The Other Side of Empathy

by Gavin Bollard

Disclaimer: The stance I’ve taken in this post is a bit strong, so I just want to make the point that I’m not blaming either party in a relationship; I’m simply presenting a one-sided argument to counter the many already strong and equally one-sided opposing arguments out there.

It’s a pretty common thing, particularly on discussion boards of ex-wives of Aspies, to see lack of empathy cited as a major issue. In fact, many such posts treat this lack of empathy as the primary cause of marital failure, totally ignoring other factors that lead to break-up.

In this post, I’m going to ignore the traditional views in order to try to look at things from the other side.

The Scenario
It’s been a difficult year for us so far. We thought that things were difficult last year when my son’s middle-aged tutor unexpectedly drowned in her own pool in a “freak accident” on New Year’s Day. Well, this year, it got worse.

The year started off with the death of my wife’s cousin in a horrific motor-scooter accident. He was in his twenties and left a baby behind. Since he was in New Zealand and we’re in Australia, we couldn’t make the funeral.

Then, about a week and a half ago, after a sudden series of strokes, my godfather passed away. He was only a few hours short of his 90th birthday. He was the last of his generation and probably my favourite indirect relative. He died in Queensland, which is a long distance from Sydney. Due to our recent “new house” expenditure, and then difficulty in getting the kids minded, we couldn’t afford to attend the funeral.

About three days after his death, my wife received a phone call from a stranger. He informed her that one of our best friends had suddenly died from an aneurism. She was 43. My wife pulled me out of a meeting at work to tell us that the girl we often referred to as “our other sister” had died. I had no reassuring words for her. All I could do was reiterate that it was a sad thing in my saddest tones. In this case, the funeral was in an even more remote location, and there was never any chance we could attend. Luckily, there’s a remembrance scheduled for later this week.

I thought that I was doing passably well, tiptoeing around my wife and casting sympathetic glances, until a few days later, when my wife angrily retorted, “Well, you haven’t exactly been full of empathy.”

Being on the “sending” end
Many people in any kind of relationship with an Aspie know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of so-called “limited empathy,” but what is the sending end like?

I’m sure that minimal demonstrations of empathy sometimes make our partners think that we’re cold and heartless.

What really irks me, though, is the fact that I haven’t yet shed a tear for any of these people — even though I felt really close to them. I haven’t felt that wave of uncontrollable sadness that sometimes unexpectedly rushes over you when it all catches up.

We aren’t cold emotionless robots and, truth be told, most Aspies are nowhere near the levels described in the literature. Grief, like other emotions, isn’t just a natural part of life, it’s also a major contributor to the healing process. As I write this, I feel like I’m full of poison that can’t be released until I can grieve properly. It’s not that I’m unable to feel emotion.  I can, and it’s often stronger than a typical NT reaction. Unfortunately, I can’t choose the time of its arrival.

I’m sure that I could “make myself feel sadness” if I sat and deliberately pondered on sad things until it caught up to me, but that would be “cheating.” Crocodile tears somehow just don’t make the grade. My “Inner Aspie” has enough issues with the idea of lying to others without my trying to lie to myself. No, it has to be real emotion, and it will come in its own good time, but meanwhile, I’m victimised because my body language isn’t displaying the right signs, and I’m not in a place where I can be the empathetic and supportive husband that my wife needs.

Needing to See
One of my biggest problems is that I need to see and experience an event before I can feel empathy properly. Second- and third-hand accounts do nothing for me. Even now, though mentally I know that I’ve lost these people, I still expect a phone call or a surprise visit. Not attending a funeral makes it impossible to internalize.

I should probably clarify, at this point, that I’m awful at funerals. They are times of intense emotion for me because they bring home, for the first time, painful truths that everyone else has had several days to get used to. I’m frequently reduced to a blubbing mess. It’s on these occasions that I find the NT empathy equation considerably lacking. My wife seems to understand, but I’ve had my mother suggest that I’m “over-reacting” at funerals because I didn’t seem so upset when the tragedy first occurred. It’s like she thinks that I’m crying for attention. I wonder, if my mother, who knows me better than most people, can think this, what does everyone else think?

I know that now I’m in danger of confusing emotion with empathy, so I’ll try to clarify. Crying at a funeral doesn’t necessarily mean that you are feeling empathetic towards others. Often, we’re simply crying over our own personal loss.

What such crying does do however is:

1. Paint us Aspies as human beings, not monsters.

2. Enable us to understand how others may feel.

Internal Feelings
Sometimes, not being able to find the desired emotional response in myself “makes my blood boil.” The worst times are when I feel myself getting teary over the wrong things. This hearkens back to the point about needing to experience and see an event.

It’s an awful feeling when, even though you can’t grieve for the loss of a person who was like a sister to you, you find yourself feeling sad because R2-D2 is going on a mission away from 3PO in the Clone Wars TV series. Worse still is when you can’t justify it by saying that you’re in a teary mood because you know in your heart that the moment would have made you twinge with sadness anyway. It’s simply the way I experience things.

The main point I wanted to make here is that next time an NT starts complaining about the Aspie lack of empathy being the cause of their relationship break up, spare a thought for the Aspie in the relationship who can’t lie about feelings they know are there but don’t appear until conditions are right.

Their inner conflict causes them just as much pain as the outer pain that NTs display, but since they lack the facilities to convey the message, they can only watch in stunned silence as they are treated like unemotional robots and their relationship collapses around them.

Sometimes, too, it’s the Aspie experiencing all the emotion and the NTs who are lacking in empathy.

About the Author: Gavin Bollard is an adult with Asperger’s and the father of two Aspie sons. This piece originally appeared on his blog, Life with Asperger’s, on May 19, 2009 and is reprinted here by permission.



3 thoughts on “The Other Side of Empathy

  1. Angel says:

    Wow, just wow! Some of these words feel like they came straight from my own thoughts.

    I am processing several things regarding this exact issue. I am so glad this was reprinted – it is helping me process and get past the feeling like I am an “evil” person for not expressing empathy the way others expect it.

    The concluding paragraph is something I really needed to read today.

    Thank you so much!

  2. Erin says:

    Thank you for posting this. This is something I really needed to see. As an Aspie I have trouble expressing myself. I too am trying to process similar things. My husband is the NT in this case and we have a hard time communicating with each other. The wording in this post is exactly what I needed.

    • Elizabeth Aucoin says:

      Gavin, I don’t know if my prior comment went through, but I feel as though your mother’s lack of understanding about your neurological orientation has made you judge yourself in a way not called for. Forgive her for not understanding, she has no idea that, by assuming you are superficial because you are not like her, she has done you an injury. Try and see it another way: our daughter’s neurologist told us that her first (and only) grand mal seizure was not typical of her kind of epilepsy (which was benign sylvian epilepsy). His explanation was that sometimes an epileptic resists the loss of control of that first seizure so strongly that, when it actually erupts, it’s like a dam breaking. If I were neurotypical I might have interpreted him to say that she actually exerted some kind of control over her seizures (which is patently ridiculous). Instead I recognized her similarity to me and realized that, when faced with negative events that threaten to overwhelm me, I tend to withdraw and go numb (like hunkering down in the face of a rising storm). In my subconscious I will begin to process the event (reviewing it’s implications for me first–which is backwards from neurotypical people), but when it hits, it will be later than for others involved and it will seem uncontrollable (and the embarassment will stay with me–that feeling of being vulnerable in a way that is somehow shameful because it doesn’t conform to other people’s expectations.) I spent many years hiding from my mother (from my late teenage years I never spoke to her without a script until the moment she was on her deathbed–the panic I felt when my siblings were taking turns having minutes alone with her and I knew my turn was coming is absolutely indescribable.) It wasn’t just that she didn’t understand my neurology, it was the conclusions she drew to try to explain my differences. It made me feel like a monster, and I have trouble healing those feelings enough to remember her for the beautiful and loving person she was. (When I first concluded that I wasn’t normal, it was because she was so wonderful that I absolutely knew that the shortfall in our relationship was entirely due to me.) In spite of her love for me, her bewilderment always made me feel unlovable–it became the refrain for me whenever I let my guard down and a relationship failed–I felt I was a child even a mother couldn’t love. So if you are feeling bottled up and waiting to blow, watch a sad movie, it will help to get you unstuck. Don’t judge yourself because of how it would look to someone neurotypical.

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