Updated: Dec 16, 2021
My former spouse, as you may know, is #autistic. He has particular nuances. We - as in I - learned his rules to help his anxiety, to assure his needs were met, to assure he wouldn't panic. There were a plethora of rules that I strictly adhered to in anticipation of an outburst, always scanning and evaluating scenarios that may need my attention.
Those were just the rules I was conscious of because when you live in these types of environments there are many learned behaviors you don't recognize that you've simply acquired as part of your survival training. My father was a narcissist and my mother, an alcoholic. Scanning and searching for any change in the environment so you can adjust as needed is deeply part of my brain's patterns, my coping strategies - but not my personality.
Following the end of our marriage, I found a support group for spouses of individuals who have autism, and there was a great deal of insight here. We talked about their various nuances and unanimously we all recognized their need for the dishwasher to be loaded a very specific way or the grocery cart to be organized very specifically, both which would be redone if the rules were not followed. The crazy thing is that I find this to be true about all my groups now, the dishwasher story eventually presents and we all chuckle in unison at this similarity. I await it being added as a DSM criteria for diagnosis into the future.
Today, as part of a much more healthy relationship, I watch how Jeremy loads the dishwasher and if he notices my own methods. Previously, I would have taken notes and done it exactly like he wanted to avoid any upset, but admittedly, today, I am more haphazard because he allows me that freedom. I feel the need to rebel a bit from my previously bound days so that loading the dishwasher off-script is a bit liberating. There is a sense of curiosity in his allowing me to explore this new territory, knowing he isn't going to reorganize or criticize my process. They are just dishes after all. If I fail, I can hand wash them anyway. He apparently recognizes this as well, (or maybe he has yet to express his own needs to me in this way or maybe he is handwashing after my self-journey unfolds itself in his dishwasher.)
Either way, what I notice about couples who haven't one of the two individuals some level of autistic expression, is that they too struggle with how the dishwasher should be loaded. It's a very common phenomenon. Women will share that men can't load it properly even if they do recognize the need. They share that they have to unload it and reload it so it's easier to just do it themselves. Is this men strategically doing a poor job so they then get excused from it or is this women being overly critical and controlling, so men recognize their efforts aren't appreciated anyway, so why try?
Does this cause resentment on both ends? Women often default to being in charge of household chores and doing things themselves. We develop this "I'll do it myself" sort of mentality. I am guilty. Very guilty. So much so, that when my partner asks me how he can help me, I haven't a clue how to respond or I reply, "Nope. I am fine," so quickly I didn't even recognize I said it until I heard my voice replay in my head.
I wish I could say that this also means I don't get frustrated or feel overwhelmed when I am ultimately doing the work myself, but I do, on occasion. Last night I cooked dinner, wrapped presents, washed laundry, helped with baths, and cleaned the kitchen. My partner watched a movie. I felt a smidge miffed, but the reality is that he has cooked dinner for weeks on end now as I've worked late at the office. He has taken my littles to gymnastics and music concerts by himself. He draws my baths and assures a heating pad is available for me at the end of the day when my back is fatigued. He has washed, folded, and put away all my laundry for weeks, but I had to catch myself last night from feeling taken advantage.
Here's why, I have a long history of not setting healthy boundaries and ultimately being treated poorly by others, so today, he pays the price or rather, I have to be uber cautious that I am not bleeding on him from wounds he didn't create. He has a very demanding job and had a particularly hard day at work yesterday. In the last year, he has sat in front of the television and lounged fewer times than I can count on one hand. I told him I didn't need help and I didn't, though I was triggered. My body recognized the scenario as one of the past where I proudly wore the cloak of martyrdom for far too long and I ended up feeling painfully alone. Gratefully, I caught myself before I projected my painful past onto him (although I am not always so successful). Unless he reads this blog, he'll never know, but it is these habits we have to become conscious of and the whys of our behaviors and feelings. I had to let myself acknowledge those hurt feelings and remind myself that is no longer my reality, nor is that person or those people who hurt me, Jeremy.
If there is one thing I've really struggled with over the years, it's working hard to become a more conscious woman, and as part of that, one of the greater challenges I still have so much to overcome is the ability to ask and receive help.
The truth is I am the oldest child with a little sister who was largely too young to care for herself when our mother went straight to the bars after work and then got so drunk she forgot to come home. I'd far too often have to stay home from school half-day until afternoon kindergarten started so my sister had someone to care for her (keep in mind, I was seven-years-old at the time). My sister began running away from home at a young age and I was always the one to step in and offer a voice of reason when she ended up in the prosecutor's office, or I'd take a blow for her, or so much worse. Doing the work, cleaning mom up after her drunken parties or after her boyfriend beat her, was my role. My father was far more scary than my mother even. Martyring myself was my identity and not because I was a people-pleaser, but because this was what needed to happen.
Maybe this extreme isn't your story, but some aspect of stepping up and taking charge became your normal. Maybe you were always so efficient those around you became incompetent? Maybe you don't even recognize the need or what to ask for, or maybe you worry about the consequences of someone else helping? Maybe you need to be in control so you won't be controlled by others? Maybe, just maybe you are so strongly living in a fight-or-flight state that you perceive everything as a threat and so remain in control because you have no reserve to manage anything unexpected or outside your control? Probably, you don't even recognize this.
Why aren't you asking for help?
Do you fear you'll appear weak? Do you fear rejection? Do you feel it's too great a hassle to ask others, or maybe you don't want to feel indebted to another person?
Are all these reasons in effort to control another person's perception of you? Interestingly, the need to control everything and not face unexpected outcomes also has its consequences: loneliness and bitterness.
When I handled my mother and protected my sister from her, my sister grew to lack awareness of our mother's alcoholism. She also failed to recognize my father's narcissism. She failed to learn the abuse and predatory nature of some of my mother's boyfriends. My children failed to see the autistic behaviors in their father and rather, their mother's controlling and angry nature was far more prominent in their lives - until I began to let control go and let the pieces fall so I could begin to turn my attention inward.
My effort to always deal with my ex-husband meant my children didn't recognize his shortcomings until their adult years. It means that our own relationship had some healing to do because their perceptions of me was quite skewed. It also meant they were ill-equipped to handle their father's outbursts when I no longer carried responsibility. As mothers, we are to protect our children, but we must also help them face reality. We have to help them recognize that most all people have some level of trauma or challenges with which they struggle, which often creates unhealthy behaviors. Sharing these realities not only helps them better judge their environment and even understand this isn't about them, but helps them establish healthy boundaries for themselves.
What might others struggle with if you let go of control?
As a young mother and young nurse who suffered a traumatic birth experience and then witnessed abusive and neglectful care on childbearing women, I felt a strong call to offer safer and more respectful choices. I felt I had to be that person for women that wasn't there when I needed protection so that I martyred myself; who could they turn to had they not myself? Day after day, year after year, I told myself there was no other option. I believe this is a common thought among #midwives and also why most of us are quite round (cortisol or stress weight) and many die at rather young ages from diabetes and cancer. We micromanage, control, exhaust ourselves physically and mentally, and bind up toxic emotions. We do this as women, as men, as midwives, attorneys, and educators. We do this as fathers, and mothers, and spouses. We carry the entire world on our shoulders.
When marriages end, most previously incompetent people figure out all the things they couldn't when their partner took the wheel. Those who were over worked before, having gained loads of weight, finally tune into themselves and get fit, losing an incredibly amount of weight. We do handicap others when we do the work for them.
One More Minute
Last week a facebook memory popped up on my screen reminding me of a time, my youngest daughter, Ruby, had informed me that her name was not, "One More Minute," but rather that it was "Ruby." I thought it was cute apparently when I shared that with the world, but today I realize, I take my kids a bit for granted, expecting they will always wait "one more minute" while I get something, there's always something, I need to get done. Over time, we lose the safe, respectful connections with our loved ones. True to for our partners too, this connection is what we need to experience pleasure and physical intimacy.
Constant Overwhelm Creates Fight or Flight Responses
Here's the thing, when you feel pressed for time, overwhelmed with responsibilities, and alone with your misery all the time, you repeatedly engage the body's fight-or-flight system, raising your cortisol levels. This "alert mode" causes you to worry, to ruminate about what needs to get done, and to live in a chronic state of anxiety - or what one of my good friends said, "You're living in triage mode."
I mean if we are getting really real, can you imagine relaxing enough to enjoy the pleasures of lovemaking when your body is screaming, "Hurry up! I've got so much to do and so little time!" If your wife is avoiding you in the bedroom, consider her mental load - not just marking off things on her task list. Two-thirds of the work is creating the list itself, the executive tasks. Performing the task is far greater the easier work load. Be her partner outside the bedroom if you want one inside the bedroom.
Intimacy that comes from a strong, healthy relationship is an important part of extreme self-care. We need physical closeness to feel deeply connected to our partners. If lack of sex or physical affection is an issue, balance your load. Delegate. Reduce the mental load. Hire someone to help. Create a list of needs for yourself, and honor those. Sometimes our partner really does need it spelled out. If you express your need and they don't honor that, recognize the reality here. You need a safe place where you are honored. It is your right to be treated well by others, not a privilege. However, many times we simply fail to express our need and ask for help.
Early Warning Signs
Do you hear yourself chronically complaining about how much work you have to do? Do you feel like you carry the weight of the world on your shoulders? Do you fantasize about packing a bag and leaving for the nearest deserted island? Do you find yourself crying at unexpected times and in unexpected places or you feel like you need a good cry? You start yelling at inanimate objects or at drivers in front of you who are driving the speed limit? Maybe you're so exhausted that the idea of brushing your teeth feels like too much work? Are your plants dead?
These are clues. Be mindful of them. The quality of your life is directly related to the quality of how present you are within it, and that's far more important than any other task you have on your list. You can't do it all without support, but also know that when you do embrace help, ask for it, and open yourself to receive it, you will have all new realities to deal with which might make you uncomfortable initially. People will fail you. Others will be offended as they had taken advantage of your overly generous nature. You will cry unexpectedly and feel shame for all your tolerated.
Are you the one unable to rearrange the dishes in the dishwasher? Is this efficiency or a need to control? Is your partner playing the role of an incompetent or are you overly critical? Might this be a warning to you that you haven't the reserve to manage something so menial as a dish that didn't get quite clean? If you just relaxed while driving your car, no speeding or cutting around, but just leisurely meandered to work, you'd only lose about five minutes of time - research proven. So relax. Let go of the wheel sometimes. Hand washing dishes can be quite meditating. They are just dishes after all.