Dear Prudence

Whisper Sweet Diagnoses

Should I tell my insensitive boyfriend I think he’s on the autism spectrum?

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Mallory Ortberg
Mallory Ortberg

Sam Breach

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Dear Prudence,
I’ve been dating someone who lives a few hours away from me for about nine months. He’s intelligent, kind, funny, generous, and a little socially awkward (which is great because I am, too). A few months into our relationship, I began to suspect that he might fall somewhere on the autism spectrum. I have not discussed this with him because I care about him and don’t want him to feel like I think there is something “wrong” with him. He does not show attraction or love the way that I’m used to, and I’m struggling with the lack of emotional reciprocity. I don’t know if he actually enjoys my company, except he keeps coming around—he doesn’t compliment me, flirt with me, or tell me that he loves me. He doesn’t respond or even acknowledge those things when I do them. If I try to communicate my needs, he accuses me of playing games or “fishing.” I recently mentioned this dynamic was hard for me, and he said he would try to be more supportive, but nothing’s changed and he hasn’t mentioned it since.

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Recently he mentioned wanting to live together, which left me feeling blindsided and guilty. If his behavior was coming from someone I didn’t think might have Austism Spectrum Disorder, I would label him a jerk and move on. Do I tell him that I think he might be on the spectrum so we can work on specifically targeting those communication problems? Am I wrong for wanting a partner who occasionally tells me I look nice and says “I love you too”? Could he just be a jerk?

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—Missing Emotional Reciprocation

There’s an excellent reason that only trained medical professionals are qualified to assess ASD; in general I believe letter writers should refrain from offering amateur diagnoses to their partners. What you have is a boyfriend who is unwilling to meet your needs even when explicitly asked—there is no need to speculate about whether or not he might be on the spectrum, especially since you’ve known him less than a year and live hours apart. You two may simply be incompatible. Your boyfriend may be a jerk. He may, for any number of reasons, be uninterested in communicating as you do. You say that your suspicion of ASD is all that is keeping you together—in other words, you have sufficient information to end your relationship with him, and you should do so. You do not have sufficient information to offer him a potential diagnosis. Do not assume that he must be on the spectrum just because he does not treat you well—to do so would both unnecessarily medicalize bad behavior and unfairly malign people with ASD as emotionally incompetent.

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Dear Prudence,
I grew up in a very supportive and loving family, but that all changed when I came out at 17. My father disowned me and my mother became depressed and withdrawn; I was devastated and had minimal contact with them for years. After therapy, medication, and putting myself through medical school, I’m feeling pretty good. I have a wonderful partner of five years, and my family and I are slowly reconnecting. My father even apologized to me, which is something I never thought would happen. The problem is my sister. My partner and I usually stay with her when we visit, but she just told us that we’d have to start sleeping in separate rooms when we come to see the family from now on. Now that she and her husband have had a son, they’ve decided as a family that God disapproves of same-sex relationships and that while they love us and want us to come, they’re not going to let us share a room anymore. (We used to do so.) Staying with other family members is not an option.

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My partner suggested we just get a hotel, but I’m not sure I want to go at all. I’m devastated, and I don’t feel like I can go through another rejection (even a friendly one) from my family. It feels like I had this gaping wound that was almost healed and has now been ripped open again. I don’t want to hurt my sister’s feelings, but I’m also contemplating cutting off contact. I know from experience that logic will not help here. What should I do?

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—Can’t Do This Again

Don’t go. There are compromises worth making with family, but this is not one of them, especially when the emotional toll on you has already been so great. Your sister’s rejection may have been conveyed gently, but it was anything but friendly. It may be that at some point in the future you will feel up to the prospect of visiting and staying in the hotel room, but don’t push yourself to make nice so soon after this painful revelation. It is absolutely fair for you to say, “I love you, too, but I don’t see my loving, fulfilling relationship as a sin or a violation of God’s law” and to decline future requests to visit on the condition that you pretend to be ashamed of your partner. Do whatever is necessary to take good care of yourself right now, and don’t worry about hurting your sister’s feelings. You’re not trying to be cruel to her—you’re demanding a bare minimum of respect for your relationship. If that means keeping your distance from your family indefinitely, then do so.

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Dear Prudence,
My brother has been living with me for the last two years while finishing high school, never officially on the lease. Now that he’s graduated, I’ve been trying to help him find a job so I can get him qualified for my lease, but he’s had little success so far. I’ve given him until the end of the month to find work, because my current landlord is beginning to suspect that he’s living with me, but I don’t know if he’ll find any work, and I can’t kick him out. He’s trans and mentally ill and has no one else to live with. We were evicted from my last place because he was staying in my living room, and I’m terrified that it will happen here—what do I do?

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—Brother in Need

First, familiarize yourself with the tenant’s rights available to you in your state to see if there are any ways you can bring your brother in as a legal tenant or subletter. You can also consult Lamda Legal to find out if there are any trans youth centers near you that could offer your brother legal advice, transitional housing, social services, medical care, scholarship assistance, and job training. The odds of your brother being able to find work that pays well enough for him to move out and find his own place in a month are slim, and you should maximize every resource available to you in order to give him the time and assistance he needs to become more independent without putting your own living situation at further risk.

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Dear Prudence,
My boyfriend and I have been together for just under a year, and we’re generally communicative and well-attuned to one another. Over the last three months, after countless conversations about ground rules, we’ve opened it up. It’s been both good and bad as this is our first time in an open relationship and we’re figuring things out.

It’s been fun, but last night my boyfriend violated two of our established ground rules. In the past we’ve agreed that our hookups would be strictly physical. But my boyfriend went on a date with his hookup and also allowed him to sleep over. I gave him qualified permission to grab a drink, while simultaneously expressing my discomfort with it. He later told me his hookup fell asleep and he didn’t want to “kick him out of bed at 1 a.m. to go to home.” I feel angry and hurt that he would deliberately do something we both agreed not to do. He’s done things in the past that make me reluctant to trust him, and this feels like more of the same. I don’t want to break up with him, but I’m not sure how to move forward. He has since apologized, but this is an issue I can’t let go.

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—Openly Confused

The beauty of an open relationship is that you can hit pause at any time. Just because a relationship is open doesn’t mean you can’t call a time out when things aren’t working. You can take a break, discuss what’s working and what isn’t, and figure out ahead of time what you’ll do in the moment if something comes up. There’s something to be said for your boyfriend’s refusal to kick out his hookup after he’d fallen asleep. A naïve fantasy sometimes persists among people in newly open relationships that they will somehow be able to engage in a series of “purely physical” encounters that never involve considering the feelings or needs of others. Even a sex-only encounter should be friendly and considerate. Maybe in the future you’d like to ask that neither of you bring anyone else to your respective homes to avoid such a scenario.

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Consider, too, why you gave your boyfriend “qualified permission” to go on a date when it sounds like what you really wanted to say was “no.” Did you feel like you didn’t have the right to enforce a limit? Were you afraid of being seen as a buzzkill and so begrudgingly conceded to something you didn’t actually want? Talk all of this over while (temporarily) removing the pressure of being open; only re-enter nonmonogamy when you both feel secure. If, however, you fundamentally believe your boyfriend to be untrustworthy—I’m not sure what the nature of his previous transgressions were—you should break up, even if you “don’t want to” because trust is a fundamental component of a good relationship, open or closed.

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Dear Prudence,
I am a 30-year-old single man who grew up with a physically and verbally abusive father and a mother who was passive and often complicit in his abuse. I was one of four children, but I was singled out. None of my other siblings was abused, and I was also “blamed” as a little kid for ruining holidays, vacations, and special occasions. My father left my mother a few years ago and is no longer a part of my life. It took years of therapy to cope with my depression and anxiety and to develop a sense of self-worth.

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The man my mother is with now has a horrible knack for making inappropriate comments, and while I try to bite my tongue, recently at a family gathering he made a joke about suicide. I’ve been suicidal many times and took offense. He and my mother now deny that he ever said it, and none of my brothers think it’s a big deal. She also blames me for every failed relationship she’s had after my father left. As a result, I’ve basically cut her off over the last 10 months. My therapist (who is fantastic and probably the biggest reason I’m still alive) has said she doesn’t believe in a complete cutoff. Am I completely crazy? Should I even bother to try and fix it?

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—No Family

No matter how great your therapist is, you’re allowed to do things she disagrees with. Therapists offer guidance and suggestions and support, but only you ultimately make the decisions about your own life based on what you think is best for you. It’s understandable that you feel grateful to your therapist for all the ways she’s helped you, but that doesn’t mean you owe her anything other than honesty, respect, and regular payments. You certainly don’t require her approval. If you can’t have a healthy relationship with a mother who won’t acknowledge her past abuse or acknowledge reality in the present, then it’s fair for you to set boundaries. Cutting people off is a drastic move, certainly, but it’s also a very personal one, and you’ve clearly done your level best to consider the alternatives before ending contact.

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Dear Prudence,
I read your column often, and I notice that a frequent piece of advice you give is to see a therapist. A year ago, I was struggling with anxiety and depression and decided to see a therapist on a regular basis. At first, I enjoyed seeing her and felt like I was making progress. Now it no longer feels helpful. I keep going because I think it’s the right thing to do, but I often feel frustrated or bored during the sessions. It has the same sensation of a romantic relationship that has run its course, but the two people are holding on regardless. That being said, I know things take time. Maybe I should not be expecting to “make progress” as a result of therapy. My therapist is not bad or manipulative in any way. I’m just not getting much out of it. I’ve been feeling this way for about four months now. What is it that I should expect out of therapy? Is it time to try and find a new therapist? Do people do that?

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—All Talked Out

The goal of therapy is not necessarily to remain in therapy indefinitely. While traditional therapy can remain open-ended, plenty of people utilize therapy as a short- or medium-term support for achieving discrete, specific goals. Research indicates that short-term therapy is particularly effective in treating depression. Think of therapy as a resource that’s always available to you, rather than an unending obligation that you’ve signed up for: You’re always free to resume therapy in the future if you feel it would be helpful, but you’re also free now to end your regular sessions if you feel you’ve gotten the maximum benefit possible already. You can also, of course, find a new therapist whom you feel more of a connection with if you’d like further assistance with your anxiety and depression. (Yes, people do that all the time; just see how many Google results there are for “how to break up with your therapist.”) But if you feel you’ve made sufficient progress and would rather not see a therapist at all, you can just say, “This has been great—thanks for everything” and move on.

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