How to Leave the Anger Behind in NeuroDivergent Relationships.
Where does the anger come from?
The answer to this question is complex. I have heard from both sides of the NeuroDivergent equation and 90 percent of the time anger is expressed. NeuroTypicals (NTs) and NeuroDiverse individuals (Autists) both complain bitterly that they are not only “not understood,” but they feel disrespected, maligned, even abused. Some go so far as to tell me that they “can’t take it anymore.” Others resign themselves to a life of loveless, damaged relationships — or loneliness.
I felt the same in my life with “Aspies.” My mother, my former husband and my grown adopted daughter are all on the Autism Spectrum — and they all made me feel worthless, neglected, hopeless — and yes, angry. I have since learned that they felt the same about me. Of course, I was shocked since I consider myself a caring, empathic, nurturing, and kind person (as do many others). How on earth did this happen?
None of the therapists I consulted could help me. None of the books I read, nor the research I explored could explain it. As a result of my own suffering, I dedicated my professional life to digging into this conundrum. There had to be answers beyond the current psychological paradigms. While I can’t explain everything I have learned from my research in this short blog, I want to provide you with a little light on the subject.
Those of us in NeuroDivergent relationships have been looking for the answers in the wrong places. Instead of trying harder to explain yourself — instead of blaming the other person for not “getting it” — instead of taking it all so personally — the question needs to be “How does it make perfect sense that they are behaving this way?” Once we get it that NTs and Autists use very different “operating systems” we can begin to unravel the mysteries of our communication problems.
For sure I know what won’t work. Demanding that the other person change is a losing proposition. Dragging your NeuroDiverse or NeuroTypical family member to therapy so that the psychologist can fix them won’t help. Running away from the problem is a temporary fix, but you are left with a nagging feeling that you didn’t finish a life lesson. Castigating yourself for being a terrible, horrible person keeps you a victim.
What works? I’ll explain more here in this blog and in my upcoming book, “Empathy is More than Words.” But in a nutshell, the answer requires three things.
- Stop the blame. Anger is your response to the conundrum, not the answer. They can’t fix your anger. Only you can do that.
- As Jesus said, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Forgive yourself too. All of those mistakes we are making is part of the journey of enlightenment here on Planet Earth.
- Be open to new thoughts. Expand your paradigm. There might just be a new way to look at things that your “difficult” NT or NeuroDiverse loved one is confronting you with through their inconceivable behavior.
When worlds collide, we are given an opportunity to step up to what I call Radiant Empathy. I know it is a painful collision to live in a NeuroDivergent relationship, but this collision of NeuroDiverse and NeuroTypical thinking is an opportunity to see life in a new way. With Radiant Empathy you can use this experience to rise to a new level of love and enlightenment.
Last fall (2021) I got an email from Darlene, a woman identifying herself as autistic, and who wanted to set me straight. She began her email with these words:
“Hi Kathy! Do you know what ableism is? It’s a form of discrimination or hatred against disabled people. Also known as what you have deticated [sic] your one and only very precious life to doing.”
Over the years that I have published on the topic of NeuroDivergent relationships (ASD/NT relationships), I have occasionally been scolded by an Autist who threatens to “cancel” me for daring to speak out about the problems inherent in these relationships. They justify their angry messages on the grounds that I am a biased “ableist,” and hateful, and spreading malicious lies about those on the Autism Spectrum. For example, Darlene was so enraged that she threatened to “. . .be watching. . .” me to make sure I changed. She continued in her email:
“My hyperfixation on justice is no joke so please take my advice and do not treat it like one. We are not hell bent on destroying you. We are hell bent on destroying your hate and ignorance, the very thing that is holding you back and destroying YOU. You have the opportunity to become a better person. Take it. Now. Use that empathy that you claim to have so much of and reflect on the harm you have caused. The truth will be screamed so loud that it will ring in your ears for eternity. That is a promise.”
I am not sure when I first heard the term “ableist” applied to NeuroTypicals (NTs) such as myself, and I don’t want to dismiss Darlene’s threats as just another distressed individual who needs to vent. Yes, she does need to vent and who better to be angry with than a psychologist who gets it? Though extreme and melodramatic, there is some truth to her comment, just as there is validity to her pain.
Of course, it is not true that I hate disabled people. Nor do the NTs who come to me for help resolving problems with their autistic loved ones. Likewise, my NeuroDiverse (ASD) clients do not hate their NeuroTypical family members. Both are searching for answers to their interpersonal distress. They can’t quite put their finger on the problem but they rightly assume it has something to do with the way they are interacting with each other.
This is not to say that my clients are not angry with each other. Often therapy is explosive during our first few sessions. The blame and shame are tossed around as each party demands to be heard. This might be the “ableism” phase that Darlene is stuck with. For example, NTs frequently complain that their ASD loved one fails to “listen,” or fails to “connect,” or is “rude” and “self-absorbed.” Likewise, the NeuroDiverse partner complains that their NT loved one is “never happy” with them, or “is always finding fault” with them, or simply
“talks too much.”
I agree with Darlene that if Autists and NeuroTypicals stop here, then they will both be discriminating unfairly against the other person. Can you see the black and white thinking in the complaints both have about the other? Can you see how this thinking lends itself to “ableism”? That is, at this stage of distress each party is clinging to the belief that “if you are not like me, you are wrong or bad.”
The problem with “ableism” is that it does not serve anyone of course. Darlene’s rage is due to a mistake she is making when she steps into the fray and blames. She feels blamed so she attacks back. How does it resolve anything for her to threaten me? Even though retribution is very typical of human beings, let’s see if we can’t do better for our NeuroDivergent relationships.
It is not easy to release oneself from the angry phase. I don’t necessarily think that anger is bad either. Neither is grief. These intense feelings are pretty normal in NeuroDivergent relationships, or whenever we are confronted with a reality we don’t like or don’t want. These feelings aren’t meant as the answer, but as a signal that a paradigm shift is needed.
Darlene is still stuck in her anger and it has grown to rage. She takes no responsibility for her own behavior, but instead seeks to punish for the wrong she has suffered. She and apparently some others she references, believe that their mission in life is to “cancel” me for shining a spot light on these very tough NeuroDivergent relationships. That spotlight is not meant to blame or shame but to enlighten.
Like I said, it is not easy to step out of the anger unless you take full responsibility for your life and all of the distress in it. This doesn’t mean that others have not harmed you, but being grief stricken or enraged over it — and seeking “justice” — just leaves you stuck in your emotions and feeling worse every day. Taking full responsibility for your life means to seek to understand yourself in relation to others. It means to seek to understand others in relation to yourself. This interactive process is what I call empathy.
Empathy within the context of what I call the Empathy Triad is part of an interactive process of reading the context of the situation between people and discussing the vital aspects of the context. The Empathy Triad (Empathy, Context, and Conversation) is something in the moment that creates instant recognition, understanding, affirmation and connection.
The first step toward freeing yourself from the anger and grief is to step out of your judgement of the other person or yourself. Be the Analyst. The analyst is looking at the facts or the science, devoid of emotion. If you use this objective approach, you might be able to understand the relationship better. You may be able to see the other person for who they are, instead of how they make you feel.
General Systems Theory helped me recognize something extraordinary going on in NeuroDivergent relationships. What General Systems Theory proposes is that solutions to problems exist where two different systems connect or collide. Thus, I started looking at the collisions between NeuroDiverse and NeuroTypical people. It’s not a matter of who is right or wrong. It is a matter of having two diverging mental operating systems.
This discovery has made it so much easier to help my ND couples and families get past their distress with each other. I realized that NTs use the Empathy Triad to connect with their loved ones, while Autists use words/topics. I explain more about this in my new book, “Empathy is More Than Words,” but let me give a little more explanation now.
Another way to look at this connecting/colliding mix up is that NTs are interactional, meaning that their communication style is to connect with the other person, person to person — before they discuss a topic. While Autists are transactional, meaning that they listen for the words or topic first, not necessarily to the context of the person who is speaking.
Without exception when I explain this difference to Autists and NTs, they both agree. They get it and the recrimination stops. For the first time they understand that neither of them intends to cause harm, even though it feels disrespectful. NTs feel disrespected because they want their ASD loved one to acknowledge and affirm them before proceeding to a topic of conversation. NeuroDiverse individuals feel confused and disrespected by the myriad ways the NT is prompting them to listen — to them — when the Autist is listening — to the words.
Darlene doesn’t know she’s stuck, but she has to know she is filled with anger about her situation — something she blames upon me. You don’t have to be stuck like this. You have at least one tool now to help you take back your life. Use your inner Analyst and General Systems Theory to look for the logical mix-ups that occur when systems collide. Turn these collisions into connections. Below is an excerpt from my new book, showing how a NeuroDivergent couple navigated an Interactional/Transactional rough spot — allowing their love to grow exponentially.
One day, when Jez was feeling particularly low, her ASD spouse Redding seemed not to notice, even though she was quietly crying.
“Hey, Jez. Should I order our airline tickets to visit your parents this Christmas? We should do it soon to get the best deal.” Redding was proud of himself for thinking ahead about something important to Jez.
Instantly tears spilled over Jez’ eyelids and down her cheeks. Redding looked puzzled. Though she felt almost too choked up to speak Jez said, “I just don’t know if we will be together for Christmas.”
True to EmD-0 [Transactional or Autistic] form, Redding fastened on the wrong part of the interchange when he said, “Oh – um – well then we can buy refundable tickets.” Again, he beamed that he had come up with a sound solution to the problem of buying tickets, if not the deteriorating relationship. He totally ignored the tears or their meaning to Jez.
Jez was ready for him this time. She could have responded in typical NT hurt or outrage. She could have complained that all he thinks about is money or his convenience. But no — Jez took a deep breath – reminded herself that her husband does love her – and then she laughed – a deep full-hearted laugh. “Oh Redding. That is so like you.”
Redding grinned back. “What?” he said, not truly understanding the joke.
“Well, dear one,” she smirked. “I was speaking about the fact that our marriage is dangling by a thread and I actually wanted some encouragement from you — that maybe you believed of course we would still be together at Christmas. But instead, you went for the lowest common denominator.”
Redding was still smiling but Jez could see he was not totally getting it. “Redding, I think it’s a hoot that your way of responding to my tears and heartache is to crack a joke about getting refundable tickets. I know you didn’t mean it as a joke, but it’s the funniest thing I’ve heard from you in months. Thanks for being so darned cute!”
Transactional people do not use the Empathy Triad. Yes, I know this will make Darlene angry again, but it is true and once you face it, you have alternatives. Waiting for a transactional person like Redding to speak to Jez’ feelings first and the topic second is not going to work. Feeling badly that he gets it backwards for the NT will not work. For the Autist to become offended when his offer of refundable airline tickets is rejected, is a waste of time too. This couple discovered the value of understanding each other’s system, but they took it one step further — to what I call Radiant Empathy.
Becoming what I call a Radiant Empathy Angel is a worthy goal for all of us even if we are not enmeshed in a NeuroDivergent Relationship. There is a lot wrapped up in this concept but in a nutshell, it encompasses forgiveness and acceptance of the other and oneself.
Nobel Peace Prize recipient, Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa represents the Radiant Empathy Angel. Instead of fighting for “justice” as Darlene suggests, where there are winners and losers, he preached for “restorative justice.” Restorative justice is a nonviolent way
of bringing people together to resolve the problems they both created because of a lack of understanding, skill, and forgiveness. This creates a win-win solution.
One of my favorite quotes by Tutu sums it up for me.
“God created us for fellowship. God created us so that we should form the human family, existing together because we were made for each other. We are not made for an exclusive self-sufficiency but for interdependence, and we break that law at our peril.”
What’s your next step?
People like Darlene have every right to feel angry about the wrongs they have suffered. They are also entitled to their opinion. But I am not sure those rights, emotions, and opinions help restore damaged relationships. Instead of blame or grief, recognize that your worlds have just collided. Use the power of analytical observation and accept that you are at an impasse that is logical, if confusing.
Letting go of anger and recrimination is powerful and freeing. Being able to laugh at your loved one’s transactional interpretation of reality — and still know that he cares about you — feels great. Knowing that your interactional loved one seeks a type of empathic meaning that escapes you, doesn’t mean you failed. Forgive yourself for being autistic and laugh with her about your empathic missteps.
Not all of us will reach the level of Radiant Empathy Angel, such as Desmond Tutu. Or if we do achieve a moment of radiance, it may slip away again. Trust me, it is inevitable since living on Earth is such a challenge. But if you can forgive yourself your anger and hurt and mistakes — and you can forgive the other for their anger and hurt and mistakes — well then love finds a way to make the NeuroDivergent system a bit easier to live with.