Dear Wendy
Dear Wendy

“My Boyfriend Has Asperger’s Syndrome And Has Never Had a Job”

My boyfriend has Asperger’s Syndrome and, despite being 30 years old, has never held a job or even applied for one. I have several disabilities, but I’ve tried to hold a number of positions over the years – not always successfully, but I’ve put myself out there, even if it means I sometimes struggle or even get fired.

He is on Social Security disability benefits. I understand that in order to reach a healthier place in life, some people need to go on disability benefits to make ends meet. I have empathy, given that at one point I almost went on benefits myself. My concern, however, is that he hasn’t made any steps to get off of it. I’ve used a number of support services to help myself find and maintain employment, but he just doesn’t bother trying them out. It does frustrate me that I’ve worked my butt off and dealt with so many horrible employers over the years and he hasn’t even applied for a job, ever. How does he know he can’t work if he has never tried?

The type of disability benefits he is on, SSI, are means-tested. In other words, to qualify you need to have a low-income household (if you’re an adult who lives with your parents or other people, their incomes are still factored in). Since his parents are upper-middle class, I honestly don’t know how he qualified. I’m not going to say that he tried to game the system, but the program is designed for people who are financially struggling, and his family does not fall in that category. He goes on some big trips and isn’t hurting for money. I have respect for people who need benefits to survive, but that’s not the case here. I almost feel like his parents are enabling him.

Being a motivated individual who is determined to improve my life circumstances, I am concerned that my boyfriend has not taken concrete steps to become employed – or even involved in his community outside of the workforce. I am concerned by the prospect of spending my life with someone who doesn’t demonstrate much initiative.

Is it selfish of me to feel this way? He is a caring guy with a good sense of humor, and I enjoy spending time with him for the most part. Are there ways that I can help motivate him to start thinking in general about joining the workforce? I don’t want him to feel bad about himself since shame is never a good motivator. I know he must feel awfully overwhelmed, but what can I do to encourage him to at least take some first steps?

If he continues to not make strides to at the very minimum investigate what employment options are out there, is there a way I could let him know that, for us to stay in this relationship, I need to see him show more motivation? Would it be awful if I were to break off this relationship if he fails to change? — Motivated to Improve Circumstances

It would not be awful at all for you to end a relationship with someone with whom you don’t share common values. You have a strong work ethic and are motivated to live up to your potential and be independent. It would seem from your description of the situation that your boyfriend does not share those values, but perhaps you need to do a little digging to find out for sure. I would ask him why he feels he can’t work. I know people with Asperger’s Syndrome, or as it’s diagnosed now: simply autism spectrum disorder. Because it’s a spectrum, there’s a big range in intensity of symptoms, but many people on the spectrum — especially those with Asperger’s Syndrome — can live perfectly “normal,” functional lives, albeit they may be a little quirky.

I imagine you’ve probably done your own research into ASD and have talked extensively with your boyfriend about his symptoms and the impairments the disorder poses for him (common ones are social impairment, anxiety, and sensory processing issues, which could very well make the idea of applying for and holding down certain jobs overwhelming). If you haven’t addressed these issues with him, this would be a good starting point in discussing why he thinks he’s unable to hold down — or even apply and interview for — a job.

It may be that your boyfriend’s parents enable him and have enabled him for as long as they’ve known about his diagnosis. They may be to blame for creating a dynamic of dependency in your boyfriend. Maybe he didn’t get the support and services as a child that would make living as an adult with AS a little easier. Maybe his particular gifts and interests — people with high functioning autism or Asperger’s often have distinct gifts and intense interests that can even border on obsessions — weren’t fostered and celebrated, and perhaps he never realized (because no one ever told him) that some of his gifts could help him earn a living. I don’t know. Maybe you don’t know. But you can certainly talk with your boyfriend about his childhood, his family dynamic, how his disorder was addressed growing up, and the gifts and interests you’ve noticed in him and how they may be applied to a job, job training, or even just being more involved in his community.

If your boyfriend was told, either directly or indirectly, that there were things he simply could not do and that was that, you may have more empathy for why he is the way he is. You could imagine how different he might be if his parents had, instead, taken the approach of telling him he could do anything anyone else could do — including maintaining happy, satisfying relationships — but that he would have to learn specific tools and work a little harder to achieve the things that might come more easily for his neuro-typical peers. Maybe it isn’t too late to tell him these things now. But he has to have interest. He has to WANT to be more independent, to change his circumstances, to live to his potential. You can’t make him change. You can’t make him want to change. He has to show initiative on his own, and if, after talking with him, you don’t see that spark of initiative — that interest to change his life — it would not be the least bit inappropriate or unkind to end the relationship. Staying in it because you feel sorry for him or because you’re willing to settle for the parts of him you do like despite overwhelming parts you don’t respect makes you the enabler. And from everything you’ve shared about yourself, I can’t imagine that fits your identity or matches your values.

***************

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If you have a relationship/dating question I can help answer, you can send me your letters at wendy​(AT)​dearwendy.com.

13 comments… add one
  • avatar

    Sunshine Brite August 4, 2017, 8:17 am

    I wonder how pervasive his disability is. He may have a low distress tolerance and may not be able to handle the regular pressures of a job; he may also just be conditioned to think that about himself. He likely qualifies but even means tested means that he is expected to contribute to the household and often in my state his parents income would only partially count because he is expected to pay for himself at the developmentally appropriate level that any adults as roommates would. His parents likely are enabling him. But none of this is what sticks out most to me.

    That’s that: Motivation, drive, and initiative sound like key values to you. You only enjoy spending time with him “for the most part.” Staying in a relationship based on a expectation to change greatly is a great way to have an awful relationship. MOA or only casually date him without expectations; this doesn’t sound like anything that would work for you long term.

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    • avatar

      K August 4, 2017, 10:40 am

      The “for the most part” stuck out to me too. Shouldn’t someone flat out enjoy spending time with an SO, not just “for the most part”?

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      • othy

        othy August 4, 2017, 11:56 am

        Eh, about once a month my husband grates on me, so I go do my own thing for a few hours and then I’m happy to see him again 🙂

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  • avatar

    carolann August 4, 2017, 10:17 am

    The Social Security Administration has a program for this. I think it is called the “Ticket To Work” program and they help people with disabilities find work. They could help him find a job tailored to what he is capable of doing.

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  • Guy Friday

    Guy Friday August 4, 2017, 10:50 am

    I agree with Wendy’s advice, but I also think you don’t fully understand SSI and the bureaucracy behind it. If he qualifies for SSI, it means he’s been determined to be unable to work. Thus, if he does ANY work for money, even part time, he could lose 100% of his benefits. So the question is not, in fact, whether he’s capable of working, but rather whether he’s capable of working enough hours to replace the benefits he’s receiving.

    When you frame it like that, I think a bit more empathy is necessary here, because I’ve seen people who would LOVE to work and replace some of the SSI benefits with pay but can’t afford to do that. My father is one of them; he had an aneurysm a few years ago and could go back to IT/programming work, but the part time work he’d be able to get would result in him making 1/4 of what he gets in benefits now. And so he’s bored as hell, but he’s trapped. And if you’re dogging your boyfriend for being enabled by his parents’ income, imagine how much worse it’d be if he lost all his benefits for a minimum-wage job? I’m not saying the system is ideal or even perfect; changes should probably be made to enable people to try to work. But if I were him and I couldn’t guarantee the same income, I might be hesitant to try working too.

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  • avatar

    Lucy August 4, 2017, 12:56 pm

    This letter reeks of judgement and moral superiority. LW obviously resents and thinks she’s better than her bf, whom she believes is gaming the system, even though she’ll only hint at it, not own up to it. IMO, she should do this guy and favour and break up with him, instead of trying to “fix” him to her satisfaction.

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  • Skyblossom

    Skyblossom August 4, 2017, 1:06 pm

    You don’t respect him so let him go.

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  • avatar

    MiMi August 4, 2017, 1:17 pm

    Being on disability is not a moral failing nor is it shameful, as you seem to imply. LW, please save your concern for yourself and your own checkered career and let this 30 year old adult worry about his own future.

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  • avatar

    csp August 4, 2017, 1:56 pm

    LW – while I agree with the commentators in principal, I know I wouldn’t be able to date a man like you are seeing. I am a worker and I married a worker. I want to be with someone that contributes and builds something. It isn’t a moral failing that he isn’t working but it also isn’t something I would want to deal with.

    I have a hunch that if you saw him do something inspiring, you would have more respect for him. If he was writing a novel or carved pieces of wood or made furniture, you would see more in him. Heck, even if he pulled a David Sedaris and walked 10 miles a day picking up litter.

    I think you need to find someone that is more in line with the life you want to build for yourself. I would feel the same way about someone that spent their life in front of the TV. I would MOA.

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  • avatar

    dinoceros August 4, 2017, 5:38 pm

    I think you should break up with him because you seem to have little respect for him and do not empathize with his situation in life. I don’t know him, so I don’t know whether he’s doing the best he can or not. And while you know him, you have experienced YOUR disabilities, but not his, so you don’t truly know either. Regardless, you two have different values and goals in life, so you’re clearly not compatible.

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  • avatar

    Bittergaymark August 4, 2017, 8:29 pm

    Yeah, the withering disdain you have for your boyfriend left me quite puzzled. Wait… You actually LIKE this person? Where…? How…? Sorry, but I see zero sign of this in your letter.

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  • avatar

    saneinca August 5, 2017, 2:49 am

    Love or leave the person he is. Don’t plan on making over the guy in order to stay with him.
    It is not your job to mold his character. Just decide whether his lack of employment is a deal breaker for your relationship. Period.

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  • avatar

    Charlene August 7, 2017, 11:46 am

    HOW DARE YOU. How flippin’ DARE you tell someone their disability is less pervasive than they know it to be.

    What’s next: telling someone with a life-threatening soy allergy that they could (huge heaving sigh) eat that soyburger if they were *really* hungry and not just a crazy over-reacting neurotic crazy malingering weirdo?

    CUT IT OUT, NOW AND FOREVER. NEVER DO THIS TO ANYONE AGAIN, EVER, IN YOUR LIFE.

    You smug bitch!!!!

    You are shameful.

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