Relationship Advice

I had a pretty incredible Christmas all in all. But last night was probably the strangest, most incredible experience of the whole season.

My ex-husband, the one with whom I went to China, called to tell me he loved the China book. We got married and went to China after only knowing each other 4 months. We agreed last night that that was crazy. We also agreed it was crazy to have taken our skis. Then he said that I’d accurately captured the fear he felt when we arrived in Guangzhou and there was no one to meet our plane. “But,” he said, “you didn’t write about the other times I was afraid.”

“What other times?” I asked him.

“Well, there was the time the giant spider came out of the bathroom drain. I was terrified.”

“What giant spider? I don’t remember that at all.”

“Yeah. You took me for a walk around the campus and when we got back it was gone. That was good. I felt better after that.”

“Wow. I don’t remember that.”

“Then there the was time, you know, we’d just gotten into our apartment and set it up. we had our beds in that big room, and you wanted to cuddle, but I was still too freaked out. I didn’t want to. I couldn’t.”

A light bulb went on. I said, “I had no idea,” I said and thought, “What if you’d TOLD me that? Why DIDN’T you tell me that?”

Jim and I were not compatible. We tried for 12 years to make something work. My mom loved him, his kids loved me. We liked (still like) each other. We had a lot going for us. We both liked to ski. We came from similar backgrounds, a lot of stuff, but…

We talked on the phone for about an hour. I heard his wife say, in the background, “Are you still on the phone?” He didn’t answer her. Inside myself I nodded and smiled at that. I believe that conversation was the longest Jim and I have ever had.

In the years since, I have quietly diagnosed Jim as being somewhere on the Asperger’s Spectrum.

When you meet someone who has Asperger’s syndrome, you might notice two things right off. He’s just as smart as other folks, but he has more trouble with social skills. He also tends to have an obsessive focus on one topic or perform the same behaviors again and again.”


That little Dr. Google definition of Asperger’s describes Jim. During our marriage, Jim struggled hard to improve his social skills. He really likes people. He joined and became very involved in Toastmaster’s. He knew where he had a glitch. When Jim DID express himself, it was always — to me — a little obscure. Sometimes I felt that I was just supposed to understand things without getting any information from him at all. If I confronted him, it never went well. He had problems even making eye-contact with me. I could present objective facts such as, “If you don’t get a job, we’re fucked,” that just pushed him into wherever he went in his head. He was impossible to communicate with. Impossible for ME to communicate with. I got frustrated, took things personally — but now I get that. None of the skills I had worked at all, and my skills weren’t that great.

A reminder of how Jim’s mind works came when he said he had found 20 small mistakes in the China book. He gently asked if I would like him to put them on a spreadsheet so I can correct them.

“With the page numbers?” I asked.

“Page numbers and line numbers,” he answered. I felt a little twinge of affection hearing that. It’s SO Jim. His profession — at which he succeeded incredibly so — was writing code, programming. He wrote code for the Space Shuttle simulator. Most people would just say, “There are errors on page 10, 23, 40, 100,” etc.

Last night was an epiphany for me. In China, those two times he mentioned last night, he seems to have thought I KNEW he was afraid. How many other times in the 12 years we shared did he think I KNEW what he was feeling? What would our marriage have been like if he had been able to say, in words, “I need to be alone right now,” or “I’m frightened”?

It was obvious in that phone call last night that he is proud of me, that he’s proud of having gone to China with me, that he’s proud of what I’ve accomplished and that he — NOW — feels he can open up to me. I’m not sure 20 years ago I would have understood, and maybe he couldn’t have said, “You didn’t write about the other times I was afraid.”

“I was afraid.” A very powerful admission.

I wanted to wrap my arms around him last night, but that might not have been welcome even if we’d been within 20 feet of each other instead of some 1000 miles. That would have been my instinct, my nature. Instead I said, “We did well over there, Jim. We were just two nice people.”

“That’s true. We were just there being nice to people.”

“Yep. We can be proud of that. We’ve sure lived through a lot.”

“And we’re still here,” he said.

34 thoughts on “Relationship Advice

  1. This is incredibly moving and powerful. I am absolutely positive that a member of my family is on the spectrum and struggles in the same way.

  2. I’m smiling. I have 2 nephews in that same boat… Both very smart but horrible social skills. They will make their way in life but will probably always struggle with relationships. At least the younger one was diagnosed at 2 yrs old and had had an early intervention. It is good that you are still friends and that he has grown to be able to verbalize his emotions. Sounds like the best Christmas gift you got!

  3. “And we’re still here,” he said.

    Isn’t that the beauty of “mere” survival? You both survived. And you aren’t so immersed in previous chapters that you fail to write the current one.

  4. Very touching, Martha. Eye opening on many levels I’m sure. The things we don’t know and how they affect us can be powerful and go on over a long period of time. It’s amazing. It’s wonderful that you have friendship and affection still. Love the shot of the skis and the snow. Looks like you were having fun.

  5. What a precious gift he gave you, reaching out after reading your book, sharing his own memories in such a warm and caring way. And yes, quite an admission he made, one I’m sure wasn’t easy but clearly those feelings of being afraid in China have stuck with him. Yet another well-written, moving story, Martha!

  6. That so describes Garry and me too. Wow. He really does appear to think I know what he is thinking. I keep telling him that I don’t know. Unless he talks to me, I don’t have a clue.

    I’m not sure if he has some version of Asberger — or it’s at least in part a response to his being deaf most of his life — and really, even now, he can hear if he is looking at you and focused on you, but not from behind and often not from the side. He spends a huge amount of mental energy working hearing, something most of us never have to do. Words come into his head and then he has to wait for his brain to make sense of the words.

    I think that’s why he likes writing. He can talk when he writes.

    • Maybe all relationships have aspects of this for one reason or another. I think marriage to a guy like Jim, who has no idea what he himself is dealing with, let alone how to communicate to another human being, is — well, it was impossible. His son is similar but had more aware adults around him, I think, including me. He’s done OK learning who he is and communicating his needs. His marriage is mostly happy and communicative. My step-grand-daughter has some of this, too, a big challenge for her mom. Even as a baby, she resisted being held and she cannot be consoled by caresses, only by being able to go off by herself.

  7. Very moving, Martha. I confess i’ve harbored much sympathy for Jim when you’ve written about him previously. Sometimes a little caution can go a long way in keeping you safe. 😊
    The mind is a wonderful thung, isn’t it? ASD is just a different way of looking at things. “Normal” is the exception rather than the rule, at least in my world.

    • It good, I think, that now we have ways of identifying things like Asperger’s, and educating ourselves and others about them. Jim was a terrible husband but not a terrible person which I saw while we were in China. I should not have stayed with him as long as I did. But…

      He could be very mean and hurtful. He said horrible things to me instead of saying what was really going on with him. Some of those things seriously damaged my sense of self. I chalk some of that up to his having as little awareness of himself as of the outside world. I also think that society’s demands that men be brave and tough was a factor. But he also did not really know how other people feel — or have any ability to express his own feelings. ASD might be “just a different way of looking at things,” but it’s a huge challenge in an intimate relationship. ONE person will make ALL the accommodations and that’s NOT OK.

      It was a really bad marriage. When it fell apart, though, he realized that it had been partly his doing. He’s striven to make a kind of amends to me since back then, and he’s been married to his current wife 20 years or so and has been determined to make it work. And, still and all, I never didn’t like him. After 12 years of marriage, I understood the limitations and saw it wasn’t really anything he had set out to do, it was who he was.

      • You might have mentioned some of these issues in the past, Martha, but I have trouble remembering. Very difficult situation indeed. It is wonderful that you can have that friendship now after all that has happened. I think of the animal that bites from fear and all the exhausting accommodations that are required to heal. You really need to know what you’re getting into and a four month courtship doesn’t really allow for that as you mentioned.

  8. There is more to a book than you think! Chains of chance: if we hadn’t gone to Guanzhou, if I hadn’t written about it, if you hadn’t read it, if you hadn’t decided to write about your memories …

    Or perhaps it had to happen. Your time in Guangzhou had ripened in your mind, and some other chance mention of Guangzhou would have led to the book.

    So many imponderables.

    • I think it was seeing familiar places in your photos, feeling the tugs of nostalgia and yearning, then you said, “I wish I knew what it looked like before modernization.” I always enjoy your posts, but I was captivated by the GZ posts and I wanted to show you. I finally got a scanner, scanned them, wrote some posts, people were very intrigued and you’d mentioned “maybe a book.” After about six posts I realized it was a book — anyway I had to try. It’s true something else might have sparked it, but you did and I’m grateful it happened. Everything about it has been great.

  9. I had to wait 38 years to meet the person I could say everything I felt or wanted to and feel safe, loved, no judgement or ridicule, or disbelief. I had 11 years with a man who taught me the truth about unconditional love, and that he was not a mind reader and I had to tell him what I wanted and expected of him. Ie I liked gifts of flowers, but not reallyexpensive floristy arrangements, or cheap petrol station ones, just pick a few from thegarden or weeds in flower, he did and he improved and bought me bulbs now when they flower and every one of the 10years he has been gone they bring a huge smile to my face and I am aware and remember how incredibly lucky I was to have met him and from the first meeting we were basically together, even though we had a large age difference. He was not perfect and we disagreed and had some doozies of arguments and I would swoop out banging the door and drive a couple of hours away, ring him to let him know where i was and that i was ok, , if it was relatively early he would get in his car and drive up or come the next morning, and we would apologise and make up. Yet in social situations he would walk off in the middle of conversations I thought we would be having with another couple . Or he would say something that just did not follow or fit the conversation. He preferred and encouraged me to go on my own, and after years of doing it I was dreaming of having a person to share the times with me. Yet when it was him and I it was OK he would go off in his workshop if I was doing things or listening to music, . I feel I was more fortunate Martha, though I have read and it may be very wrong, that many people with autism and aspergers, mellow a bit as they age.

    • In the case of my ex, our split led him to a turning point during which he looked at himself. He was in his 40s at that time. I think he realized that other people in the world would respond to him and what he did, and that he had to learn at least the mechanics of that. I think he’s actually learned a little more than the mechanics — but he still communicates in Jim Code. He came to visit me a few years ago and wore an old t-shirt from the Chinese/American Friendship games back in the 90s. Jim Code for “I’m happy to see you.”

      Once I had to explain to his sons that their dad DID love them, but that he wouldn’t express that by hanging around with them, hugging them, talking to them or telling them he loved them. He told them by building them bicycles so they could go riding with me. ❤

      I guess we all have to come to grips with who we are sooner or later. I imagine we might have stuck together if he hadn't cheated on me. Maybe not. 🙂

  10. What a beautiful gift, that glimpse into how he functions, and how it affected the relationship. A lot of frustrations could be averted, right, if we truly understood people and what they are dealing with? For so many years I assumed everyone functioned and saw things pretty much like I did. So wrong. Thanks for a thoughtful, courageous and beautiful post.

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