Welcome back to my blog series on dating on the autism spectrum. Last week we talked about common challenges many people with autism have while dating. Today, I would like to talk about the challenges many adults with autism have when they’re in a relationship and experience conflict with their partner.
In my experience as an autism therapist, I have noticed that many of my clients with autism struggle to handle conflict in their relationships. This can be caused by a trauma history and a general lack of understanding regarding other’s emotions.
Dating on the Autism Spectrum is Hard When You’ve Had Bad Relationships in the Past
Many of my clients have been in rocky relationships and this impacts their present or future relationships because they have self-esteem issues. Their poor self-esteem causes them to experience anxiety and depression.
Anxiety and depression can be challenging to recognize when you’re on the spectrum, but in general people with autism who have anxiety and depression may experience some of the following in relationships:
- Easily triggered by misunderstanding in relationships
- Trying to be a fixer and solve all issues
- Feeling like you need to be the caretaker
- Helplessness or feeling incompetent when you are unable to support your partner
- Confusion over what to say
- Changing who you are to please your partner
- Over apologizing or apologizing when it’s not appropriate
Trauma and It’s Effect on Dating on the Autism Spectrum
Many people with ASD have experienced trauma. This could be something like sexual assault, rape, or violence. Or, it could be bullying, teasing, or emotional abuse. The perpetrators of these aggressive acts could be friends, classmates, teachers, family members, and even parents. Unfortunately, people with autism may be more likely to experience abuse. It’s estimated that at least 50% of adults with ASD have experienced trauma. But, I think that that number is actually much higher.
Traumatic experiences can have a profound effect on autistic teen or adults’ self-esteem and romantic relationships. Therefore, many autistic adults struggle to handle conflict because they see it as aggressive and threatening. So, you’ll see them react as if they are in a life-threatening situation, and they will do one of three things: freeze, flee, or fight. When you’re on the spectrum and you’ve experienced trauma, it is hard to trust anyone. It’s hard to feel safe and cared for. But, trust is the cornerstone of a healthy relationship.
Experiencing Conflict When You’re on the Autism Spectrum can be Challenging
If you’re on the autism spectrum you may have experienced conflict in a relationship that has left you feeling confused and devastated. In my clinical experience, autistic adults who experience conflict in a relationship typically do whatever they can to avoid it, they try and fix everything, or they over-apologize.
A common reaction to trauma when you’re dating on the spectrum is to do whatever you can to try and avoid the conflict. This means that you might leave, freeze up, become nonverbal, or dissociate and think about something else. You may not run from conflict on purpose or even do it consciously. When you feel threatened or anxious, your body and your mind simply shut down. You may even feel empty and numb especially if you’re not sure why the conflict happened in the first place. So, you may be left feeling incompetent or useless when you can’t support your partner and give them what they are asking for. In these situations, it is easier to leave so you don’t have to deal with that or disappoint your partner even further.
Fixing Without Listening:
Another possible reaction to conflict is to try and solve the problem and fix everything without actually knowing what the problem is or listening to your partner. This can be detrimental because your partner could feel invalidated. When your partner is upset, they often need you to listen and hear what they’re trying to tell you. So, trying to fix your partner’s problem makes things worse.
This is a very common reaction to trauma when you’re dating on the spectrum. Many neurodiverse people take on the belief that they the one in the wrong. So, you may think that that you have to apologize all the time. But, you’re are not always in the wrong, so sometimes this apologizing comes off as insecure or inappropriate. But, it’s simply a reaction to the trauma or people treating you poorly.
Things You Can Do to Better Handle Conflict When You’re Dating on the Autism Spectrum
First thing first, learn what types of conflicts or what situations cause you to feel triggered. This will better help you understand what causes these reactions and better equip you to handle them differently in the future. When you understand what triggers you, then you can use coping techniques to relax and listening strategies to help you connect with your partner effectively.
Another thing that is very important for you to do is talk about your triggers and how it impacts the way you handle conflict with your partner. When you explain your triggers to them, then hopefully they will understand when you need a moment to compose yourself during an argument. When your partner understands why you think and act the way you do, then they will be less likely to make inaccurate assumptions regarding your behavior during times where there’s lots of tension.
If you’re prone to over apologizing, take a moment to consider if an apology is actually warranted at this time. To do this you have to understand why your partner’s feelings are hurt. The first step is to really listen to what you partner is feeling and thinking without having to immediately defend yourself. This takes skill and practice.
If your partner is hurting because they misunderstood your intentions. Then, rather than apologizing, listen to their feelings and validate their feelings. Validating their feelings does not mean you are agreeing that their interpretation of you is correct. What is means is that you can understand why they would feel that way given their interpretation. Once your partner feels like you really get their feelings, you can offer to explain what your actual intentions were. Sometimes they might not be open to hearing about it in the moment, so tabling it for later might help them be more receptive to hearing your perspective. If you automatically apologize to your partner, when your intention was not to hurt their feelings, then it validates that their understanding is correct and you are in the wrong. This only causes more misunderstandings. Ultimately, over apologizing can leave you feeling very confused and full of self-doubt.
If You’re Having Lots of Conflict in Your Relationship Consider Therapy
If you’re struggling with conflict when you’re dating on the autism spectrum, therapy can really help. Rather, you get individual autism therapy, group autism therapy, couples therapy, or a combination of the three, a therapist can offer insight into your challenges and triggers and help you learn new ways to cope with distress. They can help you learn how to listen and validate your partner, regulate yourself when distressed in conflict, and co-regulate with your partner (soothe each other).
How do I talk to my partner about going to therapy?
Acknowledging there’re issues in your relationship and having a conversation with your partner about going to therapy is challenging rather you’re dating on the autism spectrum or not. So, I wanted to offer some guidance and suggestions for ways to discuss this with your partner.
Begin the conversation by asking them what they need from you. Ask them what they think the problems are in your relationship. Then, share your thoughts and opinions. This will help you understand them better and it will help your partner understand you better. So, both of you can walk away feeling heard and accepted. For example, they might ask that you don’t just walk away mid conflict because it makes them feel like you’re abandoning them and don’t love them. Acknowledge their feelings and tell them why you do this. Maybe you walk away because when you feel emotionally unsafe and your body feels so scared it needs to escape.
Let your partner know that their opinion matters to you and you want to make the appropriate changes. Tell that you can do your own individual counseling to work on these issues, but you think couples therapy would be helpful too. Explain that couples therapy can help them understand your neurodiversity and your behaviors better and work through issues with supportive help from a trained therapist. Then, ask if they would be open to meeting with a therapist to learn more.
Autism Therapy in California
I don’t currently offer couples counseling at my autism therapy clinic in Palo Alto, CA. But, I do offer a variety of autism therapy services that focus on helping an individual with high-functioning autism thrive. Currently, we are offering all our autism therapy services online to practice social distancing.
Online Autism Services at Open Doors Therapy
- Neurodiverse Working Professionals Group
- Autistic Women Group
- Neurodiverse College Group
- Neurodivergent Young Adults Group (Post-College)
I also offer an online autism parents group to help parents navigate the challenges their teens may be having regarding dating, friendships, social skills, independence, and more.
If you are looking for couples therapy, I encourage you to seek out a therapist that understands and specializes in working with neurodiversity. I am happy to provide referrals if you’d like.
Begin Autism Therapy and Learn More about Dating on the Autism Spectrum:
I specialize in helping high-functioning neurodiverse teens and young adults thrive in individual or group therapy. If you are looking for a therapist who can help you with issues such as dating and more then I would love to talk with you. To begin autism therapy in California, follow these steps:
- Contact Open Doors Therapy and schedule a free 30-minute phone consultation with Dr. Tasha Oswald.
- Like my autism counseling clinic on Facebook.
- Sign up to get my newsletter to learn more about autism in California.
Autism Therapy Services offered at Open Doors Therapy:
At my Palo Alto autism therapy center, I help high functioning individuals who identify as having Aspergers, high functioning autism, undiagnosed autism traits, etc. and their families. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I am providing all our autism therapy services online. My autism services include individual counseling for autistic teens and adults, parent counseling, and group therapy. I am passionate about offering my social skills groups for neurodiverse working professionals, college students with autistic traits, gifted youth & caregivers, autistic adults, women who identify as neurodiverse, autistic teens transitioning to college (offered in the summer only), teens & caregivers, and a mothers group. Contact my autism therapy clinic for more information on my services or to schedule a consultation.
About the Author
Dr. Tasha Oswald is a trained developmental and clinical psychologist. She is also is the founder and director of Open Doors Therapy, a private practice specializing in autism therapy services in the South Bay Area, near San Francisco, CA. Dr. Oswald specializes in helping neurodiverse teens and adults and facilitating social skills groups.