Adulting for Autistics: Expectations in Relationships
Managing expectations can be a challenge for many of us on the spectrum. I’ve talked about this before in a general sense, but today’s post is specifically about expectations in relationships – yes, autistic people are capable of romantic relationships just like everyone else!
Autistic people have difficulty managing expectations because we run scenarios over and over in our minds until we feel confident that we’re prepared for what’s going to happen. It makes us feel secure. But humans are unpredictable at the best of times, so how do you account for all possible outcomes in relationships?
The short answer is you don’t.
The long answer is that you have to start from healthy expectations for what a romantic relationship is in the first place.
Don’t Believe What You See In the Movies
Or on TV. Or what you read, for the most part. Any media you consume where the point is to tell an enthralling story will NOT show healthy relationships because they don’t make for interesting reading/watching. It took me much longer than I’d like to admit to realize this simple truth (and I’m a fiction writer, too). So let me spare you a few wasted years by telling you now: get rid of any ideas about relationships that you got from fiction, media, fairy tales, Disney movies, musicals, etc.
Except maybe Gomez and Morticia Addams – they’re actually a very good example of respect, acceptance, and concern for each other’s happiness.
And maybe Molly and Arthur Weasley. They seem pretty solid, raising a large, close-knit family by modeling love and meaningful gestures in lieu of expensive gifts.
Movies, TV, books, etc. are all invested in one thing: drama. Drama moves the plot forward and keeps the audience interested. So, naturally, couples in these stories have big blowout fights, they yell at each other over small-to-midsize misunderstandings, and everything is high stakes.
Life is not like that – or at least it shouldn’t be.
Healthy Relationships Are Kind of Boring
Healthy relationships are not constantly high stakes. In healthy relationships, misunderstandings and disagreements are not solved with raised voices, threats of abandonment, or slammed doors. There’s a lot of talking, a lot of accepting your partner the way they are, and a lot of compromises. That’s how you build a strong relationship that will last and be good for everyone involved – and how you make a very boring movie.
You Can’t Control Other People
A major stumbling block for autistic people in relationships is when we expect the other person to say or do one thing and, instead, they respond with something else. This throws us for a loop because we only ran one version of the conversation in our minds.
But if we’re going to have successful relationships, we have to accept that our partners are other people. They are not an idea that we’ve created in our minds. They will act and react according to their own will, not ours. They may not do what we would do in the same situation. We cannot control them and we don’t have the right to be angry with them for that.
For example, if you want to go to your favorite restaurant for dinner, but you ask your partner where they would like to go, you don’t have the right to freak out when they choose another place. A better approach would be to tell your partner where you want to go and ask if they’re ok with that. But you have to be prepared for the possibility that they might say no, they’d rather go somewhere else!
It’s ok for your partner to have different opinions and tastes than you do. It’s not ok for you to hold those differences against them, or vice versa.
You Can’t Expect Your Partner to Read Your Mind
This is a trap that a lot of people fall into, ND and NT alike, largely due to movies and other media. There is a pervasive idea that you should never have to ask for what you want or need because a “good” partner will just know and give it to you. This very stupid idea is responsible for a lot of emotional abuse and the breakdown of tons of relationships.
I saw a post the other day that ended with “the inability to differentiate when someone needs solutions vs an outlet is rooted in a lack of empathy”.
THAT IS A LIE.
The inability to discern exactly what your partner needs in that moment is NOT rooted in a lack of empathy, but in a lack of mind-reading! Not caring enough to ASK what your partner needs or wants is a problem – but simply not knowing is not a crime.
For autistics, this is a double-edged sword. We can easily be accused of lacking empathy, although most of us are very empathetic, because we don’t show our empathy and affection like NTs do and because we have a hard time reading NT social/emotional communication. On the other hand, we’re not always great at communicating our own needs and feelings due to alexithymia, conditioning, or just forgetting that other people don’t know everything we know, and so we may get angry at our partners for not “getting it” when it’s really just another communication breakdown.
How do you avoid this problem? Easy – you ASK. Either ask your partner what they need or ask for what you need. For example:
Your partner tells you she’s had a bad day. A good response is “Is this something I can help with, or would you rather just vent?” If she says she just wants to vent, then you just listen and accept – maybe offer hugs. If she says you can help, then you listen and offer suggestions once she’s done.
Maybe your husband comes home from work obviously in a bad mood, but he’s quiet and more distant than usual. Simply asking “Do you want to talk about whatever’s bothering you or would you like to be left alone for a while?” shows concern and respect all at once. If he wants some time alone, fine – go about your evening and he’ll come out of it when he’s ready.
If you’re in a bad place – maybe your anxiety is through the roof one day or something upsetting happened at work – go to your partner instead of expecting them to read your mind. You can even start out vague: “I’m not ok right now, I could really use a tight hug” or “A thing happened today, can I tell you about it?”. The clearer you can be, the better, but it’s ok to start where you are.
It’s so important to have healthy expectations of any romantic relationship. If you hold a relationship to unattainable, fictional standards, it is doomed to fail. But if you have realistic expectations and all partners are focused on understanding and respecting one another as well as loving each other, your relationship stands a much better chance of standing the test of time.
What advice do you have for autistic people in romantic relationships? What do you wish you had learned sooner? Do you have examples of healthy relationships in media?