I have two questions for you, but first I want to tell you our story to put the questions in context. My boyfriend and I have been together for 3 years.  When I met him he had just started graduate school (at age 43). A month after we started dating his father died and his whole life unraveled before my eyes. He withdrew from school and went into a depression. He didn’t look for work, didn’t go back into his program when the time came, lost his place to live, and had to move to some family property four hours from where I live.

I could see how much he struggled and I knew there was some genuine and significant barrier to him getting his life together but I couldn’t put my finger on it (PTSD? An attachment disorder? Pervasive developmental trauma?). In any case, I have been loving him as best I can without trying to “help” him or “fix” anything. (I am a mental health counselor, and majorly co-dependent, so believe me this has been a herculean act of restraint.)

A few months ago he mentioned that he really relates to the way Temple Grandin explains thinking in pictures and he thinks he might be on the autism spectrum. I considered this. I have been racking my brain for three years trying to understand what is going on. I am a counselor, for pete’s sake, how could I not recognize this? (Possibly because we studied the autism spectrum for 10 whole minutes of my 60 hour master’s program—but that is the topic for another day).

I began reading everything I could find and suddenly everything made sense. After I read Tony Attwood’s Complete Guide to Asperger’s I told my boyfriend that it was like someone had taken all the individual puzzle pieces of observation I’d been collecting over the past three years and fitted them together so I could finally see the whole picture. Now we were onto something, something big, something that explained all the trouble he was having and had been having all of his life (and why he couldn’t say “I love you” with words although I felt more loved by him than I ever did by my ex-husband who said “I love you” every day.)

I encouraged him to read about it, too, (which he is doing) and I have continued reading and reading and we have been talking about it a little bit at a time since then. One thing that just about every article and book I’ve read repeats over and over is that the Aspies who have some measure of happiness in life are the ones who have someone (almost always a mother or wife) who helps them structure their days and navigate the intricacies of the neurotypical world.

I began thinking that my strategy of not “helping” which I thought was so healthy of me (finally, for once!) was actually, in this case, the opposite of what was needed. So, I am beginning to offer help with his job search, depression, and unbearable living situation. In the course of my research I came across your blog. So, finally, I get to the first one of my questions to you: Do you think this is an appropriate thing for me to do? Or would you tell me, as I have read in your responses to parents, that I should just love him and do things we enjoy together and let him figure out the rest?

And my second question is: how can someone with Asperger’s develop an internal locus of control? Tony Attwood says it is quite common in Asperger’s to have the sense of an external locus of control and I think this is what holds my boyfriend back even more than executive function problems or trouble dealing with people (although that causes him a lot of trouble).

He feels completely at the mercy of outside forces and seems to have no idea that he actually has any power to play a role in creating a positive future for himself. Any hint of a suggestion that he can make positive changes in himself and his life seems to make him feel quite hurt and even angry. If he can’t realize he can change his life for the better, he can’t feel any motivation for taking steps to do so and that seems like a hopelessly stuck place.

Did you once have an external locus of control and, if so, how did you overcome it? Do you have any suggestions that you think could help him? I love this guy so much it makes my heart hurt. I want so much for him to have a happy life and for us to have a fulfilling relationship something like what you seem to have with The Farmer. Do you see hope?

9 replies
  1. Penelope Trunk
    Penelope Trunk says:

    A guy who is 43 and dropping out of grad school is probably not going to ever hold down a job. And a man with Aspergers does not have enough executive function to take care of kids. So you cannot have children with this guy — you’ll be a single parent.

    An internal locus of control in someone with Aspergers comes from practice. And from having someone to rely on for what he can’t manage himself. But most often it comes from being very good at something. Just one thing — science, writing, needlepoint etc. The guy you’re with probably won’t get that.

    The people I have seen who are successfully navigating Aspergers have three things:

    1. A partner who they listen to. And friends who they listen to. My husband tells me to be quiet in public and I am quiet. My friend tells me to get my kid out of a certain class and I take him out. When it comes to day-to-day living I trust that if someone is sure they are right then I am wrong.

    2. Medicine. Most people with Aspergers have depression, anxiety and ADD. The ADD doesn’t even show up until the anxiety and depression are medicated. This takes probably a year of very careful psychiatric management to find the right pills/dosage.

    3. Routine. This means financial stability, relationship stability, alone time, predictable work environment, going to bed and waking up the same time, and exercise. Every day should be structured and look the same.

    If I were your friend I’d tell you to get out of this relationship. You should have kids and you can’t have them with this guy. If you won’t leave him then he absolutely must do what you tell him. You will need to set rules (e.g. No pulling away when you hug him, no leaving dishes in the sink, no wearing mismatched socks) and he will have to memorize them and never argue with you.

    This sounds harsh, but I have never seen marriages to someone with Asperger’s work any other way.

    Here is some other writing about Asperger’s that might help you:

    3 Things you need to know about people with Aspergers

    What your co-workers with Aspergers wish you knew

    How successful people deal with Aspergers

    • Pirate Jo
      Pirate Jo says:

      Why do you get the sense that this letter-writer even wants kids? Was there more to her letter that you did not publish here? “You should have kids?” Why? Is there a shortage?

      • Mary
        Mary says:

        The person posing the question said, “I want so much…for us to have a fulfilling relationship, something like what you seem to have with The Farmer. ” Penelope & the farmer have kids.

  2. jessica
    jessica says:

    I don’t see how you would be fulfilled in this relationship having to be co-dependent permanently (something you already struggle with) with this guy.

    That’s part of the issue- you have your new boundaries, expecting the guy to adjust to taking care of himself and it’s not happening.

    I have a feeling you grew past this relationship and started looking for reasons to stay and now reasons to help. It’s hard to give something up that you invested so much time in, but you can probably find someone more compatible more quickly than you realize, if you let go and move on.

  3. Tracy
    Tracy says:

    I found this letter so heart-warming & romantic, can’t believe you’re all telling her to dump him!

    Love aside, you sound so on top of things, with the right background, doing all the research, asking questions – I would trust yourself, that you are the best person to work through all the advice & figure out what really works in this particular situation.

    • jessica
      jessica says:

      She knew him for one month and then his world fell apart for a continuous 3 years- practically the whole time she has known this person.

      That’s a lot of drama to walk away from as a codependent, but she should move on if she wants happiness and fulfillment.

  4. Gordana Dragicevic
    Gordana Dragicevic says:

    People with Asperger’s can learn to take care of themselves, and yes, others can have fulfilling relationships with them. So I’d like to see the man given a chance. But I wonder if he’s already been given the chance? Three years is a long time. He’s probably become (kind of) comfortable in his unhappiness. Depression is bad, but he might have had it all his life (with milder ups and downs) and it’s what he knows. He’s also probably had other people take care of him all his life in some way or another. (Am I mistaken? What was he doing before grad school? Was he supporting himself at 42?)
    Change is extremely difficult for people on the spectrum. Unless he has to change something, he won’t. And even if he has to, maybe he won’t, but you can give it a try…
    He needs your support, but support to make the change, to start taking responsibility of himself. Not support to carry on like this. I don’t see from the letter that you necessarily want kids, and I agree with Penelope that if you do have kids you’ll be their only real parent, but you absolutely shouldn’t play substitute parent to a middle-aged man.
    He needs to find something he is good at, or become good at something, and incorporate it in his routine. He needs to do something different and something that produces results, not just what feels same and comfortable. That will give him confidence. Transition will be difficult, but he might just get there.
    You must have some needs of your own that need to be met. Be clear on those needs and on your boundaries. Set rules. That might be difficult for you (especially if, being co-dependent, you are not yet clear what those boundaries are), but you’ll have to do it. Don’t overromanticize the situation. People wit Asperger’s appreciate rules, and usually don’t know how to behave in relationships without them. Also, invite him to define his needs and boundaries and then honestly see if you can live with that. If you can’t, there is no point in continuing the relationship.
    Whish you all the best, whatever you decide!

    By the way, I also have Asperger’s. Female, in a long-term relationship, no kids. Paying my bills by doing what i like doing, not on medication. Still craving more routine and stability :)
    Don’t know if this trick helps regarding locus of control: I feel things just happen to me, but I make up my mind to “cheat” and act as if I can change them. Often, it works and I indeed manage to change stuff. And then I have to start all over again… I don’t think I’ll ever have a healthy internal locus of control, but it’s just not useful to act like it has to be external. It’s a matter of discipline, and it gets easier with time. Like speaking a foreign language.
    It is not our fault if we have Asperger’s, but it is our responsibility to make the best of what we have, we can’t be children forever.

  5. Wendy
    Wendy says:

    As someone with Asperger’s I have to say I agree with Penelope. To the letter-writer, if your boyfriend agrees to follow Penelope’s suggestions then maybe things can work out (i.e. he should always do what you tell him – maybe show him this letter and Penelope’s response?) Gordana’s response was great too.

    Though, note that things can be somewhat different for women because even women with Asperger’s tend to be better at finding friends to help and tell them what to do (thus being able to lead more seemingly indepdendent lives) than the men are.

    As Penelope says, the men tend to need either a mom or a wife to guide them through everything. I’ve noticed that men with Asperger’s tend to either have no friends at all, or all their friends also have Asperger’s, which is unhelpful from a day-to-day living sense.

  6. Ashley
    Ashley says:

    Nowhere in this letter does she say that he wants to change.

    Your relationship may be in trouble if you continue to try to diagnose your partner. That is not really your job and if you were his therapist that would be completely inappropriate. Leave the diagnostic piece to a qualified professional.

    You can’t ‘fix’ him. You seem to be a very supportive partner but what is he doing to improve his life? What are you going to do if he does nothing to change?

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