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 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!