How to understand your partner when your brains are wired differently?
Let’s face it, dating can be really difficult. From cheesy pick-up lines on Tinder, to awkward first dates it can take a while to feel truly comfortable with somebody. Even when you become more comfortable with a partner, navigating boundaries and communication styles can still be a difficult task. All of this can be even more complicated when one of you is neurodiverse, and the other isn’t.
If you have different neurotypes there is a chance that there could be a lot you struggle to understand about the other. There can be a whole host of extra barriers you might face when in a mixed-neurotype relationship, whether that’s difficulty communicating or feeling as though you have to hide your true self. Floozy spoke to two neurodiverse dating experts about the most common issues they see and how best to overcome them.
“If you’re neurodiverse looking to date somebody that isn’t neurodiverse, there is a fatigue level that is really real because you’re always having to explain your side. It’s unfair, but because it is such a neurotypical world, it is often up to the person that is different to explain what they mean.” says Mandy Staehler, owner of ‘Dating with Autism’, a relationship coaching and support service.
Although fatigue and burnout is something that everybody can be affected by, it is more common in autistic people. This is due to factors such as societal pressures or sensory overload. Constantly having to explain your ways of thinking or communicating that differ from others can really add to fatigue levels and take its toll, not only on yourself but on your relationship too.
Natalie Roberts is a neurodiverse relationship coach, who was married for 15 years before discovering that she was in a mixed-neurotype relationship. Natalie agrees: “A lot of people may be experiencing overwhelm and burnout and feeling very stressed and all of that is not going to come across well. It puts us in the wrong energy for looking for relationships, and if we’re in a relationship and we’re exhausted by it then the relationship suffers.”
To help combat this, Mandy suggests that non-neurodiverse partners should take an active role in initiating conversations that help to understand each other.
Mandy says: “It is extra challenging because it often does fall on one person, but I think if more neurotypical people understood and said ‘Hey, I know that there are some differences between us, and I want to talk about this area tonight’ that’s the dream in terms of communication. It allows them both to talk about their differences and not single one partner out as the ‘different’ one.”
In terms of long-term relationships, Mandy emphasises that committing to talking about your differences can be key in ensuring the responsibility doesn’t fall on one partner.
“If you’re autistic and you have a neurotypical partner, their brain is wired differently to yours, and vice versa. I think if nothing else, you just need a commitment to continue to understand each other and to each show up at the table. So then one partner, typically the autistic partner, doesn’t have that level of fatigue of always having to explain themselves.”
Social and Sensory Environments:
Meeting new people and going on first dates can be nerve-wracking as it is, but heading to new places that can potentially be loud and busy can add an extra layer of stress to dating.
Natalie says: “You and your date or partner might have a mixture of introversion and extraversion and different levels of social capacity. Some people will have experienced a lot of social anxiety, for all kinds of reasons, leading up to wherever they’re at with their dating or relationships. Going out and meeting people in potentially busy places can be very difficult and challenging for people.”
To not allow sensory environments to interfere with your dating life, Natalie recommends getting to know yourself and what you are comfortable with first.
“Having an awareness of your sensory, profile or preferences and being able to talk about those with confidence is so important. It’s also about realising that we do all have those, they’re not confined only to neurodiversity, but they will have a prevalence. So just knowing what you prefer and more about yourself is just really, really helpful.”
Around one in 20 people may be affected by Sensory Processing Disorder, a condition that affects how your brain processes sensory information. This means that it is more common than you may think that people need to assess their sensory and social preferences before heading somewhere new. When you have a good understanding of yourself and the types of environments you might want to avoid, the next step is communicating that with your partner. The more comfortable you feel, the better a date will go.
Mandy believes that it is important to set yourself up for success when planning a date: “If you need to go somewhere not loud then suggest going somewhere quiet. Hopefully, you will feel confident enough to say, ‘if you don’t mind, I’d like something quieter or I’d love to go take a walk somewhere’.”
Masking refers to when somebody hides or changes their behaviour or personality to conform to societal pressure or norms. It is something that many people will have done but it is more common among autistic people. 94% of autistic adults have masked at some point in their lives, either consciously or subconsciously.
Natalie says: “Self-belief, self-confidence and being ourselves can be really difficult for all neurotypes, but particularly neurodivergent people. Everybody does something like masking or fronting and not necessarily presenting their whole self to everyone because that makes them feel vulnerable. Some neurodivergent people find that’s the only way to fit in or survive or to get through life and that could be particularly challenging then when you’re wanting to move into a relationship and be dating.
“If you’re in a relationship you might have neglected or abandoned yourself or you’ve given up a lot of who you are, so that the relationship works. A lot of people come to me and they’re accommodating a lot, over compromising we might say, in a relationship and that’s not working for them but they don’t know how to do anything else.”
Mandy agrees that masking is common for everybody to do at some point, but it might be more difficult for neurodiverse people to feel comfortable being themselves, or ‘unmasking’, due to societal pressures. She says: “I don’t think that masking is just an autistic thing, I think it’s an every couple thing, just to various levels. I think it is also common in the neurodiverse community because the neurotypical world expects a certain level of participation or presentation and that really isn’t fair.”
Mandy suggests that masking is common and it’s a completely normal thing to do at the beginning of relationships. However, it can be important to address it before reaching important milestones. She adds: “It is important to remove some of the masking before true commitment, for example before you talk about not seeing other people. Definitely, before you’re going to talk about any type of big steps such as maybe buying a home together or perhaps engagement.
“Have a conversation with your partner about it, explain why it is something you do, and try to work together towards ending the pressure to change aspects about yourself. I think that’s a good, ongoing way to keep exploring yourself so that you can show up for your partner.”
You’re Not Alone:
One of the most important things to remember about dating with neurodiversity is that you’re not alone in your experiences. No matter what neurotype you are, everybody finds dating difficult to navigate at times.
“I think it’s important for people to know that dating is awkward for everybody, and most people are nervous. I wouldn’t want anybody to be jealous of people in their life because dating seems easy to them, the likelihood is that it’s definitely not.” says Mandy.
The same goes for committed relationships. All relationships have their ups and downs, regardless of neurodiversity.
Natalie says: “It is really important to not only focus on neurodiversity and assume that it could be the reason you’re experiencing difficulties because 80% of what’s going on in relationships that are struggling is not related to neurodiversity. It’s related to the persistent or ongoing stress of not knowing that you’re different, or not knowing what those differences are and how to handle them.
“And things like boundaries and questions like ‘How do I support my own well-being? How do I communicate my needs? What can we do to support each other’s emotional state? How do we live in the same house together and share jobs?’ These are things that are in every relationship but there’s an added layer of difference and complexity sometimes to some of those things. But if we’re only looking at neurodiversity and how that’s the cause of the issues then we’re missing a lot.”
Edited by Yoan Shterev