What is Love? | Organization for Autism Research

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The question “What is love?” was one of the top most searched questions on Google in 2012. If you and your partner disagree on what constitutes love, you are apparently not alone. 

If so many of us ask that question, is it fair to expect our partners to know? This is one of the major reasons I was so concerned when several people told me wistfully during the week leading up to February 14, “Oh, my love’s going to do something special for Valentine’s Day, I just know it.” Unless your partner is a certain romantic, or you’ve made specific plans for the romance you crave, these dreams can be a set-up for major disappointment.  

A subset of people with Asperger Syndrome (AS) can be very romantic indeed, but typically, important relationship events such as anniversaries or Valentine’s Day may bring disappointment when things don’t turn out as we hoped. Sharing love with someone with AS may not be filled with romance any day of the year, and if this is true of your partner, it is not likely to change on February 14.  

The centuries-old tradition of sending small notes of affection – ‘Valentines’ – and exchanging small gifts on Saint Valentine’s Day has transformed, like so many other holidays, into a commercialized event. The day focuses on love, romance, appreciation, and friendship, but we are somehow taught to expect and value romantic love above any other. By the time it rolls around, our expectations and dreams for romance can be difficult to meet.  

We can all sometimes use a reminder or good excuse to give our partners special attention. Such reminders help us to appreciate and not take our love for granted. Love can be expressed with romantic gestures such as flowers, cards, or a quiet dinner. But keep in mind that love can also be expressed by taking out the trash when it’s freezing outside, giving you a ride to work in the rain, or packing your lunch for a long day at work. In practical terms, most of us appreciate love that is reliably there when we need it. 

Love grows and deepens through mutual trust and respect. It cannot be demanded or forced. Some people with AS may not understand traditional gestures of love and romance. It may not be easy for your partner to catch on to hints for flowers, choose just the right card for just the right day, or create a romantic night out. Even when partners make it clear that ‘romance’ is important to them, without specific instructions, there may be only awkwardness and confusion. Don’t assume you aren’t loved and cared for when your ideas of ‘what is love’ differ from those of your partner. 

Most people, even those needing extra direction, can learn to make the effort and plan a romantic evening if that is what is required to reassure their partners of love. Even so, it’s crucial not to compare your relationship to every other couple you see. First of all, if we were all the same, life would be boring. Secondly, you’re not with that other person, you’re with this one and you made this choice for a reason. 

You cannot dictate love’s expression. Focus on what is going well in your relationship rather than what you think you should be doing or think others are doing that you are missing. You also don’t have to wait around for someone else to treat you nicely or for your partner to fail again; you can be proactive and make the romantic effort instead, or plan the day you want and help your partner carry it out.

Listen with your heart in order to learn to recognize when you are loved. When you and your partner understand each other more fully, you can both feel closer and more valued. If you listen deeply and learn to speak your partner’s language, you may be better able to  recognize and appreciate the satisfaction of true love.


Cindy N. Ariel, Ph.D., is a psychologist in the Philadelphia area specializing in relationships and women’s issues. She has a special interest in relationships with partners with ASD and has written a self-help book entitled: Loving Someone with Asperger’s Syndrome: Understanding and Caring for Your Partner. You can learn more about her and her practice at www.alternativechoices.com. She would also appreciate hearing from you by email: cariel@alternativechoices.com.


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