In any relationship, you are going to face the unique, nuanced differences between you and…
In neurodivergent and neurodiverse relationships it can be challenging to navigate each person’s unique support needs and executive functioning differences. I’m an ADHDer married to another ADHDer, (which is actually a super common dynamic!) and while we have some similar support needs, at times we are very different in how we manage our executive functioning challenges.
When I am having a challenging executive functioning day, I allow myself the space to sit with my struggle, and either embrace self-compassion and reduce expectations of myself or work to find a solution to the problem at hand. My wonderful husband, however, prefers to push through, blast music, and work until he is too burnt out to do much of anything else. Both of our methods work for us, but it can be frustrating for us when we don’t take a minute to understand why our partner does these things. That’s why learning about how executive functioning differences manifest in ourselves and our relationships is really important.
So what exactly is executive functioning anyways? Well, it’s not just one thing but actually a group of neural processes.
Executive functions are a set of cognitive processes that help us to control our behavior and are primarily stored in the prefrontal cortex of our brain. These include processes like the following:
- Flexible Thinking – adjusting behavior to unexpected changes
- Working Memory – keeping key information in mind while using it
- Time Management – awareness of time and adapting behavior accordingly
- Self-monitoring – self-awareness of how one is doing in the present moment
- Task Initiation – taking action to get started on tasks
- Planning and Prioritizing – setting goals and taking action to meet them
- Organization – keeping track of things mentally and physically
- Impulse Control – being able to pause and think before taking action
- Emotional Control – being able to regulate emotions in the moment
Many neurodivergent neurotypes have executive functioning differences, which means these cognitive processes work differently than neurotypical brains. Neurotypes with executive functioning differences include Autistic profiles, ADHD, OCD, PTSD, mental illnesses, neurological illnesses, traumatic brain injuries, and more.
When a person has executive functioning differences they most likely have support needs related to cognitive processes, and because neurodivergent neurotypes are often dynamic disabilities levels of support needs can change day to day based on stress, illness, environment, etc.
Support Needs are those supports, accommodations, and adaptations that are necessary for a person to be able to function optimally within their capacity and environment.
In my work as a couples therapist, I regularly observe my clients in conflict when support needs aren’t discussed or made clear enough. Conflict isn’t a bad thing, and I always say “it concerns me way more when a couple comes in and tells me they never fight than a couple who has conflict regularly.” This is because we all have boundaries and needs in relationships, and if we are never experiencing conflict that most likely means we aren’t communicating those things.
A common perpetual problem that many couples face is frustration around household tasks and expectations. If a couple constantly bickers about household tasks not being completed or responsibilities not being shared, there is often an invisible barrier getting in the way. Now, this can be many things, but oftentimes in neurodiverse relationships, this barrier is executive functioning differences.
Exploring executive functioning support needs is important for building a safe, compassionate, and trusting bond in a neurodiverse relationship. Executive functioning differences aren’t something that can be changed, so for a neurodiverse relationship to succeed it’s important they be understood, accepted, and accommodated.
So remember, when it comes to perpetual problems it’s important to embrace curiosity and ask “what invisible barriers might be getting in the way here?”.
Here are some examples of how executive functioning differences manifest in couples:
- One partner is often running late or laid back about time, and the other one runs on a strict schedule and routine.
- One person needs background noise to focus, the other complete silence.
- One is the most productive in the early morning, the other late at night.
- One is “disorganized” but has a system that works for them, the other requires order and detailed organization systems.
These types of differences can lead to perpetual problems in relationships. Dr. John Gottman’s research found that 70% of couples’ problems are perpetual unsolvable problems often rooted in differences in things like personality, culture, upbringing, and I would add – neurotype (aka how our brain is wired). And while they can’t be solved, they can be managed.
But, let’s be clear – neurodivergence is not a problem to be solved. The unhelpful pattern/dance by which couples often communicate about, navigate, and manage neurotype needs and differences is. And the great thing about that is we can solve that problem by changing the dance of how we manage differences! And in doing that we can cultivate a healthier and happier neurodiverse relationship. So what does that look like in practice?
Here are 4 steps for managing executive functioning differences around household tasks in relationships:
- Get curious and explore what invisible barriers related to executive functioning differences may be getting in the way of completing certain household tasks/duties.
- Discuss executive functioning support needs and ways that you can accommodate and help each other with the tasks/duties that are hardest for each of you.
- Split household/daily tasks in a way that feels fair, and honors each partner’s executive functioning differences and support needs. Remember, fair does not mean equal, it means everybody gets what they need not necessarily what they want.
- Brainstorm a schedule/daily routine that works to accommodate both of your executive functioning needs/differences.
Honoring support needs goes hand in hand with healthy neurodiverse relationships. We perform at our best when we feel comfortable, supported, and validated. And given that many forms of neurodivergence are dynamic disabilities, our best looks different every day based on our capacity and window of tolerance. Partners can help each other manage their executive functioning differences by brainstorming methods, building schedules/routines, and finding tools that work for them.
Here are some examples of common perpetual problems neurodiverse couples face around household tasks and the potential executive functioning (EF) invisible barriers and solutions for navigating them:
- Problem: Being overwhelmed by doing laundry and putting it off until it becomes unmanageable.
- Invisible barrier: EF task initiation and follow-through differences
- Solution: Once a day or week, work together and throw in a load that is made up of both partners’ clothing. Fold them and put them away together while you talk, watch a show, or listen to music.
- Problem: Accidentally forgetting to pay bills on time and getting late penalties.
- Invisible barrier: EF time blindness and working memory differences
- Solution: Sign up for bill autopay and/or outsource time management to a virtual assistant technology, like Alexa or Google Home, so it can remind you when bills are due.
- Problem: Spending too much money on impulse purchases at the grocery store.
- Invisible barrier: EF impulse control and processing differences
- Solution: Write a strict list and bring an accountability buddy to shop! Or consider using the store app for pickup or delivery. That way you can see your cart total ahead of time and edit as necessary.
At first, finding what works for both of you might be challenging. There will be trial and error, and that’s okay. Building a safe and healthy relationship takes a lot of work over time. My husband and I are constantly navigating our executive functioning differences and support needs even after ten years together!
What works for me and my partner in managing our executive functioning differences:
- We have divided up our household tasks based on what is manageable for each of us. I prefer to do my tasks on a weekly schedule and he does his tasks based on deadlines (i.e. trash pickup day) and his bandwidth, usually in several hours of hyperfocused work.
- On days when my executive functioning capacity is low, he cooks and also cleans up dinner. I do the same for him on days when he is having a hard time. If we both are having a challenging day we order in or heat up something pre-made.
- We have committed to giving each other grace and being flexible with each other. We accept we have dynamic disabilities that change day to day, so we also accept that our expectations of each other also need to be dynamic.
We still bicker and get frustrated, but we know we can always talk it out and find a solution that works for both of us moving forward. Relational work never stops in a committed partnership, but it does get easier the more you actively communicate with each other and work to strengthen your bond. Compromises and solutions are an ongoing part of relationships, rarely is it the blissful domesticity that the media portrays but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I am continuously learning new things about my partner, what he needs to feel his best, and how he has progressed on his healing journey throughout our relationship.
Neurodivergent and neurodiverse couples have an opportunity to create shared meaning by navigating their differences and unique support needs as a team. Being neurodivergent can feel isolating at times, so neurodiverse couples can use connecting with each other through lived experience as a way to feel seen. Strive to be pillars of support for one another, because when you honor each other’s support needs you support your relationship as a whole.