A huge response to Empathy: “Asperger’s” Style.
Of course, I was flattered to get so many positive responses to my latest blog, Empathy: “Asperger’s” Style, especially the praises such as:
- “ ‘wow’ thank you! that post felt like a tall glass of water after 10 years in a drought.”
- “Expecting someday you will be nominated for a Nobel Peace prize.”
I want you to know that I hear and accept the praise. I couldn’t have written this blog or any of my books without the help of those of you living this life with an adult on the Autism Spectrum. However, I also know that for some inexplicable reason I captured the essence of Empathy Dysfunction (EmD), and that discovery has made all of the difference for many of you.
But after getting my ego out of the way, and reading some more responses, I realize that there is something greater going on here among my readers. There is a theme, a deeper meaning — something greater than the sum of the parts, if you know what I mean. I had to clear my ingratiating self-absorption out of the way and allow my empathy to expand, to grasp the essence of what my readers are trying to tell me.
Empathy is to see and be seen.
When I read the response from Diana (see next section), I had a flash of insight — at the same time that I saw the face of Hugh Jackman. The pieces of the deeper meaning started to fall into place.
Last year (2018) I read this Twitter post from Jackman, and it brought tears to my eyes, then and now. It perfectly represents the essence of empathy, as the actor expresses love for his wife on their anniversary:
“I believe in life we need to see and truly be seen by the most important people in our lives. Deb, from day one, we had that. 22 years later . . . it only gets deeper.”
Jackman’s sweet dedication to his wife shows that he has empathy. At the risk of chopping up the eloquence of his message, let me analyze a bit. Jackman’s Tweet is empathy in action. He recognizes it as a reciprocal process of “to see and truly be seen.”
Further, Jackman states that, “I believe in life we need. . .” this process I call empathy. Without it we suffer, as do many Neuro-Typicals (NTs) in relationship with an adult on the Autism Spectrum. This need is not foolish or superficial by the way, but a deep-down human need that scientists have recognized for decades.
Jackman goes on to acknowledge that this seeing (empathy), and his love for his wife, “. . . only gets deeper over time.” In other words, empathy (to see and be seen) fosters love, which is a dynamic, ever changing process of social exchange — that has the capacity to grow deeper over time.
Love is not a noun.
When I read Diana’s response, it was clear as crystal. What my readers felt when they read my blog is incredible relief — and pain. They felt seen for the first time about what it’s like to live without empathy in their most precious relationships. And they felt sadness that they will never find this type of connection with their ASD loved one. From Diana:
“This struggle to convey all that empathy is seems similar to my struggle to define ‘relationship,’ ‘healthy relationship,’ and ‘relationship repair’ to my husband. I just can’t get it across. I am left believing that we are like 2 species with different needs.”
Instinctively I responded to Diana’s comment on the blog page:
“Hi Diana. The problem with explaining “relationship” is inherent in the word. It’s the same with “love.” These two words are what linguists call nominalizations, or taking an active, process word and turning it into a noun. Better words are “relating” and “loving.” “Aspies” do not understand nominalizations as we do. We automatically see “relationship repair” as an alive and ongoing process. The same with “love,” . . . a never-ending process of give and take and growing deeper into each other. As long as “Aspies” see dynamic processes as merely nouns, they will fail to pick up the pieces of a broken moment or a broken relationship.”
Another way to look at this is that love without empathy feels empty to NTs. The love might be in the heart of your “Aspie,” but they are holding onto it as if it is a thing, or a possession, or a noun with nothing attached. The “Aspie” doesn’t know that love is not a thing at all, but an ongoing, ever-changing gift-giving experience.
Empathy is a super-power.
So how do we NTs survive in these relationships without true empathy? I hope that you survive by understanding your “Aspie” better, for the kind of love they know, even if it is a nominalization. I hope you take back your life and never settle for less than you deserve and know to be true. I hope you come to accept that your incredible super-power is your empathy and that it is a gift you give to your “Aspie,” even if they cannot give it back.
I think of empathy akin to what physicists call “Chaos Theory.” Like “Chaos Theory,” empathy has a pattern. It is logical. There are rules that are clearly definable to those of us with empathy. Yet — because empathy is a whole, where every small piece represents the whole — you just never know when or where it will emerge — but emerge it will when the right elements come into place.
(Please let me know what you think of this short blog in response to my last blog, Empathy: “Asperger’s” Style. I’d really like to hear from you.)
23 Replies to “Empathy is a Super-Power”
When you say ‘belief’, empathy sounds like religion. Believing in it doesn’t make it true. It might help but it won’t change the autistic person because their personality is fixed.
What Hugh says emphasises what we partners of aspies will never have. We can pretend or believe (ie magic thinking) but can not change their feelings.
Do aspies have a problem with NTs in their marriages? Do they also feel something missing? I’ll ask my husband. He’s presently abroad and not communicating with me as usual because tired, busy, doing something else. I’m just not on his mind. After 22 years he says he’s fond of me. I am stuck with that. Anyone else in my situation?
It was refreshing to hear the aspie’s observation in the former blog.
Hi Sue. Perhaps Jackman’s use of the word “believe” is as close as he could come to defining empathy, since he was speaking from the heart and not as an academic or clinician. As I have so often written, empathy is a complex system.
Your second question is easier to explain though. Yes, our “Aspies” feel loss, but it is singly about them. They want you to stop arguing with them. They want you to be nicer. They want you to trust them and let them have their way. They never ask themselves why we might be reluctant. If you have empathy, you search for your part in the conundrum. And you seek a way to make it work for both people.
Without empathy as Dr Kathy says we suffer- on reading that I added to myself that we also “wither” over time – like something withering on a vine- from lack of nurture and love and reciprocity, if we don’t care for and nurture ourselves we may succumb to despair. I also read Hugh Jackman’s quote – beautifully said for all those who experience it, at the same time it felt like I was punched in the heart and felt overcome by sorrow for something I’ll never experience.
“…….They want you to stop arguing with them. They want you to be nicer. They want you to trust them and let them have their way…..” . To me Dr Kathy sums it all up right there- they want and can only see things their way, it’s all about them, so because we care we adjust then adjust some more, adapt, turn ourselves inside out and upside down earnestly seeking relationship , to understand them and to be seen -UNTIL the “head” knowledge gets to the “heart” or wherever it sinks in to truly accept that there will be NO real relationship and I will NOT ever be seen. 42 years of marriage next week I have finally accepted it and will stop trying for things that cannot happen and it feels more bearable.
Your poignant comment is every bit as eloquent as Jackman’s. What a gift you are to those you love.
Maggie, I love your word “wither!” It is perfect! Starving is what I often feel like..I’m starving for connection, and empathy, and it will never be. We reached 50 years in June, but I couldn’t really celebrate, and thankfully no family pressured me to celebrate. There’s nothing to celebrate, except finding out that I’m not crazy, and that he has Aspergers.
Wither and eventually die…you are spot-on, Maggie. It slowly destroys our joy, peace and self worth. Is it really best for us to stay?
Maggie I could have written this myself. Married 43yrs & still feel sad for something I will never have, a true connection with someone who ‘sees’ me. It is always so one sided, what I want or need never comes into it, if my husband wants to do it, it’s done if not nothing can persuade him, so I put up or shut up, if I try to ask it just makes everything worse, never worth it. Don’t know what I would do without my lovely children & grandkids.
Two years late on reading this. My Asperger husband of 28 years left me in the middle of the pandemic. I only figured out he was on the spectrum at the 26th year. He hated that I figured it out, that my grown daughters agreed with me, but would never admit to it. I am devastated and don’t know why. I should be thankful, the constant work is over, but I am grieving.
I wonder if you have found support groups
Thank you for another insightful post about empathy. I read the last one aloud to my partner hoping it would sink in…I never know whether it does or not….but I keep trying!
I love the tweet you shared – to see and be seen – explains it exactly…which is why I often feel invisible and when I say this he looks at me baffled, and then I feel so sorry for him- and so it goes.
But at the end of the day what happens to us who have an overactive empathy gland?! It can feel as though my-self, the essence of me is disappearing and being slowly starved.
I have enjoyed reading your website and posts, they help me make sense of what’s happening.
Yes Henrietta. The loss of self is intensely painful. I dreamed I was being suffocated by my “Aspie” spouse the night we decided to get married. Many years later, it was true. He had broken me and I was in the fight of my life. There was no website then. There were no well trained psychologists to help me. There were no books to read. And no one believed me. But here I am, healthy and whole, changed but powerful. We can do it.
I lost myself completely in my relationship with an aspie. It took me years before I finally realized that I would never receive what I needed – empathy, understanding and an bility to really see ME. I tried so incredibly hard to survive in this relationship. I was always anxious and lonely. I taxed my immune system to the point that I developed leukemia. I almost died but here I am, still. However, our relationship did not survive. I feel abandoned. I am grieving what I thought I had as well as what I realized I did not have – a reciprocal relationship, one in which we could share our emotions.
I am not healing physically, emoo and spiritually. I still love him.
I meant to say I am NOW healing (instead of I am not healing)
it can be really hard and painful at times when you really feel ignored and disenfranchised from them, like your needs or emotional upsets aren’t important. You know intellectually they can’t help it, but emotionally is a whole other thing.
Hi Lorraine. The pain is the normal reaction to empathy dysfunction (EmD). When a narcissist begins the process of scaling you down to size, and destroying your sanity, they enjoy it. On the other hand, there is no goal for the “Aspie” because they just lack empathy, period. As Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen indicates, “Aspies” may have zero degrees of empathy, but it is zero-positive. In some ways it makes it more devastating to deal with the inconsistencies of “Aspies” because they mean no harm, but do harmful things. In order to deal with these inconsistencies, you must remain firm in your conviction that you are sound of mind, and that you know the truth.
I hadn’t seen Hugh Jackman’s phrase “to see and truly be seen” before but it underlies, to me anyway, your empowering view there Kathy, that is to say at least the NT person can focus on the first half of that phrase.
The missing bit is the second half of the equation, to “be seen” for this is where the Aspergic person cannot reciprocate and from my experience it is not that they ignore one but that they cannot ever see other people as a significant other, i.e. a singular individual with whom they relate on a 1:1 basis.
So if we still spoke Early Modern English the Aspergic person would not be able to say “Thou” or a French Aspergic person close friend would have difficulty using “Tu”.
It is not that they see the person they are in a relationship with as a member of “You” or “Vous”, i.e. a collective of others they know but instead see you as brought fully within their life with no existence separate from them but defined only in terms of a role in realationship to their Self, i.e. Brother, Mother, Child, Son, Wife, Subordinate etc.
So one as an individual is invisible to the Aspergic person and the question of empathy towards one make sense at all. It would be a kind of self-love and that is not what they are into by virtue of being Aspergic, as opposed to a narcissist.
This is what I mean by one-way empathy. Without reciprocity there is no real empathy. Most people on the Spectrum eventually come to accept that they have no empathy. Because they have a good heart, they try to work around it but it is still a huge loss for them in their relationships. If the “Aspie” goes down the narcissistic path though, life with them can be unbearable.
Aspergic people can behave towards an NT person in what they perceive is an empathetic manner, with a good heart. Likewise an NT person can behave towards an Aspergic person as if they are an Aspergic person.
In both ways the behaviors are dysfunctional.
So when an Aspergic person tramples all over the boundaries of others the are blind to the other as having boundaries. In many ways they are like the Mr Magoo cartoon character from the 1960s and 70s.
For an NT person to do the same they have to mimic being a narcissist which is uncomfortable for the NT person, if they are not one. For the Aspergic person it is also very uncomfortable for them because they have very wide boundaries themselves and hate them being invaded.
When an NT person out of empathy perceives the need for an Aspergic person to have emotional support part of that support will entail providing a ‘safe space’, to use the current terminology, and so respect the Aspie’s boundaries. However when an Aspergic person wants to offer their support they seem to feel the need to move in and dominate without asking the person if that is what they want or if it would help, solving that person’s problems for them by telling the person what to do do. They exhibit a patronizing paternalism and a bully towards others related to that person.
Whereas an NT person faking Aspergic behaviors will, or should, feel uncomfortable ignoring their empathy towards the Aspergic need for space my feeling is that an Aspergic person deploying *their* desire to feel useful as an ersatz empathy actually feels very comfortable, and puzzled if the NT person is quick enough to nip the interference in the bud.
I have been in a relationship with a non diagnosed man with ASD for almost 20 years. About 5 years ago a therapist treating me for depression pointed me to the possibility of ASD to explain much of the relationship difficulties. It was a blinding AHa! moment for me, which lifted the depression and isolation I had been feeling. However, since then I have tried to ‘work on myself’ through the unhealthy over dependence on empathy for my partner. Too much giving in my part. I have recently decided I need to look after my own needs first. Seeing John’s post has been the first time I have heard my reality described in this way. My partner has a good heart but never ‘gets me’, feels I don’t care about him although I make too many compromises, such as respecting his boundaries while he tramples all over mine. He dominates me in an effort to inappropriately ‘help’. This dynamic plays out repeatedly and we are both incredibly frustrated. Finally last spring I came to recognize it is harmful for me to continue doing this behaviour, hoping for things to change. This blog has been very helpful in pinpointing exactly what my relationship feels like. A turning point for me. Thank you. Now I need to figure out where to go from here.
Mr magoo I have thought this before so your referencing him made me laugh . I totally agree that my aspie soon to be ex husband causes untold hurt harm and destruction all the time seemingly oblivious to the carnage left behind him just like Magoo . It is worse though because Mr magoo had sight problems so could not see all the mess he caused Aspies are totally unaware of what damage they cause and If you address it with them they look at you with incredulity. My ex simply does not have the capacity but then makes out that I’m the fool. Rolls his eyes turns it around .. so i am ignored my needs unmet my feelings i acknowledged – like i am a nothing . They simply do not get it .They don’t get that they don’t get it either . The real kicker is they are entirely unaccountable because they don’t get it . I do feel there shouid be a partners of Aspies rule book / survival guide. because it is a hostile place to be as an NT . I feel like a punch bag who can say nothing about my feelings because it is incidental and pointless I am not heard or seen or respected . I had no idea how insidious this disorder is and how the partners of those with ASD are impacted ( i think more so than those with ASD themselves almost because easier to be like Mr magoo and be totally unaware )At times since feel i might as well have autism because i live with its consequences . Nobody understands everybody thinks he is a lovely man . He is but there is a void a coldness a robotic ness . There is a sweet side but there is a gritty entitled side that wants his own way ( the right way ) all the time . It’s almost like a toddler demanding his own way though my ex will withdraw and seeth . It’s a toxic thing and he is a man with a family not a family man . He has no real interest in sharing anything – his time / thoughts / conversation / interests / hobbies . Why marry me – i think to be same as his friends . I think he always cherry picked the bits he wanted and the rest he just ignores – but having a family and a relationship is the good bits and the tricky bits. So I love and resent him now . He left because he felt no connection !! seriously even that was attributed as my fault – not his being ASD . His brother / nephews all formally diagnosed now – my ex refuses to consider he is – but it is very clear to me and once you know it all makes sense . It explains his behaviours but does not excuse it . They should come with a health warning ⚠️ . I have now been ghosted from my own life .He parents by texts swoops in re kids as and when suits him . Chooses the nice bits like birthdays . Demands his wants met re the kids at “ family “ times … the same family he has walked out on . One of my sons is in the spectrum and sees the world through the same lens – i try for his sake in the future to highlight the need for communicating and listening and not to self prioritise – he is though quick to anger and blame – all too familiar so I do fear there is more of all this in my future – but at least not in my life partner as I will be on my own now and in preference to being belittled and squashed by all that self absorption even if not intentional the impact is the same . Thank you for this space to vent – nobody understands it’s absolutely soul destroying.
Life without empathy and reciprocity, being talked at instead of “with” is sooo painful. Even sadder is that the world doesn’t seem to understand how painful life without empathy is. If I could get some empathy from those outside, it might help some days, just to be able to talk about it!
An idea for another book…how the world needs to support partners of Aspergers, Dr Kathy! 😉
The lack of empathy from the outside world is almost as painful as the ASD lack of empathy. For years I have felt it impossible to explain to anyone, even therapists, what I am going through. A couple of years ago , during one of many crises, I finally convinced my partner to go with me to see a therapist. Me praying for some kind of external confirmation of my experience, as he has a long history consistent with ASD. After spending an hour with my partner in conversation, therapist was positively dismissive of my suggestion of an Asperger diagnosis. Crushing for me as now my partner maintains he does not have it. I basically have decided I need to take care of myself and live separately from him.
Is there any way to receive notifications that others have responded or posted on blog post that we have? I’ve seen it on other blogs.
Thanks for the tip Louise. It should be fixed now so that you can follow blog posts. You can follow private event posts too if you are a member of ASPERGER SYNDROME & RELATIONSHIPS (www.asd-ntrelationships.com).