Welcome to It’s Complicated, stories on the sometimes frustrating, sometimes confusing, always engrossing subject of modern relationships. (Want to share yours? Email pitches to email@example.com.)
“Does your dad work for Verizon?” said the message on my computer screen. Does he know I opened the message? I was too new to Facebook to understand how it worked. I straightened up in my chair, as if he was watching me and expecting an answer. I sat that way for a few seconds, and then closed the window on my computer because I couldn’t decide what to do.
The question was from Dave, a guy I barely knew and hadn’t spoken to in 13 years, since our high-school graduation. For a reasons I couldn’t identify, I felt compelled to answer him instead of pretending the message didn’t go through, which is what I sometimes do to avoid conversations I don’t want to have. Even on social media, I’m not comfortable socializing if I don’t know what to expect.
“Yes, he did before he retired,” I finally wrote back six days later. “I almost didn’t recognize you.” He didn’t need to know that I’d combed through his online profile and photos before finally deciding to respond. I knew he didn’t just want to know where my dad worked, so I did some research: His question about Verizon made sense because he apparently worked there too, according to his employment history. More importantly, his profile listed him as single — and, according to recent photos, pretty cute. We became friends on Facebook shortly after that, and began using it to chat with each other regularly.
At that point, I didn’t yet know that I had autism. In fact, I wouldn’t be diagnosed until several years later, at age 39. But when I was, so much suddenly made sense: I was selectively mute as a child, and even as an adult, I rarely spoke in my graduate-school classes. I relied on scripted language for social situations. Observing how other people interacted and later imitating their gestures and lines made it easier for me to communicate. Like many non-neurotypical women, I was unknowingly hiding my autism.
But talking on Facebook was a different story. Online, I could communicate without those worries about non-verbal cues; I felt free in a way I never did during first-person encounters. And ever since Dave and I got married in 2010, I’ve remained convinced that we wouldn’t be together if we’d met in any other way.
Dating is especially difficult for me because of the problems I have with my executive functioning, the mental skills needed to organize information and make decisions (another common issue among women with autism). For me, having a conversation with a date in person means positioning my body to face him, reading his non-verbal communication, processing the sound of his voice, looking toward him, replying to what he says, and knowing when to smile at his jokes. None of this comes naturally. It takes a concerted effort for me to juggle all of these mannerisms; add in trying to learn the subtleties of flirting, and the whole thing becomes almost too exhausting to keep up for more than an hour.
If Dave and I had reconnected in person, here’s how it probably would have gone: I would’ve looked away if I caught him looking at me from a distance, pretending not to see him. Or, if I had to face him up close, maybe I would’ve said hello and left it at that, unless he asked a question like How are you? For this, I would’ve had a scripted response ready to go, usually just good, which I would’ve said without ever thinking about how I actually felt.
I would’ve answered any other questions with folded arms and other closed body language, unless he happened to ask about a special interest of mine. Then, I’d deliver an entire lecture, or what many autistic people like me refer to as an “info dump,” wrongly assuming that he’d be as interested as I am in Jane Austen film adaptations or obscure 19th-century literature. But I might not have recognized him at all, because I have prosopagnosia, commonly known as face blindness (a condition that two-thirds of autistic people having according to one study), which means I have trouble recognizing faces, especially out of context.
Luckily, our first encounter in person was actually quite different, because we had already gone through the awkward moments of getting to know each other online — and, soon enough, our relationship went back to its digital roots. Before Dave and I started dating, I had already committed to moving abroad for a three-year teaching contract in the United Arab Emirates. Once it was time for me to leave, we didn’t talk about having a long-distance relationship, but I think we both knew that that’s what it would end up being. And so we relied on Facebook, Skype, and the occasional phone call, my least preferred method of communication (my audio processing problems make it difficult for me to talk on the phone because I have trouble distinguishing voices from other sounds).
While I was living alone abroad, Dave and I met up in romantic cities halfway between us, like Paris and Prague. After our first year apart, we got married in Jamaica. He left his job, gave his dog to his nephew, and moved with me to the UAE, where we lived together before coming back to the states.
Seven years of marriage and three kids later, Dave and I will still occasionally have a Facebook conversation when we’re both home together. He’ll write something sarcastic, knowing my autism means that I often interpret everything literally. I’ll look up from my laptop and see the smirk on his face across the room. I’ll pretend to be angry while holding back laughter. And then I’ll take my time — a few minutes, not six days — before typing my comeback.