By KRISTEN FINCH
Dear Kristen, I read your husband’s essay. I know my husband has Asperger’s, too, and I’m miserable. Two questions: 1) How do I get my husband to admit it and 2) How do I get him to change like Dave did? I just want to be happy again.
These were the questions I got the most after my husband’s Modern Love essay. My response gets mixed reactions.
For years I was convinced that Dave was living his life completely wrong. He was too rigid, too self-absorbed, too reactive.
We might run out of orange juice, a very important part of his morning routine, and I’d watch him stomp around and slam the refrigerator, saying things like “Why are we the only family on the planet that runs out of orange juice?” I’d watch this tiny annoyance ruin his entire morning, and it would ruin mine.
I felt like my personality was fundamentally changing. Normally not one for drama, I found myself becoming emotional and reactive in response.
At first, I tried pointing things out to him gently: “Dave, maybe our guests would like to choose their own pizza toppings.”
Yet my attempts to change his behavior only seemed to wind him up more, and as resentment started to build, I became less nice. “Aw, what’s the matter, Dave? Did the burial take longer than you thought it should?” Or, “Are you seriously pouting because hurricane coverage pre-empted ‘Big Bang Theory’?”
The discovery that he had Asperger’s syndrome brought some relief; it meant that many of these traits — the rigidity, the need for sameness, the social awkwardness — had a physiological cause.
But finding a label did not solve everything, since it was not my husband who was causing my unhappiness.
What finally opened my eyes was a moment involving broccoli. (That’s marriage for you). Dave was standing at the sink washing a pile of broccoli for his lunch, and he was taking a really, really, really long time to do it. Like, five minutes per floret.
As he was standing there washing, taking up the part of the kitchen that I needed, I had a clear and satisfying vision of roundhouse-kicking him in the back of his head. Can you NOT see that it’s lunchtime and I’m racking around the kitchen trying to make the kids’ lunches? Can you NOT hear how tired and crabby they are? Can you NOT be so damn selfish for even a minute?
When he finally finished, he turned around and I saw that he was completely unaware of the chaos around him — the kids melting down, the wife pushing past him a hundred times. He looked content, even had this little, loving smile on his face
In that moment, I slowed down and zoomed out, hovering over the situation as if I was watching a movie. There were two hungry and irritated kids, there was a man washing broccoli, and a seething woman, exhausted from holding so much resentment.
I zoomed out to see that Dave was a human being, someone’s child, someone’s brother, someone’s father. When I took that bigger view, I found compassion. That may sound like a simple revelation, but it’s anything but.
We always believe the stories we tell ourselves. I had been repeating this depressing internal dialogue about how I was married to a selfish jerk, and because I didn’t want to be wrong, I looked for proof of it. Declaring pizza toppings for the entire table: selfish jerk! Demanding our fellow library patrons speak in a whisper: selfish jerk! Annoyed that too many people have been talking to him recently: I can’t even with this selfish jerk!
But until the broccoli moment, I hadn’t once told myself the story of how I had been so judgmental. I had to zoom out to see that story line unfolding, and once I did, I wanted to revise it.
I knew for sure I didn’t want to feel mad all the time. I didn’t want to be so resentful. And I really, really wanted to figure out how to like my husband again.
I began noticing when the resentment would start to kick in: my heart would start pounding, my body would tighten, and I’d fantasize kicking him. When I noticed these signs, I’d take a few breaths and try to hover above the situation rather than star in it.
There were other strategies that helped, like learning how to speak up instead of holding everything in. I learned to set boundaries because sometimes there were behaviors that just weren’t O.K. with me. But most important, by far, was ditching the idea that my happiness depended so much on my husband.
We still have our moments. Just recently I tried to convince Dave that coming home with a pallet of Claussen pickles was a bit of an overreaction to me purchasing the generic brand the night before. (What is wrong with the generic ones? I’m glad you asked: “They’re flimsy, Kristen. They stick together, so everyone has to manhandle them. We eat Claussen pickles, all of us. Now, make room for these boxes.”
Still, pausing and taking a wider view continues to be my daily practice, and I don’t get hung up on doing it perfectly. Rewriting your story takes time.
Dear All the Wives, I don’t know if your husband has Asperger’s. I don’t have any idea how you get another person to change. As far as being happy, what worked for me was focusing on myself, which freed me up to love my husband for who he is — and that freed me up to love our marriage for what it is. And a glass of wine never hurts, either. xo, Kristen
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