As I sit down to write this, my husband and I just celebrated our 39th wedding anniversary. We met through a mutual friend – an ex-boyfriend of mine. Joseph and I had gone our separate ways a few months before I received a phone call from “Caper” (his chosen “call sign”). I was surprised by the out-of-the-blue call but agreed to meet him.
As if Fate had dictated it, I knew from the get-go that Caper was the guy I’d spend my life with; a very esoteric Knowing.
One of my strongest early memories is of Caper tolerating a Guess my Stuffed Animal’s Name game. I recently asked him why he put up with it. “Because I liked you and it made you happy,” he answered.
A Tough Start
Our early years of marriage were tough, with many highs and lows. Caper’s employer moved him within Ontario twice in our first two years. My early childhood was spent moving frequently for my father’s job, and it traumatized me as a girl, as well as after marrying. It left me in a chronic state of stress. I had meltdowns and was hospitalized several times in psychiatric units.
He came to the hospital daily to visit. I needed and valued those visits, but I grew defensive, believing he thought he knew me better than I knew myself and knew what I needed more than I – or my doctors – did.
According to Yolanda Renteria of the Gottman Institute, “Defensiveness is more common in neurodiverse couples because while one person’s brain may view something as acceptable in the relationship…the other may not. It is also common for the neurodivergent partner to feel like they have to explain themselves constantly, which leads to hypervigilance, guilt, and shame. This constant impasse in communication leads to a dynamic where both partners feel on edge whenever conflict arises” (Renteria, 2022).
Caper and I certainly experience this due to misunderstandings and misinterpretation of the other’s perspective. It’s difficult for us to understand how differently our brains process information and sensory input. At times, we each feel misunderstood. I attempt to resolve these conflicts by using “I” statements; by owning my own feelings and beliefs. He’s able to use this same strategy, but it’s a newish concept to him, while I learned it in therapy years ago.
The Importance of “I” Statements
“I” statements allow us to take responsibility for how we’re feeling and communicate it in a healthy way when feeling sad, angry, or upset. “I” statements are a communication tool that help resolve conflict, reduce blaming, and give space for partners to respond rather than react (Surtees, 2020).
Struggling with Differences
Nearly all couples struggle with some aspects of their relationship. But there are numerous differences affecting emotions and behaviors in ASD brains. Among the many variances are:
- Difficulty managing impulsivity
- Difficulty reading non-verbal cues
- Rejection-sensitive dysphoria
- Sensory and emotional overload
- Executive functioning challenges
- Hyper-fixation on special interests
- Low frustration tolerance
Given these differences, what can you do to prevent your relationship from drifting apart and growing in bitterness? Again, Yolanda Renteria of the Gottman Institute suggests a solution.
“Change the Narrative”
For neurodivergent-neurotypical (ND-NT) relationships to thrive, it’s essential to understand the differences between how such couples process information and how cognitive differences impact their ability to bond with one another. How can we “honor those differences and…set realistic expectations around them” (Renteria, 2022)?
Make a List
Start a list, with your partner’s help, of the things you both struggle with. My list includes:
- Interrupting and being interrupted
- Making assumptions/jumping to conclusions
- Sensory overload
- Shutdowns and meltdowns
Make a mutual, proactive decision about how to address these problems. Renteria suggests one partner might work on learning to listen more attentively while the other works on understanding why this may be difficult for his/her partner.
Clear, Non-Defensive Communication
Make it a priority to communicate directly and clearly when it comes to matters that can become conflicts. Remember to use “I” statements.
If you’re the partner with ASD, learn to recognize and understand your own sensitivities, e.g., to light, sound, touch, smell, taste, and sense, and let your partner know about them. Your NT partner will benefit from understanding how these sensitivities impact your nervous system and how your ability to cope is impaired.
Sensory input can cause either over- or under-stimulation. Examples of sensory sensitivities include:
- Loud noises/excessive talking
- Strong scents/tastes
- Eye contact
- Bright lights
- Too much going on simultaneously
Take a Time-Out
There will be occasions when you or your partner will benefit from taking a break. You might use time-outs when your neurotypical partner perceives direct feedback as criticism, or when the ND partner feels rejected because their partner asks for space.
Be proactive about these eventualities. Discuss when and why you might need some space. During your time-out, review the conflict, reflect on why you had to walk away, and consider what you could do differently the next time a dispute arises.
What Caper Knows That Makes Our Marriage Successful
- My intentions are always good.
- I get tongue-tied trying to express my thoughts and feelings when put on the spot. However, please don’t think you have to speak for me.
- Learn my communication style and help me amplify my voice. Don’t shut me down.
- Emotionally charged words stay with me for hours, days, weeks – even years – affecting my self-esteem.
- Don’t spring things on me at the last minute. Let’s discuss them first so we can make mutual decisions.
- If you want me to do something, ask me directly. Ask me to repeat your message to ensure I heard and understood you. I’ll do the same with you.
- I’m like The Princess with the irritating Pea. There are foods I refuse to smell or eat because they overwhelm my senses.
- I have control issues. Controlling my surroundings is one way I can feel safe and comfortable.
- I can be hyper-critical and blunt. That reflects my need for perfection. I feel anxious when things don’t look “right” or objects have been moved, making it so hard for me to find them. I may, unintentionally, say something others consider rude or inappropriate, because sharing information is “my thing,” and I don’t understand neurotypical social conventions.
- Home is where my heart is. My home is the place I’m most emotionally connected to. It’s my favorite place, and you’ll have a hard time getting me to leave it. It’s our home and my childhood home: a fortress of memories where loved ones will forever reside.
- I carry lots of baggage – literally and metaphorically. I surround myself with “stuff” that brings me joy. When I leave home, I need to carry along the things that soothe and/or stimulate my senses: clothes, books, combs, photos, toys, shampoos, creams, and lotions.
To many people it’s just stuff. But that stuff allows me to function in the NT world, and I’d be miserable without it. So, as my life partner said, “Here’s to 39 more.”
Annie Kent, MA Psychology, spent two decades working in public sector disability, mental health, and addictions advocacy and education. Diagnosed with three closely related categories of neurodiversity, a lack of awareness and understanding led to Autistic burn-out and retirement from the field. She remains an active advocate, learning and engaging remotely with several Autism and ADHD organizations and forums, including CADDRA. For more information, visit her website www.aspiefemmepress.ca or email Annie at email@example.com.
References and Sources
Nannery, S., & Nannery, L. (2021, January 20). The Top 5 Things People in Neurodiverse Couples Should Know | Psychology Today. Psychology Today. www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/what-say-next/202101/the-top-5-things-people-in-neurodiverse-couples-should-know
Renteria, Y. (2022, May 23). Two Different Brains in Love: Conflict Resolution in Neurodiverse Relationships. The Gottman Institute; https://www.facebook.com/GottmanInstitute. www.gottman.com/blog/two-different-brains-in-love-conflict-resolution-in-neurodiverse-relationships/#:~:text=For%20your%20neurodiverse%20relationships%20to,Consult%20your%20doctor%20or%20therapist.
Simone, R. (2012). 22 Things a Woman with Asperger’s Syndrome Wants Her Partner To Know. Amazon.Ca; Jessica Kingly Publishers, London & Philadelphia. www.jkp.com
Surtees, O. (2020, November 23). Feeling Misunderstood in A Relationship (17 Ultimate Tips) – Her Norm. HerNorm; www.facebook.com/hernorm/. hernorm.com/feeling-misunderstood-in-a-relationship/