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Unhealthy relationships

This post was originally written for autistic people,
but is probably relevant to a larger audience

Autistic people are at risk of entering into unhealthy/abusive relationships because of their difficulty judging the intentions and character of others (theory of mind),[1]Representing intentions in self and other: studies of autism and typical development and not being able to compute the contrasting presentation of someone who is being nice and kind one moment, and then controlling or mean the next.*

Intellectually, autistic people may correctly recognize emotional and verbal abuse, but then move into a state of self-doubt, and lose confidence in their judgment. I find myself often having strong intuitions, but I then start analyzing and overthinking, and I see too many possibilities to be certain of one thing. It is in part because of this that some people may get the better of us.

To put it bluntly, we can be pretty naive,[2]Autistic Children as Adults: Psychiatric, Social, and Behavioral Outcomes[3]Understand autism spectrum disorder to keep students with ASD safe and have a tendency to explain red flags away, or fail to properly contextualize social information in the first place.[4]Conditional reasoning in autism: Activation and integration of knowledge and belief This is linked to the weak central coherence theory,[5]A test of central coherence theory: linguistic processing in high-functioning adults with autism or Asperger syndrome: is local coherence impaired? which is linked to theory of mind in autistic people.[6]Is Social Categorization the Missing Link Between Weak Central Coherence and Mental State Inference Abilities in Autism? Preliminary Evidence from a General Population Sample

As such, in order to make sure your (future) relationship is healthy, I have outlined a few things to look out for, and things to remember when it comes to recognizing an abusive—or just plain unhealthy—relationship.


Abuse

First off, I think we have to be careful about what we mean by abuse. At the same time, this (self-)doubt about what constitutes abuse is exactly why so many victims tend to explain the abuse away, or link the abuse to a cause and conclude they just have to refrain from certain behaviors so as not to get abused.

It is important to remember that all humans can act badly when provoked, but an abuser has a set pattern of harmful behaviors intended to have power over someone else, usually a partner.


Triggers or abuse?

It is likely that your partner made you feel wonderful initially. Things may not be so wonderful now, but you have invested in this relationship, and want things to be better.

My advice is to ask yourself, if you met your partner last month, would you choose to be with this person? And perhaps more importantly, what has your partner’s pattern of behavior shown? Autistic people tend to be good at systemizing (the drive to analyze or construct systems)[7]The hyper-systemizing, assortative mating theory of autism[8]Talent in autism: hyper-systemizing, hyper-attention to detail and sensory hypersensitivity and pattern recognition;[9]Enhanced Perceptual Functioning in Autism: An Update, and Eight Principles of Autistic Perception so if you get confused by individual cues, focus on patterns of behavior, and ask yourself the following questions:

How does my partner make me feel now?
How free do I feel to be myself around my partner?
Is my partner exerting (significant) control over me?

Note however that triggers and abuse are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Indeed, many abusers do have many triggers. If your partner is being triggered and is willing to go to therapy for it, the relationship may be saved. If they decide they do not want therapy or even that they do not have any problems—that you are the problem—it may be wise to get away from this person, regardless of whether you choose to call their behavior abuse or not.

If you end up feeling worthless, it is not a conducive relationship—for you at least.

Example 1 — Abuse with intent

Sarah is married to a Gerald. When she first got married to Gerald she asked him if his ex-wife and him had sex in his bed, as it was important to her that her and Gerald have their own bed she expressed. Gerald said no, he bought the bed after the relationship ended and indicated that he thought it was disrespectful to sleep in the same bed that he and his ex slept in. Two years later Gerald saw a bed sale and told Sarah to buy them a new bed, as theirs was really old. Sarah asked what he meant, as he indicated two years earlier that the bed was relatively new. Gerald started screaming at her, “You are such a fucking whiner that I said that just to shut you up! What the fuck is your problem? Forget about it, you stupid cunt!”

Counterexample 1 — Abusive effects of triggers

Linda is in a serious relationship with her boyfriend, Henry. They are quite happy generally, but due to childhood trauma Linda experienced, she is prone to verbal outbursts when triggered. She yells when she feels misunderstood, not heard, or ignored—basically anything that makes her feel invisible. Her outbursts are hard on Henry, but Linda never resorts to insults; she simply has challenges dealing with her triggers. In addition Linda and Henry go to couples therapy to learn how to communicate in a loving and supportive way.

Now, a relationship as presented in the counterexample may be too challenging for a person to endure, but Linda is having personal issues to work through—and he does—whereas Gerald is abusive in an attempt to control; he abused his wife to the point where she no longer dares to challenge him. Not only that, but Gerald is resistant to therapy. So while the behavior can seem quite similar, the underlying motivations are entirely different; one is prone to dysregulation, while the other is malicious.


Sporadic abuse

Abusers do not abuse all the time. I think this is where abuse victims, in general, may get confused. One may think the relationship has its challenges, but that ultimately their partner has their best interests at heart. And while that may be true to a degree, it does not detract from the fact that abuse is going on.

Of course, human beings are complex. They do not tend to be all good or all bad. An abuser may be nice some of the time or even most of the time, but still partake in abuse the other times. Abusers also tend to abuse behind closed doors, while being nice and keeping up appearances with others. This can take the form of a deliberate—and potentially malicious—façade where your consciously maintains a division between niceness in public and lack thereof behind closed doors, or it can be because your partner uses up their social energy at work, and are prone to dysregulate or violently unwind at home.

As such, one can easily justify the abuse by focusing on—and even extrapolating from—the idea that your partner is a nice person at heart, and means well. Again, while this may be true, don’t let that be an excuse for harm—either physical or psychological—done unto you.


Bringing it home

Not only do abusers tend to keep up appearances to other people so as to maintain good social standing and not become ostracized, but abusers may sustain control throughout the day in order to keep up appearances, and then drop those controls at home and unravel.

This is problematic, because all anger/anxiety the abuser builds up throughout the day is then released at home, where no one else can see it. As such, those closest to the abuser get to bear the brunt (i.e. endure all/most of the abuse).


Don’t believe the mask

Most abusers have two faces: the one they wear in public, and the one they wear at home. Only those close to the narcissist or abuser have any idea there is more than one face.

The abuser may utilize this schism to their advantage.

Example 2 — Preparing for social occasions

Gerald has quite a malicious routine when it comes to inviting guests over for dinner. He makes Sarah clean the house and yells at and belittles her throughout the process. At this point Sarah is anxious and no longer wanting to accept guests. Shortly before the guests’ arrival Gerald takes a shower so that Sarah is forced to invite the guests in. This is particularly uncomfortable for her not only because she has to try to keep up appearances, but the guests tend to be exclusively Gerald’s friends who Sarah does not know. Sarah is not allowed to have friends over for dinner. When Gerald emerges, he is the warm and friendly guy his friends know him to be—not knowing the routine that occurred before their arrival.

Not only does Gerald exert a tremendous amount of control over Sarah’s well-being, but in keeping up appearances outside of the domestic household, he makes it unlikely for Linda to be believed if she were to tell anyone about Gerald’s behavior at home. After all, Gerald is a splendid guy.

Embrace ASD | Unhealthy relationships | illustration Mask


The nice tactic

One tactic some abusers employ is to get the victim to put their guard down by being nice. This gets the victim to be more open and more willing to give information, which can then be used against them. Abusers may employ this tactic to instill a false sense of security and comfort, not only to acquire information but also to inflict greater hurt when they attack out of the blue. This ultimately results in the victim cultivating a sense of alertness for danger at all times, as things can go bad at any time. This puts the victim in survival mode, meaning a lack of long-term plans, as their existence becomes about making it through the day relatively unscathed. And even if there is no abuse, they still live in perpetual fear of it.

Example 3 — A smile can be deceiving

Gerald’s emotions are very hard to read. He can be smiling at Sarah with such seeming genuinity, lull her in a false sense of security, and then maliciously attack her when her guard is down. Sarah thus can no longer trust Gerald’s smile. Is he pleased, or is he raging inside? She doesn’t know, but now Gerald’s smile makes Sarah highly anxious, even when Gerald is genuinely pleased. When Gerald is home, she has to be alert for danger at all times—regardless of whether Gerald is smiling or not.


Fundamental unhappiness

Most abusers are themselves fundamentally unhappy, and yet they may make it seem as if their victimized partner is the fundamental cause of their unhappiness. This is exactly why there really is no way pleasing them, because if absolute control is what they are after, then any deviation from that will be met with negative emotions. This is no way to live, but perhaps especially no way to live with/around.

Example 4 — Feeling responsible

When Anne was little her mother, Kathlin, was very insecure about her father sexually abusing Anne. Kathlin saw the sexual abuse as a direct threat to her relationship, and so she would make statements like, “If only you were never born” and “If you were to die my life would be perfect” to Anne.

Anne grew up with a false sense of being responsible for her mother’s unhappiness. This developmental abuse put her at risk for abusive relationships which in fact she repeatedly got involved with. Anne was so desperate for approval and being liked that she failed to recognize the signs of abuse, and even when they happened, she believed it was her fault.


Embrace ASD | Unhealthy relationships | illustration UnhealthyRelationship


Appease

As long as everything is in accordance with the abuser’s desire, there may be no abuse. As such, the victim tends to go a long way in pleasing their partner so as to avoid being abused. Of course, that is the preferable situation.

But in pleasing their partner to maintain that preferable situation, the victim is being constrained. Not only that, but she is being cultivated to please her insatiable partner. When you are cultivated in such a manner, you give up who you are, what you think, how you feel, and what you need. To perpetually please and appease an abuser means to dissolve your identity.

Example 5 — Required & forbidden things

Steve is married to Amanda, who is excessively controlling. Amanda believes in a strong work ethic, and thus wakes up at 9–10 in the morning to work from home well into the night. She demands from Steve that he wakes up at 7 am, and continues work until 7 pm. Amanda—on account of working long hours—sometimes takes naps during the day. Steve, however, is not allowed to take naps. Steve is not allowed to drink coffee, and he is not allowed to enter Amanda’s office, because in her mind he does not show enough appreciation for her work. Steve always has to be in a good mood, and is not allowed to watch his permitted one hour TV until he finishes all her chores after work. If anything doesn’t go the way Amanda wants, Steve has to endure excessive yelling and agitation for days on end, so he makes sure to abide by all her rules.

The victim does anything to please the abuser so they can prevent the anxiety that comes with displeasing the abuser. Once your identity dissolves, you become malleable, and no longer live for yourself; instead, you live for the other in an attempt to survive.


Destroying potential

Whether we feel justified in considering a relationship to be abusive or not, what is ultimately most important is whether the relationships bring out the best in both or all parties involved.

In healthy relationships, the people involved create enough space for each other’s identity to flower. To constrain the other is to stagnate their growth, or even to regress the other person’s identity and potential.

When your potential is being limited rather than cultivated by your partner, it is indicative of an unhealthy relationship, and potentially an abusive one.


Liars lie

For autistic people, a more significant cognitive effort has to be made to interpret social signals (i.e. nonverbal communication) correctly, and deduce intent. We also show impaired recognition of socially relevant information from faces.[10]Abnormal Processing of Social Information from Faces in Autism

It can already be a challenge for a neurotypical to know whether their partner is lying, but this may be particularly true of autistic people, in part due to our theory of mind.[11]Theory of mind and autism: A review But we also show a dislike and lack of understanding of deception,[12]Exploring the Ability to Deceive in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders[13]Lie-Telling Behavior in Children With Autism and Its Relation to False-Belief Understanding to the point that there are therapies to teach autistic children to lie, because it can be socially helpful and appropriate to lie at least a little bit.[14]Teaching children with autism to tell socially appropriate lies[15]Teaching children with autism to detect and respond to deceptive statements

Due to our lower theory of mind, we tend to project our own intentions and moral framework onto others, which is to say we tend to think their intentions are probably similar to ours. We have your best interest at heart, so wouldn’t you have ours? Obviously not everyone does.

Embrace ASD | Unhealthy relationships | illustration Liar

General lies

When it comes to identifying lies, look for inconsistencies; inconsistencies between statements that were made earlier and later (like Sarah noticing Gerald’s inconsistent statement about the bed), or inconsistencies between statements made and behavior observed.

Pathological lying

When it comes to pathological lying, pay attention to the things your partner says to others. They may lie about insignificant things that may not even register initially. But do note that if they are lying to others, there is a good chance they are lying to you as well.


Playing it fast

Abusers play it fast. Like Shulamit Widawsky described in Some Advice on How an Autistic Teen Can Recognize Abusive Behavior Before it Becomes a Serious Problem, teenage bullies* may befriend you to lull you in a false sense of security, but they are impatient and act too fast. A person who befriends you suspiciously fast is either socially immature or a bully setting you up for abuse.

Note also that autistic people are very vulnerable to bullying; a study from 2014 that reviewed the literature on autism and bullying found that the prevalence of victimization due to bullying was an astounding 94%,[16]Middle-class mothers’ perceptions of peer and sibling victimization among children with Asperger’s syndrome and nonverbal learning disorders compared to 30% in the general public.[17]Cross-national time trends in bullying behaviour 1994-2006: findings from Europe and North America[18]Shedding Light on a Pervasive Problem: A Review of Research on Bullying Experiences Among Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders

It is interesting to note that this behavior can still be observed in adult abusers; those who abuse with intent tend to—just like the teenage bullies—lack patience, look for easy prey, and fast-track the relationship. An early marriage proposal is likely a red flag.

Love bombing is another sure sign—this is where you can (seemingly) do no wrong, and your partner loves everything about you and what you do. But love bombing is either conscious deception, or a state of mind characterized by extensive adoration which cannot be sustained. After the period of love bombing comes devaluation. For more information have a look at idealization & devaluation.

Embrace ASD | Unhealthy relationships | illustration LoveBombing


False sense of security

I spoke before about the power of creating a false sense of security, but not only is this a tactic used within a relationship, but it is often used to initiate a relationship as well.

For example, mimicry is often used, because subtle imitation can put the other person at ease, thus making them more likely to trust.[19]Mimicry and seduction: An evaluation in a courtship context[20]The Unconscious Influence of Mirroring: The Power of Mimicking Other People’s Body Language | The Emotion Machine In fact, a study from 2008 indicates the following:

Mimicry enhances familiarity of the mimicker that in return leads the person mimicked to evaluate the mimicker more favorably, to help him/her more favorably, and to enhance the compliance rate to his/her request.[21]Mimicry in Social Interaction: Its Effect on Human Judgment and Behavior

Social mimicry can be used to deceive, but is also used non-maliciously to attract partners,[22]Mimicry and seduction: An evaluation in a courtship context and subconsciously as part of motor mimicry, as I talked about in the following post:

Empathy & autism

Sometimes it can be challenging to differentiate between a potential relationship that is—or will be—good, and a relationship that is too good to be true, but there are a few things to watch out for:

  1. Note how fast the relationship developed, and how much the other is pushing you to take further steps to commit. Perhaps say “No” sometimes and see if that sense of security disappears.
  2. Watch out for mimicry. There are people you will have a lot in common with, but there will still be differences—different preferences, different beliefs, different convictions, etc. If the other person agrees with everything you say, and like and dislike everything that you like and dislike, and mimic you in every way, you are either dealing with a socially immature person, or someone who employs mimicry because they want something from you, rather than just to be with you. Someone who is genuinely interested will explore ideas with you, and so sometimes disagreement is exactly what makes a discussion interesting. If everything seems too good to be true, it probably is.
  3. If the relationship shifts from suspiciously great to plain bad, that would be an indication that it all was too good to be true indeed. It may be wiser to distance yourself from the other rather than

When a relationship seems too good to be true but you convince yourself that it is both good and true because it serves your emotional needs, you are allowing yourself to be deluded. This is self-deception, which will only work in your abuser’s favor.


Autistics are delicious

Abusers often seem to gravitate towards empathetic, forgiving, non-judgmental people, which makes autistic people likely targets. Our kindness and social blind spots can be taken advantage of, and in fact, autistic youth are particularly vulnerable to victimization.[23]Victimization of students with autism spectrum disorder: A review of prevalence and risk factors So watch for patterns of behavior, inconsistencies, and love bombing, and get out of the relationship as soon as you can if it becomes insidious and toxic.


Revictimization

Note also that the repercussions of abuse can be both severe and long-lasting. Childhood trauma alone can set a person up for years of required therapy (as well as the financial costs involved in the healing process), acting out their childhood traumas in their relationships (and the consequences involved for both/all parties), and since abuse has been normalized at home, a person who endured trauma is more likely to enter another abusive relationship, and become revictimized.[24]Sexual and physical revictimization among victims of severe childhood sexual abuse A meta-analysis from 2017 which looked at 80 studies encompassing 12,252 survivors of child sexual abuse even revealed that 47.9% (almost half!) of those who have been sexually abused as a child are sexually victimized in the future.[25]The Prevalence of Sexual Revictimization: A Meta-Analytic Review

The high rate of revictimization is not due to the victims’ vulnerabilities alone; abusers may look at patterns of behavior as well, and actively search for people who have been previously abused. Autistic individuals may be disproportionately at risk of experiencing sexual abuse and victimization.[26]Sexual Abuse and Offending in Autism Spectrum Disorders

As such, a previously abused autistic person may be particularly at risk.


I hope this post offers some help. Be safe.

Embrace ASD | Unhealthy relationships | illustration HeartBlue

References

1Representing intentions in self and other: studies of autism and typical development
2Autistic Children as Adults: Psychiatric, Social, and Behavioral Outcomes
3Understand autism spectrum disorder to keep students with ASD safe
4Conditional reasoning in autism: Activation and integration of knowledge and belief
5A test of central coherence theory: linguistic processing in high-functioning adults with autism or Asperger syndrome: is local coherence impaired?
6Is Social Categorization the Missing Link Between Weak Central Coherence and Mental State Inference Abilities in Autism? Preliminary Evidence from a General Population Sample
7The hyper-systemizing, assortative mating theory of autism
8Talent in autism: hyper-systemizing, hyper-attention to detail and sensory hypersensitivity
9Enhanced Perceptual Functioning in Autism: An Update, and Eight Principles of Autistic Perception
10Abnormal Processing of Social Information from Faces in Autism
11Theory of mind and autism: A review
12Exploring the Ability to Deceive in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders
13Lie-Telling Behavior in Children With Autism and Its Relation to False-Belief Understanding
14Teaching children with autism to tell socially appropriate lies
15Teaching children with autism to detect and respond to deceptive statements
16Middle-class mothers’ perceptions of peer and sibling victimization among children with Asperger’s syndrome and nonverbal learning disorders
17Cross-national time trends in bullying behaviour 1994-2006: findings from Europe and North America
18Shedding Light on a Pervasive Problem: A Review of Research on Bullying Experiences Among Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders
19, 22Mimicry and seduction: An evaluation in a courtship context
20The Unconscious Influence of Mirroring: The Power of Mimicking Other People’s Body Language | The Emotion Machine
21Mimicry in Social Interaction: Its Effect on Human Judgment and Behavior
23Victimization of students with autism spectrum disorder: A review of prevalence and risk factors
24Sexual and physical revictimization among victims of severe childhood sexual abuse
25The Prevalence of Sexual Revictimization: A Meta-Analytic Review
26Sexual Abuse and Offending in Autism Spectrum Disorders

Abuse, Advice, Bullying, Contextualization, Devaluation, Emotional abuse, Francesca Happé, Hyper-systemizing, Idealization, Mimicry, Pattern recognition, Relationships, Revictimization, Sexual abuse, Simon Baron-Cohen, Systemizing, Trauma, Victimization, Weak central coherence theory


Martin Silvertant

Martin Silvertant

Co-founder of Embrace ASD, autism researcher, writer, ironically silver award-winning graphic designer, and type designer. I am also autistic, and I fight dodecahedragons during sleep onset.

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