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Understanding Your Neurodiverse Partner (Part I)

approx. 7 minute reading time

You’ve met someone wonderful and fallen deeply in love. They’re smart, honest, passionate about their interests (on which they’re kind of an expert). They made you feel like the center of their world. They had some quirks, and it just made them more unique. You got swept away.

Now? They want so much distance from you that you wonder why they stay with you. They get frustrated when you’re upset at their attempts to fix your problems instead of just comforting you. Sometimes they don’t even want to touch you. You still love them deeply, but you often feel like they don’t even notice you.

You feel lonelier in a room with them than you did when you were single.

It might seem like everything is hopeless and your relationship is doomed. But before you start packing your bags, let us ask you an important question:

Is your partner neurodiverse?

Neurodiversity in a neurotypical world

You might not know the answer to that question, and it’s very possible your partner doesn’t either. But as awareness of neurodiversity becomes more and more widespread, it’s clear that there are many, many more people who come under the umbrella of “neurodiversity” than we as a society ever realized. Rather than being the rare creature occasionally trotted out as the “fascinating eccentric” in a movie that’s shooting for some Oscars cred, it’s very likely that you’ve encountered neurodiverse folks throughout your life.

Neurodiversity, especially in relationships, is often used to talk about people on the autism spectrum. However, it includes a wide range of neurotypes, including autism but also ADHD/ADD, dyslexia, and dyspraxia.

While some of the traits and challenges of each of these neurotypes overlap, they’re distinct from each other and shouldn’t be lumped together. What’s more, the way they present in each person is not necessarily the same. (You may have heard autism advocate Dr. Stephen Shore’s famous quote, “If you’ve met one individual with autism, you’ve met one individual with autism.”)

The biggest thing they have in common, however, is that neurodiverse folks are trying to make their way in a world that’s set up for the so-called “neurotypical” that comes with a huge list of expectations and assumptions about the way people are “supposed” to function. The world of relationships and intimacy is no different, and if you’re the neurotypical partner in a diverse relationship, you were probably socialized with some very strong ideas about what’s “normal” or obvious in relationships. Finding yourself paired with a neurodivergent partner will challenge a lot of that, and it can be difficult and even scary to face that challenge.

[NB: We’re deliberately using “neurodiverse” instead of “neurodivergent” and talking about “neurotypes” instead of using words like “conditions” to try to steer away from the idea that these are sicknesses, disorders, or flaws, even though they may include illnesses or disabilities. Neurodiversity carries a huge and unjust stigma, and it’s up to all of us to end that. From here on out, we’ll use the word “neuroprevalent” or NP instead of “neurotypical”, because that “typical” implies “normal”, and “prevalent” just means “widespread or widely accepted”.]

Common challenges in neurodiverse relationships

See if any of the most stubborn conflicts between you and your partner are in this list. These are all common to neurodiverse-neuroprevalent partnerships, and matching with many of them may be a sign that you’re in one. Remember, though, that people are unique and neurotypes vary from person to person. You may be in a mixed relationship even if you only see yourself in a couple of these.

  • Your partner needs a lot more alone time than you do, especially when they come home; they may even want to sleep in separate rooms sometimes or always while you want to be together.
  • Your partner is lively, social, and charming when you’re out with other people, but at home is silent, withdrawn, and often absorbed in something that doesn’t involve you, leaving you feeling shut out.
  • Conversely, your partner is awkward in social situations and often wants to leave them before you do, or cancels on them at the last minute, forcing you to explain to your friends why you’re attending alone.
  • You find yourself taking on much more of the household organization or chores, having to constantly remind your partner to take care of their tasks, and feeling like they just don’t care about doing their share.
  • When you’re feeling bad and want comfort from your partner, they usually go into problem-solving mode instead; you feel unsupported, and they feel shut down when you don’t want their solutions.
  • You feel like your partner ignores obvious signs that you’re feeling sad or angry, won’t take a hint, and shuts off at the slightest sign of conflict.
  • You never feel truly secure in the knowledge that your partner loves you; they don’t say it often, they don’t make romantic gestures, and you don’t feel like your presence is exciting to them the way it is to you.
  • You recently got married or moved in together, and they seem like an entirely different person now. You’re fighting a lot more often about a lot of things that were never problems before.
  • Your partner is always running late or losing track of time, meaning that you either have to keep them on track, deal with the consequences of being late, or feel hurt when they miss out on time you’d planned to have together.
  • Your partner is obsessed with work or a hobby, one that doesn’t include you, and you feel like they’d rather be doing that then spending time with you or that you have to take on more of your shared responsibilities because of the time they spend on it.
  • It’s difficult for you to tell how they’re feeling; they don’t often express emotions, and when you ask them to open up, they may say that they don’t know how they feel or simply say “fine”, leaving you feeling like they don’t want to share themselves with you.

This isn’t by any means a complete list, but it does cover a lot of the most common conflicts that come up in mixed ND-NP relationships. If any of these apply to you, we’ll talk very soon about how to understand and work through them better.

Unconscious ableism in love and romance

We’ve all begun to see how a lot of our popular ideas about love and intimacy are just flat-out toxic for everyone—like the idea that uncontrolled jealousy is proof of love, that stalking is a romantic gesture, and that “no” just means “try harder”. That’s important progress, but we need to go a big step further and unpack the ways that our cultural ideals around intimacy assume that what’s neuroprevalent is the One True Way and that neurodiverse people have to change themselves in order to fit in and be worthy of love.

Spoiler alert: They don’t.

It’s a little easier to understand why your average person, raised on romcoms and The Bachelor, would have some limited ideas about what love looks like in action. After all, we barely get Sex Ed in schools, let alone Relationship Ed. Sadly, though, even professionals often buy into neuroprevalent assumptions about intimate love. They may misdiagnose neurodiverse behavior as narcissism, or treat the neurodiverse partner as the one always at fault. Even sadder, many articles published by professionals who do have experience working with ND-NP relationships take a pessimistic tone, sort of a “Well, you’re never going to get the fulfillment you want out of this relationship, but we suppose you can use these ways to make it suck less.”

This is all to say that, if you’re just learning (or suspecting) that your partner is neurodiverse, or are just connecting that to the challenges in your relationship, one of the best ways you can start working through those issues is to take a hard look at your expectations about what love should be. As you come to understand your partner’s neurotype, you can start to notice which of those expectations are fair and which ones assume that your partner is less or wrong just because of who they are.

It might frustrate you to feel like you’re having to do extra work and make extra effort to understand your partner and unpack your own beliefs. And you’re right, it is extra work. It’s understandable if you feel tired and defensive about that, especially if you feel like you’ve already been doing so much work to try to connect with your partner and get what you need. But think of it this way: All your life, you’ve lived in a world that was designed for the way you think and behave. Your partner has lived their life in a world set up to make them struggle to earn acceptance and that punishes them for not fitting in. That’s also pretty exhausting.

However, in no way are we saying that your partner has no responsibility for anything or that your needs aren’t real or valid. The pain you’ve experienced is very real and deserves to be addressed and healed. You deserve to feel safe, loved, and fulfilled in your relationship—and we believe that you can be. You just might have to take some different paths to get there.

Read on to Part II for more about what you might be experiencing, and how to work through it together.

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