The search for a compatible mate

I wrote about Asperger’s and rudeness last week on my Psychology Today blog. At the end of that story, I advanced an idea about compatible mates. I said,

Sometimes people ask me, "What kind of person should a guy with Asperger's look for?"

I can't speak for you, but this is an answer that's worked for me:

People with Asperger's have very weak sensitivity to other people's thoughts and feelings. But we often offset that with exceptionally strong logical brains. Therefore, we are wise to seek a mate with exceptional emotional sensitivity and less logical brainpower. Then, our mental abilities compliment each other's. One of us has great emotional intelligence, and the other has great logical intelligence. Individually, we're each weak. Together, though, we are very strong.

The whole post is here:

That leads to a big question . . . how do you find one of these mates with exceptional emotional sensitivity?

If you’re looking for someone aged 25-35, you could look for an obviously caring and empathetic mom. Empathy abilities are very observable when moms deal with small children. In fact, human empathy probably evolved – in large part - to help mothers take care of helpless nonverbal babies.

When I think of compatible females with exceptional emotional intelligence, all the examples that come to mind are moms. If I were in that age range, searching for a mate, that’s where I’d look.

The only problem with that suggestion, is that a majority of the moms with small children also have pre-existing mates. What if a fellow wants to start his own family? What if you’re younger and looking at prospective mates who don’t have any kids? What if you’re older, and the kids have grown up?

And the biggest problem of all . . . what if you’re not even looking for a female? What if you’re looking for a guy? How do you pick out exceptional emotional intelligence then?

What are some clues one could pick up on at a casual meeting or even on a date?

I have pondered that at length, and it’s tough to answer. At least, it is for me. Perhaps some of you with greater emotional insight can help point me toward a solution.


jess said…
hooray for the moms!

in answer to your question, i've always been one to look at how someone treats the people that they encounter every day.

is s/he warm and gracious with waiters and shop clerks? has s/he taken the time to get to know the name of the postman or the security guard that they pass every day?

does s/he chat with the toll taker? innocently flirt with an elderly woman who could use a smile? stop and hold a door for someone whose hands are full?

does s/he say thank you to an officer who stops traffic so they can pass? hold an elevator for someone running behind?

these are 'clues' that we can find in almost any public interaction.

to dig a little deeper, i think a lot of insight can be gained by finding out what his/ her relationships are like with those that are close to them. do they call to check in on their mom? do they know the ages of their sister's kids? can they tell you what their brother does for a living?

there's so much more to it though, isn't there? this compatability thing? but maybe this is a good place to start.
John Robison said…
Jess, it's interesting that the traits you point out are some of the things most obviously lacking in many of us with Asperger's.

While I agree that those things may indicate emotional sensitivity, I wonder . . . if we don't do those things ourselves, could we recognize and note them in others?

I am older and better trained now, at 51. Would I have picked up on that at 18?

It's a good example but I can't help but wonder if something obvious to you may be invisible to younger Aspergians.

Any thoughts on that?
Nope. said…
Huh. What about the female Aspergians? How do we find mates? We're just as rude and inconsiderate.

As for Jess's comment, I have picked up on some of those cues not by instinct, but by imitation. So that's my two cents.
Chris Eldin said…
This is a very interesting question. I agree with Jess, but also will add that you can tell a lot about a person by how much he or she is attending to the people around--are they distracted by cell phones, blackberries, etc.

To me, listening skills are stronger with more empathetic people. I don't know....

There could be a lot in this discussion.
John Robison said…
Jess, female Aspergians are one of the concerns I had when writing this . . . could you really pick up the traits you identify in most guys? It's a real problem, spotting people with emotional sensitivity if you are weak in it yourself.
jess said…
well, i do think that you could observe at least some of the things i mentioned because they are concrete. they are actions that you can look for and 'check off' so to speak.

there's definitely a challenge in trying to identify empathy in others when it's not a natural state for you. i don't think any of the practical answers will necessarily be easy to apply to real life.

this 2 jess thing is confusing. hi, jess.
John Robison said…
For the benefit of others following this conversation . . . we have two Jesses on the blog. Comment #1 from mom Jess, who has a girl on the spectrum. Comment #3 is from female Aspergian Jess, a different person.

It's really difficult for me to see a good answer to this, but as Jess points out, it's a real and pressing question for many young adult Aspergians.
Crazy Momma said…
I have no answers and wish, for my child, that I did. We are blessed that he is an INCREDIBLY emotional kid. However, he has, like most aspergians, a difficult time recognizing other's emotions...

I want him to grow and be a happy, healthy adult. I want him to experience love and the joys of it...

Then I remember, he is 6 and we have a ways to go :)

I love your blog, John. It is a joy to read and always gets me thinking!
Nope. said…
Hi, Jess. You're the mom, so I'm going to call you The Mom.

I can't quite identify positive or negative traits in human mates, which has sometimes led my relationships to backfire or linger on, but I do have a criteria for what I like in a mate. Whether or not I can recognize it is another story entirely...
LizzieK8 said…
Well, one has to go out and meet lots of people, which requires lots of small talk, and.... well...that's why I'm single.
Kanani said…
emotional sensitivity and less logical brainpower

Ah....c'mon! HOOOOOEEEYYY!!!
Less logical brainpower? How insulting is that?

People have the ability to organize different things, which isn't based on being more or less logical.

Some might be able to organize a system of manufacturing, while others are able to organize a lot of people to throw a soirée. I don't want to think of one being the better of the two, they're just very different skills.

I think finding a mate is a real crapshoot, personally. You take your chances, you do the very best that you can, you adapt and hopefully it all works out.
John Robison said…
Kanani, you are right. The words "less logical brainpower" sounds insulting but I did not mean it that way.

I simply meant we Aspergians have a marked deficiency on the emotional side, so we need a compliment to that.

We often have very strong logical brains, we we don't have the need for strength there to compliment a weakness.

I agree it's not the best choice of words

TheresaC said…
Ok, this is my opinion, for whatever it's worth....

My first marriage (3yrs) didn't last.

After that I was a single mom for 10 yrs and dated a man for 3 yrs in that time before I finally realized that our parenting styles were too different to work well together in a marriage.

The following is my 4 main reasons as to why I am now happily married to a wonderful man....

First, in the 3 1/2 years I have known him, he ALWAYS treats me with respect, and NEVER talks down to me or makes me feel stupid, even though I can do as many stupid things as the next person. I was not treated that well in my first marriage. And because he treats me that well it makes me strive to always treat him with the same respect.

Second, he treats my boys like they were his own. He does his best to help me nurture and guide them.

Third, we agree about how to manage money. I don't think we've ever had an argument about money. If we disagree we talk it out until we do agree about what to do. Ask any lawyer and they will tell you most marriages end mostly over money.

Fourth, we have very similar parenting styles. I think that helps keep a union strong.

To think of it, I had none of those in my first marriage.

Now, how to recognize that, I can't say, because I had to have a bad marriage to recognize those traits and to recognize they were important to me.
Jesse said…
It's weird that you mention mothers, because the only intimate relationships I've been in since high school, were with mothers. I don't have aspergers, rather, I am more an aspergers on its head type person, who recognizes and empathizes, but who cant reciprocate without bursting at the seams and making a big mess all over the place. So the only people that can tolerate me on such a level, are mothers. I think their ability to forgive the little things in exchange for the bigger picture leads me and them inexorably to each other.

Forgive the analogy, but its like dogs... sorta. Female dogs tend to be 'less pet worthy', before their first liter. Not that I'm looking for a pet, or that mothers are bitches, but the same emotional abilities needed to tolerate a bunch of giant monkeys who like to hit you and step on you while you are sleeping on the kitchen floor, and forget to feed you every so often, is the same needed for people with less than average emotional geometries. Maybe people with emotional differences simply trigger a recognition, of some kind of child-like attribute, and the mommy brain allows them to forgive otherwise off-putting nuances that others would not.

Or maybe I'm some kind of freudian extremist, out to bed only card-carrying members of the mommy club. It sounds pathological.
Jesse said…
Also (sorry for double post), Kanani, most things in life are a sort of craps-shot, we live in a non-deterministic world, to the chagrin of a lot of people. But nothing in physical reality, even a craps-shot, is an evenly distributed amount of randomness. Randomness can favor certain outcomes, even if it doesn't guarantee them. People, like dice, aren't perfectly manufactured cubes, in pristine vacuums. People, are more akin to some kind of Salvador Dahli painting of dice. Different shapes and sizes lead to different shapes and sizes of the probability space. And that leads to different likelihoods of the possible rolls... to keep mumbling on about dice and probability.

Though you may not have agreed with John's initial wording, I'm sure you can understand what he is getting at. It's a somewhat naive thing to be offended by absolute terminology in the obvious context of this blog.
John, I learned one thing about you that would make you a compatible mate in my eyes - you tip well and you treat waitstaff with respect (as Jess pointed out.) We NT's do pick up on small signals - perhaps Aspergians do too, just different wavelengths? I notice if a man holds open a door. I notice the inside of his car - if it's a mess he'll need a mommy to clean up after himm not a mate. What's his first kiss like? Is it a sloppy wet jackhammer from hell or a "What do you think of this and maybe a little of this?" That can tell you about his, um, "style." Is his house/aparment/dormroom clean or disgusting? Is he reasonable fashionable or is he wearing long silky gym shorts in public at age 30? Check out his magazine subsriptions. Does he attend religious services if that matters to you.

If I were a man, I'd look for a mate who enjoys at least some domestic "chores" like cooking or baking. Let's face it, men like to eat and a woman who can cook is likely to make healthier meals than the woman who buys only prepared foods. A woman who keeps a clean house. I think men like to come home to some semblance of calm. A woman who is at least somewhat careful with her looks. A swipe of mascara, a touch of lipstick, (we can't all look as beautiful as The Demon!)

I dated a very quiet guy for 9 years. Not Apsergian. Just not a big talker. I'm a yakker, as you know. I married a talker who shared my ethnic and religious background. Maybe we need people LIKE us, not a Yin for our Yang?
Samwick said…
First of all, for moms to be moms, sex had to happen at some point. So, they must have had desirable traits prior to having a kid. The idea that "moms are the way to go" is ridiculous. You're really just saying that desirable women are the way to go, i.e. you're saying the obvious.

and it's impossible to define an ideal mate for "aspergians"...because different people like different things. Even if someone is logical...they can still have a wide range of preferences and tastes.

i repeat: different people like different things...that's as true for those with AS as it is for typicals.

How do people with AS find mates? They have to learn the social skills. That's what it gets down to, not making broad generalizations like "AS people are logical...therefore they need mommies". Please.

Learning social skills allows someone with Aspergers to participate more fully in situations...this provides them with options, choices. they can meet people, decide who they like, don't like.

If someone is unable to learn social skills or disinterested in doing so...then it's a matter of finding settings where they can do well. online settings, or social settings filled with others who disdain the typical rituals.

Skills not stereotypes.
Kanani said…
I know what you meant, John.

By the way, I think a certain amount of physical attraction helps a great deal. I don't mean the guy has to look like Orlando Bloom and the woman like Amanda Seyfried, but there has to be something that pulls a person over to another. Yup.

Of course --all that is either enhanced or frayed once you get to know the other person.
But let's not downplay the role of physical attraction.
Sandra Cormier said…
I suppose you need someone who keeps you on an even keel.

For every mom, there's a potential mom - a big sister, an older cousin, that girl who took the unpopular girl under her wing in school.

They're out there...
Holly Kennedy said…
John, this post made me smile :)

I'm a mom, and I consider myself an emotionally sensitive individual (and author) but interestingly enough my husband is way more logical in his thinking patterns and compartmentalizes far better than I do, which makes our pairing a good fit.
Cloudia said…
Good thinking about moms.
Plans go out the window when you meet the "right" person, I think. Life's important things have a magically fated quality . . .
Aloha Happy Holidat from Waikiki-
ssas said…
The main issue I see with this is the "Looking for a mate" part. I know several guys who are "looking." The more they look--especially with some sort of ideal in mind--the more love eludes them. They've failed to learn that you don't get to choose who you fall in love with, you only get to choose whether or not you stay with them. Most of them have chosen not to stay because they're more hung up on their "ideal" than the actual person standing in front of them.
Unknown said…
I apologize if I'm repeating what's already been said by others, but I was so excited and inspired by the question that I just had to write first and read second. I am one of those emotionally empathetic people who is drawn to caring about and for strong logical minds. If you are in the younger age range, and are wondering why it's so tough to find someone who is caring, it's because it takes some time for that to develop fully in most individuals. I was ALWAYS more heart than I was able to express - behaviorally or verbally. Now that I'm 32, and since I was about 25, I can better describe it and act accordingly. However, people that I've known forever tell me that they always knew that I was a "good one" because they felt like they'd known me forever the first time they met me. I have never acted as if people have anything to prove to me - I just like and accept them immediately. (which of course gets me in trouble because wrong-doers take advantage of people like me). However, if you get a good feeling about a person who continually seems to genuinely be open to you - whoever you happen to be (as long as you are not trying to hurt yourself or others) then I'd say, that's a keeper. That's a person who will be a good friend, confidante, potential mate. It's the most important decision you ever make in your life - choosing a mate. And you will potentially suffer immeasurably before you find a person who is as caring as you are, but have faith. We are out there.
Barbara said…
Hi John, I want you to know that I went to the Backspace Writer's Conference last August, and I came down with a horrible flu the day you were to speak and I cried because I couldn't attend. I went the next day, and they told me I had just missed you, you had gone. I have your book and wanted you to autograph it. I admire much about you and hope to meet you some day. As a female aspergerian just turned 59, I will add my comments, but I will add a disclaimer; please, fellow bloggers, don't be offended by what I have to say. My brain is differently wired. Oliver Wendell Holmes said "Even a dog knows the difference between being stumbled over and being kicked." so please forget being politically correct and be a dog in this respect. Life was always very confusing for me because it was full of people, most of whom judged me as incorrigible and tried without success to beat me into submission. When I first entered school, I was labeled retarded and placed in a Special Ed class which was neither special nor educational. It was filled with 1/2" diameter crayons and blank faced children who were already privy to the deception. Then I became a spelling expert and was put up a grade. Except for a few, females never accepted me,(even my mother) but because I was attractive, I had male friends, that is, once I got into college and past the cootie posse in high school. I grew up more like a male than a female, but I learned to emulate femininity. My experiences with partners who had good emotional skills were disastrous. They did not complete me, nor I them. I have always been good with repetition, so I entered the U.S. Army and did very well. I felt I had to excel at everything I did to make up for what I once felt were my shortcomings. I now consider myself autistically enhanced. To find friends, I joined MENSA and I hang out with Master Gardeners, a special breed who understand doing things separately yet together. I am a writer now that I am out of the army. When I was 13 a doctor at Barrow Neurological Institute told me that if I copied other people, maybe I could get by without being institutionalized (they used to do that to us, and spray water in our faces as aversion therapy for our behaviors.) No two people were ever the same, so I became more like an impressionist. (I love the character on Boston Legal.) I tried to be bits and pieces of hundreds of people in my lifetime, and now I would not be anyone bt myself. What I am saying is, I find happiness in like-minded people. That's what I would look for in a mate if I had it to do over again, someone who is like me. Go with what you know. There are so many of us out there now, you just have to look in the right places, and you will find your soul mate. Woof.
Anonymous said…
First of all a small introduction. I was classified as Asperger a year ago and I am actually 47 years old. I believe myself is a quite succesfull computer person but have very limited social experience.

A year and half ago I was literally touch by a co-worker woman and litterately started changing. I was very sensitive to touch and one of things I did for this is take dance lessions and now in Step Arobics. I also went on very life changing Mission trip to Costa Rica.

Just to let you know this is a very interesting topic for me lately and I think you right, I think as an Asperger, a non tecnical person would be ideal.

Now my big question once you believe you find such a mate, how do I approach her with this issue with out scaring her off.

I hope oneday to help others with Aspergers and maybe even more severe forms of Autism. I am hoping that finding a good mate even at my later age will give hope to others with Asperger that previous gave up like I did in the past.

Anyway my recommendation for fellow Aspergers is also read the "Wild at Heart" series. I believe the combination will help fellow Aspergers.

Also wish everyone here a Merry Christmas.
Anna said…
would you not both suffer for the differences? The 'emotional' one would not have his/her needs met by the AS-partner; the intellectual one would not been able to converse on a significant level with her/his significant other...

Would it not be better to look for someone more like yourself? Then you can play both to your strenghts. And face 'weaknesses' together.

I myself am married with someone with AS-tendencies. Luckily I have those too! We can talk a lot together about science. And about the crazy human world out there. Of course we enhance our 'weaknesses': we tend to live an isolated life, we have few friends and we do not see them often. Normal people probably consider us weird and socially handicapped. But that is from the outside looking in.

From the inside looking out we both have a safe haven to venture from and to return too. We both understand when the other needs space and are not hurt by that. And for those unspeakable moments when one drowns in feelings and feels so utterly alone... we recognize the signs in each other and do the one things one can do: hold the other.

I would not want to be married to someone with high emotional skills, she would not get from me what she needs. I would not be able to share a major part of me with her. Even if she does love me and holds me close. No, I am very happy with my mate, a peer.

We found each other on the internet, while goofing around in some chatroom. We were the only ones with humour and the boldness to show it, it seemed. Then we exchanged some emails. So you can say: we were attracked to each other minds, long before looks, speech and eyes came into the equation.

What do you think of all this?
Anna said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
No, John. No.

Relationship solutions require a much more nuanced approach. This is why I decided to leave a comment, because in my experience "nuance" is not a strength of the Asperger's information processing toolkit.

As someone who has twice married smart, financially-successful men who (turned out to be) well along the Asperger's syndrome, I can tell that it's not this easy.

I ended up in relationships I didn't understand because I *like* highly intelligent technically gifted men who give me space when I need it! What's not to like?!

The first marriage I didn't know anything about it and it turned into a horrific experience. For me, certainly. For him, quite possibly.

At the beginning of marriage #2, "love him for his talents" was the approach I took once I realized what I was dealing with. Since I loved him (because he is a lovely man), I tried really, really hard to accept that some things would never be.

The problem is that the word "marriage" means more than a functional living arrangement. It means that both parties have faults to overlook and both parties participate in making it better for the other according to their needs. It is NOT a one-way street.

I also have a fairly logical mind, so I bought into the "logical" side of things... only to realize that that approach always ended up with him getting his needs met (i.e. an emotionless relationship that revolved around machines and code) and me feeling like chopped liver 95% of the time.

Buying into an empathy-free version of reality was simply not the answer, because I don't believe that marital martyrdom is healthy. So what to do? Well, that's not an easy answer and will depend upon what each person brings to the table.

Loving an Asperger's spouse can be easy, but living without getting your needs met is so very difficult! I think it's important for people to know what they're doing and developing coping mechanisms for both people BEFORE making the commitment.

A rigid thinker who finds value only in "things" is never going to really appreciate the talents that the "emotional" brings to the table unless he gets on-going coaching and help.

The "emotional" person needs external support and positive feedback that can substitute for whatever s/he gives up.

Add to this the factor that everyone has faults and nitpicks that have nothing to do with Asperger's and it gets pretty complex. Add children into the mix and it gets even more complicated.

Do I believe it can work?

Absolutely. Clearly it does for many people.

But, it's not a matter of balancing a simple algebraic equation.

For me, it meant leaving a relationship (#2) I valued.

But, I wish there had been another way,
John Robison said…
Thanks for all the comments on this post. Today (January 3, 2009) I have revisited the ideas of this post in a new Blogger essay. Click the "Look Me in the Eye" button at the top to go there

Unknown said…
I THINK my husband is Aspergian. We're just exploring this possibility. Because he has a lot of the traits, I think I can answer your question.

Look for someone who isn't emotionally NEEDY. Someone who is sure of herself/himself and doesn't need a lot of reciprocation. At the time of my first marriage, I never could have handled an Aspergian. I had a really hard time with a narcissist, and although Aspergians aren't narcissists per se, they can have a narcissist's way of dealing with other people. Now that I have matured and I realize that I shouldn't rely on my mate to fulfill all of my emotional needs, I can totally love my husband and not expect him to behave the same way I do.
Unknown said…
If you are looking for more laughs than insight on the true state of dating, compatibility, love and relationships you will enjoy the book "Relationslips" by author Adam Kirk Pruden.

Relationslips is a collection of humorous revelations from one man's experiences with the opposite sex. Adam really bares his soul and puts the often embarrassing truth about his failed relationships out there for the world to read.

Though he has suffered a lifetime of ridiculous and sometimes life-threatening experiences in his pursuit of the right woman, he has successfully made it through the ordeal with his sense of humor intact.

Quite admirably, Pruden developed the ability to laugh at himself and his own shortcomings. You'll definitely want to share Relationslips with friends.

You can find it by searching Google for “Relationslips by Adam” or going directly to the publisher at

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