Maintainers: A User’s Guide
As someone with Asperger’s, the relationships you have with your Maintainers are the most important ones you’re ever going to have. You need rules to understand how not to fuck up. A lot of Aspies are not consciously aware of the dynamics that exist between themselves and their Maintainers, and I’ve seen a lot of appalling behaviour as a result of this. We need to lay down some ground rules, I think, because these people love you and you need to not treat them like shit- accidentally or otherwise. You’re a really smart person, but sometimes you can be a huge asshole.
1. Their feelings are as important as yours.
Okay, before we establish this, we should establish that their feelings are different than yours. A lot of Aspies have a hard time with Theory of Mind, which is the understanding that other people have different experiences, thoughts and feelings from the ones you personally have. I didn’t develop Theory of Mind until I was seven, and so to this day I sometimes have weird lapses where I momentarily forget that somebody doesn’t know something I know.
So your Maintainers have different feelings than you. Also, these feelings are every bit as important as yours. When you’re stressed out, or sad, or angry, keep in mind that the way you express these things is having an impact on other people. When you deny them emotional support, or are dismissive of their opinions, or in any way treat them like they are less important than you, this obviously makes them feel bad. They love you and are doing you a great service. Don’t treat them like garbage.
This also applies to when you’re feeling really good about something. If you’re sharing something you’re enthusiastic about, and you’re really interested in it, and excited, keep in mind that your Maintainer may not be. And that is okay. They are not wrong for finding your shit boring. Everyone has to put up with a little boredom from their loved ones from time to time, but please don’t make the time you spend with them some kind of bizarre endurance test. They are wonderful people and deserve better than this.
2. You’re giving them a lot of goddamn stress. Please acknowledge this.
All the weird shit you do takes an emotional toll on them. For instance, a few years ago my mother had a hysterectomy. On the day of the surgery everyone in my family was worried, because though it’s a routine procedure, you hear about things going wrong. So my aunts decided to buy my sister and me breakfast at the hospital cafeteria. They didn’t have chocolate chip muffins there. I wanted a chocolate chip muffin. I had decided that on this particular day, because I was stressed, I was not going to compromise. So we drove half an hour to get a chocolate chip muffin.
We all have days in which we behave like huge douchebags to the people we love. What really matters is that your loved ones understand that you appreciate their effort. It doesn’t even have to be a big deal. Just make sure that they feel supported by you, and that you take care of them from time to time. Remember to do nice things for them. Keep in mind the ways that they make you feel, and figure out ways to make them feel the same way.
Because at the end of the day, reciprocity might be the only thing that prevents your Maintainers from committing a hate crime against your autistic ass.
3. They have their own lives.
And frankly, sometimes the things that are going on for them are more important than the things that are going on for you. Deal with it.
For instance, in the last two months, Hannah has been coping with a massive change in her professional life. This has had an impact on me in several ways: I’ve had to offer her a greater-than-usual amount of support, she hasn’t been able to support me as often, and we’ve had to sideline some important conversations about the future of our relationship. And none of that stuff matters, because both she and I believe that her career is more important right now. She has shit to tend to. She’s tending to it. Then life will go on.
When you’re freaking out and you need the support of one of your Maintainers, keep in mind that they have full and busy lives, as rich and as important as your life. They might not be available. In fact, when you need help, you might want to ask for help from a Maintainer who you know isn’t going through something at the moment.
Maybe think twice before asking for help from the person who has the flu, or the person who’s going to Barbados next week, or the person whose dog just died.
Everybody’s life is complicated. You are special in many ways, but not when it comes to this.
4. They are not psychic, and neither are you.
This is the best relationship advice I’ve ever heard. I read it in an advice column a few years ago, and I wish I could remember which one. It really stuck with me. This isn’t just an autistic problem- it’s something I hear neurotypicals complain about, too. How many times have you assumed that somebody knows what you’re thinking or feeling? How many times have you beaten yourself up for not knowing what somebody else is thinking or feeling?
Well, stop it.
I know that communication is hard. It’s hard to get the right words out in the right order and in a way that makes sense. It’s hard to listen to people say things that might be hard to hear, or force you to change in some way you’re uncomfortable with.
And emotional vulnerability is a bitch. Seriously. There’s nothing that makes it easier, except maybe practise. Putting yourself out there in a place where you can be rejected by someone you care about is pure hell. And there’s no way of getting around it, unless you give up.
Don’t give up. You deserve better than that.
Talk to the people you care about. Tell them what you want, and what you need. Tell them what’re you scared of. Listen to them. Give them as much as you can.
I know this all sounds like touchy-feely cliched bullshit, and I have no patience for that kind of nonsense except for when it’s true. I feel this is true.
5. You and you Maintainer are going to get seriously, off-the-chain pissed at each other sometimes. Express it in a healthy way.
The relationship between an Aspie and Maintainer is very intimate and very intense and it involves almost all the feelings. And we- as a people- are not good at dealing with the feels.
So it can get messy, and it can get ugly. The fact of these situations isn’t as important as how you handle them. You and your Maintainer need to be able to express the anger and resentment you’re sometimes going to feel. In that way, you can maybe work through it without killing each other.
The trickiest thing is that you have to actually express these feelings. Avoiding confrontation or pretending you don’t feel things are not reasonable strategies. When you find yourself in conflict with a Maintainer, tell them how you feel and why you feel that way. If you don’t know how you feel, tell them that. If you don’t know why you feel that way, tell them that. If you don’t know how you feel or why you feel however you’re feeling, tell them you’re confused.
Even if they’re pissed off at you, they still love you. And if you demonstrate a willingness to talk about conflict and work through it, they might not be quite so pissed off.
If you’re not ready to talk about your feelings, then you need to vent. I’d suggest engaging with one of your special interests for awhile- but don’t get lost in it. You’ll need to come back to earth after a little while in orbit. Problems have to be solved one way or another- actually, actively solved- ‘cause otherwise they won’t go away.
I know it’s difficult, in stressful moments, to be self-aware and to not do stuff that sucks. I mean, when I’m keeping my head above water, that’s what I’m focusing on. I’m not focused on whether I’m being Captain Courteous, y’know?
So you need to have a frank discussion with your Maintainers and tell them to call you out on your bullshit. Tell them that you need to know when you’re doing or saying something that’s unacceptable. It might help for them to differentiate between behaviour that is merely weird, and behaviour that is likely to irrepairably damage relationships with less understanding people.
And you realize how difficult it is to provide this kind of assistance, right? Not only does it take a lot of time and energy, but it’s painful to see someone you love struggling, especially when you can’t always make things okay.
So, like, buy them a sundae or something. They surely deserve it.