Embracing neurodiversity in relationships

As we saw in the previous blog Relationships – discovering you or your partner may be autistic can bring about a range of emotions, concerns and questions. Whilst some of this may be overwhelming at the time, in my experience the discovery of the difference in the longer term is always a positive thing if both partners are willing to acknowledge and accept this as an explanation for their different perceptions and expectations within the relationship.

There will be some couples whose relationship has reached the point of no return if one or both partners are just too tired with the challenges in the relationship, particularly if this has been on-going for a long period of time. There is still lots to gain from the acceptance of autism in these cases, as each partner can reflect and recognise the limitations in terms of what could be achieved in the relationship without them having the awareness at the time. If the partners still need to communicate after the relationship has ended, ie; if the couple have children together, then this too is a good reason to recognise and accept the explanation for difference in order to communicate more effectively.

There will also be some people who find it really difficult to take the idea of autism on board. More can be found about this here When autism isn’t accepted in relationships

With the support of a relationship counsellor experienced in working with neurodiversity, couples can learn new ways of communicating and understanding each other. An important part of this process is helping the couple to understand the ways in which they are different, and the stages that each will be going through on this new journey of discovery.

Ben and Sophie show us how difference can be embraced, and how relationship counselling with a counsellor experienced in autism (The importance of autism awareness for counsellors and therapists) can facilitate a much more positive outcome for both partners.

Sophie – neurotypical (non-autistic partner)

It was a bit of a rollercoaster after we discovered our differences through Ben’s diagnosis of autism. At first I think I got my hopes up that now we had an explanation, things would work themselves out. But there was a stage early on when not much was changing, and I think this was part of Ben going through the process of acceptance of his diagnosis. It was almost like he became more autistic which was a little hard and confusing for me at the time.

I was tired too, we had been through so much, and I wasn’t sure how much more I could give. In the beginning it felt like I had to make most of the changes, and I felt very resentful about doing this after feeling so neglected for such a long time. Our counsellor explained that this is normal part of the process, and that it wouldn’t always be this way. Once I did start to make the changes that the counsellor suggested, I could see Ben responding more positively, this gave me some hope back, and helped me to keep going.

I have learned new ways of communicating with Ben, which has been helpful outside of the relationship too. I was in such a state of frustration and desperation before, it some ways I can see I was just saying the same things over and over again, and just getting louder each time! Now I am able to take a step back and think about what I am going to say, and how I am going to say it in a way that Ben understands. It felt like hard work in some ways at first, and a little strange, but it feels less effortless now as we get used to it.

It has felt in some ways like we have started a new relationship with each other. I look back now and think it was not so much changing or working harder I had to do, it was more about acceptance. Not of the situation, but of our differences, and I no longer feel so upset about things, having learned that Ben’s behaviours are more about who he is, not a reflection of how he feels about me. In turn, this has helped Ben to be much more relaxed around me, and now that the tension is no longer there, we are able to be close again.

Ben seems so different now, he is more confident, and I don’t feel as responsible for him as I used to. It felt like we would never break that cycle of me being more like a mum to him than a partner, but as he, and I don’t put so much pressure on him to do things like everyone else, he is less tired and able to do much more than he did before. This was really important to me, not only because I was so tired, but it was hard to feel attracted to someone who you feel very responsible for in this way. I have much more respect for him now, and having felt like I was the only one that was struggling before, I can see now that he has been really struggling too, and is stronger than I previously gave him credit for.

I would say our relationship is much stronger now than it was before, and although we still have some tricky moments, I am much happier. We can now look back and laugh at some of the things we found so difficult. If only we had known! It all makes so much sense now.

Ben – autistic partner

After the diagnosis, I was tired with it all. Constant disagreements for me were exhausting, and now I knew why. It was such a relief to know why I struggled with certain things, and being able to ‘drop the act’ in a way was long overdue. I began to be a bit kinder to myself now I knew what my limitations were. I realised that wearing a ‘mask’ by trying to do things like everyone else seemed to be able to just caused me no end of stress and exhaustion.

When we went to see the relationship counsellor, I was hopeful, but it was also little confusing as I had been told there were things I could not change, and then I was being told there were things I could change. I think this was perhaps my literal understanding, but I realise now this is more about learning new things rather than me actually changing as a person.

Now we are more tolerant and accepting of each other’s differences as we understand the reasons why we are different. The atmosphere is so much nicer, I feel appreciated again, and accepted for who I am, and this has given me much more confidence in the relationship. This helps me to do more of the things that Sophie wants me to do, and I feel more confident in being able to manage situations if I get it wrong. I can even manage talking about relationship ‘stuff’ a bit better without the pressure and tension. It sounds strange, but if Sophie was feeling tense, sad, angry or hurt, I used to feel these things too, often quite overwhelmingly, and this made it harder for me to respond the way she wanted me to. I also struggled when her emotions changed, and this could be confusing for me, it wasn’t that I didn’t care, I just didn’t know how to respond. I know now that not responding at all made it look that way, and that I have to try and not worry too much about getting it exactly right. There have been times when I have got it wrong, but instead of it being a big deal, we can laugh about it. This helps me to realise it’s ok not to be perfect, and being a very black and white thinker, this is a trap I can easily fall into, especially when I feel under pressure.

I can see that Sophie thinks more about the wording she uses when she speaks to me or wants to ask me something. I think it is because she does this that I don’t react defensively as much these days. I know now that I need to try and take the time to understand before reacting, whereas previously I might make assumptions about what was being said which could cause more problems.

On the odd occasion that I do react defensively, it is usually if I am very tired or stressed, but I am human, I am not perfect. Sophie has her moments too, but we are much more forgiving of each other now, without things escalating in to big arguments like they used to, and I have also learned not to take things so personally. I realise that when Sophie is having difficulties, there are other possible reasons for this rather than she is just upset with me.