December 31, 2016
Choosing Healthy Friendships in the New Year
Toni’s Story: One of my recently diagnosed autistic clients told me the other day how he became addicted to cocaine as a teenager. He had trusted his “friend” who told him, “don’t worry, we’ll just use a little and then quit. It’s no big deal.” Six years and a serious addiction later, he is now learning that he can’t trust people based solely on their word.
With the new year and parties just around the corner, his story triggered memories of my own relationships that I “fell into”. I say “fell into” because these were interactions that I just let happen without taking an active role in deciding if they would actually be good for me. I was in my late early 40’s before I realized that just because someone says something- doesn’t make it true. The consequences of not understanding how to take an active role in decision making has been costly to me. I’ve ended up in abusive and toxic relationships with absolutely no idea that I should break them off, let alone how to end them. In talking with neurodivergent men and women in their 30’s and 40’s I have come to realize there are many of us are quietly suffering in unhealthy friendships, work situations and marriages where financial, emotional, physical and sexual boundaries are regularly crossed.
And while it’s no secret that autistic people have very different ideas about relationships very little is said about what those differences actually are and how they affect us. Karla Fischer has a wonderful relationship model and I recommend her article about autistic grief to all professionals and folks on the spectrum to better understand how autistic minds work.
As a general rule, autistic people do not initiate relationships as much as NT’s. Instead, we wait for the next person in our queue who needs something or who initiates the interaction and then we react to them. Oftentimes on those occasions when we do try to initiate, we discover that we’ve done it “wrong”. Put our foot in our mouth, come across too demanding or clingy, or just seemed “weird”. So many of us have learned to be passive, to sit back and let people come to us instead of taking the risks associated with reaching out.
As the new year and New Year’s Eve parties approach, ask your self the following questions about the people in your life:
The more “yes” responses the more likely this person is a good influence in your life.
- Does this person accept and like me for who I am?
- Is this person honest with me? In other words, do their actions match their words (ex. do they do what they say. Are they willing to share information about themselves sometimes even if it might not reflect positively on them)?
- Is this person open to learning more about me and what makes me unique (ex. do they ask me questions about what I think and feel? Do they ask questions about my experiences and seem interested in what happens during my day)?
- Is this person willing to consider my suggestions for improvement and admit when they make a mistake?
- Do they respect my boundaries (Ex. They don’t try to convince me to do something I don’t feel comfortable doing (such as drinking, having sex, going to a place that causes sensory load)? They don’t try to tell me how I should think or feel about situations. They don’t minimize my feelings or experiences by saying”that’s nothing” or “you don’t have a right to feel angry, hurt or sad)).
- Do they offer support and encouragement when I need it or are they only around when they need something from me?
The more “yes” responses to the questions below, the more likely you are in a toxic relationship with this person. Note that if you answer “yes to just one of these questions, this may be enough to break off a particular relationship. For example, if someone is only around when they want to borrow money from you, or they don’t respect your physical boundaries, that may be enough to either insist that the relationship change or put an end to it if the person is unwilling.
- Do they ask to borrow money from me (more than one or two times total)?
- Do they forget to pay me back when they do borrow money?
- Do they repeatedly ask me to do their assignments at work or school?
- Do they repeatedly ask for favors that cause hardship or difficulty for me (such as giving them rides, babysitting their children, walking their dogs)?
- Does this person always seem to be involve in some kind of conflict or problem with family members, at work, or with the legal system so that we are unable to follow through with plans together or enjoy leisure activities?
- Do I feel safe when you go places with this person or do I end up feeling uneasy or uncomfortable when we are together?
- Do I make bad choices when I’m with this person?
- Do I get into frequent fights, disagreements or conflicts with this person?
Saying “no”: We often feel the need to explain our actions to other people but this is not a requirement to setting boundaries. There may be occasions when you would like to give a reason out of respect for someone who has already demonstrated consideration towards you but you don’t owe anyone an explanation for making choices that are right for you. Here are two examples of assertive ways to say “no”.
Mavis is tired and wants to stay home and rest for the evening. Jan is the kind of person that doesn’t like to take “no” for an answer. Mavis responds using a technique called “the broken record” response and repeats the same answer without giving additional information. The more information Jan has, the more she is inclined to want to argue or convince Mavis to do things her way. Th less information Jan has, the harder it is for her to continue the discussion or expect Mavis to cross her own boundaries.
Jan: Do you wanna go out with us tonight?
Mavis: No. I’m not available tonight.
Jan: Aww, come on. It’ll be fun.
Mavis: Like I said, I’m not available.
Jan: Why not? Whatever you are doing can’t be as fun as going out with Josh and I!
Mavis: That may be, but I’m still not available.
Jan: Well it’s your loss then.
Mavis and her brother Daniel have a trusting relationship. Mavis feels a sense of obligation to explain her behavior to her brother who demonstrates respect for her boundaries.
Daniel: Mavis, do you want to go out tonight?
Mavis: I’ve been working really hard this week and feel worn down. I think it would be best if I just stay home and rest.
Daniel: I understand. Well if you change your mind let me know and maybe we can get together some time after you feel rested.
Mavis: Sure. I would like that.
Tips for saying “no”.
- Plan out what you will say ahead of time and practice saying “no” with someone you trust. The more you practice, the easier it gets.
- Keep your reason short and to the point. Don’t get into a long explanation or story. The neurodiverse mind may need to go through a meandering explanation to figure things out, but your do not have to share these thoughts with other people.
- Recognize that the autistic mind can have an extremely hard time initiating relationships, but once a relationship has been established, it may be just as difficult to put closure to or break off a relationship even if the dynamic is not healthy.
- If you have a painful emotional reaction to the idea of saying “no” it can help to take a serious look at your assumptions about expectations and replace any unproductive ideas. For example, if you think that someone else needs to understand your reason for saying “no” in order for you to decline then you will be dependent on that person’s willingness or ability to understand where you are coming from. A more healthy assumption would be that you don’t owe an explanation to other people, but you do owe it to yourself to listen to your inner voice about what is right or wrong for you.