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Why Neurodiversity Matters When Counseling Neuro-Blended Relationships

About 1 in 5 people in the US identify as neurodivergent. This means that you are likely in a relationship with someone who is neurodivergent, or you are neurodivergent yourself. Sometimes in couples/family counseling, our clients, usually the neurotypical ones, come in wanting to address ongoing tensions and conflicts in their relationships. They can’t seem to understand why their partner/parent/children act and behave in such “annoying” or “difficult” ways and want therapists to help “fix it”. All relationships can experience stressors and tensions from time to time but sometimes relational challenges are born from the unique stressors of being in a neuro-blended relationship. 

What is neurodivergence? Neurodivergent individuals are those whose neurological development and functioning are different from the mainstream norm. When you do a search online, the term typically refers to people who identify as having ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder), ADHD, OCD, Bipolar, and learning disorders among others (Source: here). Neurodiversity is a movement about recognizing and respecting the uniqueness of the range of our neurological makeup towards inclusivity and acceptance. Neuro-blended families are couplings or family members with differing types of neurodivergent and/or neurotypical conditions. These relationships can experience unique challenges compared with the struggles of neurotypical relationships because the people involved operate under very different implicit agreements and expectations. 

1) Communication Styles

One of the most common relational complaints is usually about wanting better communication. Whereas neurotypical individuals are able to navigate the multiple layers of verbal and non-verbal communication with relative ease, neurodivergent individuals struggle with the implicit aspects of communication and this can lead to frustrations during conflicts and other situations involving more nuanced navigation of what is said versus unsaid. Nonverbal cues can sometimes be missed leading to frustrations in the relationship. For example, couples can find themselves having heated arguments over the semantics of what was said instead of addressing the underlying emotions/wants/needs that requires tending to. Oftentimes this can look like one person in an argument saying something like, “didn’t you literally tell me to do x, y, z?” and the other person feeling enraged that their sarcasm was somehow missed leading to even more frustration and resentment. Therapists can help to uncover the idiosyncratic expressions of each person in the relationship to improve communication in the dynamic.

2) Personal Preferences & Needs

People with neurodivergent minds may not need or require certain aspects of a relationship that might otherwise be common for a neurotypical person. For example, some individuals on the autism spectrum may not require as much social interactions and may instead prefer spending more time alone. So, if an extroverted parent needs regular social interaction to feel happy in a relationship but finds their child with autism spending a lot of time alone, they may misinterpret their child’s introverted nature and force the child to engage in social activities with little interest to that child. Another example might be with a neuro-blended couple where one has ADHD and the other anxiety, a typical vacation of doing nothing on a beach may not appeal equally to both partners–the one with ADHD may not want to “do nothing” on a beach, while the one with anxiety may need this kind of vacation to feel relaxed. This can lead to feelings of isolation for both partners or misunderstandings about the relationship if not reframed.

3) Soft Skills

It is important to understand that there are levels of differences in soft skills and abilities between those with neurodivergent minds. In particular, dissimilarities in empathy, time management, flexibility, team work, can be unique areas that pose challenges for neuro-blended relationships. For example, an autistic individual may not express feelings, empathy or do well with sudden changes in routine or preferences. If you are a neurotypical child of someone on the spectrum, you may feel frustrated that your parent simply cannot see things from your perspective or understand your emotions. You may feel annoyed at rigid routines such as dinner seating arrangements and utensil choices. Or you might be in a relationship with someone with ADHD and feel irritated by this person’s perpetual messiness and disorganization. Sometimes frustrations in these relationships are due to ignorance and misunderstandings around capabilities.

4) Sensory Overload

Neurodivergent individuals are more easily overstimulated in many areas compared to their neurotypical counterparts. Many of them also identify as HSP (Highly Sensitive Person). This may make it more challenging in relationships where intimacy is concerned. For example, one partner may prefer touch more while the other seems almost allergic to it. One touch in the right or wrong spot can mean the difference between arousal or fight and flight. Intimacy in neuroblended relationships can be tricky to navigate and may require a lot more work to maintain. 

Another sensory example might be where one family member always experiences heightened senses when it comes to sound, taste, temperature, texture, hunger or smells, while others in the house are oblivious to them. Imagine how frustrating it might be to be that person when you are always triggered by everyone around you! Or a house might have people with different sensory sensitivities to navigate, for instance, one is sensitive to heat while the other cold. Sensory differences must be acknowledged, accepted, but most importantly, respected in these relationships. 

5) Executive Functioning

Emotional regulation, self control, working memory and mental flexibility are areas that tend to be impacted when a person is neurodivergent compared to those who are not. These skills are critical to the ability of a person to manage their own negative emotions, plan ahead, reach goals, do tasks despite interruptions, or multitask. Couples in which one or both partners are neurodivergent may experience more frequent and intense fights because one or both individuals find they tend to escalate emotions quickly. You may also have a harder time staying calm during these arguments. Furthermore, challenges with impulsivity and self control can lead one partner to make destructive decisions in the relationship. For these reasons, neuro-blended relationships require a lot of preventative and maintenance work in therapy to develop much needed tools and coping skills for effective conflict resolution. 

When it comes to memory capacity, relationships can sometimes feel unbalanced for the neurotypical individual or the neurodivergent individual without memory deficits. For example, a child with ADHD might find it difficult to remember to do her chores on time so her mother falls into the role of becoming her personal reminder. Or a partner always forgets to pay the bills so the other partner has to pick up the slack. Finally, with mental flexibility, it is common for neurodivergent individuals to be rigid with schedules and other details in everyday life that may be difficult for a loved one to understand. For example, you may come across intense preferences such as the need to wear a particular shirt to sleep or hand cleaning rituals that have very little wiggle room for change. A skilled therapist can help you bridge your awareness of your executive functioning differences and how that might impact your relationship. 

If you think that you are in a neuroblended relationship with similar challenges as described above, a great starting point towards building a thriving relationship is to gain insights on what makes you and your loved one unique—neurologically. Therapy can be a great place to start exploring and discussing your differences in an open and welcoming space.

Seek Individual Therapy at Yellow Chair Collective in Los Angeles or New York

If you are seeking therapy specifically tailored to your needs, consider reaching out to the culturally sensitive therapists at Yellow Chair Collective. We understand that different parts of our identities and histories can show up in different parts of our lives, and that it can make navigating relationships difficult. We also understand that there may be unique cultural and contextual factors that may influence your experiences.

At our Los Angeles, CA, and New York City, NY-based therapy practice, we have many skilled, trauma-informed therapists who can provide an empowering therapeutic experience. For your added convenience and simplicity, we offer online therapy for anyone in the state of California or New York. We know that guilt and shame are painful experiences, and that the path to finding meaning and figuring out how to be a good person can be challenging. We want to support you on your journey. Follow the steps below to begin.

Other Services at Yellow Chair Collective

There are many options for treatment using online therapy in California and New York, it just depends on what you’re needing. And while we certainly service Asian American folks, we also work with individuals from other cultures, too. So, whether you’re needing support in overcoming anxiety, burnout, trauma, or PTSD, we can help. Likewise, we serve teens and couples in need of support, too. So when you start online therapy with us, you can bring your whole self, including past struggles, cultural impacts, and more.