It’s a Relationship Thing

It’s a relation thing.

“It’s a relation thing.” This is how Hannah Gadsby responded to the question posed by the talk show host, Fredrik Skavlan.

Skavlan was trying to get at what stops Gadsby from feeling comfortable with people in a social situation. He said, “So, is that the thing… so as long as you are home with yourself… autism is like nothing?”

Gadsby, an Australian comedian continued. “Yeah… when I am by myself, I’m smooth. I’m good at life… but when someone else comes in… with all of their facial expressions and stuff and it really throws me for a loop.”

The first time I heard this odd expression (“It’s a relation thing) it was from my former husband, Howard. He actually wrote it in an email to me, shortly after we separated. In an attempt to understand why our marriage was failing, he wrote, “I think it’s a relation thing.”

Since then, I have learned a lot about “Asperger Syndrome.” I not only recognized the Autism in my former spouse, but also in my mother and my eldest daughter Bianca. Being surrounded by Autists all of my life, you might think I understood them better. Instead, they had the opposite effect on me. They puzzled me. They made me feel like something was always wrong with me. Our relationships were oppressive and tragic.

It’s a relationship thing.

Take a good look at this word — relationship. How do you feel about it?

Now look at these two phrases:

It’s a relation thing.

It’s a relationship thing.

Do they feel (or sound) the same to you?

NeuroTypicals (NTs) have relationships with others. I perceive the world this way too — through my relationships with others. But for Gadsby and Howard and others on the Autism Spectrum, they exist in relation to others — separately and discreetly.

Gadsby is overwhelmed when others enter the room, “. . . with all of their facial expressions and stuff.” She prefers being alone rather than in the world of relationships, where all that “stuff” is part of the interactional and connecting world of NTs. When she is alone, autism is not an issue, because autism is only relevant in relationship with others — where it stands out and feels odd.

Yes, the energy of interactional people is a lot to track, but if you are NT, you just jump into the flow. You don’t worry about categorizing or listening to every word. Instead, you engage in a friendly exchange.

If you listen to people, their language reflects their underlying belief system and view of the world. In this very brief interchange between Gadsby and Skavlan you get to observe how a transactional woman and an interactional man discuss the same topic — social situations — but from dramatically different points of view.

For Skavlan, he wants to know the person. He encourages Gadsby to open up about herself, revealing what makes her tick. For Gadsby, she answers the questions and nothing more. With each of Skavlan’s questions, she politely gives an answer, along with a quirky facial expression that makes the audience laugh— and then waits for the next question. She has observed that Skavlan likes to ask questions, so as far as she is concerned all she needs to do is answer those questions.

Skavlan is an entertainment professional so he can handle his guest, but does he wonder why she doesn’t engage — engage in relationship building? She ignores the other guests on the show. Do they wonder too? Skavlan and his guests all keep smiling but there is no opening to engage with Gadsby.

Autists are intimidating.

Gadsby is puzzled that people find her “intimidating” (her word). She doesn’t intend to be intimidating. In fact, she wants to make people laugh. Yet she admits in this interview that she is not the least anxious when she performs on stage. As she puts it, she feels “dead inside.” That sounds intimidating to me.

That “dead inside” expression tells me a lot. She is not engaging her audience the way an NT comedian might do. In a transactional manner, if the audience laughs, she is successful. On the other hand, if an adoring fan wants to hug her after the performance, she rejects the hug, thereby rejecting the person. It’s OK not to want to hug strangers, but an NT would offer a kind gesture instead, such as a smile, or a handshake, or a high five — or an autograph — something to let the fan know they are appreciated.

I suppose appreciation is not what Gadsby is after, either receiving or giving it. If it’s just “a relation thing,” then all of that dynamic, interactional, friendly give and take is not necessary. It may seem unkind to think of Autists as intimidating but for NeuroTypicals the lack of social reciprocity leaves us cold.

Love is more than “a relation thing.”

Hearing Gadsby use that phrase, “it’s a relation thing” and describing herself as “intimidating,” and watching her ignore Skavlan’s bids to connect — this brought clarity to me about why I have felt alone most of my life in my relationship with my “Aspies.” I kept trying to have a relationship with people who saw me as a transactional object. In relation to them, I served a purpose. If I served the purpose to their liking, I was accepted. If not, I felt discarded. They answered questions or asked them. Once they got what they were after they moved on.

I remember a moment with Howard when I discussed filing for divorce. He looked surprised and said, “But I thought we were getting along better.”

Even though this was a painful moment for me, I was amused by his response. I said, “Howard, I understand why you thought we were getting along better. That’s because when I decided to get a divorce three months ago, I stopped talking with you.”

Howard was quiet for a long time. He sat very still with his eyes closed. He must have been thinking about what I said. When he finally opened his eyes, he said, “I think you are right. We haven’t been talking.”

This was his world, a world in which all was well as long as Howard was satisfied — and left alone. But for me, love is much more than “a relation thing.” It is an alive, exciting, energetic give and take between people that helps us both grow personally and interpersonally — stronger, smarter, more creative, kind, and aware — over time.

When Howard spoke those words, my resolve crystalized. I had spent over two decades with a man who was cocooned in his own world and seeming oblivious of his wife and children. He literally watched TV, while listening to NPR with earbuds, and at the same time sitting in front of his computer working on legal briefs. There was no room to invite me (or the children) into his world, nor would he step into ours. After 23 excruciatingly painful years of this mistreatment, I quit.

I felt invisible to my NeuroDiverse mother, husband, and child. Serving a purpose in the lives of NeuroDiverse family members is a role — in relation to — not with them. A purpose or role does not feel affirming, or appreciative, or known, or loving.

I spent a lifetime not understanding the irony of being in a family where the NeuroDiverse were satisfied when I left them alone, while I desperately wanted to connect. I missed the joy of being in relationship with those I loved because they didn’t know how to love me back, interactionally, as NeuroTypicals do. This has been a terrible loss for me to come to terms with — a lifetime without love.

However, with this discovery of my authentic self, I recognized an incredible opportunity. I am grateful that I prefer creating relationships — or loving connections — to a “relation thing.” This means that I am free to feel and enjoy the love all around me, anytime I choose.

It’s also true that I can freely honor those with NeuroDiversity like Hannah Gadsby, to choose the comfort of being alone. I find it odd, but I get it — I just wouldn’t choose it for me.


13 Replies to “It’s a Relationship Thing”

  1. Good afternoon.
    My partner for 1 and half years called it again for the 3rd time. This time he stopped talking to me or doing anything with me and my children for 2weeks and it hurt. One night I had enough and just wanted to talk to him and get through. It became violent. I haven’t seen him for 2weeks, miss him so much and wonder if alongside his depression, anxiety and autism if there is a likelihood he misses me and will want me back? He has a habit of changing his mind. I’m also pregnant with his daughter. He says everything became too much to handle and needed to retreat in order to survive. Is there anything I can do or say or do I just need to wait for him to come round and realize things for himself? Thanks

  2. This sure hits the nail on the head. I realized my father was an aspie after his death, after he disinherited me. We had a huge argument 5 years before he died over my homeless drug addicted younger sister that he continually enabled and wanted me to continue that after he passed. I didn’t want any part of it. so, I apparently had no more purpose to him and he disinherited me since I was to be his executor. I had asked to not be put in the position of being saddled with the responsibility of my sister and her child for the rest of my life. That wasn’t fair. So very transactional though for him. I also realized that I never felt love from my father and that is just so sad.

  3. This blog is so powerful and helpful. It gives a breath of refreshment to understand the differences that my Neuro divergent husband and I (as an NT) have, articulated in a very clear way. Kathy, you have opened doors that help me to see a much more positive and encouraging path forward. Especially, you are helping me find my truest self, which has rekindled a freedom to “BE” the relational person that I am! Plus, it’s helping me to be more gracious and accepting toward my husband’s struggles without becoming just an “object”. I didn’t think it was possible, but I continue to read, listen, and participate in our MeetUp group, because it is so essential to my health and growth as an individual. I am hopeful I will be able to point those who are searching for a way through, to our group, as well as share what I have been learning.

    1. I have trouble understanding what you mean by, “helping me to be more gracious and accepting toward my husband’s struggles without becoming just an “object.'” Does being more gracious and accepting help him not to see you as an object? Or does it help you not to feel like an object? Please help me here.

  4. Kathy, I want to fling my arms around you and reassure you. I totally get the alone/ invisible feeling that comes with living with a parent then a spouse with autism. It’s devastating to realise how little significance you have.
    You are right, we need to invest in people who ‘see’ us and affirm our need for connection.However all of a sudden these moments of clarity come when you witness real connection with a couple and my heart is sad for all the missed opportunities.
    Sad and hard.

  5. Even though I chose to separate from my aspie partner after several years of frustration and pain, I still read the blogs. It is so incredibly helpful to finally understand the dynamics between neuro typical sand neuro diverse individuals. It affirms my decision to leave the relationship. I am savouring my single life and have compassion for the man I loved who could not love me back in a way that nourished me. Your words are so validating!

  6. Long time no post but this blog topic might be a place where an anecdote might help. Asperger’s came late into my life but then all of a sudden through my in-laws but also at work. The anecdote is how it is very common for Caucasian male Aspies to marry Oriental women i.e. north east Asian (Japanese, Chinese and Korean) or even Philipino women. In these cultures the women have grown up knowing to have little or no expectation of men looking to understand their wife’s feelings so they are used to the idea of being considered as domestic help rather than a mutually reciprocal relationship between complements. Therefore such women seem to figure as partners of Aspies to a far higher degree than usual.

  7. Dear Kathy
    I have been meaning for years it seems to reply and thank you from the bottom of my heart for your phenomenal efforts, for surviving so well and taking on the enormous task to help others.
    I have received your desperate plea for me to sign in or just reply so I am guilty to the core for being seemingly offhand.
    I have spent my life wondering and researching about Anxiety, ADD, depression, Asperger’s, and so on to resolve my anguish. In recent years the light bulbs flashed and I have been able to carry on a fairly happy settled life.
    My husband is a very caring person though he suffers variations of all that the above named conditions dish out.
    Luckily he has been able to have a career, two beautiful children and survive in spite of the anxiety, stresses at work and home. (To this day he can’t discuss the issues, so I work with it and resolve differences by adapting to his mind blindness and quirky conversations…!)
    I have consulted widely and thrived with the knowledge I luckily was able to access.
    We are now 80, however my journey to a resolution for my angst began with one BBC Radio interview when I was 50,regarding a wife with a husband similar to mine. That was when the subject was beginning to be publicised. I have relished in the research I have since engaged in.
    Acceptance, hard work emotionally, and daily working at keeping the balance of a happy relationship kept life liveable!
    A background early psychology course helped me so much even in my early welfare and nursing studies.
    So I thank you deeply for your offer… I have in the past had chats with an online/phone session lady here in Australia . Again very helpful in my journey.
    Now I am as ever in a good place, very very lucky. I enjoy reading your posts and will continue to do so if you can leave me on your list. The internet saved my sanity
    and I will be ever grateful for your part in helping so many survive this challenging part of human evolution.
    That thought came from a statement Dr Tony Attwood made in one of his you tube videos. Humanity is ever changing and if we can understand the process it helps.
    Certainly did for me!
    Cheers and much love for your contribution to a happier world wide community.

  8. I will put this out for consideration as it bears on relationships.

    A mythological timeline.

    For the first 90% of time over which humanity’s psychological development has occurred everyone was an Aspie. I refer to Neanderthal times from 400,000 years ago until Modern Humans developed around 40,000 years ago.

    They had either no sense of Self or a weak one, but once that came about it was childlike in that there was no consciousness of Other as being a separate locus of consciousness. Everyone was in Garden of Eden state of consciousness wherein everyone understood they were children of God, recipients of the one life, and everyone was on the same page in this understanding and all lived the Divine Will of Love. Will and Understanding were entwined and Self had no need to form relationships with Other as all had a direct relationship with Father.

    Self eventually turned away from the Tree of Life and looked to the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil which led to Fall from Divine Will and Expulsion into the wilderness. Understanding now was based on Self perception based on physical senses but Will was still entwined with Understanding except everyone’s understanding now diverged and conflicted, and still there was no understanding of Other (or Relationship), Other being sensed by the physical senses as Animate Object.

    Neanderthal psychology eventually imploded in a Flood. However some of the Neanderthal genetic base made its way into Modern Humans as did the Aspie consciousness of Self and Other, and lack of conscious of Relationship. The Extreme Male Brain developed to support the remnant Aspie consciousness.

    The NT brain developed to support the Noah Modern Human psychology that enabled modern humans to come to the fore and multiply whereas far fewer Neanderthals had gone extinct. In Noah the Understanding was decoupled from the Will enabling the NT person to ‘multitask’ as it were, something women are bettr at doing than men, and consider both their own Will in addition to the Will of Other, and so develop Relationship and the ability and skills that can support relationship, as well as compromise and resolve conflict.

    Aspies don’t resolve conflict but rely on enforcing their will on others e.g. Greta Thunberg’s “superpower” and Margaret Thatcher’s “Iron Lady” “not for turning unyielding iron will. (I have a sister-in-law who is just like MrsT and when a guest in our house displayed this many a time. Her son is Aspie and when their Will’s conflicted she resolved the conflict by giving him a good thrashing on his bare legs with her flip-flop, until he was too big and left home) .

    Red hair genetics also transited into Modern Humans, being an evidentiary link between Neanderthals who are surmised to have been more sensitive to pain than modern humans and Aspies who are often sensitive to particular fabrics on their skin, hard beds etc – people with red hair require about 16% more anesthesia to achieve nerve numbness for dental work than other hair colours.

    Aspies have lesser consciousness of Self and Other so their brains do not well support the building of Relationships. So the do not understand small talk or non-verbal communication.

    Self is 1st Person Singular and Aspies see Other as a member of 3rd Person Plural (Strangers) and can then see Other as a member of 2nd Person Plural (Acquainted) who they can address as ‘You’ or ‘Vous’ if French. To form a closer relationship the concept of ‘Thou’ or ‘Tu’ which involves a consciousness of 2nd Person Singular Significant Other) is unavailable to them. Therefore to progress the relationship they keep you in a Plural, the 1st Person Plural, a kind of “Royal We” wherein one’s individuality is still unknown to the Aspie and one is seen as an extension of the Aspie’s own Self. This is the basis for the Aspie denial of lacking empathy, they will claim “no we are, we form very intimate relationships when you NTs will still see the other as separate from yourself”.

    However circumstances can arise when for an internal reason the Aspie’s loses consciousness of 1st Person Plurality and reverts to 1st Person Plural. NTs do this too e.g. if a husband ignores his wife’s needs. NTs though still see her as 2nd Person Singular, or at worst even 2nd Person Plural with 3rd Person Plural representing a relationship ending in divorce. For the Aspie he doesn’t have the 2nd Person Singular (Significant Other) state available in his consciousness so his wife figures as just another member of 2nd Person Plural Acquaintance, and often straight to 3rd Person Plural Stranger status, which the NT wife may end up making into a formality!

    It is the sudden flips back and forth that is very confusing to an NT partner but the Aspie has no consciousness of this effect, because he (or she) has no consciousness of Other as being a separate locus of consciousness so can very quickly relegate someone from intimate connection to acquaintance to total stranger.

    I will post a story about my experience of this phenomenon.

      1. If it helps just one then it will be worthwhile.

        The Neanderthal genetic theory is one occasionally floated in Autism Research circles but with no serious examination. I became familiar with it from a series of detailed blog posts and youtube videos put out by an Aspie!

        Who am I to say an Aspie was wrong about this, especially when from totally different readings from consciousness and mythology researchers the characteristics surmised for Neanderthal consciousness lined up very well with what the Aspie described as how he and other Aspies saw the world, and what your correspondent described years ago i.e. NTs appeared to be a bunch of randoms all jostling for position, and my experience.

    1. This is an experience with an Aspie at work which illustrates the outline I had sketched, i.e. Aspies have a childlike understanding of Self and Other than NTs and manage conflict by establishing dominance if extroverted, or by introversion. At the time I had no explicit understanding of Asperger’s and no comprehension of this man being such. It only dawned on me later.
      I was one of two mid-fifties guys with grey hair, programming an IT application to do with data queries. The system administrator was our age too but not technical although well versed in the business rules etc. We discovered that we had been classmates as eight years old but she had recently transitioned a few years before and wore a blond wig.
      The Aspie, also hyperactive, was around thirty and not technical at all but with a background in foreign languages and Asian studies who had spent time in China and come back with a Chinese wife. He had somehow found himself in a technical environment and quickly learned the jargon from the system admin.
      Chatting about the with my two contemporaries about the challenges the hyperactivity and lack of real understanding presented to us more technically oriented team members by the Aspie’s “car salesman oversell” the other guy remarked how he could cope with it but didn’t appreciate how the young bloke would come up behind him and put his hands on his back, often patting him for a job well done.
      There are two rules of male-male interaction known intuitively: (a) Don’t offer unsolicited advice and (b) When a man touches another man he is implicitly making a statement of status and power – not talking man hug here where there is an offer and acceptance plus reciprocity – especially when the toucher man comes up behind the other man unseen and touches from behind – making consent impossible and denying reciprocity. This young man was breaking the second rule.
      The team leader, also mid-fifties didn’t do this and being in federal civil service we were already in a sheltered workshop environment so didn’t really need someone having our back or giving us a pat on the back as recognition from a lesser skilled younger colleague at the same level.
      However he seemed to think that as a young buck it was his responsibility nevertheless care for us as a father might and so I found him looking after me too, e.g. walking into the work area in the morning he would guide me to my desk with his hand on the small of my back (as a gentleman might guide his lady through an unfamiliar area), pats on the back as well etc.

      Technically speaking he was in breach of the Code of Conduct, in which he had been trained, but his understanding was different and so his behaviour followed this rather than the Code, as though he wanted to look after us so that meant his conduct was the thing to do. (I imagine a woman would find these behaviours rather sweet, as his projection of an umbrella of protection would appeal to one aspect that women will value in a man, whereas for a man it is very patronising, especially as mentioned the organisation itself already provided a protected environment.)
      Anyway the system administrator felt that a couple of West Coast offices could do with some training in the facility so the team leader assigned me and the Aspie to do the trip with three nights away. In a nutshell I found myself being taken on a date, e.g. he grabbed my bag off the carousel along with his and carried it to the cab unannounced while I was looking around for it until finally spotting him over near the cabs, announced us at the Airline Club Lounge check-in where I was a member and had invited him as guest etc.
      Then at times on the date instead of caring for me it was like I didn’t exist.
      Even before we went we each did our own prep and his was the PowerPoint presentation. I had seen his stuff and was sure it was good so was tardy in attending to his request to check it out while I was doing last minute prep on my own. He came over to my desk and asked what I thought and he objected so I got up to get the printout off the bench. He immediately grabbed my chair and plonked himself down in it for us to go over it with me leaning over my desk with him in my chair.
      I said Ok give me a few minutes and I will check it out. It was pretty good with lots of pretty pictures having no informational content but with excessive use of pushing a coffee grind metaphor to explain filters. So I went over to suggest that this was fluff, sat down in the guest chair and said so. He spun to face me and explained that his wife had already given her approval so he would change nothing. I was mystified as to why he was so overbearing at my desk about reviewing his material when his wife had already approved it and she overruled me.
      Oh he didn’t quite face me but rather was looking across my left and focussing at a distant point which was the first time I had encountered that Aspie characteristic, although my sister-in-law was adept at the stereotypical autistic blank stare when she wasn’t going to yield an inch when she went too far in bossing us around when she was our guest.
      The next reversal of his attitude of tender care for the old guy was on the long flight to the West Coast. Not only did he have the arm rest between us but that was still too confined for him to bear so I often had his elbow almost in my ribs. Next came his foot. I was sitting with my feet in front of me and felt my foot next to him being pushed closer to me other foot on the far side – he had his foot underneath the seat in front of me and was pushing my foot aside to make room for his leg and foot. I glanced sideways and his face was set dead ahead, as if by not looking at where his feet were then he wasn’t infringing on my space.
      Not just me either. At one stage he slid down in his seat so that his back was almost on the seat cushion with his knees pressing forcefully into the seat back in front of him, so much so the young woman had to leave her seat and stand at the back of the plane for some minutes. I asked him what he was doing. “I need the space” was his response. At home he might push a chair away to create more space but in his childlike reasoning it was the pushing that created more space, almost as in a kids’ cartoon. And no regard whatsoever for the stranger in front. But then I had just been seen as a stranger too.
      Having a beer after check-in reverted to his attitude of looking after my amenity and even invited me on a date within the date – breakfast the next morning as he had a buy one burger get one free coupon at Hungry Jacks. I didn’t want to accept but did so as to help build the relationship we would need as a mini-team over the two presentations so agreed on 7:30am next day.
      Due to the time difference and unfamiliar bed I woke rather early so was ready by 6:30 but filled in the time watching the news etc. At 7:30 I called him to say I was ready and let’s meet downstairs. “I’ve already been” was his response. I waited for some seconds for him to say something like “I know we had arranged to meet but I was awake early so went for breakfast early and didn’t call not wanting to wake you, hope you don’t mind?” to which I could have said “No problem, see you at 9am”. But nothing.
      So I asked something like “Oh but weren’t we going to meet?”. He answered “I’ve already been”. He had stood me up and discussion closed. My eight year old Aspie grandson will respond “Private” if I ever try to get him to reflect on a lack of consideration by asking why did you do that? This thirty something man was the same as my grandson.

      Jumping to the end he had the card for charging the cab ride home so when we got near my house first and the driver asked for the way to my place when I started to say this young man cut me off and told him. Pulling into my driveway I got out to get my bag from the trunk and came round the side to walk to the front steps only to find him standing beside the cab blocking me from walking up my driveway with his hand held out for a farewell shake of hands. It was like our date hand been a weekend away and he was insisting on a goodnight kiss before letting me go inside.
      The patronising assertion of status and power was bad enough (breaking one of the rules of men engaging with men) but the sudden switching being cared for as a dependent member of his Royal We to being like a perfect stranger was bizarre.

  9. I didn’t undership what was meant by a “relation thing” . Something didn’t feel right to me. As you said, ND think in relation to things/objects. One cannot have a relationship with an object. Maybe that explains why I feel invisible, devalued and not validated. One does not validate or recognize an object.

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