Recently I have been contacted by many couples asking me for help with their relationship as one or other of them has Asperger’s Syndrome. Keeping a relationship strong requires great effort for anyone, but especially if one of you (or both of you) are on the autistic spectrum.
I have guided these people to more specialist help. While I have many years experience and work with autistic spectrum conditions in many areas, I am not qualified and have no experience in working with couples.
Marriage and partnership used to just be about financial arrangements and bringing up children, but now it is much more. Partners look to each other to support their psychological, social and emotional needs and hopes and dreams for the future. Most relationships operate on this higher emotional level, but many of these things are neglected. Too often both partners are so busy and overwhelmed with life tasks and goals, they feel deprived of the emotional support and nurturing they need and expect from each other.
I wonder if, when you are together after work, the first thing you do is complain about the things you each feel the other hasn’t done, or hasn’t done right. Feelings get hurt and you hurt back in retaliation, when what you both really want is someone to say what a good job you’ve done and how hard you’ve been working.
First of all, if this is how you feel, there’s a good chance your partner feels the same way. If you don’t feel this way though, don’t assume your partner doesn’t!
However, there are simple exercises that couples therapists would recommend to deepen your relationship and make it more fulfilling for you both.
It may be hard to empathize with one another, but it can help if you start to acknowledge out loud what you both need – whether it be more nurturing, admiration, or respect.
Couples therapy exercises are designed to make both of you ‘active’ listeners. Active listening helps both of you to have a deeper understanding and greater appreciation of each other. Practicing active listening helps to make discussion of sensitive issues easier too. It is important for the person who is speaking to try to remain focused on a single point. The listener needs to concentrate fully on hearing the speaker and trying to consider and share their partner’s perspective.
When you are really listening and hearing what your partner has to say they will know their feelings have been understood and validated by you.
You can let your partner know you understand what they say by summarising it in your own words. Make sure you just listen and reflect back what you have heard. Don’t add your own point of view, and take care not to judge or criticise. They are entitled to their view of the world as you are to yours. Ask your partner if your summarising back is accurate or ask what it is you missed.
Plan how long you will each speak – 10 – 15 minutes might be a good start – then change roles so that you both have the same time and opportunities to speak and be heard.
This can be hard at first if you have not done it before or struggle to see another’s point of view, but with practice it will become easier and it can enhance many aspects of your relationship.
Making an Appreciation List
Being appreciated is vital to a relationship. Sometimes we fall into the trap of taking each other for granted and feel that our partner doesn’t recognise our efforts because it is so easy to do, and remembering to appreciate each other gets left behind.
When you stop feeling resentful at one another for what your partner is not doing and begin to acknowledge the things that you appreciate in each another, you will both begin to feel better.
An exercise suggested by couples therapists can help both of you see and appreciate the small gestures of love and care that you have for each other. It requires simply making a list. Every day, for five days, each of you write down the things that your partner did for you that you appreciated. They don’t have to be big things – little things are important too. It might be preparing your breakfast or cooking dinner, making you laugh, occupying the children when you’ve had a long day, running you a bath …. After the five days, exchange your lists.
Using Positive Language
Miscommunication is a common problem among couples. We can easily make inaccurate interpretations or assumptions of what our partner is saying. This can lead to arguments, emotional disconnection and feelings of rejection.
Using positive language can deepen your bond and help you cope with complicated issues without anger or upset. Try using “you said” and “I heard” during your conversations. They are not always the same thing!
In this positive language exercise, you and your partner take turns repeating what the other said and explaining in your own words what you heard and understood. When you begin your sentence with “I heard … ” it helps your partner feel that you have paid attention to, and care about, what they have said to you, and that you know it is important to them.
You may want to talking about your goals and your expectations, your hopes and aspirations, not just in your marriage, but in all aspects of your life.
Give each other legitimate credit and praise for what they do. Be honest about the things you admire about each other. Even expressing feelings of envy for something your partner does better than you can have a positive effect, since that kind of envy is also an expression of admiration.
Making a Loving List
Sometimes we think we know, or make assumptions about, what our partner really wants or needs from us, but we may not be correct. Surprises and loving acts don’t need to be huge or expensive. Often a small gesture means a big thing. It might be getting into the habit of giving a goodbye or goodnight (or coming home) kiss; a hug from behind while they are making dinner; saying “I love you” with no ulterior motive!; bringing home a favourite food – and cooking it; remembering an occasion that perhaps is only important to them.
Each of you write down five things your partner can, or does do, that makes you feel loved.
Have a regular Date Night
Many couples stop dating after they are married, which is a shame because dating helps you to retain the excitement and shared intimacy you experienced before. But when one or both of you are working full-time and also taking care of children, you won’t have much spare time or energy for making sure you are both feeling good about yourselves or each other, or making time to spend together.
Maintaining a relationship over a long period of time is hard work, and can sometimes be really stressful too. It is important for you and your partner to relax and unwind together.
You might arrange anything from a short trip away with your partner to just a special evening dinner at home together on a regular basis. Just so long as it is away from work, responsibilities, interruptions and other things that cause you anxiety in your daily life. It can be a time to practise the couples exercises while you relax and enjoy your time together too. Make the effort to plan it, dress up and take extra care and effort for your time together to please the other.
Intimacy is about being emotionally close to your partner. It’s about being able to bring down your defences: to accept and share your partner’s thoughts and feelings. It’s about being able to share your “inner world” to this person. Intimacy is one of the most rewarding aspects of a relationship.
You and your partner may genuinely love and respect one another and want to be close, and many couples start their relationship thinking that they have achieved the highest level of intimacy that they have never experienced with anyone else before. However, as time passes and you go through the highs and lows of marriage, you may discover deeper levels in your intimacy together, and this can make your relationship closer still and more rewarding.
A daily intimacy routine involves sitting facing each other, close enough that your knees are almost touching. Take a minute or several minutes to look into each other’s eyes (yes I know this is hard when you have AS, but if you can manage for a short time – go for it! You may be surprised 🙂 If you really can’t, then look and admire parts of the face you can cope with). Think about the reactions and thoughts that are coming to you and share them with your partner. Concentrate on being in this moment – not what has happened in the past or what is on your mind for the future, but right now. Can you feel the closeness? This exercise is one way to reconnect with your partner after a long and busy day.
An exercise that is especially helpful if you are having problems with one or other partner wanting sex is just to spend time touching with no ulterior motive. A massage or stroking but not touching sensitive sexual areas. Make a plan for at least once a week for an hour for each of you (different days might be best) where one partner explores and strokes the other and just enjoys the experience of looking closely at and intimately touching your partner for this time.
Every relationship goes through hard times. There are ups and downs in everyone’s lives. However, if you can incorporate these basic couples therapy exercises, you can greatly improve many areas of your relationship, help you and your partner deal with issues more effectively, and grow closer. Couples therapy exercises can also help you revive intimacy, strengthen the bond between you two, and maintain a healthy, happy and lasting relationship.
Good luck – and enjoy the experience! 🙂