We’d chosen an apartment just outside Charleston and about 30 minutes from the beach—Folly Beach—where we’d spend a considerable amount of time over the next year. Though our arrival was a bit marred by the emotional strains of the day, it still felt momentous and quite scary. We’d left everything behind for this new adventure, and I know I’d certainly imagined the experience going a bit differently. That first entry, the smell of the salty, thick air that I’d never smelled before. The heat and dry ground covered in dying grass and Spanish moss from the towering oaks that dotted the property. It was early July, and now we had to unpack the moving truck loaded with what few hand-me-down pieces of furniture we had to begin our new life in the low country.
It didn’t take long for us to get things inside, but neither one of us felt like going through and unpacking boxes, so we simply set them aside for the time being. Allen was quiet, his face sullen, and he set about immediately making phone calls and ensuring things were in place for him to start working at the call center in a few days. I remember feeling let down that we did not just take a moment together at the very start. Maybe me sitting with him on the front step as he had a smoke and we took in the moment, this strange and new experience we’d be navigating. But there was nothing ceremonious about our first evening in Charleston. Allen was spent, emotionally and physically, and just needed to check out early. This was my first experience of Allen when he was emotionally exhausted. Whereas I always wanted to talk and be with him when I felt overwhelmed, Allen was the exact opposite. He retreated and did not want to talk, did not even want to sit with me. But I wanted to be with him, experience this day with him, and not being able to do that was the catalyst for a whole new, miserable feeling that I had been unfamiliar with up to that moment. It was like loneliness but way more intense; it mixed with hopelessness, restlessness, helplessness, like I needed something so badly and was unable to get it and the anguish that caused was like a fire eating away at my chest, my skin crawling, doubts and confusion boiling within me because I had no idea what Allen was thinking, what I was supposed to be doing, feeling, thinking…lost. What was wrong with me?
There would be many nights in my future when this feeling would force me out of bed to go sob somewhere in the apartment where he couldn’t hear—at least that’s what I told myself I was doing. In reality, I think I was intentionally walking around, making little sounds and crying in a way that I hoped would wake him up. But that first night, I, too, was exhausted and tried to distract myself from these horrible new feelings with other horrible new feelings; namely, anxiety and nerves at the prospect of going to my first day at the internship I knew virtually nothing about. I would be doing a temporary editorial internship with a lifestyle magazine, but everything I’d heard about internships had taught me that it would probably lead to full-time employment because that’s what internships are for, right? I’ll remind you that this was the summer of 2009…not the best time for people just graduating from college and looking for a prosperous, lucrative career. Not that I would really know what that looked like or entailed anyway. I was just following the line of what I could best guess was what I should be doing, just like I’d done my entire life. Following lines. Learning from the media how I should look following those lines, with what kind of gait, attitude, drive. Where the success lay and how it comes naturally when you follow the step-by-step process that my parents, teachers, friends, and other models showed me through the years. I’d had this image of myself ingrained in my head without having a clue what it would really be like—me dressed in a nice business suit carrying a leather messenger bag, walking to and from work amongst other nicely dressed career people, smooth sailing and right where I should be. The system and society worked swimmingly for those who followed the lines. And up to that point, I’d never lost sight of the lines.
But now I had Allen—my husband, my partner, my best friend, my new guide—someone who had no idea what he’d signed up for.
That first year of my marriage to Allen was one of the most poignant life experiences I’ve ever had. What I thought marriage was supposed to be and feel like took a drastic turn almost immediately following the wedding. In my mind, marriage was the beginning of a relationship between two people (in my case) that entailed perfect mutual love and attention, never any room for distractions or mistakes unless one of the partners was just “morally inferior.” That’s what you get from movies, especially from the ‘90s and early ‘00s. The people who cheated on their partners or hurt them emotionally or made other mistakes did so because of something “wrong” with them. They weren’t normal, healthy, emotionally sound human beings… Well, there’s the crux of the problem; something I realized only a decade later.
“Normal” people are not emotionally invulnerable, morally superior, or unlikely to make mistakes. Each of us comes with a human nature that we cannot and will not ever escape from, no matter how much we pray or meditate or lie to ourselves. Now, before anyone gets the wrong idea, Allen has never cheated on me or done any kind of irreparable damage to our marriage (obviously, we just had our twelfth anniversary, after all). But what I’m setting up here is where my incredibly naïve brain was at this time, when our fresh relationship was being tested not just by a new marriage but by the isolation of living in a new place far away from any support systems we were used to. We knew exactly zero people in the area. The closest friend or family member in our lives was literally states away. And those were just the external challenges. Inside each of us were emotions and struggles that we were trying to deal with, and we were far from learning how to argue and have difficult discussions and arguments in a healthy way. Let me tell you, this year was a true trial by fire.
But let me reign it in a bit so we can focus on how this relates to the added factor of my having autism way before knowing about it. Communication is a skill in any relationship that needs to be developed over time, but our communication was pointedly suffering at that time because I had not yet learned how to deal with the emotional turmoil I felt in a healthy way, for me or Allen. My pain was intolerable on my own, and when I felt angry or confused or frustrated or hurt, the only thing I knew to do was confront Allen about it. I wanted to pick his brain and ask questions. And when I thought I was looking for truth or answers, oftentimes what I was really looking for was justification of my victimhood through framing Allen as the one who was making mistakes and causing me to suffer. It is not healthy to work through your pain in a way that deliberately deepens your partner’s pain as well. But it was beyond me to feel and recognize that I was putting Allen through this, because all I could see was my own pain and all I could feel was my own desperation to resolve it. So, what were the actions that were causing me to feel so much pain? I’ll call these “triggers,” and the biggest one was jealousy.
I discussed jealousy at length in Chameleon, but now that I’ve learned some important lessons, I want to offer some personal truths that might help you if you’re a reader who is having similar struggles.
As we know, women on the spectrum are likely to have developed their views and beliefs about love and marriage through prevalent but not-super-authentic sources, mostly TV, movies, mass market paperback, etc. In addition, our models may have been girls whom we used to look up to because they were pretty and popular, and these seemed like the most valuable characteristics of a woman in society. It doesn’t help that this view is reinforced as we continue to see pretty women getting lots of advantages in life—the attractive boyfriends, the popularity, even work promotions. As a result, we glean a value system that is predicated upon physical attractiveness…basically a recipe for long-term depression and low self-esteem, something not unknown to millions of women around the globe, not just women on the spectrum.
I want to stress here that I believe women of all backgrounds and mental statuses experience this social reinforcement, but women on the spectrum internalize these lessons on a more foundational level. What I mean is that a woman on the spectrum will construct her identity upon this foundation in the absence of a neurotypical learning process and with an emphasis on emotional attachment that becomes enmeshed each time we identify “failures” within this attractiveness-based value system. I talked in Chameleon about seeing this social contest as a game. To me, the winners and losers around me got to be in their categories based on the “awards” they received from other people. A young woman causes a man sitting with his girlfriend to turn his head: While a neurotypical woman might interpret this as a typical young male turning his head to an attractive lady without consideration for his girlfriend, a woman on the spectrum might interpret the scene as a clear demonstration of the young lady’s superior worth to the man’s girlfriend because the award of attention has been clearly transferred; thus, the young lady walking by has earned “points” in her position in the winners category and this cannot be lowered until an equal number of negatively impactful interactions counteracts that pile of points gained.
What is fascinating to me about this “game” going on in my head is that, because of atypical social learning processes, my brain has found a way to explain these complex social situations in a way that makes sense logically to me. We all, as human beings, make patterns and systems out of chaos and large groups of data—think of the phenomena characterized by seeing a pattern if you are looking for it, even where it didn’t exist before (i.e., Hannah reads about the number 8 in her horoscope and now everywhere she goes she “sees” the number 8)—but in the case of a woman on the spectrum (at least in my personal observations), this categorization tendency gets put to use in an area that is altogether perplexing and nonsensical to her; an area where the “know-how” is not innate in her social learning processes, such as is present in the neurotypical woman’s brain.
Alright, so all this might have some biological truth to it, or it might be complete nonsense coming out of my brain. Whatever the case, the important step is what comes after you’ve realized that you have learned about the innate value of women in an entirely flawed way. How do I correct this? I thought to myself only decades after the damage had been done. I’ll tell you about my process as we get back to jealousy.
Allen had grown up with mostly female friends, preferred female company, and had remained close with many of those friends throughout his life up to this point. He’d talked about his history with them, and several of them were either girls he had tried dating or girls he had a crush on for a while. Some of them he had a bit of a romantic history with, others were simply close friends for many years. Miranda seemed to be one of his closest friends and the one about whom he’d held onto the most visible emotion. She was the last friend he’d said goodbye to, and it was visible that he would miss her. We already know the emotional turmoil that followed.
How I dealt with my emotions in this first year of marriage was completely self-destructive. I would make the pain and jealousy in my heart worse by imagining that perhaps Allen wasn’t telling me everything. Is he in love with one of his friends? Did he ever get over his crush on so-and-so? Is he lying to me or not telling me the whole truth? Is he in denial about his feelings? You get the idea. I would answer each question in my head with the most hurtful answer I could imagine and then go from there. What the hell was I thinking?
Well, I know now that this behavior was tied to my fear of being made a fool of. I hated the idea of being lied to or fooled, because I knew at this point that I was pretty naïve and that it was an easy thing to do to me. The conflict inside me was that I didn’t want to be a nosy, naggy, overly sensitive wife who couldn’t help herself from prying and couldn’t let things go or trust her husband. At the same time, I was convinced that the evidence I was seeing supported the suspicions I had about him being in love with his old friend, hiding his emotions, or being in denial about them, because how could he still not have feelings for Miranda or any one of his other female friends? These suspicions were all based on the unshakable “knowledge” I’d collected over the years which utilized the rationalization and categorization I described above. Miranda was clearly in the winner column: prettier, thinner, better personality, more history with Allen, etc. These were facts…yet Allen assured me (over and over and over again for years, the poor thing!) that he loved me and that I was the most important person in his life.
The things I did to twist the knife in my heart during this confusing time included going through my husband’s emails and other files on his computer, asking questions that would try to trap him into saying the most hurtful things I could possibly hear, and using my emotional turmoil to make him feel guilty and responsible for my emotional states. I can’t tell you how much I regret the way I handled arguments and feelings during that time. We had yet to develop an effective strategy for handling things like this…we’d only known each other for a few months!
If any of this sounds familiar to you, I am so sorry and I understand how you’re feeling. I have to tell you that no amount of reading or study is going to get you to a better place; that’s something you have to work through personally. My way may not be your way, and my way took years and years anyway. The primary reason I choose to write about my experience is for my own processing and therapy, and also to show other women that they are not alone and that they can get through it and come out the other side. Don’t let these struggles stop you in your tracks…keep trudging through, ask questions, let yourself be lost. You’ll find your way through.
The following meandering paragraphs describe my current stance and strategies for dealing with jealousy as a woman on the spectrum.
We are all animals, and like any other animal, we have instincts. The instinct to procreate is important for the survival of a species. Unfortunately, part of our evolutionary state at the moment is the intelligence to assign emotion to circumstances in time and space that may or may not stem from logic or necessity. Long story short—a partner who loves you more than anything is still susceptible to being attracted to other humans. Period.
The way I deal with this is the idea that our human ability to love one another is an intellectual process that is intentional, develops over time based on experiences with the other, and is far more valuable and special than any fleeting physical attraction that comes and goes throughout our lives. Going back to the attractive young lady passing by a man sitting with his girlfriend, my Aspie brain might interpret this action as the boyfriend thinking something like, Oh man, I messed up and I should be with her. I wish my girlfriend were that attractive. By the way, in all fairness, this could very well be what’s going on in his brain. Just like the possibility exists that he is a budding serial killer and wants to find the girl later to drag her into an alley. I’m putting forward my thoughts with the understanding that we’re talking about a relationship that is fueled by authentic love between two partners.
Now, the trick, for us Aspie brains, is to remind ourselves in this situation that the fleeting glance is essentially meaningless and does no damage to the existing relationship, if the relationship is indeed strong and healthy. It is my belief that even a man who goes so far as to cheat on his girlfriend has oftentimes simply given in to this baser instinct and may still retain love and respect for his partner. The lack of consideration and intelligence to tell love from lust is the concern that would lead me to break up with the partner in this case, but I think that really trying to understand the reasoning behind behavior like this is important to our own mental health as women. You don’t want to be the victim of a cheating partner, but you also don’t want to destroy an authentic relationship that is good for both people (or all people, if you’re polygamous) involved in the relationship.
Another strategy is to simply think about your own reactions or fantasies regarding the gender(s) you’re attracted to. Using myself as an example, when I see an attractive man in a restaurant, I look at him and appreciate his attractiveness. I might even point him out, and I will tell you that my husband would probably express a similar observation (Allen is blessed to not have a single jealous bone in his body!). So, in that moment when I’m looking at this pretty man, am I thinking, man, I should have married someone like that? Of course not! Sometimes it might help you to reverse roles to get a better idea of when you are projecting those false lessons we talked about earlier.
Another hiccup that women might face in this situation, and which might have just occurred to you as you read about reversing the roles, is that we’ve been trained throughout our lives that men are much more susceptible to physical attraction than women. We see this all the time in the TV shows where you’ve got a beautiful woman married to an unattractive but funny man. The idea you might have processed from examples like this one is that women are not to care what their man looks like. It’s our tendency to see a man for what he is and not what he looks like, whereas men simply can’t help needing an attractive woman and could never fall in love with a woman who doesn’t have a certain level of attractiveness, usually commensurate with his own. I task you right here and now to begin the process of tearing down this belief in your mind.
Since their inception, film and TV has been run and written mostly by men, and the result is that a lot of what we see on the big screen is constructed for the viewing pleasure of men, primarily. It’s simply a byproduct of scripts and movies being written and directed by men. I don’t believe it’s always an intentional and universal chauvinist movement being fueled by TV and movie studio executives. A lot of the time these creative people don’t even realize what’s going on, as demonstrated by Geena Davis and her work with the Institute on Gender in Media (I highly recommend Tom Donahue’s film This Changes Everything for more).
I can say with certainty that my feelings of jealousy and the false belief system surrounding what being married should mean was the fuel that fired most of the horrible arguments I had with my husband in our first year of marriage. And most of what I believed about what a marriage should be stemmed from those false lessons I’d learned about how a “good” relationship meant that one person should be so in love with the other person(s) that they see no one else, cannot be attracted to anyone else, and that if this occurred, it meant that partner was being untrue or the relationship was futile. Think about all those nice kids’ movies where the ending is “happily ever after” and we assume that the relationship is never going to be different from the perfect state it is in on the wedding day.
We know that women on the spectrum, and people on the spectrum in general, mature more slowly than neurotypicals emotionally. I think this also means that women on the spectrum are challenged to “unlearn” many self-destructive and hurtful lessons that were learned based on fantasy and fiction.
Now, the most important thing I’ve learned to help deal with jealousy is this: I am responsible for my own happiness, and it’s not anyone else’s job to make me “happy.” I have to be sufficient on my own in that regard. I very much believe that it is incredibly unhealthy to depend upon another person for your emotional well-being. I think that once you learn to be self-sufficient emotionally, you will be heading in the right direction toward being amazingly strong and capable. I understand that women on the spectrum may need help in certain areas to function in society, and that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the long, hard road toward creating who you want to be, fulfillment, and peace. Happy isn’t really the right word, but it’s used all the time to mean a whole group of feelings. I have found that the word “peace” comes much closer to the feeling I chase all the time, and I’ve been pretty successful with it. No one is “happy” 24/7 after all!
I hope this has helped you in some way. I’d love to get some feedback in the comments. Next post I want to talk about the other major struggle in the beginning of my marriage: learning how to argue and discuss difficult things in a healthy and constructive way.
Thanks for reading, as always. =)