Dating – Pre and Post Diagnosis

I have not seen the show Love on the Spectrum, but I’ve heard a couple of podcasters talk about it.  It’s a real thing – trying to connect with someone for love and companionship — when connecting with others is one of the basic struggles of non-neurotypical people.   I found myself thinking how blessed I am to have a wife of over 30 years, even though it has been our shortfalls in communication that drove me to get tested for a neurological issue.

One of the hardest issues in my acceptance of my autism diagnosis was the fact that I went out with girls, and I thought it went “normally.”  I even married one, and by the grace of God, and her patience, am still married today.  I think we all put on our best self when trying to convince someone that we are worthy of spending time with.  The little I had known about autism – I figured “those” people struggled to find a partner.  Now I know that ASD is one of the sources of my own difficulty to connect.

Dating…where to begin?  I can only tell you my stories; this is not ADVICE.

I consider myself fortunate to not have grown up in the internet era.  Tinder, E-Harmony, et al, sounds like a huge mass of unreal people looking for other unreal people.  Don’t get me wrong – I know people who have found their mate this way and that’s great for them.  We Boomers did have to be a little braver prior to internet dating sites, having to present our real selves to others when interested in a date.  This was part of what kept me from dating a lot in high school.  Sheer fear of rejection was enough to keep me hanging with the guys on a Friday night. 

I went to a few of the big dances like prom and homecoming with a few different girls.  I had a girlfriend for a short period of time, and looking back, I can’t say for sure that my autism factored into it.  Maybe I haven’t studied that enough.  I will say that I was immature, and that the physical part of the relationship, even though we kept it “from the neck up,” was too much for me to process, and “imprinted” me for later relationships.  I had never vocalized it, or even formed the sentences in my brain, but I began to believe that a steady relationship was hallmarked by lots of kissing.  Other factors were not – to me at the time – clearly indicative of a boyfriend/girlfriend situation.  Not true, of course, but that’s what seemed to make unspoken sense to my teenage non-neurotypical mind.  That may resonate with neurotypicals, too.

In college, I quickly jumped into a huge group of friends – almost as if I were a “new me.”  I have told people that I enjoyed college so much that I would not trade a day. In hindsight, there were some days where I stressed over a lot, especially girls.  (Grades? Ahhh, who cares about those?!?)

I could say the wrong thing within two minutes of talking to a female.  “Stranger dances,” which were the 80s version of a blind, were my first few dates that first year at UVa.  Each dorm hosted these dances, and your friends found you a date from someone they knew who didn’t live in that dorm.  Fun, but hard to really get to know anyone this way.  Those dates didn’t repeat for me – maybe because I was unknowingly off-putting in a spectrum way?

I started to get braver and asked a few girls out to various dances at school. Most girls like getting asked to the various balls. I took a short course in ballroom dance – that helped. I also got asked to some sorority cocktail parties.  As a prominent leader of a Christian group at school, I guess they thought I was a safe ask.  They were fun, and I think fondly of those events. 

Seemingly uncharacteristic of others that I saw dating in college, somehow I started a steady relationship the DAY before graduation!  It lasted through the summer and into the fall, even though we lived in different cities. Then I began Officer Basic Training with the Army that September.  Soon after training began, I got a letter from her, thanking me, but ending the relationship.  It took me a few weeks to process this, and I figured I was the cause, but I didn’t know what I had done.  Now, I chalk up this relationship not going any further to my immaturity, and probably my previously discussed “imprinting” on the misplaced priority of necking.  I didn’t know how to truly appreciate someone else; I was too busy being a clown, a show-off, selfish, and not knowing what I didn’t know – about myself. 

Knowing oneself is probably the best dating lesson I have for myself, and for anyone else who might ask.  I once heard someone say, “If you want to have friends, work on being a good friend.”  It didn’t matter how much I wanted a girlfriend or a prospective wife, or how much I prayed about it.  I needed self-improvement – and didn’t know it. 

I’m not saying that the hand of providence didn’t factor into protecting me from harmful relationships until “the one” came along.  But I stumbled through the dating process with her, too.  We worked together in radio ministry, and that common mission was part of what attracted us to each other.  There were other attractions, too!  She has since shared with me that she thought I was little cocky and snarky, and now we can chalk some (not all!) of that up to my atypical communication skills and imperfect filters.

As I continue to drive this autism-mobile, I have to look out for both my passengers, and other drivers and pedestrians.  I’m trying to be a friend to many, and a best friend to my wife.  I need to keep improving my communication skills – so that I’m a halfway decent “date” for this woman.  If I can continue to grow as a communicator – cheers for the hope in neuroplasticity – we can continue to date throughout our marriage.  Still working on it – and still shiftin’.

Published by Bart Shoaf

Blogging about victories and challenges as a middle-aged man with a late diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder.

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