The Soft Machine

A story. It’s not about narcissism or OCPD, but I don’t mind if that’s your take on it. This is about a neurodevelopmental disorder entailing a lack of reciprocity, including empathy. You might know how I’ve struggled with my partner, the (cough) feminist ally, ordering me around, treating me like a servant. Sitting me down for hours to browbeat me into apologizing for the empty cardboard boxes I’m breaking down (his job) and causing a panic when they pile up in front of the door. Find somewhere else to do that so it’s not in the way when he comes home from work. And it would save space to separate the styrofoam before doing the boxes. A 30-minute lecture on how to place food in the refrigerator. He last saw the Lysol at point A or point B (exact words), he’s not sure which, but it’s not at either location, so where is it? How to put pans in the oven properly. Why would you place the un-opened carton of milk in the fridge’s front, down on the third shelf? We talked about this. Why did you move the mouse to the right of my monitor? It makes no sense. Walk this path, the car’s over here. Clean out the cat box like this, not that.

You choose someone specific to get away from your family, only to recognize those distinct, unforgettable sensations gather round once it starts. Queasy stomach, your limbs turn to molten lead, cigarette ash three inches long because you can’t move, holding everything in, and there’s something wrong with your unseeing eyes. You stare, getting smaller. That too feels right, in a trance, as he manages you down to his level. A mental midget, sweating you to explain yourself. Logically.

I don’t know why I threw the recycling in the trash bin, but it’s easily remedied. Justify, defend, push back, try therapy, do CBT on him. CBT, that’s logical. Dialectal Behavioral Therapy, wait, what’s the dialectic? It’s him or me, I knew we were stuck on big picture vs minor details, what I understand now as the Central Coherence Theory of Autism, but at the time I remembered college days when we studied Theory with a capital T. So I spun him around the Hermeneutic Circle for a few hours vagus breathing to tap into empathy, desperate to explain how we must grasp a situation as a whole in order to truly understand any of its parts and neither one of us knew what I was talking about, of course. Nothing helped, until we met with Dr. Kathy Marshack, whose attackers inspired this very blog. Good job, neurobullies!

It doesn’t happen anymore. First thing she said was Enough! No more in-home coaching! We still have shitpiles of dysfunction to overcome, but he doesn’t order me around over these issues like he used to. It seemed like a deeply ingrained habit just magically extinguished, without my input. I reckon cynics won’t believe me, and that’s okay. I know what’s happening, what needs to be said. I am not being triggered into emotional flashbacks by this dynamic. It’s as if he gave himself an order, like re-programming a malfunctioning computer or something, and I am just happy to hear his car driving up again. Hope and change are real.

If there’s a poignancy here for me, it’s that he doesn’t seem to understand how I was transformed by these experiences. Judging by our conversations, he hasn’t gone through any meaningful changes either, whereby he saw his old self as a miserable S-O-B who was determined to control and oppress his woman and has found enlightenment through his healing relationship. No, he is a transactional autistic who lives by rules, sense of right and wrong, capacity for compassion, and strong desire to avoid conflict. Therefore, he does not talk about boxes at the door anymore or Robin will get mad at him. He doesn’t talk about milk on the shelves anymore or Robin will get mad. He can’t show Robin better ways to stack pans in the oven anymore or she will get mad at him. He can’t ask Robin to find the cleaning supplies or she will get PTSD flashbacks.

These are precise, concrete rules that won’t apply across the board. He has to instill a new one for every occasion because no big picture thinking, remember, no generalizing. A therapist giving a directive “not to micromanage your partner” will fall on deaf ears. Even me saying, “I have no fucks to give. Stop asking me to keep track of your things,” can create a panic reaction, because there are so many things. And I want to keep track of some of his things. As his partner, it’s my duty, in order to keep track of him.

Happy that it works for some, but this literal thinking would shred my head.

Evidently, he creates a set rule for each time he tries to make me the keeper of a personal item. Don’t ask Robin to find my pill bottle or she’ll get mad. Don’t ask Robin to find my nail clippers/etc. First the argument, then the rule. To us partners, it’s Groundhog Day, but to someone on the Spectrum, the situation is not the exact same, and it never will be — the item is different, we’re using different words, we’re in a different room, the mood is different, so no extrapolating, start from scratch. I now understand why it can take him 30 minutes to feed our cats and all that executive functioning talk-talk we hear about. It’s the hard way, isn’t it.

This is respect he shows me, how ever he gets there, and he wants to get there, most of the time. Personality change like that hardly happens in people, and certainly never in narcs or sociopaths. I know that kind by heart; I have the tainted bloodline.

Maybe he doesn’t love me quite exactly as I want to be loved. So what. He doesn’t get that from me either. Isn’t differentiation something? I’m so high-minded, I want the potential to hold space for our differences without defaulting into roommates and getting my womanly needs met outside the relationship. Few couples of any neurotype can fully realize and allow for what makes them separate.

Imagine now that one has no theory of the Other’s mind and that other has C-PTSD, a circumstance that must be in play with many ASD/NT couples. The autist is going to mix up your realities, and the traumatized partner is going to believe he’s perpetrating on her, and since one leads to the other, on the surface you can make an argument that both are happening.

But actually, they’re not. Not if you consider, as we must, motivation. It can be hard to take this step, because it sounds like justifying bad behavior. I get that. Discernment is crucial and too difficult to assess on our own. We need sophisticated, external perspectives.

Say these men see themselves as machines, appraising and systematizing with cold logic and stark efficiency. Add to that maximum self-absorption and all these terms of art that go with autism and it’s plain to see why this kind of individual would be incapable of expecting others to think differently from themself.

Getting over the shock of that is a massive step forward. It’s easier when you consider we all start with what we know, ourselves. Most grow out of it or live in a state of frustration because people are not acting as they should be, like me. Imagine, through no fault of your own, being unable to outgrow it.

Now look over that first paragraph. You think Michael’s being hard on me? Then you don’t understand the first thing about autism. If you’re partnered with an autistic, prepare to be him until you bring the noise.

Given the chance, they have a much longer learning curve on the social side of life. That’s their stuff. Getting clear on my stuff and the line of demarcation between the two is essential for sanity as any ASD-linked partner can tell you, and good luck finding that clarity in the day-to-day.

Any counselors out there still think they got what it takes by slapping an ND-friendly badge on their websites, right next to the LGBTQ-rainbow flag? Stop insulting our intelligence. I demand the academy release more Dr. Kathys. One woman can’t do it all.