Asperger’s syndrome actually meant for our communication abilities within the marriage, we watched the feelings of love and security that come from emotional empathy fade to the point we began to convince ourselves we imagined it in the beginning. Even Baron-Cohen suggests that our husbands had a mimic-like behavior of “normal men” in the initial days of dating but did not actually possess empathy toward us. I disagree with this and I will bet that a large part of your pain came from questioning those early days and wondering how you could have been duped into seeing something that did not exist. You were not duped, you just behaved a little different back then as well, and your husband had not yet build up a defensive fortress to keep you out.
So here is it:
Your husband does not have cognitive empathy and you really cannot teach it to him in a useful way (perhaps someday).
IT IS THAT SIMPLE
It makes me sad that everything is so over-complicated and I will say for the millionth time that lumping Asperger’s syndrome into Autism did NOT help this. Instead of focusing on therapy that could help make sense of everything that snowballed from this ONE cognitive deficit, we exist in a society that has no practical advice to give adult men with Asperger’s syndrome or the NT women who are married to them.
(Don’t hate me Aspie women or NT men… I know you exist just the same)
So why should you believe what I am telling you when I cannot scientifically prove my theory either?
For starters, I have seen the changes I prayed for occur in my marriage when I am patient enough to turn off my own instinctive style of communicating (for a second) and utilize the language my husband can comprehend.
Humor this analogy for me:
Imagine that English is your first language and you took a few semesters in French at school and enjoyed it enough that you decided to go on a study-abroad trip for a semester to solidify what you had learned. While in France, you met an incredible man in the grocery store who took your breath away and gave you an instinctual feeling of comfort. To your complete joy, this French man was equally smitten by you and the two of you could not deny the magnetic connection you had made in such a chance encounter. You spend the entire semester with this man and by the time you are supposed to return to the U.S., you had both fallen passionately in love with one another. Even though you barely spoke his language, it had been enough to communicate the words required to solidify this magnificent bond… but neither of you realized HOW MUCH French you still had to learn if you were going to keep this magic from fading as fast as it appeared.
Now imagine that you and this man cannot stand the thought of being apart and you make a bold move to take your love to a new level and get married so you can stay in France with him. You know that this is risky, but you also know in your heart that you cannot walk away from this gut-feeling that you have to take this risk!
At first, the transition to a new world is exciting and you embrace the new culture and your new love’s environment with incredible enthusiasm. Eventually though, you find it more and more challenging to acclimate to this foreign land and even more difficult to communicate to your husband how you are feeling. Sure, your French has improved a bit, particularly when you were highly motivated to learn as much as possible in the initial days of romantic infatuation… but now you need to be fluent in the language if you want to express your needs and feelings to your new spouse in a way he can comprehend. It is not until you try to talk about the complexity of your emotional feelings that you realize how very limited your communication ability actually is in his native tongue.
Imagine if every time you tried to get your feelings across to him, he looked at you with indifference because you weren’t making any sense. The more frustrated this failure to express something so important (to someone so important) becomes, the worse you become at articulating your needs in French. Imagine if everything you tried to convey came out as confused messages to your new husband and you become so overwhelmed you begin defaulting to English. Regardless of how hard you try to explain your feelings articulately in English to him, he is unable to comprehend a word you are saying. Your French husband does not know a SINGLE WORD in English and he has less comprehension of your communication attempts than when you were using poorly-constructed French.
You want to step in here and say that if your new husband LOVED YOU, than HE would try to learn ENGLISH and the two of you could meet in the middle… right?!?!?
Well, try to imagine that he has a neuro-deficit in the lobes of his brain that control language and he hasn’t the neurological ability to EVER understand English… despite how much he wishes he could (for your sake).
What do you do? There are really only three options to consider:
1. Do you leave this man you fell in love with? A man that you “could” learn to communicate effectively with, but it requires your efforts to learn a second language as fluently as your know your first one?
2. Do you stay in the marriage and defiantly continue speaking English and praying he is going to magically comprehend your words someday? Do you staunchly refuse to learn French better because it “isn’t fair” that you have to be the one doing all the hard work?
3. Do you accept the things that you cannot change, remove blame and fault from your husband (who wishes more than anything that he could understand and speak English for your benefit, because he adores you)… and do you just try like hell to learn to speak French every single day until you can communicate with the same ease you do by utilizing English?
#3 is the option required of you to apply the cognitive empathy deficit your husband has to effectively bridging the gap of communication in your marriage.
YES, IT IS THAT SIMPLE.
Simple does not mean easy. This is no simple task to ask of someone… not at all! Not by a long shot and HOLY CRAP do you have your work cut out for you if you want to take on such a challenging endeavor.
Is it worth it?
If you consider that analogy, what would you tell that woman? Would you tell her to just suck it up and work hard to learn French because it is something that she “is capable” of doing, and he is not? Would you tell her that if that is ALL that truly stands between her and the love of her life’s potential for effective communication and a happy future, she would be a fool to not at least TRY?
The thing is, even in a dynamic like that (which makes more sense to people than this cognitive empathy deficit often does), no one is thinking about the incredibly justifiable resentment that woman is going to feel as she puts forth the majority of initial effort to bridge the communication gap in the marriage.
If someone could promise that woman that at the end of her seemingly one-sided and exhaustive efforts; her husband would be on the other end ready to join her in a mutually beneficial marriage with equal effort for the remainder of the relationship… would it seem like an easier choice to make? If there was proof that relationships like this can and do exist (there are), then wouldn’t the many examples of failed relationships of this nature seem like less of a threat?
This analogy is very appropriate for an Aspie-NT marriage… the problem is, no one ever identified what the language barrier WAS and therefore, no one can provide examples of proven success for an NT reluctant to take on such a profound effort.
I understand that you all want “proof” before you will buy into such a daunting task, but this is something you have to learn to apply on an individual level because not everyone has the capacity to invest the type of commitment it would require (particularly after years of failure that make any further efforts on your behalf seem unworthy). All I ask is that you pick #1 or #3 on that list… you’ve been stuck in #2 for so damn long that you have to realize THAT option is never going to yield success.
My husband and I are far from perfect and this is not smooth sailing by any means… but we are both genuinely happy, both trying, and both beginning to finally understand one another and fall in love again. When we have misunderstandings now… they STILL turn into silly fights that are ridiculous and unnecessary (again, I am not claiming this is easy). The difference is, my husband John and I are learning to put ourselves in check (on our own) and come back to the other person with a calm and effective use of words to clear up our communication breakdowns now, instead of letting them spiral out of control. What would have been a stupid fight that led to a week of hostility, tears, and ignoring one another is now a stupid fight that leads to a few hours apart and one of us initiating the peace treaty. In all honesty, my husband is the one reaching out to resolve conflict first these days, and I am beginning to realize what a stubborn jerk I can be and finally learning how to correct some of my own negative behavior patterns.
No one made this light-bulb go on for me. After years of searching for help in person, online, by reading and communicating with others in my shoes… there was never any magic moment that helped me finally discover what was broken in our marriage, and why. What it took was years of reading everything I could find about Asperger’s syndrome, emotional abuse, toxic relationships, couples therapy, mental health diseases and disorders, personality disorders, brain development, successful couples and overall family dynamics. I wrote down everything that seemed useful. I read advice from religious counselors, psychologists, sociologists, psychiatrists, spiritual gurus, other neurotypicals, and those with Aspergers. I wrote down anything that seemed beneficial. I searched for people in terrible relationships and how and why they got out, and I wrote it down. I looked up everything I could about people in happy marriages from those that were young to those that had been married for sixty years, and I wrote it down. In the end I was left with endless notes, highlighted articles and books, and a ton of bookmarked web pages that got me no closer to saving my marriage than when I began.
Useless on their own, these compilations of information served to isolate what was really going on in my marriage when I went back to them as a whole.
The hardest thing for me to ever accept was that my husband did not have empathy… toward me or anyone else. Equally hard was that he did have empathy, just not for me. This concept caused me more agony than anything else along my journey for answers. No one could ever really pinpoint what empathy meant to them though. I decided that if John could not have emotional empathy… if he had no capacity for it… than I would not stay with him because that would mean he was akin to a psychopath. I saw no world in which a human was completely devoid of emotional empathy and could be considered a good person, so there was no way I could stay with someone that was inherently evil. When I tried to apply this concept, I knew it did not fit. Outside of not being calculating or smooth enough to manipulate anyone (like psychopaths can) he did not appear to derive any pleasure at all from my negative emotions, quite the opposite of the only other identified humans without emotional empathy. When this rationale for ending my marriage failed, I tried to apply the opposite to it. If John did have emotional empathy, that meant he was just an asshole who didn’t love me or care how I was feeling. This didn’t fit either since I knew that I was the only person (besides his parents) that ever meant anything to him or that he ever really invested any interest or attention in. I wasn’t entirely smart enough to go full steam into the field of neuroscience, but I put enough effort into trying to decipher what was going on biologically with my husband to realize that avenue was just as hopeless as the rest (at this time).
I wanted to leave my failing marriage because I had no understanding of why we were so miserable and no direction to turn to for a brighter future. I just didn’t want to leave until I had some tangible answers in my hand to tell me there stood no potential for happiness. As much as the statistics on failed and/or miserable Aspie-NT marriages confirmed we were screwed, I still wanted something that would alleviate my future feelings of guilt for “giving up” on us. Call me selfish, but that was one of the major things that kept me in a miserable marriage for so long; I did not want to walk until I knew for certain it wasn’t my fault and I tried everything I could.
It was only going back through personal accounts from those with an Asperger diagnosis that I began to really focus on their childhood and recognize a pattern in all of my years of searching. I really honed in on this pattern and turned back to the writings of parents who have Aspie children and realized they were confirming what I thought, day after day, writing after writing. I opened up all of the books I had read (with NT and Aspie authors) and saw the same thing within the subtext. I went back to the “beginning” accounts of NT-Aspie marriages and how they came to be… same thing. I looked at the psychological profiles and diagnostic criteria… check. Neurological imaging that had been done and compared it to what is known about empathy to date… yup. Then I began to apply this to my husband, and to all of the Aspies I interact with professionally and it all seemed to finally make sense.
Despite all of the behaviors, deficits, comorbidities, and other “connections” made about those with Aspergers, the only constant that accounts for all of it is that there is no cognitive empathy. They all had affective empathy in their youth, every single one (but seemed absent of it in adult relationships). The only common link in every example I have ever seen regarding Asperger’s syndrome that can be applied across the board is this lack of cognitive empathy. When you really start picking apart an Aspie’s social experiences from the beginning, the lack of cognitive empathy can be attributed to damn-near every manifestation of negative adult behavior. Obviously we are all unique individuals and everyone’s life experience shapes who they are. I’m sure that some adult Aspies really are just assholes, as are their neurotypical counterparts. In giving the benefit of the doubt to those out there with enough heart to be searching for answers, I would have to say most of the people I have gleamed this insight from really are good people at their core. Honestly, I am a little inclined to say that the adult Aspies I have met and learned from tend to be a little more decent than your average NT.
With all of the things I had tried in my marriage to “get through” to my husband, nothing worked until I applied the knowledge that he did not have cognitive empathy. When I told him this, he got defensive as though I was telling him once again why everything was his fault and why he was broken and I was not. Having never heard this very simple explanation about his processing abilities, it was completely understandable that he denied it. I didn’t have a shred of evidence to back what I was saying to him and there was no way he would entertain my stack of literature and highlighted connections. After so many years of being told different things by “professionals” who had it all figured out (including the pills he could swallow to be normal) he just didn’t have the openness left to humor one more theory about his life of social injustices. I don’t blame him. By that point I had tried to apply a million other theories and methods to improve him and our life (never realizing the change was predominantly mine to make).
I spent a few weeks trying to get John to listen to what I was saying to him about cognitive empathy and getting angry and frustrated that he would not. I still had not fully realized the personal changes I had to make in order to alter the path we were on so I was doggedly focused instead on making him understand what cognitive empathy was (not sure how I expected HIM to fix anything if he had listened to me). The more I tried to strike up conversation about this, the harder the door slammed in my face (because I was trying to explain it all to him in a foreign language, rather than one he could comprehend!). John was hell-bent on avoiding any communication that might evoke emotion from me so despite this enlightened epiphany I had, it held zero practical value in salvaging our dying marriage.
Going back to that foreign language analogy: despite grasping the difference between cognitive and emotional empathy, I had very little skill in applying it to my marriage. The problem was… I couldn’t see that. Each and every time I attempted to speak to John about “what was wrong” in our relationship, I began speaking to him in French and he was willing to listen for a moment. Without ever realizing I was doing it, I rapidly defaulted to English (my natural language of communication) within minutes of his initial willingness to hear me out. The INSTANT John heard a single English word come out of my mouth, he was DONE TALKING! Since I had no idea I was still failing to accomplish something I thought I had a firm grasp on, I continued to think it was John who was failing me.
We had gotten to a point where he was fearful in discussing anything with me other than trivial small talk.
After some time, I resolved to give up. I really believed I understood what went wrong in John’s life and in our marriage. I tried very hard to disprove my new theory, but the more I tried (by way of continued reading) the more I solidified my belief that it was at the heart of everything. Of course, none of it mattered because John wasn’t open to the idea that there was anything wrong or different between he and I and laughed off the suggestion that he was missing “nonverbal” messages everyone else could readily see, as though he was not aware of “another language” even existing (he wasn’t). If we could not move forward with this new understanding, then we could no longer stay in the same place, we had to move apart. I got John a flight back to his home state and prepped for the end. At least I finally had the answer I was looking for, and I would know that it wasn’t my fault our marriage ultimately failed because I could blame John for refusing to communicate with me.
One evening, with bags packed and a flight the following morning, John broke down. This time it was for real. He sat on the floor between our bed and his closet and just sobbed. He cried in a way I needed to see… the way I had sat on the floor and cried so many times before. I wasn’t kind or empathetic toward him at all. Instead, I spoke firmly without any degree of emotion and I gave him one alternative to staying, one option that would make me believe we had a shot at fixing our marriage. To my surprise, he agreed to do anything I asked.
The next morning, we went to the store and purchased a GoPro HERO Session(which was the smallest camera I could find) to begin my plan of attack. 24 hours a day, 7 days a week I would wear a camera on my head and document our life as I saw it. John agreed to willingly allow this to happen.
If I could get my husband to literally walk in my shoes by seeing life through my eyes (or through the lens of a camera) I could get him to finally understand where I was coming from. I thought I had discovered a way to teach empathy to my husband. I ended up teaching myself a whole lot more…