Updated: Oct 5, 2019
By: Zoë Parry, Psychologist & Neurodiverse Couples Therapist
Perhaps the biggest challenge partners face in neurodiverse relationships is one or both of them not realising they’re in a neurodiverse relationship!
Neurodiverse relationships are generally considered to be those in which one partner has an Asperger’s / Autism profile and/or ADHD, and the other partner is neurotypical (they have “the usual or typical” in terms of neurology). Essentially, it’s a relationship in which two rather different brains are operating, each often seeing the world in quite different ways.
When we think about the traits associated with an Asperger’s / Autism profile: difficulties with social communication and perspective taking, an intense focus on particular interests, sensory sensitivities, anxiety etc, we can start to imagine the difficulties each partner might encounter in a romantic relationship. However, it is important to acknowledge that neurodiverse relationships have strengths.
As in any relationship, these strengths are unique to each neurodiverse couple, but can include:
• Honest and straightforward communication. • A high degree of loyalty and commitment to one another. • Having freedom to pursue individual activities, interests or careers. • Practical support from your partner, once each person’s needs are understood. • An appreciation of the value of different ways of looking at the world.
Some of the concerns often experienced in neurodiverse relationships include:
• Difficulties with emotional or sexual intimacy. • Communication struggles – including arguments that seem highly irrational or illogical. • Different “appetites” in terms of the nature and amount of conversation held. • The neurotypical partner feeling that responsibilities are not evenly shared, or a belief that the neurotypical person expects too much from their neurodiverse partner. • Rigid routines or behaviours – leading to different expectations of how or when chores or family tasks should be done, with little flexibility. • Concerns about the time or money spent on hobbies / special interests. • Difficulties related to poor executive functioning such as not being on time, not paying bills on time, problems remembering certain tasks that need to be done, planning housework / meals. • Different sensory profiles – an aversion to certain smells, textures or sounds can make it difficult to maintain a mutually satisfying social or sexual life together.
You might be thinking that several of the above concerns are present in many relationships, not just neurodiverse ones! Whilst it is true that all relationships have issues, the “flavour” of the problems in a neurodiverse relationship is unique, due to the neurological differences between the partners. The different brains and therefore different needs of each partner can result in unusual habits or routines forming within the partnership. The neurotypical partner may find it awkward or difficult to share their experiences or concerns about the relationship with family and friends, who may judge their partner or relationship harshly. As a result, feelings of loneliness and isolation are common. The neurodiverse partner may struggle with feelings of inadequacy and frustration after months or years of trying hard to meet their neurotypical partner’s seemingly unreasonable and illogical expectations.
If you know or suspect that you are in a neurodiverse relationship, it is important to work with a psychologist or couples’ therapist who understands the impact of autism on relationships and adapts their approach in order to help you meet your goals. It is not necessary for you or your partner to have a formal diagnosis. Many adults self-identify as neurodiverse and don't see the need for a professional's diagnosis.
Working with neurodiverse couples generally involves a process of providing education, developing goals, and practical skills coaching. It often involves both individual and couple sessions. The aim is to help partners understand the unique difficulties within their relationship, highlight to them how an Asperger’s / ASD profile is contributing to these difficulties and to build skills so each person can improve the relationship. This includes recognising each partner’s strengths, as well as the things they may be unable to change due to their individual neurology.
Once partners are able to view their unique difficulties and differences through a neurological lens, they are often able to demonstrate greater compassion for each other and a willingness to develop helpful strategies for improving their relationship. Unfortunately, partners in such relationships have often sought support from several different therapists over the years, with limited success. Standard couples therapy approaches can be quite unhelpful for neurodiverse couples and it is common for couples to feel frustrated by their lack of progress in therapy.
Keep in mind, couples’ therapy or coaching is not for everyone. If your partner doesn’t want to engage in therapy, that’s ok and there's little point dragging them along! However, you can still learn helpful information and develop strategies to implement at home by attending individual coaching, with a focus on improving your relationship.