I was in New Jersey recently, giving a lecture on living a fulfilling life with Asperger’s to a group of college students and professors. I covered a lot of ground — as topics go, living a fulfilling life is about as broad as it gets — but one of the main speaking points in my talk was how to successfully navigate a romantic relationship. I frequently lecture on this topic because, while I happen to be in a neurologically mixed marriage (I have Asperger’s and my wife, Kristen, does not), many of the challenges we face in our relationship are things that affect almost every couple to varying degrees. My astonishing lack of consideration for other people’s feelings and needs, for instance, is often mirrored in the stories people share with me from their own relationships. My rituals, my food preferences, my tendency to offer solutions when all my wife needs is a nod or a hug...these annoyances plague just about every romance, and so these are usually the areas of interest among my audiences when I open the floor for discussion.
But on this particular occasion, a student asked a question that, to my surprise, hasn’t come up all that often. It seemed her boyfriend, who had Asperger’s and lived by himself, required a considerable amount of alone time. “That’s fine or whatever,” she said, “but in a few months we’re planning on moving in together and sharing a relatively small space. How is that going to work if he needs so much time to himself?”
“It won’t,” I said, and she seemed devastated, but there you have it.
I’m kidding, I’m kidding. The real answer is that although it’s not always going to be easy, it is entirely possible for two people from different planets to live in harmony. I know this as both a living example and as a fan of the hit television series Mork and Mindy. Successful cohabitation just takes a little work, especially when one or both partners has special needs, but, then again, who doesn’t have special needs?
If you’re the one in the relationship who needs a corner to retreat to or an hour to yourself every day, here are few simple ways to make that happen without straining your relationship.
1. If you need time and space, just ask for it.
When my wife Kristen and I got married and moved in together, I was overjoyed. Yes, she’s smart and funny and all that, but let’s face it: I was living in the same house and even sharing a bed with this totally hot chick. It was awesome. I wanted to be around Kristen 24 hours a day, but what I didn’t know was that I also needed time to myself in order to be good company. Ironic. Processing and navigating social interactions for me requires a tremendous amount of mental energy. Because of this, I need silent, solitary periods of contemplation to simply recharge my batteries and get through my day. Kristen, on the other hand, is classically extroverted. She doesn’t know what it means to be exhausted by social interaction, as she actually derives energy from it. This fundamental difference led to a number of conflicts during our first few years of marriage. She wanted to change out of our pajamas on the weekends, go out and socialize, barbecue with the neighbors. I didn’t, didn’t, and really, really didn’t.
The problem was not that we were different, but that we expected each other to fulfill certain personal needs that had never been voiced. We simply moved in together and assumed everything would be fine. Indeed, the key when shacking up is to have an earnest and open discussion about how much personal time and space you think you need in order to function well. Be honest with yourself so that you can be honest with your partner. If, for very bizarre example, you need an hour after work to put on a wig, turn on some quiet folk music, and stare at the wall with your hand shoved down the front of your pants, then say so.
As an added bonus, this type of discussion can serve as something of a litmus test for your relationship. If your partner isn’t willing to accept and accommodate your need for personal time and space, that’s a potential deal breaker. If, on the other hand, you’ve landed yourself a partner who is more than willing to hear you out as you explain why you need a few minutes in front of the wall in a wig with Joan Baez after work, it’s worth knowing you’ve got yourself a keeper.
2. Do not abuse the privilege of time and space.
Your needs may be special, but so is your partner. Don’t ignore him or her by indulging in constant isolation. For an introvert, there is a lot to be said for isolation, but you still have an obligation to your partner and to making your relationship thrive.
Interaction around the house cannot and should not be on your terms alone. This, I think, was one of my most hard-won lessons as a husband. I had to learn how to limit my alone time so that Kristen could actually engage with me once my batteries were sufficiently charged. I had to practice not being a hermit. I had to practice turning on the positive energy when Kristen is around, and now I’m able to do so. Thanks to her, I have time when I need it to find my energy, and I invest that energy in being a worthy partner. The result? Our marriage is stronger and we are both happier.
3. Identify demanding situations and prepare accordingly.
Certain situations tend to increase my need for alone time. For example, visits with relatives and friends, as much as I enjoy them, often leave me feeling spent. Who wouldn’t feel exhausted after hours of giving everything they have to be good company? Fortunately, Kristen is aware of this and reminds me that I’m going to need time to recoup if there is something fairly demanding on my schedule.
A few months before The Journal of Best Practices was published, I was invited to speak and sign advance copies of the book at a regional book sellers conference in Michigan. Kristen was not able to join me, and so, for two solid days, I was left to my own devices for socializing. I didn’t know a single person at the conference, but I’d written a memoir and people approached me with a familiarity and an enthusiasm that took me by surprise. Soaring above the anxiety, high on adrenaline, I found it rather easy to introduce myself to everyone I saw and gab at length about things that seemed to interest them. I spent the night in my hotel room mentally replaying an assortment of dialogs and brief exchanges, then woke up early the next morning to prepare a number of conversational ice breakers to help get me through the second day. Callow and eager to make acquaintances, I chatted up everyone who came to my signing table, and when the conference organizers eventually asked me to leave, I took to the exhibition floor and schmoozed with vendors and authors whom I’d never met. When I returned home that evening I was still flying at cruising altitude, ready for any social interaction that might come a-callin’.
The next morning there was hell to pay. I awoke feeling for all the world as though I was hungover. I didn’t want to be spoken to, and smiling was out of the question. I was not fit to carry out the duties of being a good husband that day, which is something I hadn’t seen coming. Kristen, on the other hand, had anticipated this outcome. Knowing better than I how strenuous that trip would be, she prepared herself for my inevitable grouchiness and even refrained from making any special social commitments that day. It was something of a "Be Nice To Horrible Dave Day," and even at my crankiest, I was able to recognize this as a supremely understanding and supportive gesture. I also knew that by Monday morning it would be business as usual, no orneriness allowed, and so, with the grumpiness of an ogre, I relished in the downtime Kristen was willing to give me. It was my only path to restoration, and we both knew it.
Though it may not be what crosses the minds of people in love when they’re deciding on moving in together, this is the stuff that makes cohabitation work. An admission of feelings. A readiness to accommodate each other’s horrible moods. A willingness to ignore each other from time to time without taking it personally.
And, heck, a few quiet hours with Joan Baez and your favorite wig never hurts.