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How to Navigate Big Emotions in Neurodiverse Relationships

In any relationship, you are going to face the unique, nuanced differences between you and your partner. Differences in things like opinions, hobbies, interests, communication styles, and even how you process emotions. As a couples therapist, I often see sources of perpetual problems or conflict arising from a lack of understanding around emotional processing differences, and how to navigate them in a healthy and safe way. 

Struggles surrounding emotional processing differences can be especially challenging for neurodivergent folks, as some neurodivergent neurotypes can have a harder time managing emotional flux, or have a more sensitive window of tolerance. Learning how to practice empathy and compassion for one another around these differences is important for strengthening your bond, building trust, and cultivating a safe emotional environment in your relationship.

So, what are emotional processing differences? Emotional processing refers to the cognitive and physiological processes that allow us to experience, name, and express our emotions. It includes the following processes:

  1. Emotional Awareness: The ability to sense, experience, name, and acknowledge when emotions are present in yourself and others. 

Emotional awareness looks different in different neurotypes and is influenced by many factors. For example, those who experience alexithymia or have interoception differences may have a harder time sensing the emotions in their body and naming their emotions. Those on the other end of the spectrum, who are hypersensitive to their emotional experience may experience overwhelm or emotional flooding that is physically dysregulating. 

  1. Emotional Expression: The way in which we release, understand, express, and communicate our emotions. 

When we fail to express emotions, the brain can go into a fight/flight/freeze/fawn state. As a result, the nervous system is put into a state of dysregulation and can cause physical reactions to distress (ex. increased heart rate, slow digestion, anxiety, depression, fatigue). However, it can be challenging for some neurotypes to express emotions clearly and regularly (seen in autistic and ADHD neurotypes).

Be patient with your partner when communicating your emotions to one another. Consider their neurotype, and provide compassion to them no matter how much or how little they are able to convey how they are feeling. “I know talking about your feelings can be difficult for you, but I really appreciate you trying to connect with me.” If you have difficulty expressing emotions, try to preface your communication with “This is hard for me to say, but I am going to try my best.” 

  1. Emotional regulation: How people process and respond to environments through emotions and regulate their emotional experience.

This applies to both pleasant and unpleasant emotions and is directly tied to the capacity, responsiveness, and resilience of each person’s individual nervous system. Some neurodivergent nervous systems have differences related to emotional regulation that can show up in relationship patterns. This is especially true for ADHD, Autistic profiles, C-PTSD, and OCD. The most common ones relate to anger management, emotional flooding, rejection, justice sensitivity, and drive for autonomy. 

Now remember, there is nothing wrong with having emotional regulation differences, that’s just how some brains are wired. It’s simply about understanding how you and your partner each regulate emotions so you can learn how to manage them as a couple. This is an essential part of each other’s “operating manual” for in order to create a safe and resilient neurodiverse relationship you need to know what to do when that emotional “emergency light” turns on.  

Emotional regulation differences are one of the most common dynamics that I see in my office. Why? Because emotional regulation differences influence our ability to navigate conflict and emotional conversations, so couples therapy is a natural place to gain support in understanding and navigating these differences with greater confidence.

So, let’s discuss these common differences in emotional regulation and some helpful relational tools for navigating them as a couple:

  • Emotional flooding: Occurs when the sympathetic nervous system detects or perceives a threat. This triggers a fight/flight/freeze/fawn response in the brain. 

All humans have a window of tolerance in their brains, where there is a bordered zone of neural regulation. When a traumatic or stressful event occurs, this sends the nervous system into a state of hyper-arousal (triggering anxiety, panic, hostility, easily startled, etc) or hypo-arousal (triggering depression, numbness, disorientation, dissociation, etc).

In different neurotypes, emotional flooding can be a frequent experience due to neurodivergent people often having a smaller window of tolerance. When neurodivergent people experience intense emotions, they often bounce out of the window of tolerance, sending them into a state of overwhelm. Many neurotypical people find it challenging to know where their limits are for emotional flooding, as a result of sensory processing differences. Sometimes neurodivergent folks don’t know they’re going to get flooded until it is actively happening to them. Research shows it takes neurotypical brains at least 20 mins to get regulated again after flooding, it can be much longer for neurodivergent nervous systems. 

In relationships, emotional flooding can look like unanticipated and drastic mood changes or becoming easily overwhelmed and upset when navigating personal or relational challenges.

Relational Tool – Be vocal with your partner when you sense dysregulation happening and take a break. “I feel like I am going into [fight/flight/freeze/fawn] right now, can we please hit pause and try to co-regulate?” “Can we please continue this later after I have had some time to calm down? I’m feeling really flooded.” 

  • Anger management: The ability to manage the emotional and physiological experiences that accompany anger. 

Anger is the most challenging emotion for ADHDers to regulate, and it can feel like it goes from 0 to 100 in seconds. This is shown in some cases of RSD and justice sensitivity. Anger management challenges can present in relationships as frequent angry overreactions to small incidents, picking fights often, and misdirected anger towards their partner after an external trigger. Challenges with anger management do not mean that the person experiencing the emotional dysregulation is violent, intentionally hurting anyone or a bad person. It is important to recognize that anger management can also link to emotional flooding.

Relational Tool – Expressing the need to cool off before continuing a difficult conversation. “I am feeling angry about this right now, and I don’t want to take it out on you or hurt you with my words or actions. I need a break to regulate, can we reconnect in a couple of hours?” “I’m not mad at you, I’m just feeling really triggered right now” “This anger isn’t directed at you and I’m having a hard time regulating.” Taking space to release anger in a safe way ex: dancing, running, singing loudly, blasting music, intense exercise, cold shower, etc.

  • Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria (RSD): The experience of severe emotional pain and sensitivity because of an actual or perceived failure or rejection/criticism. This sensitivity also applies to feelings triggered by a sense of self-disappointment or perfectionism. 

RSD is highly associated with the ADHD neurotype but is also associated with many others like Autistic profiles, OCD, and C-PTSD. Nobody likes being rejected or criticized, but for people with RSD, these universal life experiences are much more impactful than for neurotypical people. When the RSD emotional response is internalized, it can be misdiagnosed as a mood disorder. When it’s externalized, it can look like instantaneous and exaggerated rage directed at the person or situation that triggered the pain. 

In relationships, RSD can show up as an increase in people-pleasing or other avoidance behaviors as a means to avoid rejection from their partner. This constant avoidance of rejection and commitment to people pleasing can result in their own needs going unmet. 

Relational Tool – prefacing conversations with a cushion of kindness like… “You are important to me and so is our relationship, and I would like to discuss how I’ve been feeling about [action] that hurt my feelings. Are you open to discussing that with me now?” “I want you to feel safe and connected to me while we discuss this.” 

  • Justice Sensitivity: Ruminating intrusive thoughts about actual or perceived injustice in one’s own life and/or in the world at large; the frequency with which injustice is perceived and the intense emotional, cognitive, and behavioral reactions to it. 

Justice sensitivity can show up in relationships as seemingly random bursts of anger misdirected at their partner, severe emotional distress, or emotional withdrawal as a result of witnessing an act of injustice. People with justice sensitivity are highly empathetic, and it is challenging for them to notice how much emotional weight they are carrying until it becomes overwhelming. 

Relational Tool – Being mindful of how much time is spent watching/reading the news and on social media, channeling your anger to sources of positive change, education, fundraising, peaceful protests, etc.

  • Drive for Autonomy/Demand Avoidance: The challenge to carry out demands even if you want to.

These conditions are associated with high levels of anxiety, autism & PDA (Pervasive Drive for Autonomy autistic profile), and ADHD. Demands can be external, internal, explicit, or implicit— but no matter if the demand is coming from themselves, authority, or is even politely unsaid, it is still recognized as a threat to some neurotypes’ nervous systems. 

Drive for autonomy and demand avoidance stem from the intense need to be independent, and in control of one’s own actions. In relationships, this can show up as continued ignoring of requests, neglecting housework, and avoidance of social interactions or romantic intimacy that was not initiated by them. 

Relational Tool – Explore options with each other of how requests for attention, connection, or tasks can be communicated without being perceived as a threat. Try systems that involve play and humor, or ask your demand-avoidant partner how they would manage tasks in a way that feels good to them. For requests of intimacy or social outings, try prefacing those requests with “Would you be up for…?” or “How do you feel about…?” or “Might you like to…?”

Finally, in a neurodiverse or neurodivergent relationship, it’s always a good idea to have an emotional regulation toolkit in your home. Why? Well, in moments of overwhelm our emotional brain takes over and our prefrontal cortex, where all our problem-solving skills and coping tools are stored, is cut off. So we have to help our brain to remember those skills. Something that I do personally, and recommend to both my individual and couples therapy clients is to build an emotional regulation toolkit to better prepare for stressful situations or conflicts. 

Emotional regulation toolkits are based on the senses to help with nervous system regulation and can be either practices and/or physical tools. Write your toolkit down or keep or keep a basket of tools in a visible space regularly used space in your home. This way, the next time that you and your partner are navigating conflict, you both have a pathway to relief and regulation nearby. 

An emotional regulation toolkit may include things like:

  • Weighted blanket
  • Cool Pack and/or Heat Pack
  • Sour candies 
  • Pictures of pets or loved ones
  • An appealing and soothing scent
  • Sensory and fidget tools
  • Soothing music playlist
  • Affirmations (to yourself or to exchange with your partner)
  • Restorative yoga poses
  • Movement and/or exercise that feels good to you
  • Deep breathing exercises
  • Journaling
  • Drawing, painting, or other art practices
  • Nature-based sensory practices

Open and honest communication is a powerful way to navigate emotional regulation differences, but it can be difficult to find the words when you are experiencing such strong emotions. Practice makes progress, and sticking together through challenges is an opportunity to grow closer and nurture each other’s needs moving forward. 

“In order to empathize with someone’s experience you must be willing to believe them as they see it and not how you imagine their experience to be.” – Brene Brown

This progress doesn’t happen overnight, so I recommend my clients discuss how they can communicate their needs in tense situations in a way that is easy for each person to say and understand in the heat of the moment. Couples therapy is a great place to begin having these conversations. A couples therapist can help to create a safe environment to dive into this sensitive topic and unpack trauma responses, in addition to acting as a guide or a sounding board.

Emotional processing differences are often inevitable, as we are all unique individuals with our own lived experiences. Understanding how these differences manifest in each other is important for deepening your knowledge of your partner’s inner world. Families of origin, trauma, and neurodivergence are all factors that impact our emotional processing capabilities. I encourage couples to use these conflicts as a way to get to know one another’s operating systems better. Try to embrace curiosity and vulnerability in these moments of distress, and see how you can grow as an individual and as a couple. We all have moments of struggling with emotional responses and regulation, but deciding how we move through them is an integral part of building a safe, healthy, and loving relationship.

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