Integrating an Aspie-ish significant other into a friend group?
January 19, 2014 6:26 PM   Subscribe

My wonderful, kind, sweet, smart boyfriend has, I think, a few Aspie traits. They're mostly noticeable when we're socializing with my friends. Bringing him into my friend group is causing me a tremendous amount of stress and anxiety. What can I (we) do?

I love my boyfriend-- we'll call him Dan. He's cute, sweet, smart, makes me laugh, and treats me wonderfully. When we're together, just the two of us, we have a great time. We originally had some communication problems due to our different styles, but we worked them out and now have a really easy rapport about communication differences. He used to suffer from a lot of social anxiety. (FWIW, he's not officially diagnosed with Aspberger's-- my therapist suggested it based on my descriptions. And a lot of the traits don't ring true at all.)

The problem comes when we're socializing-- especially with my friends. Things that we've worked out between the two of us get fired way up. So I notice Dan doing things like monologuing, talking very rapidly, interrupting others, going off on unrelated tangents. I see my friends' faces go from interest and welcoming, to curiosity, to confusion, to bewilderment.

We recently hung out with another couple-- I thought the two guys would get along great as they have a lot of common interests. But Dan ended up firing questions at and interrupting my friend's bf-- for two hours-- while I sat there trying to silently block and tackle. Dan reached out to the bf after to follow up on the conversation and never heard back.

Now, my stress levels rise whenever we make plans with my friends. I feel like I'm bringing a bull into a china shop.

I've talked about it to my therapist, and she says I need to be more understanding and think of these things as differences, not problems to be solved or corrected. She also says that the friends that are real friends will learn what a great guy he is in time. And I get that. And I agree. But I still feel super anxious and stressed about the social dynamics that are going to ensue whenever we socialize.

I know this is probably the wrong tactic, but does anyone have experience having a really direct conversation about something like this? Is that even appropriate, and what would I say? Is it something we can work on? I can work on? He can work on? For me, community and social support systems are really important-- and I want the person in my life to be able to be a part of that. I'm very sad thinking about how my desire to be with him and my desire to be with my community might not be compatible.

posted by anonymous to Human Relations (13 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know if it's possible to talk to your boyfriend, but I certainly think you could talk to your friends. "I really like this guy, we have so much fun together and he treats me wonderfully, but he's kind of socially awkward and I'm worried you guys will think he's kind of weird and won't realize how great he is." My friend said that exact sentence to me recently and it made me much more sympathetic and accepting of someone whom I otherwise might have thought was slightly overbearing. I was also, however, able to reassure her that the problem was not nearly as bad as she thought it was, and that I (like her!) could tell right away that he was a pretty great guy.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 6:35 PM on January 19, 2014 [14 favorites]

What does your boyfriend say when you talk to him about this behaviour? If he's doing things that are objectively annoying and not realizing it, some one is going to have to tell him, and that someone should be someone who loves him like you.
posted by sparklemotion at 7:25 PM on January 19, 2014 [5 favorites]

"It's really important to me that we can all enjoy hanging out together. I love you so much and I love how enthusiastic you get, but I think you maybe don't realize that you can get kind of shouty and interrupt Bob and Jane when they're talking. I know you would never do it on purpose, so can you please pay extra attention to that? For me?"

(I very much wish that I had summoned the stones to do this years ago; one of my best friendships imploded as a result of us not working well in a foursome in a similar situation. Do it now.)
posted by fingersandtoes at 7:43 PM on January 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

Consider making your block and tackle an overt part of your communications arrangement.

We originally had some communication problems due to our different styles, but we worked them out and now have a really easy rapport about communication differences. He used to suffer from a lot of social anxiety.

Eg, build on the conversations you had about figuring out your communication difficulties and say that because your friends tend to socialize at your wavelength, you think he'll have an easier time in conversation with them if he keeps [different communication style] dialed back. I'm guessing that because he used to suffer social anxiety, socializing is something that takes energy and focus, and if so, then something that helps to reduce that workload while retaining the rewards is useful. To that end, maybe figure out a signalling system so you have a way in the middle of a social situation to overtly tell him "I think you're being intense for this person - dial it back", without other people being aware of the communication.
When you tried to block and tackle in the past, he was probably too focused to notice and interpret your actual intent or your underlying motive, so you're stuck desperately trying to send signals subtle enough for the room not to notice but loud enough for him to get the message, and failing because there isn't such a signal. It might be less stressful to prearrange a signal so you don't have to be trapped in that stressful dance.

(Also, I just kind of like the secret-agent adventure-team aspect of couples having secret signals :-)
posted by anonymisc at 7:58 PM on January 19, 2014 [3 favorites]

From my experience I don't think this is something your boyfriend can change. That said, I don't really know what the fix is. For me, it's choosing who, where and when to be with friends. It can be quite lonely.
posted by anadem at 8:11 PM on January 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

I really like both the keep friends in the loop ("hey, this dude is a great dude, and here's what you might expect when hanging out at first") and building up secret couple communications. With the friends, it might help to come with a positive energy as opposed to feeling apologetic about things, which you don't really sound like from your post (you seem quite understanding and enthusiastic which is rad!) As for your couple cues, be patient and give yourselves a little time to build that up. In one relationship, my SO and I agreed that if we ever felt overwhelmed/ready to bail, we would rhythmically scratch our (own) left eyebrow. It was awesome.

Also, consider introducing your fella to friends in a context where there is some kind of activity or shared focus, like a concert or a movie/boardgame night. Some people just aren't in their best element when meeting new people in conversation-only contexts, and it might be easier for him to build rapport in another context.
posted by elephantsvanish at 8:24 PM on January 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

You need a code word or a signal like a tap on his foot. Or, you know, transparency works too -- I say things like "Honey, Joe and Jane don't really care about the political history of Michael Foote because they don't know who Michael Foote is. Let's change the topic!"
posted by DarlingBri at 8:29 PM on January 19, 2014 [6 favorites]

Agreeing with the above post. I have a friend with a partner like this. If you're going to unleash him on your friends, then please, for the love of God, take responsibility for pulling him up when he starts being rude. Don't leave the burden of enduring or chastising him to others.
posted by JeanDupont at 10:09 PM on January 19, 2014 [4 favorites]

IF this becomes a long-term thing, you might honestly just end up spending more time with your friends stag, while he is relaxing at home doing stuff he genuinely enjoys. This does not mean he spends zero time with your friends, ever. Just that stag becomes an acceptable option.

Does he enjoy having people over more than he enjoys going out? That worked for me.
posted by skbw at 7:26 AM on January 20, 2014

Is this something your boyfriend is aware of and wants to change? I think you have to build on whatever you have worked out right now in terms of your communications styles.

I also think you need to reassess whether or not it's really important for your boyfriend to be integrated into your friend group and friends with your friends. My partner is an introvert, not an Aspie, so he finds socializing exhausting and stressful. For probably the first year of our relationship, I really did not understand this, and very much wanted him to be a part of my group of friends who I loved and are very important to me. While he does hang out with my friends on occasion, for the most part I go out with my friends alone, and it works for us.
posted by inertia at 8:19 AM on January 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

First of all, your therapist should not be speculating on possible diagnoses for someone she has never met based on your descriptions. Autism of high functioning sorts can be really difficult to assess in adults.

Secondly, everything you've said were things I did for a long time and was completely related to being nervous around new people. It took concerted effort to literally bite my tongue and just be an observant fly on the wall at times before integrating into a social circle.

Thirdly, does he want to hang with your friends? Or would he prefer to stay home? Is he doing this only for you or has he expressed a wish to meet more people? The answers to these should guide your actions.
posted by zizzle at 8:30 AM on January 20, 2014

My husband is somewhat similar, but he doesn't have Asperger's, he's just from New York City and enthusiastic about things. He's gotten better over the years, in large part because he wanted to and was open to my input on it.

In our case, trying to do inconspicuous block-and-redirect is utterly hopeless, as is an elbow to the ribs, a discreet kick in the shin, or anything like that. When I try that, we wind up with post-event conversations like this:
Me: Sweetie, you were monopolizing the conversation in there, plus you ignored me when I was trying to get your attention about it.
Him: Get my attention? When?
Me: When I elbowed you in the ribs, remember?
Him: … Nope, don't remember that.
Me: Dude, you shifted over four inches and interrupted yourself long enough to say "sorry, do you need more room?" before you went back to expounding.
Him: Oh, that. That was getting my attention?
What works for us, which we've figured out after much discussion, is literally for me to visibly poke him — visibly to the other people present — and say "Dude, give somebody else a chance to talk, k?"
posted by Lexica at 10:28 AM on January 20, 2014

Have a conversation about it. "Dan, when you get in social situations, you tend to monopolize the conversation, or ask too many questions for a social setting. If I see this happening, I'll come up and tap you on the shoulder. When I do that, it means step back and let the other person talk."

Do tell your friends, "Dan is a lovely guy, but he just loses his mind when he's nervous. I hope you can give him some latitude."

As for the Aspergers thing, I cringe when I hear it because suddenly, all socially awkward folks are classified as having it, and it's really unfair to the folks who do. I'm not even going to get into the whole, "Aspie" nickname.

Some people are socially awkward and that's how they're wired. It's like if your boyfriend had horrible gas or psorisis. You'll give your friends a heads up, but you don't need to make a thing of it. "Dan has an issue and sometimes he can clear a room with his gas. He can't help it though. Perhaps you can open a window if it gets out of hand."

One thing I did when Husbunny and I started going out was to arrange for a quiet room for him, if he got overwhelmed. He'd bring a book and hang out there if the whole "party" thing got to be too much for him.

Ask Dan if he feels nervous in these situations, perhaps his monologues and questions are a symptom of it.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:42 AM on January 20, 2014

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