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Image of a couple sitting outdoors facing away from the camera, with one partner sitting crosslegged and the other partner lying back on the ground with their head in the other person's lap.

Understanding Your Neurodiverse Partner Part II

approx. 10 minute reading time

In Part I of this post, we talked about some common relationship problems when one partner is neurodiverse and one is neuroprevalent, and about understanding the ableism ingrained in our culture’s ideas about love and romance as well as everyday life.

Cassandra Syndrome, Affective Deprivation Disorder, and you

One of the very real things that happens to a neuroprevalent partner in a mixed relationship is that, if their emotional needs are unmet over the long term, they begin to wilt or fade. If you’ve become depressed or anxious, lost interest in things you used to love, find your eating habits changing for the worse, have trouble sleeping despite feeling lethargic, and feel a sense of hopelessness about your life and relationship, you’re not alone.

Autism expert Maxine Alston coined the term Affective Deprivation Disorder (AfDD) to describe what happens to the NP partner in ND-NP relationships when they feel emotionally unfulfilled, and compared it to Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and the effect of too little sunlight. Early in the millennium, “Cassandra Syndrome” (sometimes called Cassandra Phenomenon) came into use to include the fact that many times, these NP partners were not able to find real support or understanding from outside people when they talked about their relationships. That usually happened either because their ND partner relies on “masking” (aka trying to behave in a neuroprevalent way) outside the home, and therefore no one believes that the ND partner could be so different from the person they think they know, or because friends or even professionals dismiss the NP partner’s unhappiness or loneliness as a normal part of relationships that comes and goes.

The difference, of course, is that for the NP partner in a mixed relationship, it’s not an ebb and flow. That loneliness is part of their everyday life, and it seems like it’s never going to change.

Unfortunately, labeling these situations as AfDD or Cassandra Syndrome can create the impression that the ND partner is to blame for causing harm to the NP partner, which isn’t fair or accurate. However, if the descriptions of these feelings hit hard with you, know that you’re not being too needy, clingy, or demanding. You don’t need to convince yourself that everything is fine because (as is very often the case) your partner is loyal, hardworking, and a good person. It’s okay to acknowledge that you’re unhappy and that you have reason to be.

Still, try to resist the urge to pin everything on your ND partner or to get lost in self-pity. Because here’s an equal truth: Your partner is probably also hurting. A lot.

What may be going on in their head

Let’s take a moment to acknowledge that sometimes a relationship just isn’t working and isn’t good for one, both, or all involved. Sometimes a person is a toxic or abusive partner, and dealing with the ND-NP conflicts isn’t going to fix that. Hopefully, after this article, you’ll be better able to figure out whether your relationship can be saved or improved.

But in mixed ND-NP relationship dynamics in general, no one is the bad guy. Each partner has good intentions and a lot of love and commitment. That’s the first thing we’d like you to think about as you try to understand where your ND partner is coming from: Chances are good that they love you very deeply and have a powerful desire to make you happy and to make your relationship work.

So why is it so hard to connect? The problem isn’t intention or desire; the problem is that you function differently and see the world in different ways, and neither of you has been taught how to bridge that gap. (Good news if your ND partner loves to take a fix-it approach to emotional problems—they can put those skills to use here!)

Here are some of the common struggles that neurodiverse folks encounter in relationships and life, that they may not have been able to express to you:

  • All their life, they’ve felt misunderstood; people react to them with criticism and scorn and impatience rather than compassion.
  • Many ND folks have trouble identifying their own emotions and therefore find it hard to tell anyone else what they’re feeling—and they’re probably aware that this isn’t a struggle that you or others in their life have, which leaves them frustrated or ashamed.
  • Sensory overload is a very real thing for many ND people, and textures or sounds or smells that are pleasant to you may sometimes be agony for them. What’s more, what feels good or bad to them can sometimes change from day to day or even hour to hour. And yes, that includes touching, kissing, and having sex.
  • Being out in the world requires them to put overwhelming effort into seeming “normal” and fitting into neuroprevalent society. One article likened it to them running 10 miles every day and coming home exhausted to a partner who wants them to function like they didn’t run a half marathon.
  • Home is very often the one refuge where an ND person feels like they can relax, stop masking, and be themselves. This is why ND-NP couples often have a hard adjustment right after marriage or cohabiting—the ND partner finds it hard to get their “safe haven” time without their NP partner feeling shut out.
  • They may have trouble reading facial expressions, body language, subtext, and “vibes”, and feel very anxious about misinterpreting them and upsetting the other person—or shamed when they’ve completely missed a cue that the other person thinks is obvious.
  • They worry constantly about letting people down because of their challenges and even being left alone, especially when they can’t explain why they’re always late or struggle with a task. (Even moreso if they experience Rejection Sensitivity Dysphoria, which is a topic for a whole other blog post.)
  • Because they’re often extremely intelligent and exceptionally good at one or more things, they’ve probably heard all their life that they have so much “potential” if only they “applied themselves”, and they may have internalized feeling like they’re lazy or a screw-up.
  • Love may feel much more like a mental state than an emotional or physical one, and they may identify love as feeling calmed or soothed by someone. On the other hand, their NP partner may identify love as excitement, passion, or fluttery feelings that they want their partner to reciprocate. When their ND partner doesn’t express that kind of passion, the NP partner may worry about whether their partner is really in love with them, and the ND partner may struggle to figure out how to prove that their love is just as real.

In the course of talking with your ND partner, it may help to show them this list and ask if they ever have any of these experiences. It can be a jumping-off place to start understanding each other. Of course, you should also get a chance to share your own experiences, like, “When we’ve been apart for a while, it helps me relax and makes me feel reassured that you love me when I can spend some time cuddling with you.”

Where do we go from here?

It’s time to ask yourself an important question: Which do you want more—a neuroprevalent-style relationship, or a relationship with this specific person?

The only right answer to that question is the one that is true for you.

Here’s the reality: Your relationship with your ND partner is not going to be the relationship you were taught by Hollywood, friends, magazines, and romance novels to expect. It’s going to take extra work on both your parts to understand each other and stay connected. Sometimes it’ll be hard and frustrating.

However, if you can adjust your ideas about how love is given and received, and you can appreciate the way that your ND partner loves you (even if it doesn’t look romcom-swoony), you can be fulfilled and happy with a strong, healthy, connected relationship.

There are many benefits to being with a neurodiverse partner!

  • Partners of ND people often describe them as extremely kind, strong, loyal, and consistent. 
  • You can learn to be very direct about asking for what you want (a great life skill to develop!), without hints or subtext, and you can take what they say to you at face value– you don’t have to search for subtext or hidden meanings.
  • ND partners are often extremely honest; some actually find it difficult to lie, even “little white lies”.
  • When you do want help fixing a situation, no one will research more in-depth or work harder to find the best solution.
  •  You might treasure the knowledge that you’re one of the only people in the world they trust enough to treat as their safe haven and be completely themselves around. 
  • They’re likely to support you having passions, friends, and things you enjoy apart from them, and to be happy to give you space to enjoy those things. 
  • Working through your differences can teach you both to be exceptional at handling conflict in a calm, loving way without fighting.

If that sounds like a life worth living to you, ask your partner if they’re as committed to figuring out how to be happy together as you are. As long as you’re both on board, you have hope.

It may take some time to get there. You might benefit from seeing a couple’s therapist with experience with ND-NP mixed relationships who can help “translate” between you. If your partner hasn’t gotten any professional support for their neurodiversity, it might be time to seek some out; at the same time, you can learn more about their neurotype and find support resources for yourself.

Your partner should be willing to find ways to meet your needs, and to negotiate compromises when your needs clash. For example, we know someone who asks, “Do you need a wrench, an ear, or a heart?” when talking through a problem, so that he knows whether to offer problem-solving, listening, or emotional support. You might agree to give your partner a few hours of alone time when they come home from a trip, with them agreeing to give you a few hours of quality time together after that. You might agree on a “time out” phrase when you’re fighting that allows you each to calm down and know that you’ll come back to it when you’re not so agitated.

One common thing that professionals recommend for mixed neurotype relationships is for the NP partner to find some of the emotional connection and validation they crave in other places—not by cheating, obviously! But spending time with a friend who gushes over you, or, if you’re ethically non-monogamous, enjoying time with a partner who’s more outwardly romantic can help fulfill some of those more intense emotional needs and allow you to appreciate your ND partner’s love style better.

The key to success here is making the effort to try to understand each other’s perspective as best you can. You may never get why your partner craves your touches one night and then the next night can’t even sleep beside you, but you can understand that it’s about the way they’re wired and not about their love for you. Your partner may never get why you want a hug and a “Wow, that’s so awful!” when you’re upset about work instead of advice on fixing the situation, but they can appreciate that you feel better when they do it. You may even find that you feel a deep tenderness for your partner and a desire to show love for them by helping to ease the discomfort and anxiety that the world provokes in them.

Your love with your ND partner may not be flashy or breathlessly exciting. You might wish it was easier sometimes. It’s okay if you need to spend a little time grieving for the things you imagined a long-term commitment would include. But if you’re both committed to making it work, if you remember that you’re a team and you want happiness for each other, you can build something wonderful together. It may not look like what you expected, but you can have a love that you wouldn’t trade for the world.


Are you seeing your relationship in the struggles described here? If you’re in DC, MD, or VA, contact us about couple’s therapy with our inclusive, neurodiversity-informed associates.

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