At the request of Steph Diorio I was going to do a quick post about learning the basics of dating for Aspies. However, this is such a huge topic, I decided to break it down. This first post I am going to talk about laying the foundations.
Many people will disagree with me, but I actually think that in the long run an Aspie has no net disadvantages in the dating game. We do face slightly different challenges, mostly revolving around social skills and obsessive tendencies. However, we also have major advantages. We are more inclined to be truthful; - this makes us trustworthy - the foundation of any relationship. We don't play games and tend to be relatively straight forward - so many people really want this in their partners. We are passionate about our interests - this makes us interesting. We are a little bit odd - this also makes us interesting. We have fewer inhibitions about crossing social boundaries - this is a double edged sword and can be really helpful but it can also damage relationships. Lastly, and most importantly, Aspies tend to be genuinely kind people and this will endear us to those that get to know us well.
I am going to look at three corner stones of dating skills. A solid foundation of basic social skills, actual and demonstrated self-confidence and finally, small talk for Aspies.
Basic Social Skills
As I am sure you are aware if you are reading this post, Aspies and others on the spectrum do not pick up their social skills in the normal way. We have to learn it cognitively and then apply the principles. Dating is just another form of this, but it really helps to have a good foundation on the basics. Awareness of social etiquette, how to read body language clusters, appropriate eye contact, smiling, personal space, reading tone of voice and awareness of basic social boundaries etc. If you feel you do not have these yet, keep practising at every opportunity and they will come.
Some of you are lucky enough to get therapy/lessons on this. Others have to do what I did, which is a process of study combined with trial and error. There are masses of books on this subject. I recommend covering topics of; body language, social psychology, comedy performance, goal setting, and I have also found books about networking useful. No one book will contain all the answers, not all of them will be helpful or useful. But this is the subject of another post.
Don't worry about mastering these topics, there are too many variables in social interaction and many NTs are still very bad at it. You just need a broad basic understanding and a little bit of confidence to go out and use them.
Actual and Demonstrated Self-Confidence
Having difficulties with dating is not unique to Aspies or people on the spectrum. I have NT friends who have disastrous or even non-existent love lives. A lot of the problems we face in dating are the same as NTs, and the biggest culprit is often poor self-esteem. Aspies do not, I believe, have naturally low self-esteem or social anxiety. However, years of bullying and social exclusion (which we are often exposed to) will cause it when combined with challenges in processing emotions. Recognise it for what it is. The words and actions of cowardly bullies, the ignorant and the malicious. Choose to not let them dictate how you fell about yourself, focus on the good stuff, let go of the rest. This sounds flippant when pinned to the page.
I cannot tell you where to find self-confidence - it is a personal journey. But do not build it on the judgements of others, or by comparing yourself to others. A couple of simple exercises that might help: Sit down and write out a list of all the things you are proud of that you did over the last 10 years, do it year by year. I guarantee you will surprise yourself. Think about what is important to you, your personal values, and make goals based around them. If you want to go into it more I recommend this book.
The only other thing that I can say to help is a personal story; my first full time job when I was 18 was working in a hospice in a city in the middle of a terrorist bombing campaign. Caring for people in their final days, combined with a situation that made me realise the brevity of life. As an atheist I do not believe in a continuation of consciousness after death, this makes the little time we have on this earth so precious. Talking to patients I found those who had led full lives passed more contentedly, often with family and friends beside them.
My biggest stumbling block was self-confidence, stemming from the problems above. By the time I was 20 I had only had a casual and brief relationship with an older woman and a had dated a girl with manic depression who fatally overdosed a few weeks after we met. Then something happened. I took an opportunity to spend am exchange semester at a University in the USA. Apparently American girls like the English accent – there was much fun. On my return to the UK, although I no longer had the exotic accent, I realised just how much my lack of success had been down to anxiety and lack of confidence. Nothing had changed in my circumstances, but by approaching things with greater self-assurance and having an openness to new possibilities that comes with the realisation that anxiety causes self-limitation, I had a much more active dating life.
Self-confidence is not only important for opening up new opportunities but also a very basic fact of dating - you have to like yourself. If you cannot like yourself then why are other people going to? Whilst there are those who like to date people with low self-esteem, I do not recommend them. At best they have Messiah complexes, this leads to an often unhealthy relationship dynamic. At worst, they are looking to exploit and manipulate you through a perceived vulnerability. This latter category should be avoided at all costs; it can leave you damaged. Be happy with yourself and you will find you are happier with other people.
Aspies have a wonderful tendency to rationalise everything. It can lead you into rationalising a large quantity of limiting beliefs. Learn to recognise when you are building a narrative which tells you that you cannot do something. Take the view of 'how can I do this?' over 'I can't do this because 'x''.
Finally, the Aspie tendency to get fixated on single things and a lack of confidence can lead to so called 'one-itus'. Getting fixated on one particular person for whatever reason. Do not do this to yourself! The whole idea of there being only one person for you in the whole wide world is Hollywood nonsense. Dating is a numbers game, there is the better part of 7billion people on this rock, statistically there are several million who would make a good too ideal partner, working your way through the unsuitable ones until you find one of the right ones is the challenge. Getting fixated on one person is unhealthy for you, and is likely to come over badly to that person and alienate them. Getting fixated on a single person is often away of limiting yourself from exploring other opportunities. Fixation is unhealthy, it is obsession, not love and it is a one way ticket to misery.
Finally, demonstrating confidence. Aspies are not very good at this, but it is actually quite easy and mostly about non-verbal communication; body language/tone and semiotics.
First, building on what you learn about social skills, identify those parts of body language and tone of voice which demonstrate confidence and utilise them. You are aiming for 'quietly confident'.
Second, semiotics - the power of symbols. We all make judgements based on the appearance of others, it is normal. You need to tap into this to present the best of yourself, dressing well and doing simple things to improve your appearance can do a lot to maximise your appeal to others. This is easy; dress well and dress appropriately to the situation. I know, the tatty jeans and old hoody are comfortable and natural, but they do not present the best of you, they say "does not care about their appearance, therefore they have no self-esteem". It is something that is easy to fix - get books on the subject and read up.
The most important thing is to get clothes that fit well. The next are that they are coordinated to each other, suitable for what you are doing and are comfortable.
On top of that get healthy; exercise has important benefits for Aspies that include stress management and relaxation. Eating well can also help manage emotions by controlling your blood sugar levels. They also combine to make you look slim and healthy.
A little bit of attention to grooming goes a long way. No need to go overboard, just make sure your hair looks good before heading out the door, if you are a girl, then some basic make-up can also help. Do not get fixated on one look, experiment with different ones, but there is no need to start doing anything elaborate.
So to summarise - be confidant, act confident, avoid ‘one-itus’ and make an basic effort with your appearance.
Small Talk for Aspies.
Small talk often seems pointless, and an irritating distraction from what we are doing.
First off, it is never pointless. Small talk, even about inconsequential things, is absolutely essential to building social capital with people. Social capital is the foundation on which we build friendships and other types of relationships. NT's use small talk at a subconscious level to sound people out and make judgements about who they are and their suitability as a friend/partner/lover/colleague etc. Flirting is also a form of small talk, get the hang of small talk and flirting will be easy.
The best way to deal with the 'irritating distraction' aspect is to understand that the source of irritation is your brain is trying the think about two things at once and it is not very good at doing that. You can turn off the irritation by consciously putting the task you are currently working on to one side for the moment and giving the conversation your full attention.
Making the conversation interesting can be done in a number of ways. I personally like to play a little game whereby I assume that someone is interesting and then have to find out why they are. People are these amazing and complex balls of consciousness and experiences, I very rarely meet someone who are truly boring. This approach can lead to very interesting conversations. Listen to the conversations and spot opportunities to ask questions and make enquires. People generally like it when others take an interest in them.
Another way to build social capital with a person is by listening to the conversation and identifying the things you have in common; interests, experiences and values. By raising these things in the conversation and discussing them you will build a powerful sense of connection with the other person – this is superb social capital.
One very common pitfall for us Aspies is monologuing about one of our special interests. Watch yourself for this, If you realise you have been doing all the talking for the last few minutes, or if the person you are talking too has adopted a cluster of body language that suggests boredom, you should pause the conversation and make a small apology. People usually do not mind as long as you realise and acknowledge to them that you are hogging the conversation. They will recognise your passion for a subject, you just have to allow for the fact that they are unlikely to share your level of interest, or that they are getting irritated because they are not able to get a word in. Do not continue with the monologue unless you are invited to do so, and often you will be, self-acknowledgement of your domination of the conversation is often enough to re-engage the person and people often admire people with a passion for what they do.
To summarise: - Small talk is vital to building social relationships, give your conversational partner you full attention, make it your job to find them interesting and learn to recognise and limit monologues.
Learning about this stuff is an on-going experience. Look for opportunities to practice in your everyday life; at work, at school, whilst out shopping.
All of this is based on my personal experience. It has worked for me, I struggled with dating for so long, but finally got the hang of it in my mid and late 20s, and learned to really enjoy the whole experience. I am now in a long term relationship with an amazing and gorgeous NT girl, who likes me for my Aspie weirdness. We have also been experimenting with polyamory (that definitely comes under the advanced manual!) which has opened up a whole new world of learning opportunities.
If this helps anyone at all, in anyway – then I am absolutely flattered and delighted.
All the best