Intimate Relationship Failures From an Autistic Perspective

The standard narrative positions autism as the cause of relationship trouble when a non-autistic person dates or falls in love with an autistic person. The autistic partner is assumed to be the disruptive or difficult one. Self-help books offer non-autistic partners tips on how to cope with their autistic partner’s neurodivergent traits and behaviors. This paradigm is rarely questioned. Even many autistic people assume their autism-related features are a serious barrier to relationship success. This is simply not true. My three serious, long-term relationships of many years all ended in total failure – but ultimately, discrimination and ableism is to blame – not autism.

Young man and girl next to broken heart. Romantic relationships and problems in personal life.

My first relationship was a long time ago before my autism diagnosis, and while worthy of exploration, I am going to focus on my second and third relationships in this essay. My second partner became extremely abusive. Often, her abuse was related to my autism. If I had a sensory issue, she would accuse me of “faking it” to get out of an activity. If I needed time alone, she viewed this as a personal attack. She abused me mentally, physically, sexually, and financially. Our partnership, which included marriage and children, ended in a horrible divorce. She then dragged me through the court system for years, trying to take the children away from me by claiming my autism and my transgender identity made me unfit to parent. Eventually, the children and I got the protection we needed. I have had sole legal and physical custody since they were four years old.

My third relationship, of nine years, seemed to be a dream come true. After a life filled with traumatic events and mistakes, I thought I had won the love lottery. She was kind. She was funny and fun. She was smart. She had disabilities, too. She claimed that she accepted my neurodivergence and that she loved my unique traits and perspectives. I followed all of the usual relationship “how to” advice, proceeded slowly, and made tremendous effort to communicate and compromise. I was sure we would be partners for the rest of our lives. We looked forward to growing old together, sipping tea on the porch, and making sarcastic remarks about everyone and everything, just like Walter and Slater in the Muppet Show.

I was in shock, then, when after nine years of what seemed to be a dream, I discovered she had been cheating on me for the better part of a year. She had begun to go away on weekends because she said she was under tremendous pressure at work and needed time alone to destress. I always believe that what people are telling me is true. Many autistic people do. I took her on her word that she was going away to get some respite. Self-care is good, right?

I walked over to her house for dinner one night – we chose to live nearby but in separate houses for several reasons – and she was wearing someone else’s ring! My heart actually hurt physically. I called my doctor because I thought I was having a heart attack.

We went to therapy, ostensibly to salvage our relationship. She secretly took this person on vacation and lied about the trip while attending therapy virtually! Anyway, she stated that it was my fault that she cheated. According to her, my autism traits and limitations were so irritating that she just had to turn to someone else. I could not believe what I was hearing!

She said, for example, that she was sick and tired of “walking on eggshells” because of my sensory issues. I have a really difficult time with the sound of silverware scraping plates and bowls. This makes eating with others a little challenging, but not impossible. Options for reducing my sensory distress include scrape-free plates, plastic forks, picnics, finger foods… When I was very young, my mother tenderly let me eat alone in my room and then as a compromise I would join the family later for dessert. I thought my ex and I were finding compromises and solutions that worked for both of us and that we had broken through ableist notions about what people should and should not be able to do. Not everyone can sit at a table. Not everyone can handle the noise of a restaurant. What happened?

Ironically, I accommodated her disabilities all the time. She was part deaf, had mobility issues, and had ADHD and mental health issues. We frequently cut short activities if her legs started to hurt or if she became too hot. For example, once we took her son and my two children to the state fair. The kids went on several rides. We also got lemonade and watched farm animal competitions. The kids and I went on a few more rides and we were having a great time, but my ex was sweltering and her ankles were swollen. I told the kids we needed to cut the day short. I explained to them that human beings and their feelings and needs are higher priority than a few hours of fun. We found a pizzeria with good air conditioning and still had a good time that evening. I never once felt like I was making a bitter sacrifice. I loved her way more than a Ferris wheel!

As I heard her blame my autism for ruining our relationship, I hated myself all over again. Me – a well-known autism advocate! I sank into a deep shame. I cursed being autistic. On top of feeling as though my autism ruined yet another relationship, I also could not fathom how a person could seem loving and dedicated to disability justice, only for that to evaporate seemingly overnight.

Slowly, with the help of my incredible autism colleagues, my mother, and the small circle of good friends I have, I came to see that I had internalized her ableism. It is just not true that autistic traits are the problem in a relationship. This is the perspective I want to share with other autistic people so that they, too, can set fire to that shame. What I came to realize as a result of the breakup of my third long-term relationship is that our autistic needs, our autistic traits, and our neurodivergent characteristics have been pilloried. Non-autistic people accommodate one another’s needs and habits as a matter of course, but autistic needs and habits are stigmatized.

Once, I went to visit an old friend from college I hadn’t seen in a decade. She was newly married. Just a few minutes into the visit, she gave me a tour of her house. I noticed through the glass-covered kitchen cabinets that her plates and bowls were arranged diligently by color: blue, green, orange; blue, green, orange; blue, green, orange.

“Why are your plates and bowls stacked by color?” I asked.

“Oh, my wife has a thing about it. She really needs it to go by color, so I just do it,” my friend explained.

And neither of them is neurodivergent. No one knows why her wife needs the plates arranged by color. My friend simply accepted her wife’s need which was easy enough to meet whenever it was time to unload the dishwasher.

Recently, my acupuncturist told me how when she was pregnant with her third child, she and her husband took the older two kids to see Star Wars and she found the movie theater just too loud. “Maybe I was more sensitive because I was pregnant – I’m not sure,” she relayed, “so I said to my husband, ‘Honey, I can’t sit in here! I’m going to drive around and do a few errands. I’ll pick you and the boys up when the movie is over!’” And he was totally supportive. Neither of them is neurodivergent. Her husband simply accepted that the theater was too loud for her that day. He did not question her self-assessment and did not accuse her of ruining the afternoon, abandoning him, or refusing to spend quality time with the family.

Non-autistic people are allowed to have rituals, routines, and sensory issues. They are allowed to get tired and need to go home early. They are allowed to be shy at a party. Whether sports or crafting or the stock market, non-autistic special interests are called “hobbies.” They view one another’s intense interests as a normal part of having a healthy and constructive life. They even accommodate communication differences. Some speak directly; others are more subtle – partners adjust to one another’s communication styles. If you are autistic, you are not afforded these same graces.

Our traits and our needs are framed as “special” or a “burden” and non-autistic partners are positioned as “heroes” for their willingness to love us anyway. Simi Linton, an amazing disability rights activist and artist, once famously said, “If I hear the term ‘special needs’ one more time, I am going to throw up” (Linton & von Tippelskirch, 2013). Special needs do not exist. Our neurodivergent traits are human traits. Our needs are human needs. Our hearts are human hearts. Stigma is the problem: Not you!

Out of my failures, I have learned that autistic people should never feel ashamed in relationships of all sorts, not just romantic ones. You have a right to leave a loud party early. You have a right to get take-out instead of remaining in a crowded diner. You have a right to spend a few hours watching cargo shipping charts online. You have a right to always use your Star Wars Rey spoon for breakfast – the one that came in the Cheerio’s box and that changes color when you add the milk. You have a right to only wear socks if they match your underwear, and you have a right to have a crisis if you cannot find the right ones. These are traits that make you who you are – a precious human being.

Of course, all relationships require negotiation and compromise. Out of love, both partners compromise and sacrifice, an inherently imperfect and sometimes messy process. For example, one time my partner won a prestigious award. The ceremony took place over dinner at a loud venue. I went because this was a very important life event for her and I wanted to support her. I wore ear plugs – that helped with the noise a little bit. I also took a break or two to walk around outside. If one partner always catered to the needs of the other and never got any of their own needs met, the relationship would be lopsided.

The problem for autistic people is that when it comes time to negotiate and compromise with a partner, the things we ask for are viewed with skepticism. We are never given the benefit of the doubt. When we are simply being our neurodivergent selves, enjoying our special interests or setting boundaries, our partners tend to view our behaviors through an ableist lens: They make negative assumptions about whatever we are doing. We are never honored for the sacrifices we make out of our love for our non-autistic partners, either. We are never seen as giving.

For example, once my girlfriend came over to my place unexpectedly. Many people, especially non-autistic people, enjoy spontaneous socializing. But spontaneous socializing can be difficult for me. I need time to transition from whatever I am doing to the new situation. That day, I was writing. I was smack in the middle of a tough paragraph. I acknowledged that she had needs, too! She needed time to interact that day. This is where compromise and negotiation in good faith comes in.

I could have just ignored her. Again, it is extremely taxing for me to shift between activities. But I am not a selfish person. Despite the massive amount of energy it took to halt my writing, move my body to face her, and then to form words, I politely said, “I’m so glad you came over. I really want to hang out with you! Can I please have five minutes to finish writing this sentence and transition to a social state of mind?” At the time, she said that would be fine. She played with my cat while I quickly wrapped up my writing project, closed my eyes for a moment, switched my mental gears, opened my eyes, and struck up a conversation with her. We had a lovely spontaneous afternoon from then on – or so I thought.

During the breakup process, she highlighted this specific incident as evidence that my autism made me incapable of a “normal” relationship – and proof of the saintly burden she bore. Deconstructing this incident and many others helped me climb out of my quagmire of shame. I am completely capable of intimacy and completely able to socialize. I need time to transition from solitary pursuits to social ones. Another human being may not have this need – but then they will have other needs. I am not an insufficient or incapable human being because this is one of the needs on my list. The problem is that the needs on my list are seen as abnormal.

Autistic people may need to compromise and negotiate about things that non-autistic partners find surprising. An autistic partner may suggest non-traditional solutions when solving an issue. And autistic partners may like reading schedules for public transit in Romania instead of the Sunday New York Times. But isn’t love all about the joy of discovering another person? If autism was not stigmatized as it currently is, then our partners would see our needs and traits – and theirs – as opportunities to grow closer through compromise and mutual support. As well, they would honor the effort we put into accommodating to their non-autistic needs. Lastly, by seeing no particular need or special interest or trait as abnormal, non-autistic people would also be liberated to be their true selves. A gift autistic partners bring to their relationships is a reduction in the pressure to conform to society’s expectations which are not that realistic for anyone.

Furthermore, non-autistic people can take responsibility for their role in miscommunications. The autistic trait that most irritated my partner was my autistic way of communicating. On top of being autistic I am also alexithymic and my interoception is very low. I am usually the last person to notice I am upset, sad, tired, or excited. It can take me days, weeks, months, or even years to fully know how I feel about a situation. I also tend to express my emotions by action: If I love someone, I do something for them. During the breakup, she accused me of never understanding her subtle hints and thus missing so many messages. But my autistic neurology was not new to her. If someone drops hints knowing I am autistic, why am I blamed when I miss the hidden meaning of a sigh or a glance of the eyes?

In summary, what I hope autistics walk away with after reading this is that – when it comes to romantic love – the problem is not you or your autism but discrimination. Non-autistics are not doing enough as allies if they still subscribe to the false narrative that relationships with autistic individuals are fraught. We are no more or less difficult to relate to than any human being. Two people considering a relationship need to ensure they are aligned, regardless of any diagnoses. If one person needs monastic silence at home to be at peace, and the other loves to blast music in the morning to get going before work, living together is going to be rough. The presence of autism has nothing to do with it.

An autistic friend of mine schedules out her days in increments of 15 minutes and even schedules bathroom breaks. She dated someone with an organic approach to life who balked at having to follow the day’s list of activities and bristled at my friend’s “autistic rigidity.,” They broke up. Then my friend began dating someone with serious time management issues who just loves my autistic friend’s scheduling powers. At last, he found a way out of the chaos of his life. They are now happily married and still follow the schedule each day. My friend’s autistic trait is not an issue. Finding someone you are compatible with is what matters. This shift in thinking begins when non-autistic people stop stigmatizing us.

The best way to cope with relationship failure is to radically embrace who you are. You were not passed over on a dating app because you are flawed – you were passed over because many non-autistic people continue to discriminate, implicitly if not explicitly. You were not cheated on because your sensory issues made dinner complicated. You are not driving your non-autistic spouse to the brink because you communicate differently, because you operate differently socially, or because you enjoy special interests outside of the bandwidth of what society considers “the norm” – you and your partner are just very incompatible. Unless you yourself are abusive or wholly unwilling to compromise, your autism is not, and never should be, the problem.

Dating and relationships are hard for all humans. I do hope that autistic people can take my insights and go into dating and relationship situations knowing just how wonderful they are. The best way to cope with dating and relationship failure is to know that your autism is not the cause of the trouble. I don’t know if I will ever find a woman who wants to love me for who I am. But one thing I know for sure: When dating implodes and relationships fail, I am confident that there is nothing wrong with me. That secret is how we can survive the lonely times, the trials and mostly errors, the times non-autistic people again and again fail to see our humanity. There is nothing wrong with me, and there is nothing wrong with you.

Zosia Zaks, MEd, CRC (Certified Rehabilitation Counselor) (he/him/his) has more than 20 years of experience supporting hundreds of teenagers and adults on the autism spectrum and with related conditions to live and work in their communities. From 2013 – 2022, he was manager of the Hussman Center for Autistic Adults at Towson University, where he taught a disability social justice course that had students and autistic adults participating in activities designed to break down barriers, challenge stereotypes, and promote building a more inclusive society. While at Towson University, he also built a strengths-based support program for autistic college students and an on-campus work readiness program. He has extensive experience facilitating integration of neurodiverse individuals at worksites and in schools; speaks nationally on autism and neurodiversity related issues; continues to teach courses on disability social justice; and serves on the boards of several regional and national organizations. Now consulting independently, Mr. Zaks brings unique perspectives to professional projects and trainings as a disability counselor, a transgender autistic self-advocate, and a parent of two neurodivergent children. Follow him on  Twitter @ZaksZosia or email him at zaks.autism.consulting@gmail.com for more information.

Reference

Linton, S., & von Tippelskirch, C. (2013). Invitation to Dance [motion picture]. Kino Lorber

One Response

  1. Cecilia Yardley says:

    Thank you so much for this article. I am a neurotypical person very happily married to someone who is autistic. I think the main thing I have had to grasp and then try to deal with is my own selfishness. Once I began to realise how hard it is living as an autistic person in a neurotypical world, I was full of even more admiration for my husband. It was v helpful to learn about ‘tone’ (i.e. that he can’t detect easily or always speak in ways that a neurotypical person can). I am a very ‘auditory’ person so sometimes wanted to hear things expressed in a particular way – but once I understood, and started to grasp about sensory sensitivities and alexithymia things became much easier to get along with. I love my husband’s straight talking, loyalty and other qualities that I believe are better developed in autistic people. I learn from him every day and wouldn’t want him to change. We both found it hard to express needs and preferences but we’re getting better at it. Happiness is definitely possible – but we neurotypicals need to work at understanding and extending ourselves.

    Thank you, again, for your article 💐

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