Some thoughts

Life in a Mixed Marriage, the curse of good manners

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So here we are, once again navigating the turbulent waters of an AS/NT mixed marriage. I rather fear that the title of this week’s offering may sound as though I’m saying one of us has good manners and the other doesn’t. In fact what I’m going to talk about is how, when living with a person with very different neurological wiring, all the conditioned notions of what constitutes good manners are turned topsy-turvy.

My father was born in 1919 and his mother was a Victorian of the ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ variety. She was left a young widow with two children. There was no money. My Dad left school at 14 to make his own way in the world. He did well and he did it using his charm, intelligence and the good manners his mum had dinned in to him.

Being polite was double-edge. It endeared someone of my father’s class and upbringing to his ‘betters’ and helped him advance his career, but it also set him apart from his peers and gave the impression that he originated from a more affluent social level than was in fact the case.

My father, and my grandmother who died when I was 18, passed this belief in politeness and good manners down to me. I was sent to elocution lessons to eliminate any traces of cockney; I was taught how to hold my knife and fork, not to speak with my mouth full, never to eat off my knife and to always say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’. These are just the headlines, you understand, there is a whole raft of underlying behaviours and phrases of which even now I’m only half aware.

Being in a mixed marriage has made me more aware because suddenly I found that my repertoire of polite behaviour was perceived by the person I care about most as being insulting.

Here’s an example. I go out for the evening with friends. It’s likely it’ll be in Penzance which is six miles from our village. David isn’t coming but, so that I can enjoy a tipple, he offers to drive me there and pick me up when I’m done. This represents considerable effort and inconvenience on his part so I might well respond by saying, ‘That would be lovely, thank you – are you sure?’ It’s that last phrase that is the problem. To me, it’s a polite recognition of the effort involved. To David, it’s an insult: he would not have offered had he not been sure and so I have effectively told him that I don’t believe his offer to be genuine.

Similarly, if I’m asking anything of him, I’m likely to hedge the request round with all sorts of polite phrases (they are so instinctive that I can’t even think what they might be just at the moment) when what he needs is for me to cut to the chase: ‘I want to book a table and go out for a meal tonight.’ Rather than, ‘Isn’t it a lovely evening? How do you feel about popping over to the Gurnard’s Head.’

There are many more examples – I think I need to keep a log when they occur and produce a phrase book.

A couple of years ago I spent some time on the website Wrong Planet looking for advice on how to speak ‘Aspergian’. One person told me to think of it as ‘releasing my inner bitch’ or words to that effect. My father and grandmother would turn in their graves. It’s certainly a strong way of putting it, no hedging with polite phrases there 🙂 .

However, behind the strong words there is a serious point. What is politeness for me, is rudeness to an Aspergian.

Day to day I have to perform quite a juggling act. I have to maintain standards of politeness for the sake of my neurotypical friends, but also for myself because it’s part of who I am and I need to be true to that self as well as being able to ‘speak blunt’ to David.

It’s not easy and sometimes I forget, but then sometimes David forgets how brutal his forthright manner can seem to me. So we learn together and we are tolerant towards one another’s mistakes. It’s not plain sailing by any means, but in my experience, nothing worthwhile ever is.

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