Thursday, February 02, 2006

I Don't Know What I'm Missing


Copyright © 2006 Lars Perner

By Lars Perner, Ph.D.

As a person on the autism spectrum, I am at least “sort of” human--at least some of the time. This means that I am subject to many emotions that most ordinary people experience. My experiences may not be typical, but they are human—or at least near human—experiences nevertheless.

Most people have is the drive for attachment. For evolutionary reasons, there are good reasons why people pair up. In my life, I have experienced something akin to love several times. I have fantasized about romance many times and dreamed about finding the perfect match for me. Truth be told, I know that perfection is impossible, and I would be perfectly happy for settle for someone who is merely super-human. I have been deeply touched by hearing about other people’s experiences. I will even admit that I have felt by the experiences of fictional people. When I read novels by Danielle Steel many years ago, I had perhaps too much empathy for some of the characters.

Yet, in my own life, I have never advanced far into relationships. There is only one woman with whom I have had more than one date. One of the reasons here, of course, is that finding the right person is hard work and that the match has to be mutual. To many of the women that I saw as a possibility, I would not have been a suitable match. Many women who would have been intrigued by an “adorable eccentric” like me would not have been suitable for me.

Another issue, however, is whether having a relationship, when we add up everything, really comes out as a net positive experience. Yes, this question sounds very autistic, but I am constantly surprised to see the rather constant conflict between people who actually both like and love each other. Relationships also involve challenges that, to me, are rather frightening. Spontaneity is one of the more terrifying realities of many relationships. It is very difficult for me when decisions are still “up in the air.” I dislike discussing options for things to do with no knowledge of the likely outcome. Or the possibility that a change of plans will be suggested. It may be true that “imaginary lovers never disagree” and “are always there when you need” them, but most people are, for better or for worse, real or—worse yet—fake. As the singer Dann Rogers put it, “Love’s a slice of Heaven—and little Hell.”

Having never had a lasting and significant relationship, I literally don’t know what I am missing. I don’t really know much about the reality of the plusses and minutes of a relationship. I have felt a tremendous attraction to a sequence women in my lifetime. One could call my feelings attraction, love, infatuation, captivation, or any number of other terms. As a sincere and committed prude, lust would probably not be a suitable description, but other word choices abound. The bottom line is that I know the feelings of attraction and longing. Yet, I don’t know if being successful in finding a match would turn out to be a blessing or a curse. Yes, I am intrigued by the possibility of having someone “whisper something soft and kind,” but would the experience really be all that satisfying when push came to shove? In some ways, I am perhaps even more of a “world class hopeless romantic” than Joan Wilder, but I also have an acute sense of danger and strong drive for self preservation! Do I really want to “know what love is?”

Having been alone for so long, I value my freedom. Outside work, I usually do not have to coordinate with anyone what to do and when to do it. Giving up this freedom seems a major sacrifice. Yet, maybe something really worthwhile could result from love! I know this is not rational, but I am human after all.

In a sense, I would like to experience mutual love. It is human to want this. Yet, although I know that a feeling and acting on an attraction are an evolutionary necessity for the species, it is much less clear that this is really in the rational interest of the individual. In the old days, a relationship provided for an important division of labor. This is not as necessary any more. Some people would argue that you don’t need a rational reason for everything in life, but, at the very least, I would really like to hear a truly persuasive irrational reason!

On the issue of children, many people started out like me. In their youth, they had no need for children. As one mature woman, who now had a daughter she loved said, the “very word used to scare [her].” At this point in my life, I no longer doubt that I have made the right decision—or at least avoided making the wrong decision—in not having children. I do not question that many people get genuine joy out of having children. Yet, there is no doubt that I would resent the burden. I believe that my writings can contribute much more to the world in helping parents understand their autistic children and autistic people understand themselves than having children of my own ever could. I do not miss children. I get tired all of a sudden and would resent having to take care of a child. I would also intensely dislike the conflict that inevitably results even between the best parents and children. I rather doubt that I will ever wake up one day and regret I did not have children. I may come to increasingly understand that there would have pros and cons, but I rather doubt I would ever conclude that squandered an opportunity.

The question of love is different, however. In my daily life, I do not usually feel deprived in not having anyone. There have been instances when I have longed for a particular woman, but this comes and goes. When the crisis is over, there is no great void. Love is not easy, and the downside can be considerable. As the singer Ed Bruce put it, “If it [were] easy, everyone would be in love.” So many marriages end in divorce, sorrow, or both. But still, some marriages turn out to be very happy.

Dr. Tony Attwood has commented that many people on the autism spectrum may need a “thimble” of socializing instead of the big oversized sixty-four ounce gulper that many “normal” people seek out. Social interaction, in moderation, is important to me. Perhaps I need a thimble of love, but does love fit into thimbles? Flexibility is not my strong suit, but perhaps—albeit with marked reservations— I could even go for a small cup. I just worry that it might flow over.

Am I avoiding something that is highly overrated and, in reality, likely to be distressing, or am I missing out on something that would truly enrich my life? I don’t know.


Ben said...

I found your analysis of love extremely interesting because I believe that throughout many people's lives they have been in love but never actually experience it in any depth that you have described it. It’s like going on vacation to a foreign country and eating at a McDonalds, you haven’t really experienced what life is like there. One could almost say you were an expert already because you have analyzed it to such a depth, you just maybe don’t feel you have the t-shirt to prove it.

I used to think this way and couldn’t bare the thought of settling with a woman that was anything less than perfect. I saw it as a total waste of my life to compromise my one chance in such a long term way.

I also found your comments about children very interesting. I used to think this way too. I found myself almost categorically ruling it out because of all the problems the world was facing today, I could not bring a child into this world to face it. As well as this, I simply didn't want the commitment and the permanence that children are. Its one thing to be in a (disposable) relationship, its something totally different to create another human and leave an irremovable mark on humanity.

I found as I became older my views on all this changed and that it was actually pretty naïve of me to think that I could conceptualize relationships and offspring in this way. I realized that perfection in a partner is not what love was about. Love for me is the experience which can be sometimes perfect and sometimes absolutely fraught with imperfections, but the experience is both and something I will cherish. Even the heart ache is an experience that may leave a emotional scar, but then scars are often trophies of experience.

I truly found inspiration in your post. Not just because you have reminded me of how I was but because you have broken down such a complex subject in such a way that suggests you know more about love than some people who have been married for years.

nt qut prfct said...

What are you missing?

If you loved a NT, you'd have a challenge, a chance to grow and learn about the ways in which your reality is different, and the ways it is shared, with the person you love.

You'd feel wonder at the sudden and strange rush of tenderness and protectiveness washing over you, as you stroke the hair of the smaller, more physically-fragile human at your side. You might feel gratitude for the good fortune that a human with knowledge and skills which complement yours wants to help you achieve your goals, that she wants to be by your side, despite the challenges of being in relationship with someone with AS.

You might also feel the pain of confusion, when something you expect doesn't happen exactly as you expect, because she is, after all, a separate person. You will feel the pain of seeing her cry because of some "honest" criticiam you shared with her. If she loves you, she won't lash out at you, but she may not be able to keep from crying and upsetting you thereby.

Megan said...

I'm an aspergers girl and relationships are hard! Even being friends with other girls is hard.
I've always felt I'm from a country without a name.
People who come into this country at least have an excuse I don't speak english and people accept that.
With me I'm ether too obessed with a person or not at all. One extreme or the other.

LollyBethB said...

I found your post very touching. I think this is a very difficult area for those of us with Aspergers. I still hope to find out "what I'm missing". I found your blog while searching for tips for adults with Aspergers. It is so hard to find any resources for adults.

demere said...

I, too, found your post interesting and very endearing. I have been in a relationship with a man for almost two years (gasp!) who I believe has AS... he fits all the lovable and frustrating characteristics, almost to a "T"; it doesn't come naturally to him to "kiss me goodbye" or "hug me hello" and I especially love his honesty and need for specifics. ;-) (Really.)

Anyway, your perspective has given me a bit more understanding because I think a lot of aspie men go through a lot of what you were going through when you wrote this. Your words will hopefully allow me to have more patience; you've truly softened my heart.

resully said...

I think I have AS, and have a child. I have always felt very guilty for feeling that he is a burden and tires me out totally being a parent. If it is part of having AS, then maybe it's ok. Maybe I can finally stop feeling guilty about it, and explain it to my son, and he can forgive me for needing to have so many "talking breaks" when he was little.

resully said...

I think I have AS, and have a child. I have always felt very guilty for feeling that he is a burden and tires me out totally being a parent. If it is part of having AS, then maybe it's ok. Maybe I can finally stop feeling guilty about it, and explain it to my son, and he can forgive me for needing to have so many "talking breaks" when he was little.

clem said...

My interest has been awakened here. I have recently (54yo) considered that perhaps the difficulties that I have had all of my life could be symptomatic of a condition more in line with Aspergers instead of crazy, mental, rigid, frigid, distant and strange.
I can not stand to be touch or kissed or hugged UNLESS it is my idea which is rare. I seem to not need this sort of thing. I become anxious beyond any sense of tolerance when in the company of most humans. I have a difficult time directing my brain to listen when someone is talking to me. Most of the time I want to scream and say let me go!!! When my interest is peaked and it is a subject that I like.....then I can go on forever even discussing it with other humans. I love and need my alone time. I prefer the company of my things to another human being. If I have to be around people which is frequent I will always need a down/rest time to balance out the anxious uncomfortable feelings inside in order to function outside myself at all the rest of the day. Love? I often felt that I had no capacity for it. I feel warm and fuzzy about things and people from time to time but that quickly wears off when the hormones have become accustomed to the thing or person...... then I am detached again. I prefer facts and research to abstract vagueness. I am drawn to emotion however i do not understand it and misjudge it often. I resent the time and emotional energy it takes in parenting/nurturing my children. It makes me so anxious I want to scream and run...... I have taught myself not to. However, the fact that I do not act on it does not keep it from being true internally. I can go all day and never talk with them or my husband. If it weren't for the nagging dialog in my head on how I SHOULD be I would not put any effort towards changing because it is too painful and frighteniug otherwise.
My hope is that someone responds to this and can suggests a course of action as well as reference to weblinks and the like.

Sincerely, Melanie C

JamesKathrein said...

I find the comment Net positive very amusing since for as long as I can remember I evaluate relationships as being beneficial rather than attraction based. A hold back is usually monetary or work related. If I feel as though I am not in a position to sustain a relationship monetarily forget the lust or admirableness.
Its true we don't see relationships as others there must be a net gain for both parties for us to consider a relationship.

peakorlando said...

There's a great book out there called Singled Out that has a very good study in it showing paired up people and lifelong singles are more or less equally happy in life. So where not really missing anything much... ;)

Great post BTW. Thank you for sharing!