NYNM Chapter 7, Part 1: Emotions and Theory of Mind

So… I’ve put this chapter off for a long time, as is apparent. In fact, it was December when I last posted a chapter for Not Your Neurotypical Marriage. I’ve been busy, certainly, but a part of me was also not super excited about revisiting a subject that can be quite painful when I think about some of the more intense arguments and experiences I’ve had with my husband over the past 13 years. (Our anniversary was in May!) I’ve also decided that in order to make this content more digestible, I will be breaking it down into chunks that will deal with different aspects of how I experienced disagreements with my partner and how ASD played a part in those experiences. As always, I want to emphasize that I’m speaking for me and only me, but I’ve chosen to share these things in the hopes that it helps a few people out there feel a little less alone and lost when things get tough. Even if you’re not a woman on the spectrum who is married to a neurotypical, it is my hope that anyone who comes across this information might benefit from a little more awareness of how a marriage like this is both similar and different with the additional component of ASD. How each and every individual deals with this stuff is going to be different depending on their experiences in life up to that point, and this is just how I’ve seen myself through. On a side note, we never went to marriage counseling or anything like that; plus, during that first intense year of marriage, we were isolated and without any support systems whatsoever. I believe wholeheartedly that had we had more of a support system, with family and friends nearby, we would have gotten through those tough months a lot more smoothly, and I encourage you, if you find yourself in a similar situation, to reach out to those in your life whom you love and trust, as most of the time these people are waiting and willing to help you.

With that being said, the first aspect of this topic I’d like to write about is how theory of mind can complicate an argument between a neurodivergent partner and a neurotypical partner.

Theory of Mind

According to Charlotte Ruhl, who wrote an article for SimplyPsychology.org in August of 2020, theory of mind is “the ability to attribute mental states to ourselves and others, serving as one of the foundational elements for social interaction.”

We hear a lot that “people with autism don’t have empathy,” but what’s really going on, I believe, has more to do with failing to pick up on cues that tell us someone else in the room is upset. It’s also true, for me personally, that not having any personal experience that relates to someone else’s unfortunate circumstances hinders my ability to truly empathize with that person. It’s not about liking or not liking him/her/them, it’s about not being able to feel the emotional impact of their experience because I have nothing to go by. By a stretch, I could try to “put myself in their shoes,” but I’ve found this tactic ineffective. It simply conjures up something akin to feeling for a character in a movie, and my friend is not a movie character. I care about my friends, and I don’t want them to feel bad. This wouldn’t translate if I did not put effort into saying and doing things that I know will tell the person I care about them and that I wish they weren’t in pain, even though it’s effortful and unnatural for me. I can understand that someone is hurting, and I see and understand body language and social cues pretty well. Actually, it’s the language and things people say that confuse me more than anything else in social situations. But there are other areas where what we feel as people on the spectrum and what is actually happening can also turn out to be at odds after the fact, if we ever find out at all. And that’s where theory of mind comes into play in the biggest way for me.

What I’m talking about here is how I ascribe emotions to other people based on my own experience. I do it so often, I can barely tell until later when someone tells me, usually my husband. I might assume he is upset because I’m upset, or irritated because I’m irritated. I also give more weight to words while taking them literally than I do to body language, perhaps because it’s just easier for my brain that way. We all have brains that are hardwired to get from point A to point B in the simplest way possible, and we ascribe labels and group things up in order to make that easier. The way my brain does it is to assume that if my husband is acting a certain way but insists verbally that he is feeling differently, I will dismiss the body language and literally take his word for it. Have you ever argued with your significant other, stating, “I can’t read your mind, you have to communicate!” We went on this merry-go-‘round for years before learning how to more effectively communicate. It goes both ways, and it’s important that both parties assume responsibility, stop playing the blame game, and work on always saying what you mean without passive aggressive comments and gestures, as this only feeds the flames.

Emotions Are Often Irrational

The second characteristic of ineffective and destructive arguments is that we don’t understand that emotions are often irrational. Have you ever fought and said horrible, mean things to someone you love only to later realize you didn’t mean any of it? Why did you say those things in the first place? Because you were speaking from your heart…which was in pain. A lot of us—me, especially—have to address a tendency to start firing off insults when we feel vulnerable and defensive. There is a maelstrom of pride and pain that drives me over the edge and into territory where I want to hurt my partner verbally because of the anger I feel. This anger breeds resentment, and the conviction in the heat of the moment is that it’s his fault for bringing me to that place. On top of that, many times our most heated arguments started from the dumbest, most unimportant disagreements imaginable. Why did we end up yelling at each other over a pair of shoes on the floor? Well, as I would come to realize later, this situation usually comes about because one or both parties chose to bottle up emotions until they were ready to explode. This might sound familiar to you!

If there is one point I want to get through in this chapter, it’s this: Do not invalidate your emotions and hope that they will go away—because they won’t. I did this so, so often in the early years of our marriage.

Once I became mature enough to understand that I’d picked up on lessons that did not hold water in real life, I wanted to change that and be more aware of when I was following belief systems and applying them to the people I loved. This was way before an ASD diagnosis, but all the same I knew I’d held onto beliefs about men that I was applying unfairly to the man I loved, and who loved me. The most intense pain for me was inflicted when I would interpret a behavior or comment in a way that reflected the worst-case scenario and all the connotations that went with it. It would snowball in my brain until I would end up in the exact same place—I was addicted to a particular emotional cycle that fed itself over and over based on certain triggers. Here is an example:

We were at the beach one day and I noticed him look for a few seconds at a young woman lying in the sun. She was thin, tan, and quite attractive. It gutted me. In a matter of seconds, I’d felt the familiar pain that comes along with all the thoughts that were already in place just waiting to be triggered: I’m not as hot as her; he probably wishes he could sleep with her; he wishes I could look like that; he feels trapped in our marriage; he’s not attracted to me; I’m ugly.

All of this without having exchanged a single word with my husband.

Now, over time, I tried to combat these feelings and other hurtful feelings in different situations that I’d decided weren’t warranted. I learned about neuroplasticity and how I was addicted to those cycles of hurt, and I wanted to break them. Nothing wrong with that in and of itself, but the way I went about it was to ignore and try to dismiss the emotions I felt—that were still quite strong—only to have them explode outward in the most horrible ways whenever my husband and I got into a fight about something. I was quite skilled at circling things back to the heart of that emotional addiction in a way that triggered the most painful emotions imaginable, almost like it was my intent! The intensity was magnified by my persistent bottling and pushing down and avoiding. So my point is this: When you feel sad, angry, confused, etc., know that whatever the reason for those emotions, they are valid, and you have every right to talk to someone about it, preferably someone you trust and love. But if you don’t have someone close, talk to a therapist or other professional with experience talking to people on the spectrum. Don’t ever beat yourself up or tell yourself that your feelings are stupid or “wrong.” This doesn’t help or change anything for the better, especially a relationship.