A year ago today, I published The Journal of Best Practices, my memoir of learning how to be a better husband after my wife Kristen and I discovered that I fit the profile for Asperger’s. I thought it would be fun to check in on my best practices—those maxims which I’ve stumbled upon in my quest to master the methods of being a good partner—and over the next few months report on how I’m doing. After all, this happy marriage thing is shaping up to be a lifelong journey, and it’s always good to track progress.
My first best practice was kind of a doozie:
Best Practice Number One: Do all that you can to be worthy of her love.
Sobering was the moment in which I finally acknowledged that our marriage had fallen apart. More sobering still was the moment when I recognized that our marriage had failed largely because of me and my behaviors. Not entirely because of me, but I think it’s fair to say that I was doing most of the demolition. I wasn’t responsive to Kristen’s needs; I wasn’t supportive or respectful of her interests, time, or emotions; I didn’t even help around the house. I wasn’t a good partner. And despite the fact that I had allowed myself to become someone who wasn’t even remotely worthy of Kristen’s adoration, I found myself feeling surprised and even betrayed by her coldness and distance in the first years of our marriage. I don’t care if her friends flew in from around the country to be there, I would think to myself driving home with Kristen in awkward silence, that was an inexcusably sub-par wedding reception and we were better off leaving early. Why the hell is she so upset? She should be thanking me, and perhaps even caressing my upper arm in an affectionate manner, as is the norm for happily married couples.
Everything changed for the better when I finally understood that you have to continually earn your partner’s affection, and that you must be a worthy steward of their love. And to do that, you may have to unlearn some old behaviors, and commit to learning new ones.
For some people, this is a scary and unwelcome proposition. You mean I have to ADAPT?!?! I’ve met some people with Asperger’s who believe it is the world who must adapt to them, and that’s a perfectly valid worldview. There are men and women in relationships, not on the spectrum, who feel that they are to be accepted just as they are, that they shoulder no burden of change. “Take me or leave me.” Also valid. But I’ve learned that if you want to thrive in a relationship—and if you want your relationship to thrive—you’re going to have to give your best to that relationship. Again, this may likely involve learning some new behaviors—for both you and your partner.
I knew that my relationship with Kristen was more important to me than anything. I also knew that, despite years of baffling arguments, disappointment, and mounting resentment, Kristen was still with me; she loved me. That’s the kind of love that endures, the kind of love that can redeem a person. I wanted to be worthy of that love.
Admittedly, as goals go, “Do all that you can to be worthy of her love” is as vague as it gets. But that’s a good thing, because it means that the steps you can take to get there are practically infinite; to build a fulfilling partnership, you can start just about anywhere. I decided to commit to becoming her friend once again, since that’s where our relationship had begun. To my great joy, Kristen was totally on board.
Learning to be friends again involved learning better communication skills, understanding each other’s neurological culture (I’m Asperger’s, Kristen is so not), learning to anticipate each other’s needs, and remembering to be engaged and present when spending time with each other. It forced Kristen to consider adding structure to our family schedule, and it forced me to learn how to have fun at parties and even how to go with the flow.
Adapting for our relationship is a lot of hard work, but we’re committed to it, and our relationship is stronger, happier, and more fulfilling than we ever would have imagined as a result. And, remarkably, my life in general is so much easier with these new abilities. Our relationship is healthier, and so am I.
I’ve been asked if it’s right, or even possible, to change who you are to suit the needs of a relationship. The answer is no. You cannot, and should not, change who you are, fundamentally, just to please a partner. That’s not being true to yourself, and everyone will lose in the end. But doing all that you can to be a worthy partner is not about changing who you are. It’s about learning new behaviors that will allow you to grow as an individual. Your quirks and idiosyncrasies—your essential qualities of character—don’t vanish when you learn something new. If anything, learning how to be a better partner will help to ensure that you’ll always have someone with whom you can share these qualities.
As for whether it’s working? I’ve been up in our bedroom for a few hours now, composing this article. I would have been finished about fifteen minutes ago, but Kristen came in unexpectedly, plopped down beside me on the bed, and with smiling, affectionate eyes, asked me how I was doing. She didn’t need anything, wasn’t inquiring about how long it would take me to finish or what I might want to do for dinner. She was just thinking about me, she said, and wanted to see me for a second. We chatted for a while, then she gave me a kiss and headed back downstairs, singing a happy little song.
What can I say? We didn’t exactly assign specific metrics to this initiative, but I don’t know if I could imagine a more successful outcome.