Intro: What Is With This Person? - RonaldMah

Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist,
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Intro: What Is With This Person?

Therapist Resources > Therapy Books > Odd Off Different-Cpl

Off, Odd, Different… Special? Learning Disabilities, ADHD, Aspergers Syndrome, and Giftedness in Couples and Couple Therapy

**Author’s Note: Other than public figures or people identified in the media, all other persons in this book are either composites of individuals the author has worked with and/or have been given different names and had their personal identifying information altered to protect and respect their confidentiality.

Faith: Hi Brody, look I got my new magazine!

Brody: Hey Faith, I have a new magazine too.  It's about firewall technology of emerging countries.

Faith: Ok...  I got my magazine too.  It came today.  It's about…

Brody: There are articles about how the totalitarian governments dealing with information exchange while trying to maintain the status quo.

Faith: Oh… well, my magazine is about the palaces in Beijing and the Great Wall of China.

Brody: China?  Some people think the government in China has a lot invested in keeping Western ideas about democracy away from the Chinese people.  The demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in 1989 were difficult for the authorities to deal with, and that's nothing now compared to trying to control information that comes through the internet.  Facebook was instrumental for the people to organize to challenge the Egyptian government and the fall of Mubarak.  

Faith: Oh… well, they started to build the Great Wall over 2500 years ago.

Brody: The Great Firewall of China started in 1998 to try to control the people's access to the internet.  That's what Westerners call it, but they call it the Golden Shield Project.  It is to keep Western influences out either way.

Faith: Uh huh, they've been at it for quite a while then…

Brody: The project can block content by preventing IP addresses from being routed through.  It has standard firewalls and proxy servers at the internet gateways.  It can choose to use DNS poisoning when particular sites they don't want accessed are requested.  The Chinese government can't systematically look at all internet content, because that would be technically impractical.  Since it is disconnected from the rest of the world of IP routing protocols, the network in the Great Firewall is sometimes called "the Chinese autonomous routing domain."

Faith: Umm… I'm going to go and read my magazine… bye!  Uh… going…  going…

Brody: China might have the most sophisticated content-filtering Internet stuff in the world. They're more effective than other countries in effectively filtering content by employing all kinds of regulation and technical controls.  Of course, the authorities say they're only trying to censor bad stuff like superstitious information, porn, violence, gambling, and anti-Chinese information… Faith?  Uh… where you going?  (why's she leaving?  She never wants to talk with me!  No wonder we have problems)!

Faith came for individual therapy because she wanted to decide if she should stay in her marriage to Brody.  Both in their mid-forties, they had been married for ten years after dating for six years.  There had always been communication problems between them.  She said Brody was a good guy.  He certainly was a hard worker.  Brody was a senior software engineer at a major information technology company.  He did not drink, do drugs, gamble, cheat on her, or any number of other negative behaviors.  But he also did not do… enough.  Or, he did what he wanted and didn't do what she wanted.  The therapist asked about his family-of-origin.  As far as Faith could tell, there was not any crazy family stuff that affected him.  His dad like Brody was very intelligent.  He had worked for IBM back when the international business machines were not personal computers.  He had been part of the generation of engineers that built the big computers that sent the astronauts into space.  Faith liked Brody's parents, but found their visits somewhat odd.  Brody and his dad would spend almost all their time playing chess.  They had kept score for years and the win-loss totals where in hundreds.  Brody's mom, Paige was as extroverted as Brody and his dad were introverted.  She was warm, gregarious, and delightful to be with.  She kept both sides of the conversation going for her and Brody's dad.  She was a lot like… like Faith!  Faith said that Brody seldom shared his experiences and feelings with her.  The relatively rare times her sharing triggered him expressing about himself, the conversations often turned out like the one above.  Sometimes, she felt like he was making a speech and all she was good for was to be the audience.  In social situations, he might go on and on like he did with her.  He seemed oblivious to whether others were getting bored or not.  Other times, when the conversations were lively and bouncing among three or four people, he seldom participated.  He would watch with a frozen smile- looking a bit wide-eyed.  Faith noticed that Brody's dad did the same thing at social functions too.  It seemed like Faith and Brody's mom, Paige with their lively social repartee made up for the social energy the men lacked.  And there were a lot of other things… mostly little things, that she did not pay that much attention earlier in their relationship.  Over time however they did not change as she had hoped, and they became more annoying.  Finally, one day when they were alone, Faith asked Brody's mom, "What is with Brody?"

Paige admitted that Brody was always a bit different… a bit special.  Brody did not talk much when he was a toddler but caught up quickly after he turned three.  He was a bit of a klutz too.  Brody was ok but tended to let others initiate conversations or play.  He got really into trains for a while- especially, Thomas the Train.  Later, it was dinosaurs.  You could ask him when he was four years old just about anything about dinosaurs.  It was cute that he knew the Latin names for the dinosaurs.  Brody could play just fine by himself for hours.  He'd be in his own world playing the same game with his toys over and over.  He wasn't particularly flexible and did a lot better when there was routine and structured.  In fact, he had a hard time with transitions and threw tantrums.  He also got upset, started screaming, or became inconsolable over seemingly trivial things.  But he was always bright.  He picked up numbers and counting real quickly- much more quickly than his brother did later.  He remembered all kinds of things, including things and facts that Paige and other adults didn't think kids would be interested in.  While Brody grew out of some characteristic, there were other characteristics that Faith saw were still a part of Brody- a part of forty-five year old Brody.

1. Brody startled unexpectedly when he was little.  Now, he still acted like he was ambushed sometimes.

2. He often didn't understand what other kids wanted.  Faith didn't think he understood what she wanted.

3. Got anxious for no apparent reasons.

4. Got confused often.

5. He wouldn't let it go of odd things.

6. He avoided spontaneous social interactions.

7. He had trouble sustaining a conversation.

8. As a kid, Brody would cry inconsolably over small issues.  He'd shut down and avoid talking to Faith if they had disagreements.

9. Frequent toileting accidents despite being trained.  Fortunately, that wasn't still a problem!

10. He had trouble making friends as kid.  Currently, Faith was the social coordinator for both of them.  They tended to socialize with her friends and her friends' spouses. Sometimes, Brody would hit it off with the spouses, but often times not.

11. Brody would be very clingy with his parents as a child.  Brody didn't like Faith going off in social situations and leaving him alone.

Paige said since Brody was her first child, she didn't realize that all children were not the same until her younger son was born when Brody was four.  His brother was very social right away, while Brody had taken longer.  Paige admitted he did some things that were just off at the time.  For a couple of weeks, he would take food garbage from trashcans to eat.  And, when he was younger Brody frequently seemed mystified about what other kids wanted.  He had problems empathizing with other children, and still did not seem to get how Faith felt at times.

Empathy is without question an important ability.  It allows us to tune into how someone else is feeling, or what they might be thinking.  Empathy allows us to understand the intentions of others, predict their behavior, and experience an emotion triggered by their emotion.  In short, empathy allows us to interact effectively in the social world.  It is also the "glue" of the social world, drawing us to help others and stopping us from hurting others (Baron-Cohen and Wheelwright, 2004, page 163).  Baron-Cohen and Wheelwright discussed empathy from several perspectives.  Empathy may be seen as the observer's emotional response to the affective state of another.  In the couple discussed, that would be Brody's emotional response to Faith's feelings.  Empathy can be seen as occurring in four varieties:

1. the feeling in the observer must match that of the person observed (e.g., Brody would feel upset when he sees Faith being upset);

2. the feeling in the observer is appropriate to the other person's emotional state in some other way, without necessarily matching (e.g., Brody may feel worried at Faith's frustration or anger);

3. the feeling in the observer may be any emotional response to another's emotion (e.g., Brody may feel happy when Faith is frustrated). This is called "contrast empathy."

4. the feeling in the observer must be one of concern or compassion to another's distress (e.g., Brody would feel concern for Faith feeling unimportant to Brody) (page 164).

Since couples often operate from an implicit "golden rule" that asserts that if one loves and cares for the other, he/she will automatically or strive to be emotionally connected.  "Getting" or confirming the partner's feelings is considered fundamental to the relationship.  Thus, failure to be empathetic and behave in a compassionate caring manner becomes a profound betrayal.  Brody was not doing it for Faith and she felt betrayed.  This was perplexing to Faith.  It was just odd since as Brody professed love and caring and is clearly intelligent.  Cognitive theories about empathy involve understanding the other's feelings.  Role taking or the ability to switch focus to take the other person's perspective is an intellectual process of "decentering."  While Brody could intellectually discuss and seemed to understand taking perspectives that were not egocentric, he had difficulty seeing things as Faith saw them.  He had great difficulty setting aside his immediate perspective to make a good assessment about Faith's perspective or anyone else's perspective.  Faith's interpretation of shared experiences often seemed to be foreign to him.  In particular, the emotional consequences of her interpretations were incomprehensible primarily because her interpretations themselves were incomprehensible to him.  As he expressed it, his processes appear purely cognitive in that there is no reference to any affective state.  Because of his problems with comprehending and inferring Faith's intellectual and emotional process, Brody had difficult predicting Faith's behavior, thoughts, or feelings.  To Faith however, her behavior, thoughts, or feelings should be obvious to Brody.  Earlier in their relationship, Faith expected Brody to respond appropriately but got some communication or behavior that were a bit to really off.  He did not fit her expectations.  Eventually, she asked overtly for the responses she wanted, but was often met with blank stares or arguments about her illogic.  She became more distressed.  She thought her distress was obvious to Brody as well.

In moral philosophy, Adam Smith described sympathy as the experience of "fellow-feeling" we have when we observe someone else's powerful emotional state (Smith, 1759).  Sympathy is therefore a clear instance of the affective component of empathy.  Sympathy is said to occur when the observer's emotional response to the distress of another leads the observer to feel a desire to take action to alleviate the other person's suffering (Davis, 1994).  The observer may not actually act on this desire, but at the very least the observer has the emotion of wanting to take appropriate action to reduce the other's distress. (Baron-Cohen and Wheelwright, 2004, page 164).  Brody was supposed to notice, care, and act to reduce Faith's distress.  Based on that assumption, his failure to respond appropriately caused Faith to fear that he really did not love or care for her.  Brody did care but he had an ineffective Theory of Mind, "the way somebody conceives of mental activity in others, including how children conceptualize mental activity in others and how they attribute intention to and predict the behavior of others,"(MSN Encarta, 2008).  He could not anticipate how others would respond to common situations or to himself.  Most children can do this before beginning school.  As a child, this probably caused Brody to become anxious without apparent reason to others.  His spoken language: volume, intonation, inflection, and rate of speech were… off.  As Brody got older, other children noticed something was different about him.  Paige recalled a play date where Brody got mad when the other kid wasn't playing with a toy "the right way."  He went through some rough periods where he got picked on or bullied.  Kids thought he was special, but that was not a good thing.  Different was not a good thing on the playground.  Eventually, with a lot of Paige's attention, vigilant supervision, and guidance, he improved.  Brody still had almost every one of his childhood characteristics in adulthood, but he manifested them less intensely or better managed them.  Some issues were not as much of a problem because he successfully avoided situations where they would come up.  Unfortunately, avoiding interpersonal situations that challenged him also meant avoiding Faith.  They both lost intimacy as a result.   Brody had gotten used to it albeit with some depression and anxiety, but Faith felt the loss deeply.

3056 Castro Valley Blvd., #82
Castro Valley, CA 94546
Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, MFT32136
office: (510) 582-5788
fax: (510) 889-6553
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