“I just don’t understand why they’re acting like this.” This is a sentiment shared by many allistic (non-autistic) partners who are dating or in a relationship with an autistic individual. Being in a neurodiverse relationship can be challenging, especially when the partners do not fully understand each other. Today, I want to take a moment and address some of the issues that are frequently brought up during autism therapy and talk about how acceptance is an antidote to these concerns.
A common issue faced by allistic partners is that they don’t feel seen or understood by their autistic partner. This can lead the allistic partner to feel hurt, lonely, and insignificant. As a mirror image, autistic partners often feel hurt, lonely or insignificant because they feel like their allistic partner does not understand their perspective or needs.
Dating on the Autism Spectrum can be Challenging for Both Neurodivergent and Neurotypical Partners
In my previous blogs, I’ve discussed dating on the autism spectrum in length. It’s challenging for all parties involved, as dating is a very nuanced concept that many individuals with autism struggle with. However, when I sat down to think about what to say in this blog, it dawned on me; acceptance is the antidote to many of the problems couples experience when dating on the autism spectrum. Because, when we genuinely listen to and accept our partner’s inner experience (feelings, worries, etc), then we can begin to see our struggles from their point of view and offer compassion and grace to them during hard times.
Below, I’ll discuss some of the common struggles neurotypical (neurologically typical) partners experience when dating an individual on the autism spectrum. I know it may not be easy. Truthfully, all relationships have challenges. And, at times your partner’s behavior may be very confusing and frustrating. Then, after I discuss these challenges, I will share my thoughts on how acceptance can help you navigate these challenges with less turmoil and pain for all involved.
My hope is that as you are reading these pain points you will feel supported and understood. Your feelings towards these issues are valid and understandable. However, I also hope you will see how accepting your partner’s autistic identity can help you look at your situation in a new and more compassionate way.
*Please note that all situations in this blog are fictional and do not describe any client at this practice.
“They should just know how I am feeling!”
A common thing I hear married autistic clients say is that their spouse thinks they should just know how they’re feeling. Neurotypicals often assume that everyone can read their emotional cues or know how they are feeling in certain situations. However, many of my clients on the autism spectrum experience emotional blindness, or difficulty reading other’s emotions. Additionally, many autistic people have a history of trauma around being criticized or attacked for inaccurately labeling someone’s feelings or needs. For many autistic people, it can be scary for them to ask their partner how they’re feeling. They might fear their non-autistic partner will bite off their head for not already knowing.
Here’s an example, Mia is neurotypical. She just lost her job and is feeling very rejected. She comes home and is in a bad mood. Her partner Khalid is autistic. He knows Mia lost her job, yet he goes about their evening routine like normal. Khalid is not sure how Mia feels deep down, but guesses she feels bad and doesn’t want to make it worse by asking a “stupid question”. Mia feels hurt that he did not address the elephant in the room, and assumes he does not care about her. She tells Khalid, “You don’t love me. You don’t get how I’m feeling. You must not care about me at all!” This leaves Khalid feeling very hurt and confused.
In this situation, acceptance around Khalid’s need for direct communication, could really help Mia achieve her ultimate goal of connection and co-regulation. Unfortunately, her approach pushes Khalid away, and she feels more alone, inadequate, and upset. By accepting his needs around communication, she could perhaps offer him some guidance on how she needs him to respond. She could say “I lost my job. I feel very upset. I need you to give me a hug and remind me you love me.” Saying these sorts of things takes courage because Mia is sharing feelings and needs, which is a vulnerable act. However, the more direct and clear she is with Khalid about her feelings and needs, the better Khalid will be able to support and understand her. And isn’t that the goal? To feel understood and supported.
“I’ve given you so many hints, how do you not understand what I want?”
Many individuals with autism struggle to read subtle social cues. This includes things like sarcasm, the tone of your voice, and hinting at what you want. Perhaps you think you’re being obvious. But individuals with autism prefer direct literal communication. When they don’t get that kind of communication, they can feel lost and your intended message will not be received.
Here’s an example, Christy wants her neurodivergent girlfriend Jill to turn off her video game and give her attention. So she slowly walks back and forth in front of her. She even sits down close by and stares at Jill hoping she will take the hint. Jill notices none of this as she is engrossed in her game and making it to the next level. Night after night this goes on until Christy is left feeling very rejected. This causes her to lash out at Jill.
Accepting Jill’s autistic traits would have really helped Christy understand that Jill does not mean to reject her or ignore her needs. In this case, accepting means offering direct and clear communication.
“My autistic partner doesn’t give me enough attention. I feel ignored.”
It is not uncommon for neurotypical partners to feel frustrated with the lack of attention and intimacy they receive from their autistic partners. Your need for love and connection may be going unmet.
It’s important for you to know that people with autism tend to have a long history of being misunderstood. This happens from the time they were little. So when they sense rejection or conflict with their partner they go into fight or flight mode and either become very defensive or shut down altogether. Unfortunately, this only makes matters worse. Shutting down prevents them from hearing what their partner is trying to tell them. Which in turn, makes it very hard for them to repair the hurt that’s occurred in their relationship. Over time it turns into a vicious cycle where neither partner feels seen or heard. Then the distance between them grows and both partners become very unhappy.
Here’s another example: Jamelle (neurotypical) comes home from work, his partner Chris (neurodivergent) is already home. They say hello to each other, then they go their separate ways. Jamelle longs for a hug and some time to talk when he gets home. He wants to connect with Chris. When he brings this up, Chris says they do connect, and then he walks away. Jamelle is left feeling hurt and angry. Chris feels criticized and rejected. This continues to happen day after day until both partners are at a breaking point.
This is arguably one of the toughest situations neurotypical partners can find themselves in. But, accepting your partner’s inner feelings and experience can help you understand where they are coming from. I would imagine there has been a time in almost every adult’s life that they were rejected and hurt. Tap into how this felt. You and your partner have likely shared similar emotions so you can empathize with where they are coming from. It is about recognizing their emotion or hard time and validating how it must feel for them.
Parting thoughts for neurotypical partners…
I’m often impressed by how much my autistic clients really want their partner to feel their love and concern. I am often in awe of the depth of compassion and empathy my autistic clients can show to their partner, when they feel safe and accepted. However, they end up feeling discouraged and hopeless when they try hard to connect with their partner but are met with painful responses like “you don’t love me”.
I understand that you as a neurotypical partner are likely carrying heavy emotional pain from a lack of connection and intimacy. Perhaps, you feel very misunderstood and neglected by your autistic partner. Or maybe, you think your partner does not listen to you. But, that may not be their intent. This could be a misunderstanding and a lack of understanding about neurodiversity and how it can impact relationships.
If you’re wondering what you can do to repair the hurt or better manage conflict in your relationship with a neurodiverse partner try using direct language that describes your feelings and inner experience. I have found that many of my neurodiverse clients prefer this. It shows vulnerability. This will often open the neurodivergent person’s heart up to hearing more rather than shutting down. Likewise, as a neurotypical person you can help create safety in your relationship by sharing your vulnerable feelings and remaining open to hearing your partner’s inner experience. When you do, you might be amazed at what you learn about your partner and realize the depth of love your partner has for you.
Making some of these accommodations is a more direct and literal way to show your neurodiverse partner that you accept them and their autistic identity. It allows them to be vulnerable and stop trying to mask their autism traits because you’re not saying or insinuating they have to be neurotypical to gain your love.
But, you want to feel loved and accepted too, right? I get that. When you learn how to communicate with your neurodivergent partner then you will find that communication between the two of you becomes easier. This will help you foster feelings of emotional intimacy in your relationship and will help both of your needs be met more effectively.
Begin Online Autism Therapy in California:
If you are neurodiverse or looking for support for your neurodiverse partner, please reach out to us to learn more about our autism therapy services. We currently offer online autism therapy to individuals living in the great state of California. To begin online autism therapy, follow these steps:
- Contact us for a free phone consultation using this link. You will meet with our client care coordinator.
- Like us on Facebook. On our page, we post useful information about our practice
- Sign up to receive our newsletter.
Other Services offered at Open Doors Therapy:
Our autism therapy clinic located in the South Bay Area serves teens and adults on the spectrum. We help high functioning individuals who identify as having Aspergers, high functioning autism, undiagnosed ASD traits, and their families.
Right now, we are providing all our autism counseling services online. Our autism therapists offer a variety of counseling services including individual counseling for autistic teens and adults, parent counseling, and group therapy. Also, we run several different social skills groups for neurodiverse working professionals, college students with autistic traits, gifted youth & caregivers, neurodiverse adults, women who identify as neurodiverse, a summer social skills college transition training program for youth transitioning to college, teens & caregivers, and a mothers group. Contact our therapy office for more information on our services or to schedule a consultation.
About the Author
Dr. Tasha Oswald is a trained developmental and clinical psychologist. She is also is the founder and director of Open Doors Therapy, a private practice specializing in autism therapy services in the South Bay Area, near San Francisco, CA. Dr. Oswald specializes in helping neurodiverse teens and adults and facilitating social skills groups.