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5 Key Relational Skills for A Fulfilling Neurodiverse Relationship

As relational creatures, we humans thrive when we are in healthy relationships. It’s literally in the wiring of our brain and nervous system to seek connection because; well we need it. All types of healthy relationships are important for our well-being, but romantic ones are often the largest influence. They can be the source of our greatest sense of meaning and fulfillment, and also our greatest stress. 

Navigating any type of long-term committed relationship is challenging, and when relationships have multiple neurotypes in them it can add an extra layer of challenge to navigate. However, these challenges can be overcome in neurodiverse relationships if you have the right mindset, tools, and support. 

As a couples therapist who has spent thousands of hours sitting with neurodiverse couples, and as a human in a neurodivergent marriage (my husband and I are both ADHDers) these are the 5 key relational skills that I have observed are essential to cultivating a healthy and fulfilling neurodiverse or neurodivergent relationship:

1. Remember love is rooted in acceptance, and it’s essential to accept each other’s brains as they are.

Acceptance doesn’t mean we have to like something, it simply means not trying to make things different than they are and meeting reality where it is at. That includes accepting our own neural wiring as well as our partners. However, to get to acceptance we first have to start with understanding. So, educate yourself on your neurotype and your partner’s by seeking out neurodiversity-affirming resources. This is essential to understanding your own operating system as well as your partner’s. 

Once we have cultivated an understanding and awareness of the neurotypes in our relationship we foster greater acceptance that then helps to catalyze compassionate action towards one another. And that creates a solid foundation for a healthy and fulfilling neurodiverse relationship. 

That being said, not all resources out there are neurodiversity-affirming, so it’s important to vet the resources you are looking at. Here are some great neurodiversity-affirming places to start for the following neurotypes…

And these actually neurodivergent educators cover many different forms of neurodivergence and have great social media posts along with lots of great ND-affirming self-assessments, worksheets, handouts, books, and tools available for purchase:

2. Contract to make the relationship patterns the problem, not the neurodivergence. No one can control their neurotype.

Neurotypes are innate from genetics or acquired by illness (neurological conditions, etc) or injury (which includes both emotional injuries like PTSD and physical injuries like traumatic brain injuries). So instead, focus on what is workable – the communication dance you and your partner do together

Without judgment, pretend you are an anthropologist observing the culture of your relationship and notice:

  • What are the communication and behavioral dynamics you and your partner engage in around perpetual issues/problems and observe?
  • What is each of your roles in this pattern/dance? 
  • How does the dance start? 
  • What actions/behaviors are present? 

Patterns begin to shift when at least one person identifies and changes their dance steps (aka actions/behaviors). If you actively commit to working on your patterns together as a team and by owning your part, then your relationship is guaranteed to improve. And if for some reason your partner is hesitant to do this work with you, know that you can start this relational work on your own by shifting your role in the dance. Even if one person changes their steps, the dance changes. 

3. Identify each of your brain’s strengths and support needs based on executive functioning, emotional regulation, sensory processing, communication styles, and connection styles.

Pretty much all forms of neurodivergence have differences across these areas of processing/functioning. And most forms of neurodivergence are dynamic disabilities, meaning that functioning capacity changes day to day and is based on the nervous system’s window of tolerance, which is affected by stress, trauma, illness, environment, etc. That means something that is easy one day may be challenging the next, and that can be easily misinterpreted as laziness or another incorrect character judgment. This is why labels such as “high” and “low” functioning are not actually helpful and why instead in the neurodiversity-affirming movement we focus on support needs. As someone can be “high functioning” in one area or one day but then be “low functioning” and have higher support needs on other days. This is the nature of dynamic disabilities and isn’t something a person can control but can only manage. So that means the expectations we have in our relationship also need to be dynamic and shift based on capacity. That means embracing flexibility and grace with ourselves and our partners by giving each other the benefit of the doubt.

Get curious about the invisible support needs and barriers that may be getting in the way of perpetual problems. What is going on implicitly in terms of invisible barriers and possible support needs that need to be made explicit? Research and co-create a plan to accommodate and adapt care tasks and relationship dynamics around higher support needs areas. Want help to do that? Stayed tuned for an upcoming blog series on navigating support needs across these various domains of functioning! Sign up for my newsletter to be the first to know when they are released.

4. Co-create a unique relationship language and culture that honors both of your brains.

Neurodiverse relationships can feel like speaking 2 different languages – confusing and unintentionally offensive at times. Ever tried to learn a foreign language? The road to fluency is often filled with errors in communication that can lead to misunderstandings. Or ever travel to a foreign place where a norm in your own culture is offensive in the foreign culture? Intention and impact are two different things, so sometimes as humans, we can have the best of intentions when it comes to other cultures and yet the impact is the opposite. The same is true when it comes to neurodiverse communication. 

Some neurotypes have a more nuanced and subtextual communication style, others have a more direct, linear, and literal communication style. No style is right or wrong, they are just different. So, it’s important to accept this about each other and learn more about each other’s language in order to co-create a culture of understanding and curiosity around communication differences. Co-create a culture where it is okay to clarify and regularly ask each other:

  •  “I heard you say this _______ and take that to mean _______. Did I understand you correctly?” and…
  •  “When I (see, hear, feel, etc.)________, the story in my head is _______. Is that true or am I misunderstanding or reading into something?”

Clarifying understanding in the moment is way easier and less painful than acting on an assumption of understanding and being disappointed later. 

5. Be clear, kind, and direct about your needs, wants, and desires.

Talk about what you need, want, and desire in positive terms, not just stating what you don’t want. As an experienced couples therapist who spends a lot of time helping neurodiverse couples learn to communicate their needs, I can tell you this for a fact – if you only talk about what is wrong without clearly articulating what you do want, there is a good chance you set yourself up for disappointment. Why? Because there is a chance your partner will feel criticized and/or misinterpret what it is you actually do want. Remember that speaking 2 different languages thing? It’s important to keep that in mind and communicate in a way your partner can truly integrate what you are saying. 

You can offer complaints without making it feel like criticism by clearly and directly stating what it is you need, want, and desire in your relationship. This requires us to be vulnerable and get clear with ourselves on what we really do want and need. For example instead of…“You never compliment me!” which can have a lot of unclear subtexts try something more specific like “I’ve been feeling like we are a little disconnected lately, and I want to feel more desired by you. I feel desired by you when you give me compliments on my appearance, and I would love to receive them from you more often”.

Now I have had some clients often struggle with this and say, “Well I just want them to want to do it without me asking them!”, well then unfortunately you’re going to need to get ready to be disappointed a lot in your relationship. For as much as Hollywood would like us to believe it, that’s not how things work in real-world relationships. This relational expectation often comes from some narrative about romantic relationships that they should be easy and intuitive and that it means something negative about your relationship if it isn’t that way. This is a myth and it needs to be busted! In reality, no one can read your mind and it’s unreasonable to expect that in relationships. Especially, if you are in a mixed neurotype relationship where you have different communication styles. The best bet you can make for a chance to get exactly what you want is to clearly communicate it.

Therefore, we have to reframe how we think about asking for our needs, wants, and desires and appreciate how amazing it can be to ask for what you need and then have your partner be responsive to that. Responsiveness is sexy and it’s a sign your partner cares about your needs. So, give your relationship a real opportunity for success by communicating to your partner all the data they need to understand what you need, want, and hope for. 

Embracing these 5 keys can help to create a solid foundation for a healthy and fulfilling neurodiverse relationship. It takes work, commitment, and dedication, so think of it like building muscle. The more you engage these relational skills, the stronger you get and the easier it becomes over time to embody them. 

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