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Navigating ND-NT partnerships

Having an autistic partner (neurodivergent/ND) when you’re a “neurotypical” can be challenging at times, and NDs can sometimes be confused and frustrated by the needs of the non-ND (neurotypical/NT) partners.

If you are the NT, it helps to understand that your partner processes differently and has different needs and expectations, and is not uncaring, trying to hold out on you, or deliberately trying to upset you.

If you are the ND partner, you need to understand your partner’s needs, feelings, and ideas are as important to them as yours are to you. You need to take these needs seriously if you want to be together.

It’s said that NTs think all NDs are alike; I find some NDs think all NT’s are alike. The famous saying among autistics is that no two autistic people are alike. There is a spectrum of traits, and each person could have more or less of any trait.

The same is basically true for NTs. Some are extroverts and fuel on people, some are introverts and need space. Some are worriers and some aren’t, some need order and some thrive on chaos. So everything I’m going to say is a generalization that does not apply to everyone.

With that warning, here are some tips and considerations for non-autistic partners of NDs:

  1. Understand that your ND partner often won’t understand your need to feel gratified by connecting. He or she might go to an office and ignore you, for example. This doesn’t mean a lack of caring – it means that leaving is OK for him, he probably assumes you know he cares, and he doesn’t get it that you need something more.
  2. Your ND partner won’t “see” what you consider obvious. Expecting a recognition of what “needs doing” or is expected behavior is a setup for failure and hurt feelings on both sides unless you make these ideas clear and concrete.
  3. Your ND partner might not “get” why something is important to you. It might seem trivial or not make sense. You need to make it clear that something is important and explain why.
  4. You need to have realistic expectations. Expecting someone to be “more romantic,” to infer what you’d like, or to participate fully in a social event as a test of caring is a setup for failure. “More romantic” is vague, and you will likely have very different ideas about what that means. You can’t expect an ND be fundamentally different, inauthentic, or untruthful.
  5. Be clear and concrete. If you want a present for a birthday on that specific day, say so. If you expect a gift to be “right,” offer a list of things you’d like. If you want a certain behavior, like a greeting, asking about the day, or some other demonstration of caring, be clear. If you feel resentful about having to ask, think of the larger context of your partner’s strengths and what you value about the relationship.
  6. NDs do have empathy and very deep feelings, but they express them differently.
  7. NDs can become overwhelmed by social or sensory demands or too much stimulation and need to shut down, or sometimes blow up. This isn’t being passive aggressive or manipulative, this is meeting a deep need to have space to recover.

In general, if NT partners understand what behaviors are related to a person being ND and not emotionally withholding, having a negative “attitude” or a lack of caring makes a big difference. I find partners often know the list of ND traits, but don’t translate that into everyday life. Get help from an expert if you need to.

A guide for NDs with an NT partner:

  1. Be aware that most NTs want to feel connected, and that there are social behaviors that communicate connection to them. Behaviors like not attending events or leaving them send a message that you’re not interested or caring. Stopping to say hello, ask about their day, and showing interest by listening and responding (even by just acknowledging what was said) are very important. Leaving without saying goodbye is also interpreted as rejection.
  2. NDs often don’t understand that partners are looking for emotional support, and not just concrete actions. They need verbal reassurance and validation. “I understand that you’re really sad/upset/down” can be enough. I often find my ND clients do care about their partners, but don’t say so. You need to say that you care, that you notice your partner’s feelings, that you are concerned that a child is sick. It’s not just about fixing it.
  3. If your NT partner asks for something that is too general to have meaning, ask for him or her to help you by being specific. Let them know that statements like, “You’re not thoughtful,” isn’t meaningful. Something more specific will help you to meet their needs: “When you’re going out, please ask me if I need something” makes more sense.
  4. You need to check your assumptions. You might think your NT partner is just picking on you if she keeps asking you to repeat yourself, and she might just have trouble hearing you because you speak softly. Misinterpreting intention can be a big challenge.
  5. Be clear about your needs as well. If it’s too hard for you to participate in something, if something is difficult for sensory issues or overstimulating, be clear and explain that, or at least have worked out a signal that means, “I need time out.”
  6. NTs are not always logical, and for them, emotion is often as valid as– or even more important than– logic. It doesn’t make a difference if what’s upsetting your NT partner makes sense to you. What’s important is that your partner is upset.
  7. You may feel that your answer is absolutely correct and the best idea, but relationships with NTs involve compromise. Your NT partner’s wish or opinion is as valid for him or her as your idea is to you. Arguing about being right just hardens the conflict.
  8. Remember that your area of interest might not be shared. If you’re talking about it, check in with your listener after a few sentences, like, “Do you want to hear more?”
  9. It’s important to avoid holding a grudge when frustrated and to continue to work together to come to solutions when needed.

It’s not back to square one if there’s a miscommunication or disappointment. Sometimes it’s absolutely best to cut each other some slack (as is true for every couple!). If you hang on to bitterness, you’re creating a wall between you.  It’s better to wait until you’re calm and can clarify and address challenges more effectively.

It certainly is possible for NDs and NTs to have successful relationships if both are committed to making it work. A fundamental mistake in empathy in any kind of relationship is to assume that the other  person is like us, and to interpret behavior based on what it would mean if we did it.

The assumption that the other person fundamentally means well and cares is critical so long as the relationship is a safe one. It’s important that NDs take what I call “social history” into account when interpreting behavior.

If the other person is a partner or friend who has been caring and trustworthy, a miss statement or misstep doesn’t mean they don’t mean well. On the other hand, someone unknown or new, without a proven history of trustworthiness, should be taken cautiously. Misstatements may simply be a lack of understanding, but one should never do anything that feels compromising or questionable.

If you’re worried you’re being gaslighted, this article might help you figure out if that’s the case.

Keep the relationship framed in a holistic perspective of what you value in each other and remember you have complementary strengths.