It’s amazing how capable the mind can be of explaining away the congruence between an individual fact and general pattern. Somehow, when your own life is in the balance, you can become stupidly good at finding reasons why the truth isn’t true and the wrong things are actually okay. I suppose this evolved as some sort of protective mechanism, ensuring the perpetuation of the ego. But it also has the potential to be one of our most disastrous faults. I never learned this until I got into, and stayed for a very long time in, an abusive relationship.
I don’t remember when I first began to suspect that my long-distance committed partner, M., was abusing me. It probably took longer than you would expect, given the behaviors to which I was subjected. However, one of the pitfalls of relationships for people with spectrum disorders is our difficulty with interpreting cues accurately. When you don’t often have the same gut reaction to another’s behavior that an average person would, you stop trusting what instincts you do have, and look to someone you think you can trust to tell you how the world is working and how you should respond to interactions– including interactions with that very person. Once someone gains that inroad and convinces you that they have the kind of answers that your “badly”-wired brain will never provide, it’s ludicrously easy for them to manipulate your perceptions, making themselves unassailable and invaluable to your existence. You couldn’t possibly survive without the insights and guidance they offer– not to mention the companionship, which is less than forthcoming from most of the population– and if you feel hurt, confused, frustrated, misunderstood, stifled, overwhelmed, worthless, inadequate, hopeless, resigned, even suicidal, those are manifestations of your own disability, not any fault of your benefactor’s.
In my case, the abuse eventually came to a head and became incontrovertible when M. came to stay with me for three months and the physical violence began. On perhaps as many as a dozen occasions, I had the joy of knowing what it feels like when someone presses his face to yours and screams vitriol, spraying you with sweat and saliva, backs you into a corner, and, when you try to escape or call for help, digs his fingers into your arms, throws you onto the bed, kneels over your stomach and covers your mouth (and sometimes nose as well) while continuing to call you a stupid bitch, threaten your reputation and family ties, convince you that he’s already planned everything so that you have nowhere to turn for help, and endlessly confirm that it’s all your fault. Yeah. It’s pretty hard to excuse that. (Although I did. Even recognizing this blatant abuse, I pathetically believed the tropes about how sorry he was, how he was going to get help, etc., for literally months.)
However, even had the abuse never reached this extreme of physical and verbal assault, the relationship still would have been abusive; I am just not sure whether I recognized it in that stage, or ever would have if it had continued the same way. Truth be told, my memories of the last year or so with M. are pretty fucked up. Maybe that has something to do with the number of hours per week I spent curled in the foetal position on my floor hyperventilating, then running to the bathroom and puking until I dry-retched. I know these things:
- He demanded more and more of my time. I had to call him at certain times every day and spend all of my free time on IM and VOIP with him. I lost touch with everything I liked to do on my own, and my son and I became very distanced because I wasn’t giving him the time or emotional energy that two and three year old children crave.
- Everything we did had to be done his way. If I wanted to, for example, watch a tv show that I liked, or go to bed early, I needed special permission which involved a whole lot of pleading and guilt-tripping.
- He controlled virtually everything I did. What I wore. (No black. No patterns. Nothing dressy.) How I did my hair. Who I knew. Where I went and when.
- He had terrible rage problems. When I made him angry (usually by questioning or “failing” at the “obligations” listed above) he would lash out and harm either himself or the objects around him. He broke at least half a dozen keyboards during the time I knew him. He would slice the backs of his hands with razorblades while we were on VOIP and tell me I made him do it. This should have been a pretty fucking huge red flag.
- He manipulated me by telling me distorted half-truths or out-and-out lies about my mother and conversations he’d had with her. I later found out he was saying the same sorts of things to her about me. Apparently he was plotting to keep us at one another’s throats so that I wouldn’t have a refuge or confidant in her.
- I was constantly making excuses to others for his repeated calls and texts and ridiculous demands. The stress of this, and the shame, was crippling. I was isolated and living a perpetual lie, deluding even myself.
I know that I was unhappy, because I tried repeatedly to leave him, but he would always find a way to contact me and guilt or sweet-talk me into getting sucked back in. But I genuinely think that it wasn’t until the assaults began that I connected the dots and identified the relationship as abusive in basically every possible way. That sounds so pathetic now, because I consider myself reasonably street-smart and capable. But I suppose one of the reasons abuse is successful is that it beats you down until you genuinely think 1) that it’s normal and excusable, and 2) that you can make it different by modifying your own behaviour.
So did I leave him once I recognized this? Hell to the no. I continued to accept his excuses and promises that he would find a way to deal with it, even as it got worse and worse. Part of this was that because of the way he’d isolated me, I had no one to whom to turn for comfort after these traumas except to him. If I left him, I would be utterly alone. Also, I would have to admit my own “failure”– those are the terms in which I thought of it– and deconstruct the lie I’d spent a year and a half building. I felt so weakened that I just couldn’t face that prospect. The situation was self-perpetuating. Anyone who despises battered partners for allowing the abuse to continue needs to understand that feeling before they cast judgment.
In the face of all that, my reason for finally leaving probably sounds ludicrously arbitrary and superficial. One day I had been shopping for new, dressier clothes for school, having lost some weight. I showed M. the clothes and told him that because academia is my profession, I felt I should start dressing in a way that reflected my committed attitude. He got upset and lectured me about how out-of-character and immature it was to try to dress to fit in with a certain group of people and project a certain image. As usual, I felt resentful and tried to argue, but ended up being cowed and depressed. For some reason it was the last straw. After the conversation ended, I remember going to the mirror and staring at my reflection for at least an hour, trying to discern anything that looked or felt like me. I couldn’t find it. I didn’t even know what that meant anymore. I felt like smashing the mirror, but instead I went and told him that we were over. And for whatever reason, that time I didn’t go back. I spent three days sleeping on the couch, getting piss drunk, and watching the most abhorrent television I could download. And then I got up and went on. I rebuilt– am still rebuilding– my life, my relationships, and myself, one day at a time.
I wish I could tell you how I let go of the fear and did what seemed impossible; I wish there was a magic formula that I could give to everyone else who has suffered similarly. But you know and I know that there’s not.
All I can say, to everyone but particularly to my fellow auties, is this: I know sometimes we are desperate for someone to love us, because we’re told we don’t understand relationships and because no one seems to like or understand us. Just ask yourself what that love means and at what cost it comes. We’re not broken, unlovable people, but we can be vulnerable ones. If you don’t feel like you understand how a healthy, happy relationship feels and looks (and they DO exist), do what we do best and analyze the world around you. Read. Peoplewatch. Find out what realistic expectations are. Don’t just accept what comes along and trust the person making the demands to tell you that they’re reasonable. Life isn’t about being loved, it’s about being happy. Trust me on this one: years later, when something better comes along, you will not look back and regret the years spent alone figuring out what the fuck this is all about and who you’re supposed to be. You WILL regret sacrificing years of your life to a hurtful illusion and experiencing the self-loathing of knowing to what you consented.
Interestingly, only toward the end of our relationship did I find out that M. was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder with psychotic tendencies. Looking back, this helps a lot of the pieces fit into place. And only very recently did I find out that bunny boilers [definition] with BPD latching onto autists is a thing. Not to say BPD people are evil and untouchable, but do be aware of the symptoms of Borderline Personality. Know that if you’re an autist, somewhere on the spectrum, or an otherwise sensitive or vulnerable person, you may not be the one equipped to handle a partnership with someone volatile and aggressive, no matter their other good traits; and understand that these behaviors are signs of being, not madly in love, but mad full stop.
A good, accessible page introducing those on the spectrum to healthy, realistic dating and relationship habits: http://www.scn.org/autistics/relationships.html
Straightforward and very sensible advice on identifying secure partners: http://aloftyexistence.wordpress.com/2011/09/08/spotting-the-secure-partner/
Learn about your own attachment style, because being secure is attractive to secure people: http://www.web-research-design.net/cgi-bin/crq/crq.pl
A more in-depth article on attachment theory (if you just want the “goods,” scroll down to “Adult Romantic Relationships” and continue from there): http://internal.psychology.illinois.edu/~rcfraley/attachment.htm
NB: I was unable to find a good reference for how to improve your own attachment style. If anyone has any resources on this, please do share. Also, every time I go to type “secure,” I type “sex.” Boy would Freud have a field day with me.