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Autism in Romantic Relationships

Updated: Aug 20, 2022


By: Zoë Parry, Psychologist & Neurodiverse Couples Therapist

Updated 20 August 2022

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 is autistic and/or ADHD, and the other partner is neurotypical (they have “the usual or typical” in terms of neurology or neurotype). 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 a Autism: differences in social communication and perspective taking, capacity for intense focus on particular interests, sensory sensitivities, anxiety stemming from living in a world built for neurotypicals etc, we can start to imagine the difficulties each partner might encounter in a romantic or intimate relationship. However, it is important to acknowledge that neurodiverse relationships have many strengths and can be very successful!

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 the freedom to pursue individual activities, interests or careers. • Practical support from your partner, once each person’s needs are understood. • Appreciating different ways of looking at the world.

Some of the concerns or struggles experienced in neurodiverse relationships include:

• Difficulties with emotional or sexual intimacy. • Communication struggles – including arguments that seem highly irrational or illogical, if partners are not skilled in supporting each other to regulate emotion/energy. • 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 neurodivergent partner. • Differences in expectations or preferences in how or when chores or family tasks should be done. • Differences in executive functioning abilities (eg: being on time, paying bills or doing life admin on time, remembering tasks that need to be done, planning housework / meals). • Different sensory profiles – aversions to certain smells, textures or sounds can create difficulties in maintaining a mutually satisfying social or sexual life.

You might be thinking that several of the above struggles are present in many relationships, not just neurodiverse ones! You're right! All relationships have issues. However, the “flavour” of the concerns in a neurodiverse relationship is unique, due to the neurological differences between partners. The different neurotypes 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. 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. As a result, feelings of loneliness, frustration and isolation can be common.

If you know or suspect that you are in a neurodiverse relationship, it is important to work with a psychologist or couples’ therapist who takes a neuroaffirming stance and adapts their approach in order to help you meet your goals as a couple. It is not necessary for you or your partner to have a formal diagnosis. Many adults self-identify as neurodivergent 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 strengths and struggles within their relationship, highlight how each person's neurotype is contributing to any difficulties and to build skills so each person can improve the relationship and their wellbeing. 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 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 neurodiverse relationships have often sought support from several 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 anyone along! However, you can still learn helpful information and develop strategies to implement in your relationship by attending individual coaching, with a focus on improving your relationship.

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