I’d like to share some personal experiences regarding what I see when I observe other people “listening.” I’d love to hear your experiences as well if you see something different from my observations.
Sometimes this is a delicate topic for me, and if I feel like someone is disinterested in listening to me as I speak, it can be very hurtful. Nevertheless, I do try to hold an open mind as I realize I can misinterpret other people’s feelings and gestures. Let me give you some background first.
The last time I had someone in my life I could call a “close friend,” I was in elementary school. I remember spending time with her dancing to new age music, and we were on the exact same page, lost and free in our own worlds, but also together. There was never arguing or disagreement about what we wanted to snack on or watch on TV or talk about. We were almost the same person, we got along so well. What’s more, now that I’m older, I recognize the thing that is missing from my life in nearly all of my relationships today; I felt her. This idea of connection with another human being is so precious and yet so rare for women on the spectrum, as far as I can tell from listening to many autistic women. Many of us have no friends at all, let alone a partner who has agreed to love and care for us until the day we die.
When I was married to my husband almost ten years ago, I married into a circle of friends with whom my husband was very close. They are still close friends today, and I’ve spent many, many days, hours, and Sunday brunches with them over the years. We’ve also added a few to the circle since then, and it is a great group of people to be around. Though, to me, the experience is different from my husband’s. My husband has a very big heart and loves his friends dearly. He’s exerted a great deal of effort to keep his friends together and to keep his relationship with them alive, even with those who still live in his tiny hometown a few hours away from where we live now. Most of his friends from back home have kids, but most of the people in our area that we hang out with do not. When we all get together, we drink coffee and sit and talk and there are no kids to worry about, running around the house in the background or crying or fighting with siblings. We all simply get to talk about our lives, work, politics, blah, blah, blah. And here is where I want to broach the topic of listening skills.
I consider listening one of the most important skills a human being can have. And this isn’t some belief that I formed on my own or chose to focus on out of an arbitrary code of ethics. It came to my attention many years ago through constant observation of other people that there is nothing more rude and hurtful than speaking about something you care about and noticing that the person you’re talking to, presumably someone you care about, is not listening.
I think my earliest experience and recognition of this came from things on TV. You see a commercial now and then where a girlfriend gets mad at her boyfriend because he’s distracted by something in the background or another woman walking by. Now and then you see a man being rewarded somehow for being able to listen to a woman talk about her feelings, as if this is the most heavy, menacing chore men have to deal with in their lives. It was painful to recognize then, and it is painful to recognize now. First of all, it is obviously sexist and one-sided to suggest that only women like to drone on about things their partners are uninterested in. But beyond that, it does seem to be quite a universal problem nowadays, and I can observe this constantly on a small scale within my own circle of friends.
From the point I recognized the value of being listened to, I figured out that if I was going to avoid hurting others in this way, I needed to hone the skill of listening myself. I consider myself a very good listener, and not least because I spend a whole lot more time listening and observing than speaking myself, especially in a large group. Some would argue that I’m only calling myself a good listener because I don’t speak, but let me tell you what I observe when others are not speaking and someone else in the group has the floor.
Most lower their heads to their phones, or start a different conversation altogether. But more common than this is another phenomenon. Most of the people I know seem to be constructing their own replies or comments even while the other person is speaking. Several will not hesitate to interrupt with a comment or a joke that he/she believes will get a good reaction from the group. It is amazing, and everyone seems to tolerate it, as if it is normal that you are not expected to really invest in listening. It is enough to get the gist of what’s being said and then to interject with your own thoughts/opinions/humorous-but-unrelated comment.
Then here I am, sitting in the midst of this competition, but I am listening to every word. Most of the time I am hopelessly bored, but listening is one courtesy of many that I’ve learned are unbreakable rules in terms of social etiquette. Many Aspies, especially Aspie men, feel no qualms with expressing truths, corrections, or personal feelings, even if it will upset the listener. I, on the other hand, feel an incredible weight of responsibility that I am absolutely not to break these social rules that will lead to a negative reaction from another person. I would absolutely never express disgust or dislike for something someone else made for me at dinner or gave me as a present…at least, not to their faces. I’ve only once in my life that I can remember confronted someone about their behavior toward me that was hurtful, and that experience was incredibly anxiety-inducing. The person herself commented on how much emotion she could see in me as I did something that was way, way outside my comfort zone. I was shaking the whole time and trying to not cry and have a meltdown. That’s how “wrong” it felt to express something negative to another person. (A lot of this, I believe, stems from my upbringing, but that’s a whole other story.)
So I sit quietly. I listen to everyone’s opinions on politics or whatever, I listen to everyone’s experiences from work, funny things that happened to them that week, etc. I am mostly bored to tears, but that is not something I am allowed to betray in my physical gestures. When people are speaking, I’m looking in their general direction. I nod, smile in the places I feel are correct, then follow the conversation to the next person…move my head to their general direction, smile, nod in the correct places, giggle here or there to signal to them that their talking is entertaining me.
So then, there are some times when I am addressed, and it is my turn to speak. Sometimes this is ok, other times it is devastating. There are a lot of different factors that play into which it is, but let’s assume in this example that I am comfortable being addressed to comment on a particular topic. If what I say is not immediately funny or some kind of sarcastic jab at someone else around the table, there is a definite shift in atmosphere. A few look at me intently as I speak, which is a sign of listening. Great. If I speak longer than a few seconds, most drift. Some are on their phones, others move their eyes to someone else around the table, but mostly, people seem to be thinking of something to contribute, perhaps even to shift the conversation back to what they want to talk about. Now, this example refers to some general topic that is on some level relatable to everyone, like work. I can talk for a few seconds about my work as long as there is something funny or appalling to throw in. Otherwise, I have a very, very limited amount of time to actually hold interest.
And these are the signs for failing interest I’ve observed:
Easily distracted by something/someone else,
Eyes glaze over;
Looking down at their phone;
Laughing at something they are thinking about in their own heads or something that was said earlier;
Turning to someone to ask what must be an urgent question worth interrupting me for, and;
Flat-out, unabashed interruption.
And this is just in casual conversation! Normal and acceptable? Does no one really care if people listen to them? Is it just me? Am I incredibly bad at talking and boring?
Then there is the one-on-one conversation when I want to talk about something I truly care about. These are usually the most hurtful experiences when people show signs of boredom, because, as many autistic people can relate, if I can’t talk to the one person in my life I love and trust, I am basically trapped in a prison of my thoughts with no outlet or mode of support.
My husband has learned to put effort into trying to listen to me when I talk, even when it is something he’s not particularly interested in. I feel more free to express my feelings with him, and so I’ve challenged him before, saying that I’ve sat quietly and listened to him day after day after day after day for years, listening to him rant and rave about his day at work, but when I try to talk about my day, he displays all those signs of disinterest and distraction that I’ve mentioned above.
So here is the mystery I think about and try to figure out. I know my husband loves me, more than anything. We’ve been married for years, and there are many things I’ve learned and had to unlearn about marriage because of the influence of media and TV and so on; a quite painful process. One of these painful lessons is that even though my husband loves me, he is not at all interested in most of the things I am very passionate about, including Asperger’s itself. But when I talk to him about Asperger’s or my experience, I expect him to be captivated because he loves me, though this is not the case. He knows he cannot mess around on his phone when I am talking to him about something emotionally charged, because he knows I take this as a sign of absolute disinterest, and it is painful to me. My problem is that I once believed that if you deeply loved someone and wanted to marry them, it meant that you were passionately involved and interested in every aspect of their lives and interests. This is not the case. I have to tell myself all the time that just because he doesn’t like electronic music, it doesn’t mean he doesn’t love me! It sounds absurd, but the Asperger’s thing is quite sensitive. If he doesn’t find the topic of Asperger’s that interesting, does it mean he doesn’t find me interesting? No. And he tells me this all the time.
But here’s the crux: I’m not particularly fascinated by his work, either, but I do know how to sit my butt in a chair and listen while he vents. This is important. This is something I also need. Neurotypicals just seems to have issues with attention and focus, and it takes more effort to reign in. I am lucky to have strong powers of focus and concentration, and perhaps it is the discrepancy I see between my own ability to listen for long periods of time and others’ that I’ve mistakenly taken for disinterest and intentional offense.
Thoughts? Flaws in my logic? What is your experience as an Aspie married to a neurotypical? I am—truly—interested. Thanks for reading. =)