Disagreements, fights and disputes can be found in any relationship. The difference between a satisfying intimate relationship and a frustrating one lies in the way both intimate partners handle their disagreements and in the final resolution, whether they fail or succeed in reaching solutions that they both can feel comfortable with.
Couples who are generally happy with their relationship intuitively know that if they want to effectively manage the disagreements they encounter, it is necessary to talk about the issues causing the conflicts. They use communication as a basic tool that helps them deal with difficulties they face. They work together and negotiate until they find satisfying solutions.
This does not happen when one of the intimate partners is on the autism spectrum. Conflicts usually remain unresolved. Due to theory of mind deficits, intimate partner with autism cannot see the value of the typically developing partner’s perspective and will often not consider or be willing to talk about that perspective. Conflicts are often avoided. When couples do try to communicate, blow-ups often occur soon after discussions start.
Why does it happen?
Issues that are the center of conflict are generally emotionally loaded. Even when they are not, disagreement itself involves intense emotions.
Individuals with autism find it difficult to deal with the emotions of others and experience difficulties with regulating their own emotions. This can be very difficult for people on the spectrum and their typically developing partners. It is not uncommon for people with autism to exhibit extreme reactions when they are emotionally agitated.
While the typically developing partner generally initially wishes to communicate, aiming to reach a compromise or conflict resolution, the lack of mutual theory of mind skills and collaboration towards productive win-win solutions leaves both partners feeling upset and unheard. Problem solving in mixed-neurological relationships is often so unproductive — and even traumatic — that one or both partners may wish to end the conversation as quickly as possible. As a result, either partner might walk away during a heated argument, leaving the other more furious than before.
There is nothing wrong in stopping an argument that deteriorates into mutual accusations and loud shouts. On the contrary, it is better to stop it and approach the problem later, after both partners calm down. The issue is that some partners refuse to get back to the discussion, preferring to ignore the existence of problems. Others are so traumatized by the difficulties of problem solving that they would prefer to avoid the issues. And, of course, ignoring problems does not make them disappear. In other cases, the couples try again but are never able to manage a problem-solving conversation that is productive rather than traumatic for one or both parties.
In many cases, mixed-neurological couples manage unresolved problems for years, with both members of the relationship choosing to live with the problem and work around it because managing the problem is easier than resolving it.
What eventually happens is that the same unresolved issues keep popping up to create a fight that never ends, as resolution is never achieved. The typically developing partner may continuously attempt to initiate conversations, while the partner with autism may constantly avoid them. Or vice versa. When communication fails, there is no chance to settle disputes or find solutions, so consequently, both partners remain frustrated and feel trapped in a dead-end situation.
Effective conflict resolution is a skill that can be learned, like any other skill. However, it requires the cooperation of both intimate partners. Cooperation works when both parties have theory of mind skills.
To resolve conflicts, both parties must work to understand what makes it so difficult for them to cope with problematic issues and what is the typical mode of behavior of each one of them when they disagree about something. When this occurs, couples can learn to communicate effectively when they have disputes, end fights and stop this vicious circle.
Dr. Pnina Arad