Help me get started studying relationships.
February 7, 2015 3:52 AM   Subscribe

I need to learn how to think about relationships that are "more than just" friendships. This needs to happen before I start to consider whether I want that kind of relationship, so I'm not looking for any kind of practical guide. Perhaps that means I need to read philosophy texts, in which case I'd like some recommendations for that; or maybe you have a better idea of what I need.

I'm an autistic man who's either asexual, or just too preoccupied with his work and craft to be bothered to form many friendships, much less an intimate relationship, sexual or otherwise.

Whether I want to live without intimacy is an open question, because I don't feel I understand what intimacy implies. I've heard that simply "being there" for someone, when it'd be easier to leave, is an intimate act; in which case I must've been intimate with my family at various points. I've also heard that a lot of people some kind of emotional reward for this, some feeling of satisfaction, but the most I got out of it was a sense of ethical correctness. I attended my grandmother's funeral because I'd have hated myself if I hadn't.

It is also possible that I do feel those things, but don't notice or care. Learning to notice and possibly care about those feelings is part of what I'm after here.

The mont personally intimate thing in my life right now is that I still discuss my everyday problems with my father, and we collaborate on solving them. This arrangement came about as a result of his efforts to help me out of my depression, mostly through conversations where he tried very hard to get me to admit to caring about things. We don't go that deep anymore. Nowadays I can work out what's important to me on my own time, and inform him of that insofar as it's relevant to my plans. I am basically satisfied with this arrangement, although at some point I'd like to set up something like this with someone else, so that it doesn't have the unpleasant history involved.

I feel like that relationship is not the greatest model for intimacy, but it's the only one I've got at the moment. So perhaps there's something I could read to give me a better one. Something along the lines of HUSH for asexuals, I guess. I feel like most of the discussion surrounding this topic just assumes that there will be sex involved, which definitely confuses the issue for me, even ignoring the political problems with sexualizing everything.
posted by LogicalDash to Religion & Philosophy (10 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
I have previously attempted to solve this problem through a social skills training course, tailored for autists, that wasn't really very helpful because it assumed that we already understood what romance was, and why we should care about it.
posted by LogicalDash at 3:54 AM on February 7, 2015

You have intimacy with your father because you share your feelings and activities with him. It is an intimate relationship because these feelings and activities have been shared over time. He's your emotional camera. He's recorded the big moments in your life. It feels good to have someone to do that. It feels less lonely.

Romantic intimacy can feel 100 times more wonderful than what you have with your dad. In a romantic relationship, the emotional camera is recording all the time. It's not just the big things, it's all the little things as well. It's how you like your coffee and at what point in the night your feet get cold. It's very special and it usually does involve sex, which is a super fun way to get even closer. Not all people want sex in an intimate, romantic relationship. If you do not, don't worry, you are not alone.

Many people separate emotional intimacy with physical intimacy, which can be very confusing. They are more than willing to give up their bodies for pleasure without sharing any parts of who they are. These people won't have their emotional camera aimed at you. They tend to be very lonely and they can make their partners feel very lonely. So, strive for emotional intimacy. Be a part of someone's day. Find out their likes and dislikes. Share yours with them. And, after you start to feel close to them, hold their hand. If you feel a spark, then you know that is someone who wants to be more than friends.

It's okay to not rush yourself. Everyone fails at love at some point or another. But we keep trying because it feels really good when it works.

Try turning on your emotional camera. You can start with your dad. Assign yourself the task of asking him at least 2 personal questions (what do you like, where did you go) with every conversation and learning and remembering at least one interesting fact. And try this with your friends as well. You can be an emotional photographer, storing up the best shots in your brain. You can even write them down if you like, separating them into columns, keeping the happy pictures separate from the unhappy ones. Reminding someone of a happy thought that they shared with you or pointing out a flattering observation can make someone feel very close to you, which sparks intimacy.
posted by myselfasme at 5:59 AM on February 7, 2015 [6 favorites]

Have you seen this article? It addresses many of the issues you present.

This, in particular, stuck out to me:

"Perhaps (like me in the past,) many autistics are actually looking more for a professional relationship - someone who will share and complement their skills, knowledge, obsessions and interests. They are not necessarily keen to snuggle together in the park, but to debate philosophy and share stories of imaginary worlds. Their idea of a wonderful night may be of the couple completing a mathematical thesis or computer program together. They would like a partner who appreciates their talents, skills, and interests."

I've begun to suspect I'm on the spectrum myself, but haven't obtained a diagnosis (it's impossible right now AFAIK given my current health insurance). But I identify so much with this paragraph. I'm sure I'd fall hard for someone I could do those things with. However, I am not asexual nor am I aromantic, and a person probably doesn't have to be autistic to value an intellectual connection like the author discusses. When you think of a potential relationship like this, do you get any physical reactions like an increase in heart rate or a "butterflies in the stomach" type feeling? Does it sound like a relationship you would consider special and fulfilling?

One of my best friends was an Aspie who had a number of relationships like this that fulfilled her on a deeply intellectual level, but were not physical. They were deep platonic friendships. She wasn't 100% ace, though. She fell head over heels in love with one of our other friends and they had a relationship. It seemed to really surprise her that she felt that way. I think the term would be demisexual or graysexual. She had fallen in love with a woman years before, but these were the only two romances she ever had.

You may not fully know if a romantic or sexual relationship is something you want until you actually try it. Ethically, of course you should be up front with any potential partner about all of your thoughts on the matter so they can have appropriate expectations.
posted by Beethoven's Sith at 7:23 AM on February 7, 2015

My favorite book about relationships is called How to be an Adult in Relationships: Five Keys to Mindful Loving. This book taught me a lot about what it means to truly love someone and to be intimate with them: not in a sexual way (I don't even recall if sex is discussed in the book) but in a more deep and profound way. This book pretty much taught me what love is, and also taught me how to recognize when someone who says they love me is not acting loving, which is a lesson I really needed -- and didn't learn until I read about it.
posted by sockermom at 8:41 AM on February 7, 2015 [2 favorites]

from Beethoven's Sith's link:

[The real experience cannot be defined in words, but...] Romance is an intense relationship between two people where both feel the overwhelming desire to be with and to hold each other forever. This is a wonderful, beautiful experience of the body.

I'll interpret that parenthetical as being directed at someone who hasn't thought much about language and its delicate relationship with lived experience.

Myself, I don't expect definitions to be extensive; I favor operational definitions, in this case something like: If you feel a desire for someone, and it is a desire "of the body" (I suppose, in the way that hunger is?), and it may be satisfied by holding them for a long time (I assume "forever" is hyperbole), then that is a romantic desire, and the surrounding experience is romance. A set of tests, sort of, that I might perform to distinguish romance from friendship or infatuation. I do not think the test I just described is a good one.

The article does have some tests later on, but they're to distinguish good romance from bad, not to distinguish romance from not romance. They don't seem very well thought through in any case, eg. relationships should lead to "freedom" and not "control," as if those were natural opposites.

It is arguingly, one of the most delicious highlights of Earthly life. It is not surprisingly that many Earthlings think that autistics are missing out a lot if they do not have such experiences. --ibid.

I'd like to avoid such talk if I can. The fact I'm "missing out" on something is uninformative; everybody forgoes some things they might like because they're expensive, or risky, or inconvenient. I don't mind that other people are seriously into it, but I'm already quite aware that my tastes aren't normative in any sphere. I may have to put up with constant reminders of the fact in order to get this sorted, but it's alienating.

You may not fully know if a romantic or sexual relationship is something you want until you actually try it. Ethically, of course you should be up front with any potential partner about all of your thoughts on the matter so they can have appropriate expectations. -- Beethoven's Sith

To do that, I need to know what I'm trying to accomplish. I mean, I know what a date looks like--I could go on one without embarassing myself--but if I don't have a fairly solid concept of what effect it's meant to have, I'll end up merely putting on a show, and I don't think that's the point.
posted by LogicalDash at 11:07 AM on February 7, 2015

It is also possible that I do feel those things, but don't notice or care. Learning to notice and possibly care about those feelings is part of what I'm after here.

I have a close and positive relationship with my 27 year old autistic son. He does not feel things the way other people do. He gets excited about good food and good video games and good discussion. He sometimes gets angry about things and he is very grudging and slow to let it go when something does make him angry. Beyond that, he doesn't seem to have a lot of emotion. Some people just don't have the wiring for having big feelings about everything under the sun.

My son has wondered if he is asexual. I have told him basically that if he hits age 40 and still has no interest in sex or reproducing, I will accept that he is really asexual. Until then, I think the jury is out. I explained to him that human men typically get interested in reproducing later than human women and some of the practical reasons why that makes sense for the species. He liked that answer and he feels less of a need to decide if he fits some particular label (like "asexul"). He seems more okay now with waiting to see if, someday, he happens to meet a lady that really interests him.

Emotions come from somewhere. In other words, feeling "love" for someone is typically about feeling like that person is consistently good to you in a way that makes the downside worthwhile. My son does not feel love for me, but he is very loyal to me because I have earned that loyalty by being consistently good to him. I am very okay with that.

Frankly, a lot of relationships really aren't great relationships. If that emotional and social stuff is not very important to you, you may find that most people just are not worth the hassle of being closely involved with. Especially if you have special needs and/or just don't need much from other people, there can be too much downside, not enough upside to justify the bother involved. I do have the social-emotional wiring. In fact, I seem to be sort of Uber social-emotional. But I also have special needs. It's made it relatively easy to remain celibate since my ex left, for what is now closing in on 10 years. Most men just aren't worth the hassle involved, even though I like sex and I am very emotionally driven.

So you could look at it as possibly a feature, not a bug. If you find someone you really get along with well, you might see value in getting with them romantically/sexually. In the mean time, you can skip a lot of the drama that shows up in relationship Asks because you are unlikely to put up with that kind of drama just to get laid or not feel lonely.

FWIW, my oldest son doesn't comprehend what other people are talking about when they talk about feeling lonely. He has gotten a high level of acceptance from me and his brother. He is close to both of us. He has little need or desire to socialize with most other people and it is common for him to take me with him so I can talk to the cashier or the deli counter person because he very often doesn't even want to engage socially to that degree.

And I have seen him try to talk with cashiers and the like on days when he is not feeling well and it really goes disastrously. It isn't just a case of him being uncomfortable. It's a situation where the harder he tries to communicate, the worse it gets and pretty soon they look ready to call the cops and have him strip-searched. I step in and smooth things over and suddenly the same thing is a reasonable request. But when he does it, it goes really poorly sometimes.

Intimacy takes at least 15-20 hours a week of close interaction to establish and maintain. It also involves a level of trust -- of being willing to reveal (personal/sensitive) information because you believe they will not betray you or cause you problems over it. You might take some time to read, for example, dating Asks on AskMe to see that this process is very often a struggle, even for "normal" people. Negotiating trust always involves taking at least a small risk at first and seeing what the person does with your secrets or personal info or sensitive info. For people with limited social skills, trying to figure out how to negotiate the process is fraught with even more challenges. A good practice that works for me is to entrust people with something small and see how they treat it. If they aren't respectful of small "secrets," the damage they can do is minimal, and I have learned something important about their character.

Even if you don't feel things strongly, there can be value in having people in your life whom you both trust and interact with for more than 15 hours a week. It means someone can take proper care of you when you are under the weather, because they know you well enough to know what proper care entails and you trust them enough to allow them to take care of you when you are vulnerable. It can also mean they can give you value-added feedback, tailored to what they know about you, instead of generic advice that may completely miss the mark.

So there are practical benefits to this bonding process and that is likely the reason it evolved as something (emotionally) important to most humans. You can value those practical aspects even if you just do not have the wiring to feel things the same way that most people do.

My son values our relationship even though he doesn't have big feelings about it.

On preview, I will add that I have met several men who ended up having big feelings for me to a degree that they had not had before with other women. The best explanation I have is that they were statistical outliers of some sort and so am I and it ended up being a good "fit" in a way they had not experienced before. My son knows this about my life and has the idea that if he meets a woman who is a good fit for him in some important way, then he might also suddenly feel desire for her that he so far hasn't experienced.

I will suggest that romance is the emotional part of a sexual relationship. It often seems more important to women than to men. Men are often much more willing to have sex without emotional bonding. I believe this is probably rooted in the fact that when a baby occurs, it is the woman who carries it, not the man. So a man is biologically in a better position to have sex and walk away and not worry about the consequences. If a woman does that and later finds out she is pregnant and does not know who the father is, she has a big problem. In contrast, a man can find out years later he fathered a child, having not had to deal with the time, energy and money involved in being a parent for the interim years.

There are benefits to men to having sex within the confines of a trusting, intimate (aka romantic) relationship. But the downside of skipping that part and going straight to sex is generally less of a problem for men and it seems to generally be more common for men to separate the two things.
posted by Michele in California at 11:24 AM on February 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

Try the book A General Theory of Love. It explains love in a scientific context - brain chemistry, evolution, culture, etc. Very interesting; and yeah your brain may or may not work that way.
posted by jrobin276 at 12:39 PM on February 7, 2015 [2 favorites]

I will add that one of the best things I did for my oldest son was I started a Yahoo Group when he was 16 called "Wired for Science." I invited a short list of parents with kids like him from a homeschooling list I was on and also invited their kids. In most case, we had two family members, but sometimes we had three (both parents plus a child or one parent plus two kids). We posted links to neuropsychology articles and discussed them in terms of the social and emotional lives of ASD kids (or "kids like mine" -- I am not a fan of labels and generally referred to people with such issues as simply being similar to my sons, neither of whom has a formal diagnosis, but we have had sufficient professional feedback to be fairly confident they would qualify for a diagnosis if we wanted a formal diagnosis for some reason).

So we talked about things like the studies that show that lack of affect means a person has trouble making snap decisions, but the flip side to that is that snap decisions tend to have a high error rate. So if you don't have actual time pressure, you are better off actually doing the research and not coming to the table with some kind of prejudice rooted in prior experience. Emotion is a kind of memory, so people with memory impairments tend to rely on it to help fill in for their impaired cognitive function. So one of the things you see is that people who are memory impaired will be very uncooperative with people they don't like. They can't remember why they don't like them, they just know they don't and so they don't trust them. Very often the reason they have negative feelings is because people often do rotten things to people they know to be memory impaired, figuring they can get away with it, it won't matter, they won't remember. Well, they DO remember, they just don't remember in a way that would allow them to testify in a court of law. They remember in a way that makes them cranky and uncooperative for reasons that seemingly can't be explained. But when I helped relatives of mine find other ways to interact with my memory impaired father, he quit being so difficult to deal with.

There are lots of interesting studies on things like memory or people whose left hemisphere and right hemisphere no longer communicate and so on. These studies consistently show that people do remember things that they do not realize that they remember and cannot articulate remembering. But they act on the prior knowledge -- the memory -- even though they swear they don't know it.

Such studies are fascinating and very useful for people who "lack" some of the typical traits we normally expect humans to have. Understanding how your brain differs from the norm and what your options are for accommodating your differences can help you stop feeling disabled by being different. A year or so on that list was enormously useful for my oldest son, then he lost interest and I was unable to restart the conversation because he had been the life of the party and center of attention.

So one option would be to start (or look for) an online discussion list for people who are neurologically atypical and make the stated goal discussing the social and emotional implications and experiences of people who are wired differently. That was basically our agenda and it did a lot of good for my oldest son, who made his peace with different. We realize there are a lot of things he really sucks at, but we mostly view him as different, not disabled per se.
posted by Michele in California at 1:02 PM on February 7, 2015

I think that intimacy can perhaps best be described as the removal of boundaries and/or distances between people. These can be physical, mental, emotional, or social. Friendships can be intimate or distant, as can sexual relationships or family relationships.

Being intimate with someone means that you trust them enough to be willing to let down some or all of your personal defenses. It means liking them (or appreciating them?) as a person well enough that you want to be close to them and spend time with them. It means finding out what things and experiences the two of you can enjoy sharing, because sharing these helps to bring you even closer. It means taking pleasure (or satisfaction?) in their company, enough to carry you over the times that may not be as pleasant (for example, when someone is ill or upset or has needs that you find difficult to deal with). It means working toward understanding each other, both because the other person is interesting to you and because that understanding improves the quality of the relationship itself. Intimacy is about exchange, each person giving and taking not with a precisely measured equality, but in approximately balanced ways.

Intimacy provides practical value in the sense of having someone to support you in various ways (i.e., to "be there" when you need help, or to talk through things with you and give you a fresh perspective), but it's also an end in itself--the experience of companionship and pleasurable closeness, the sense that you are each a priority to the other and that you want to take care of each other and work to maintain the relationship. Does being in that sort of state with someone sound attractive to you?

As for the issue of what dates accomplish, the "effect" of going on the date is the determination of whether or not you're potentially interested in developing intimacy with that particular person (and, of course, whether the other person is interested in more intimacy with you); future dates work on further developing and exploring that intimacy. The difference between "friend dates" and romantic dates is that the latter includes the possibility of sexual interest, of eventually creating and maintaining a life together (sharing home, finances, goals, etc.), and of potentially having children if that's a thing both people want.

Of course, there are also the "big feelings," as Michele in California puts it: any combination of excitement, anticipation, attraction, nervousness, emotional warmth, desire, longing, intoxication, passion, "fluttering," pining, need, selfless giving, admiration, a wish for union, and so on. You may or may not be wired to actually feel such things, but you might still find intimacy valuable. On the other hand, without the feelings or a concrete sense of gain from the experience, you might just find intimacy tiresome or frustrating. There's probably no way to know without trying it out.

Finally, I would say that "romance," as opposed to straightforward sex, is connected to an inner sense of "belonging with" someone, of being "special" to each other—of being the "right person" for each other. It leans heavily on the emotional connection; doing something "romantic" means doing something that shows the other person that they have your full attention, that you find them absolutely 100 percent attractive, that you know what they enjoy and want to give it to them for no other reason than that they're wonderful, their existence makes your world a better place, and you want to be with them...well, forever. Being treated as special makes people feel good; being really, really special to someone stirs all kinds of big feelings. And you're right, there is hyperbole going on here, but there's a certain amount of idealization in romance; it's the nature of the beast. It doesn't mean that the romantic gesture itself has to be exaggerated or overdramatic, though. Sometimes it's the little things that mean the most, because it shows that you care about the person enough to want to know them in intimate detail.

Of course, I may not be the best person to comment on this subject, because I'm terrible at allowing intimacy and possibly also asexual. So take all of this with a huge grain of "in my opinion."
posted by velvet_n_purrs at 4:50 PM on February 7, 2015 [6 favorites]

There are some wonderful ruminations here, but it may be valuable to hear a couple additional thoughts.

1. As you may notice from the variability in peoples' responses to questions on these subjects, there's no innate understanding of what emotions and the intimacy they enable actually are, or how they operate. Literature is replete with this as a theme: emotions cloud judgment just as they sometimes seem to clarify it, but no two people experience a relationship in the same way. This is often called by names that implies that a burden can be at the same time enjoyable yet unpleasant, unpredictable yet involuntary, terrifying yet thrilling. I recognize that these are not exactly in opposition but, since you mentioned confusion about freedom and control being expressed as opposites, they can feel that they are in opposition. As a result, you may not find the operational description you seek--people who find reward in intimate relationships may do so because they find a partner with whom these oppositions seem more sensible and predictable than the rest of the population. It's not meant to alienate you--we're as alienated by the experience as you are, and non-autistic people frequently yearn (publicly) for answers to the same questions you're asking.

2. This extends to what you phrase in an earlier comment as needing to know what you're trying to accomplish. People of every stripe are seeking different ends. Some people feel these ends are culturally constructed (e.g. how dates look in movies and in novels), but other people feel that their innate desires aren't reflected in everyday culture and instead seek out satisfaction more blindly. To illustrate the latter group--and its relationship to the former group--with a personal anecdote, I'm a gay man who grew up in an era and location in which homosexuality was not only publicly shunned, but also absent from our larger culture. This lead me to seek out others of my kind who would congregate and share personal stories, in the process (and largely unintentionally) developing our own distinct context for relationships and the place of sex and intimacy. As a consequence, gay intimacy looks different in the U.S./western culture in that it is more openly sexual than the mainstream. This is a very superficial and limited summary, but I hope it makes some sense--these constructs vary greatly depending on who is asked about them, and one of the wonderful things about the modern era (in the U.S./western culture) is that people seem more capable of being aware of this and defining their own needs when answering the question, what am I trying to accomplish in my intimate relationships? It's acceptable to say, with honesty, I am interested in experimenting with intimate contact as an autistic man in order to establish what it is I might seek to achieve in a relationship. And so on.

In sum, these are admirable questions, but ones that are so incredibly subjective that you may be better served by seeking experiences and conversations (as another commenter mentioned, taking the role of an emotional camera) rather than answering the question from a distance. This may be an area where the entire answer is to put yourself in the positions you don't understand to gain firsthand experience, as that's how most people tend to do so themselves.

I'm truly interested in your questions and approach--I hope you report back in some way as you get a better handle on what, and how, you would like to know.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 6:36 PM on February 10, 2015

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