June 2012
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Learning the Rules by Breaking Them

on June 23rd, 2012 by Fabrice

Awkward MomentSocial cues and body language are a mystery for people suffering from autism. They are at a loss to interpret the unstated rules of communication. We, on the other hand, would like to think that we are expert in that domain… But are we? And how much does our “expertise” vary depending on whether we are seated at a formal dinner or whether we have a casual conversation with a good friend? To some extent we are all autistic when it comes to understanding what makes another person tick.

In her book on relationships, I Need Your Love—Is That True?, Byron Katie writes:

      “The rules of each relationship dictate all the things you have to do or not do to avoid resentment. These rules aren’t written down or even spoken. You find out what they are by breaking them. When you see that I’m angry, you know you’ve broken a rule. You did something you shouldn’t have, you came home too late or too early, you forgot to do or say something. Perhaps you should ask what you did wrong, but watch out: One of the rule may be that you’re supposed to know without asking.” (p. 75)

Social rules may be rather intuitive for most of us, such as knowing that you don’t start singing your favorite song out loud in an elevator, or that you don’t discuss the details of your sex life with a business acquaintance.

However, when we become more intimate, the rules at play in a relationship only become apparent when we break them. We step on a touchy subject and before we realize what happened, our loving mate turns into a block of ice—or a ball of fire. We find ourselves in the same situation we were in as a child when we broke one of those unspoken rules in front of our parents and got scolded or shamed for it.

We have learned over time that to get our parents’ love (and everyone else’s) we must follow the rules, and that we had better learn those rules fast even though there is no instruction manual. The stakes are high when we are in a romantic relationship. But can we call it love when we walk on eggshells in order not to upset our partner? Can we call it love it we grant them our affection only when they behave in a way that we approve of?

What if instead we learned to simply ask for what we want, be ourselves, and let our partner be who they are? What if it was okay to be autistic with each other and forgive each other for that?

Then each day becomes a new discovery, the relationship flows and changes, and we are not stuck in the status quo.


  1. I Need Your Love—Is That True?, by Byron Katie & Michael Katz. Three Rivers Press (2006).

Posted in Blog Posts, Love, Relationship

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