Asperger’s: When Narcissism Just Doesn’t Explain Your Partner’s Inability to Empathize
Sometimes I see individuals in therapy, or couples in couples’ counseling, where one partner continues to insist that something is “just wrong” with the other. Usually, they are referring to a lack of empathy and a self-absorbed nature, but also a person whose behavior just seems “weird” or “off.” This person often seems very selfish and mean, but there is also this niggling feeling that he or she genuinely doesn’t intend to be this way, and literally does not understand how reciprocal intimate relationships generally work.
Often, these people think that their partners must be narcissists. They identify with both the Mr. Perfect and His Crazy Wife dynamic and the Wife Who Wants More and Her Annoyingly Satisfied Husband dynamic. They believe that their partner acts self-absorbed because he was raised by narcissists, or because he is defending against low self-esteem or insecurity. But, despite all of these explanations, they still feel like something doesn’t add up. For instance, the supposedly narcissistic partner is not charming and able to manipulate social interactions, but instead often seems awkward or uncomfortable around others. And their rude comments often don’t seem to be rooted in an actual desire to be mean. In fact, they often have no idea why others take offense to what was just a “factual” comment. These social/emotional deficits bring us to another possibility: Asperger’s.
- average or above-average intelligence
- difficulties with high-level language skills such as verbal reasoning, problem solving, making inferences and predictions
- difficulties in empathizing with others
- problems with understanding another person’s point of view
- difficulties engaging in social routines such as conversations and ‘small talk’
- problems with controlling feelings such as anger, depression and anxiety
- a preference for routines and schedules which can result in stress or anxiety if a routine is disrupted
- specialised fields of interest or hobbies
There is also a new diagnosis now, Social (Pragmatic) Communication Disorder, that is also similar to many of the criteria in Asperger’s, and it focuses on an inability to understand the social rules of conversation, difficulty picking up on others’ verbal and nonverbal cues, and a lack of understanding of nuance and ambiguity in interactions.
The overlap of self-centeredness can prevent easy differentiation between the disorders, and some clients, like this guy, come in having done a lot of research and can’t figure out whether they are narcissistic or Aspies. Here are some examples of how interactions tend to go with each:
Wife: My clothes don’t fit anymore.
Narcissist: Well, maybe you should work out like I do.
Aspie: Well, maybe you should work out like I do.
The same, right? But then it diverges:
Wife: Why are you always so mean?
Narcissist: Look, I’m sorry, but you know you aren’t motivated to work out and sometimes I’m just tired of hearing you complain.
Wife: Do you even feel attracted to me anymore?
Narcissist: I mean…. yeah, of course. But you know, it’s been a while since the baby was born, and you yourself don’t feel comfortable at this weight.
Note that the narcissist knows how his statement made his partner feel, and was actually manipulating the interaction to capitalize on this insecurity for his own benefit, which would be getting a more attractive partner that reflects better on him. But here’s how the interaction would continue with an Aspie.
Wife: What do you mean ‘What?’ You know I just wanted you to be reassuring.
Aspie: Then why did you ask? I can never do anything right.
Wife: I’m upset! Why are you just STANDING THERE?
Aspie: What do you want from me? What am I supposed to do?
Wife: I told you! People need affection and love when they are upset! We even read that book.
Aspie: But you’re yelling at me.
Wife: [cries, or walks out]
Aspie [goes back to what he was doing, sad that his wife is so sensitive and unpredictable and his marriage is not easy]
As you see, in this case, the spouse slips easily into a role where she is explaining how interactions are “supposed to” work. This is a usual dynamic for them. His comment about her weight was not half as bad as the fact that he isn’t even aware why it would upset her. Then that wasn’t half as bad as that she has told him one million times that he should hug her when she is upset, and he doesn’t remember, or he doesn’t seem to care.
A narcissist usually knows what’s going on in his relationship. He or she can understand another person’s insecurities and exploit them for good or bad ends. The narcissist also requires a lot of admiration and affirmation. The narcissist can be self-centered in bed, but can usually act and even feel both romantic and passionate, particularly when being admired, as in the honeymoon stage of a relationship. Narcissists CAN empathize with others, but often choose not to, because these other people are not as important as the narcissist.
An Aspie often has no idea why partners act as they do. Despite their best intentions or attempts to understand their intimate partner, friends, and family, it remains that other people’s emotions are a often a mystery. (And they often make extremely valiant attempts, which can be successful with enough thought and guidance; read Journal of Best Practices, the memoir of an Aspie who teaches himself to be a better husband.) The Aspie doesn’t require excessive admiration, and if they brag about their accomplishments, it’s not to get a response but because they think it’s the facts. The Aspie doesn’t usually feel much in the way of romantic passion, and if you look back to your early courtship, it’s probable that the non-Aspie partner may have invented the romantic component of the relationship in their own mind.
In a sense, Aspies are unable to empathize in a deep way with other people, particularly other adults with complex emotions (although they are often good with small children or animals). This doesn’t mean that they cannot love, or that they are robots, but that many aspects of normative emotions have not been experienced by the Aspie, which means they cannot have a one-to-one correspondence between their understanding of an emotion and the emotion that someone else is feeling. They have emotions, but they aren’t often expressed the way that non-Aspie’s emotions are expressed. They can love, but their partners often do not feel known or understood on a deep level.
Narcissists, on the other hand, can keep partners around despite being self-centered and mean, precisely because they are so aware of their partners’ emotional needs that they can get themselves out of trouble whenever they need to, by turning on the charm and giving their partners exactly what they want. Narcissists have active fantasy lives, and Aspie’s are often accused by partners of having no inner world and no emotions at all.
Here’s some more examples to discriminate between Aspies and narcissists.
Narcissist: I need you to come with me to my work dinner, even though it’s when you were going out with friends.
Spouse: But you didn’t give me any notice.
Narcissist: Do you understand that everyone’s partner will be there? This isn’t some Girls’ Night Out that you can reschedule.
Aspie: I’m going to my work dinner and I know you have plans so I didn’t ask you to come.
Spouse: Wait, what? Is this an important thing? Are spouses coming?
Aspie: Yes but you had plans so I didn’t ask.
Spouse: I mean, do you want me there?
Aspie: You have plans.
Here’s another example:
Spouse: I’m so scared that this mole I’m getting removed is going to turn out to be cancer.
Narcissist: Awww. Well, make sure to let me know, sweetheart. Hey, I have a rash from that new shaving cream you bought me. Can you make sure to get me the old brand today after you go to the doctor?
Spouse: I’m so scared that this mole I’m getting removed is going to turn out to be cancer.
Aspie: The likelihood of that is low. But there are always weird cases, like my coworker’s wife who died.
Spouse: WTF is wrong with you?
Now here’s one that highlights the positives of narcissists and why people stay with them:
Narcissist: You looked so hot tonight. All the guys wanted to take you home, but you’re all mine. I knew I loved you since I saw you in the dining hall in college.
Aspie: Thanks for coming to my work dinner. What time is your alarm set for in the morning? I have an early conference call.
Note that the narcissist knows exactly how to get a mood going. He is buoyed by the success of taking you out and showing you off. He can then become wrapped up in your love story and knows how to convey this to you. The Aspie is happy you came to his work dinner. Another note: both of them want to have sex that evening. Sadly, only one of them will.
Often, Aspies look fairly normal at work and may even have many friends, but if you look closely, the relationships at work and with friends are usually based on shared interests and not much emotional connection. (Many men are like this, but sometimes they do have deeper, emotional conversations, even couched with humor. We are talking about the situation where you cannot even visualize your partner having an intimate emotional discussion with anyone, even a sibling or parent.) Also, in more superficial interactions, the Aspie can fake it. He has frequently learned social scripts to deploy in common situations. But intimate relationships are more complex and therefore much more difficult to navigate. So he will often use the same script in multiple situations with a partner, but this comes off discordant, insensitive, or robotic. For instance, many Aspies will follow the same pattern in all sexual encounters, or during most phone calls.
If you realize that you are married to an Aspie, there is hope and a lot of reading material, like Marriage and Lasting Relationships with Asperger’s Syndrome. But the prognosis is usually best if the Aspie knows what he is working with and is open about how his behavior is not normative. Then, he can intellecually empathize with his partner’s unfulfilled need for the emotionality, romance, and connection he is not providing. Aspie spouses have many strengths, like stability, predictability, faithfulness, strong work ethics, and strong moral codes. Aspies of both genders usually don’t affiliate with traditional gender roles, so this isn’t the guy that will refuse to do housework out of some ego thing, or the woman who won’t change a tire out of a notion that she shouldn’t have to. (However, if you’re turned on by a take-charge guy or a flirtatious woman, your spouse is likely not that.) Aspies are also often very kind, and try not to hurt anyone.
Couples counseling can help you and your Aspie partner accept and make sense of your dynamic, as well as give you concrete tools for communication and help guide the Aspie to better express himself verbally and emotionally, as well as how to pick up on your cues. Whatever you decide, looking through an Asperger’s lens often makes sense of a relationship that previously seemed completely confusing and hopeless.
Last points: Remember that everything is a spectrum. Your Aspie may not be this severe, but if something feels “off,” it’s worth thinking about this more, because it can make you feel better and more tender and understanding to your partner. Also, it is worthwhile to introspect about why you subconsciously chose your Aspie. It is likely that a parent was, if not Aspie, emotionally tone-deaf, and your deep seated fantasy was always to explain “normal” interactions to your parent and have him or her respond by changing their behavior to approximate parents like those which your friends had.
Order Dr. Rodman Whiten’s books, 52 Emails to Transform Your Marriage and How to Talk to Your Kids about Your Divorce: Healthy, Effective Communication Techniques for Your Changing Family, and listen to The Dr. Psych Mom Show on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or anywhere else you listen to podcasts. If you need therapy, check out her online group practice Best Life Behavioral Health.
This blog is not intended as medical advice or diagnosis and should in no way replace consultation with a medical professional. If you try this advice and it does not work for you, you cannot sue me. This is only my opinion, based on my background, training, and experience as a therapist and person.