Since my teens I’ve only had three relationship modes: Very unhappily single and engaged in a pointless infatuation with an inappropriate person. Varyingly happily single (whilst wondering how on earth people actually manage to read or transmit signals sufficiently well to enter into relationships or hook ups) . Or in a monogamous relationship with a generally supportive male human. When I add it up, I’ve actually been in the latter state for most of the time (Across three relationships for about twenty years in total, latterly my twelve year partnership with my husband). That surprises me in a way as the more negative modes have cast a long shadow.
I wanted to write this blog as a thread by the late-diagnosed comedy writer Sara Gibbs recently resurfaced on Twitter. She talked about how much her husband does for her in terms of domestic and other support, so that she can be a professional writer. She says it can be shameful to admit to the amount of support she has, but that she could either look after herself or work,not easily both alone. Other autistic women added their voices saying they were glad someone had said this openly. They also had partners who took elements of a caring role, or they were able to buy in professional help. Being able to work and be out in the world and sort out domestic life as well was just too demanding of their mental, emotional and physical resources, mostly in terms of energy.
Difficult to admit on several counts; the ability to be totally independent is highly valued, especially if you’re a professional; these would be autistic women perceived as very “high functioning” in the erroneous and reifying language of functioning levels; there’s the gender politics of men operating in a domestically supportive role for women which is still stigmatised and of course, it’s a privilege in a way.
Not every autistic person, not every person full stop who needs one, is able to find and sustain a relationship with someone who will take on this role (it is partly a privilege but partly also I would suggest, luck and partly possibly because of some learned skills we’re not supposed to be able to deploy).
For most of our relationship, I have earned the majority of the money and my husband has done the majority of the domestic tasks. (He cooks nearly all our meals, does the washing, does a lot of the cleaning and nearly all the dog walking and feeding. Not so much the vacuuming, I do love a good vacuum, ah, when those bits vanish satisfying from a carpet…). I should say that since I was sixteen I’ve also lived on my own for twelve out of the subsequent twenty seven years, often happily even if not in great domestic order, efficiency or self-feeding.
Since my diagnosis I’d say we’re both much more aware and conscious of the level of partnership working that this involves- though there is also an element of my husband as my carer. That feels odd to write though. I’m not sure I’m entirely happy with that description. I suspect because of a level of inequality and dependence it implies- and because it’s not quite socially acceptable (including to me). I would want to rush to qualify that statement by pointing out that I generally function better “out in the world” than my husband. Also, perhaps by pointing out that many relationships, including ours, have particular phases or contexts in which a “carer” role is shared out, shifts and fluctuates according to the situation. I didn’t consciously enter into a relationship on this basis when we fell in love- but since when has “falling in love” ever been about conscious needs and processes?
Being in the world of work and the commodification of our creative talents (he is an excellent writer) is more likely to bring me alive and stimulate me, whilst it is more likely to upset and drain him. He has chronic depression. We are dividing our household tasks sensibly and according to ability. Having said that, I’m sure he would be happy to be magically relieved of many of them, and I would love to be magically relieved of the pressure to make sure we have an income. We had a stint of couples counselling a few years ago primarily because we struggled with different ways of conflict and one of the key useful outcomes was that she suggested we open a joint account and recognise the important contributions both of us were making to our lifestyle, not just me (given that the breadwinning role is still more highly valued, no matter which gender is doing it). We still haven’t quite resolved how we can both best have time to use our creative abilities though.
We have a lot in common, many shared interests, have lots to talk about, make each other laugh and are generally kind to each other. We do the complicated thing that is loving each other- for love is a verb as well as a noun- and part of it is (given that we’ve officially committed to each other) working out ways to partner each other in this sometimes joyous, sometimes hostile world. A world that doesn’t necessarily value the ways in which we help make each others lives better and more manageable.
That may not always result in us contributing as much as we can to the neoliberal capitalist system we find ourselves in which values productivity (not to mention the production of future workers neither of us want in the shape of human children) and sees that as best expressed by two people flogging themselves to death. Instead we’re gently and kindly aiming for as much mutual fulfilment as possible whilst pursuing really quite conventional goals (being a heterosexual, married couple of writers is not exactly bringing down the patriarchal system) in a way that is unconventional enough to rarely be talked about.