Importance of Empathy
“One doesn’t have to operate with great malice to do great harm. The absence of empathy and understanding are sufficient.”
(Charles M. Blow)
Relationships are all about communication. Yet, autism spectrum disorders (ASDs), which include Asperger’s Syndrome (AS), are all about communication challenges and lack of emotional understanding.
Romantic relationships thrive when both parties are able to show adequate support for one another, to communicate with each other, to anticipate the unspoken needs of their partner, to adapt, to listen, to understand the other’s point of view, and to resolve conflicts. In a successful relationship there is the expectation of regular expressions of love and affection. Conflicts arise because the partner with Asperger’s Syndrome is not capable of any of these things.
People with Asperger’s syndrome do not possess “Theory of Mind” abilities, which means they aren’t able to recognize and understand the thoughts, beliefs, desires and intentions of other people in order to make sense of their behavior and respond in a meaningful way. This will adversely affect the important relationship skills of empathy, trust and the ability to repair someone’s emotions and share thoughts and responsibilities (Attwood 2004).
Without this “Theory of Mind,” a person is “mindblind.” A person who is mindblind is unaware of other people’s mental existence. Mindblindness creates major barriers to communication and closeness. The result of mindblindness is blindness to another person’s needs, feelings and desires. People involved in relationships with a mindblind partner report feeling invalidated, unsupported, unheard, unknown and uncared for. A person who is mindblind is not capable of empathy, nor are they capable of knowing that they lack it.
What is Empathy?
Empathy is the ability to be aware of another person’s thoughts and feelings, and having the wherewithal to respond appropriately. It creates mutual understanding and a sense of caring for one another. In other words, empathy connects people emotionally.
In order to have a close relationship, emotional connection is required. Without empathy — an awareness of someone else’s thoughts and feelings, mutual understanding, caring, and expression of that care — there can be no real connection.
“I define connection as the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.”
Theory of Mind, described above, is simply another term for cognitive empathy, or the ability to attribute mental states — emotions, beliefs, intents, desires, etc. — to oneself and others, and to understand that others have beliefs, desires, and intentions that are different from one’s own. Because people with AS do not understand that other people feel differently than they do, instead of showing empathy when another person shares their feelings, they invalidate, deny and dismiss those feelings, because they aren’t feeling the same way.
According to Kathy J. Marshack, Ph.D., psychologist and autism expert, men with AS “often feel as if their partner is being ungrateful or “bitchy” when she complains that he is uncaring or doesn’t listen to her. He has no motive to understand her interior world, so her complaints are bothersome to him. He can become very defensive when she asks for clarification or a little sympathy because he knows that he has good intentions, so he resents the pressure. The defensiveness can turn into verbal abuse (and sometimes physical abuse) as the person with AS attempts to control the communication to suit his view of the world, which is the only one he can see.” Empathy, by it’s very definition, requires the ability to see another person’s view of the world.
Empathy bridges the divide between separate individuals, allowing them to connect and form a bond.
How is a lack of empathy expressed in a relationship by a partner who has Asperger’s Syndrome?
These NT partners of people with AS describe it best:
“Sometimes a lack of empathy, no matter what the cause, can honestly make you feel as if you are with an enemy rather than a friend! When illness strikes and say, for example, my spouse comes home to find me coughing, congested and moving slowly due to aches and pains, I expect an empathic response. My toddler hears me cough and says ‘You okay, Mommy? You okay?’ But my aspie spouse may not even think to ask ‘How are you feeling?’ once throughout my illness. This can be extremely depressing and upsetting. I try to remember that it just doesn’t come naturally for an aspie to have the typical empathic response. But when I am sick or weak and am not offered any help or emotional support I tend to be filled with grief, anger and self-pity at how lonely and uncared for I feel.”
“Yesterday, my aspie spouse started yelling at me in the car. What started the argument was, of course, my fault. Because I’m a total idiot. Mainly, because I have feelings. And (cardinal sin that it is), I tried to share said feelings. So stupid of me! Will I never learn? Obviously not…”
“Days, weeks, months, go by where you go into hiding. Staying away, staying silent, refusing to engage in any conversation that may possibly divulge a remnant of feeling, brings some semblance of peace. But that won’t last. It cannot possibly last. Because you have a neurologically typical brain, heart, soul. And he doesn’t. In a moment of . . . what was it this time? Intense feeling? A desire to share? Forgetfulness? Foolishness? Mere stupidity on your part? Whatever the cause, you did it yet again. You shared something of yourself. And the result was utter destruction. Sheer madness. Wondering again ‘What the hell just happened here?’ Oh, yeah. Now I remember. Back into the hole I go.”
“There is zero desire to hear the other person’s perspective. There is no compassion or empathy for the struggles the other person is going through. There is an air of superiority, and there are many demands to have their own way. And it’s all making me sick.”
What is the effect of a partner’s lack of empathy?
When we become involved in a relationship, we usually expect that our partner will reciprocate with roughly the same level of emotional involvement that we put into it. Many of us hope to find a partner who can share and understand our feelings and ways of thinking on an intensely personal level. Conflicts arise because by it’s very nature, Asperger’s Syndrome prevents the person who has it from being capable of these things. The Neurotypical (NT, or normal) partner feels emotionally stranded, abandoned, and craves the emotional intimacy and connection the partner with AS is incapable of.
The relationship ends up being more one of practicality and convenience for the person with Asperger’s Syndrome than for the loving and meeting of emotional needs of the NT partner. In reality, a relationship with an AS partner is one of taking on the role of caregiver while denying one’s emotional needs.
“For those who had normal expectations of the mutuality of marriage, there will be a sense of betrayal and a feeling of being used and trapped. Instinctively they know that their partner needs them, but feelings develop that the relationship is about the needs and interests of the person with Asperger’s Syndrome and that there is not even room for their own voice,” writes Karin Friedemann in her article, Asperger’s Syndrome Wives Need Understanding.
She goes on to say, “Many partners feel that they are daily sacrificing their own sense of self to help fulfill the priorities of the partner who has Asperger’s Syndrome. They begin to feel that they are entirely defined by the role they fill for their Asperger partner. There’s a sense that there is no mutuality, no equality, no justice.”
Tony Attwood has written in The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome: “In any relationship, there will inevitably be areas of disagreement and conflict… yet… the overwhelming majority of non-Asperger’s Syndrome partners stated that their mental health had significantly deteriorated due to the relationship. They felt emotionally exhausted and neglected, and many reported signs of a clinical depression. A majority of respondents in the survey also stated that the relationship had contributed to deterioration in physical health.”
The partners of people with AS routinely experience invalidation of their thoughts, feelings, perceptions and needs, and are put down for expressing them. They are insulted frequently, which people with AS consider “just being very honest.” They are judged harshly and criticized. They are often on the receiving end of abusive anger. They are dehumanized, devalued, objectified and ignored.
Author Tim Field, who writes about AS, says “Nothing can prepare you for living with someone whose behavior is unpredictable and devoid of any seeming emotional attachment. It is the most devastating, draining, misunderstood, and ultimately futile experience imaginable. The vehemence with which a person denies the existence of their difficult behavior is directly proportional to the resemblance of that person’s behavior to bullying.”
Adults and children with Autism Spectrum Disorder often have difficulty with anger. They have difficulty in recognizing that they feel angry and an inability to manage or deal with these feelings. Outbursts of anger, even in adults, can seem to materialize for no reason. Their rage can turn violent, as this victim describes:
“Sitting in the kitchen in the evening, Harry was verbally unusually cruel. At that time I knew all about the Asperger’s arrogance and uncontrollable urge to belittle anyone who didn’t have his special knowledge and didn’t share his opinions. It was exposed to me almost every day and I had trained myself not to pay attention because it was too stressful for me. But this time he was unusually verbally cruel. He did not respond to my requests to stop, but increased the cruel verbal abuses. He hurt me again and again, and I just knew: I have to tell him. I was exhausted and despaired at trying to understand and cover up for the man I loved and at the same time being abused and belittled.
“I have to tell him,” I thought. And I did. … All I managed to say was, “Harry, I think, you possibly have a disorder called Asperger’s syn…” Smash. He struck me violently. I lay on the kitchen floor and bled. He kept beating me hard. At every stroke he shouted furiously: ‘I’ve never hit you, I’ve never hit you, I’ve never hit you.’
I was terrified. He went on and on, I couldn’t move. He did not stop beating me, until I begged: ‘It is my fault, pleeease forgive me.’
Should I have gone to the police? I didn’t. Instead I called our friend; the only person who knew the truth. He talked to Harry, and I was stunned how Harry spoke with such control and so friendly on the phone as if nothing had happened. As soon as our friend was on the phone Harry had full control over himself; in a split second he was able to change from a scary and violent man beating his wife, into a charming pleaser. He said cheerfully to our friend. ‘Everything is OK!’ It was bizarre. How can anyone behave so comfortably right after he has beaten his wife, drawing her blood?
Harry never apologized after the violent abuse. He never expressed any remorse.” Open Letter to experts in High Functioning Autism/AS
NT partners often develop Affective Deprivation Disorder (AfDD), which is a relational disorder resulting from the emotional deprivation experienced by the partner (or child) of persons with a low empathy.
Coined by researcher Maxine Aston, AfDD was first applied to partners of adults with Asperger Syndrome, many of whom showed disturbing physical and psychological reactions to the lack of emotional reciprocity they were experiencing in their relationship. Maxine was later to broaden AfDD‘s applicability to include disorders other than Asperger’s such as depression, eating disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, personality disorder, and substance abuse disorder in which the same low empathy is a key relational factor.
Psychological Symptoms of AfDD inlcude:
• Low self esteem.
• Feeling confused/bewildered.
• Feelings of anger, depression and anxiety
• Feelings of guilt
• Loss of self/depersonalisation
• Phobias – social/agoraphobia
• Post-traumatic stress reactivity
Possible Psychosomatic Effects
• Loss or gain in weight
• PMT/female related problems
• ME (myalgic encephalomyelitis)
• Low immune system, resulting in conditions from colds to cancer
Emotional reciprocity, love and belonging are essential human needs; if these needs are not being met, mental and physical health will be affected. It does not matter if the person with AS can’t help it because of their disorder—their partner will suffer harm.
“The true measure of a man is not his intelligence or how high he rises in this freak establishment. No, the true measure of a man is this: how quickly can he respond to the needs of others and how much of himself he can give.”
(Philip K. Dick)