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  • Writer's pictureAmy Dougley

Supporting your Neurodiverse or Neurotypical Partner

Both neurotypical and neurodiverse people can find it challenging to understand each other’s behaviours, which creates a “double empathy” problem. A couple may experience each other’s body language, tone of voice, eye contact and facial expressions as confusing, critical, or rejecting, even if that was not the intention. Verbal communication may be interpreted as judgemental or critical correction, even when it’s meant to be encouraging or helpful.


Understanding this potential for disconnection can help couples to slow things down and pay more attention to their own thoughts, feelings and behaviours, and focus on what they can do to help their partner feel safe and secure. The following are some suggestions for both neurodiverse and neurotypical people to help support their relationship.


For the Neurotypical Partner

Chances are that you find your neurodiverse partner’s behaviour difficult at times. Dealing with these challenges can lead to strong emotions and negative thoughts about yourself, your partner, and your relationship. You may find yourself feeling frustrated with them, and thinking that your partner doesn’t care about your or your needs. At times, you may feel alone in your struggles. The following are some ideas to help you develop better habits in how you respond to your neurodiverse partner.

• Make self-care as a priority, as well as engage in self-soothing activities on a regular basis. These activities will help to calm your nervous system and energize you when you are feeling depleted.

• Take responsibility for knowing and expressing your own needs and wants and don’t make assumptions that your partner should know. Use clear, calm, and considerate communication to make requests.

• Avoid being reactive and being critical of your partner’s character -Use the “sandwich approach” when approaching a sensitive issue; lead with positive comment, introduce the concern, and finish with possible solution or validation.

• Accept and reframe your partner’s behaviours, acknowledge that they are ‘differently wired’. This will help you avoid personalizing their behaviour and seeing it as intentional hurt. Also, this will save you some unnecessary suffering.

• Challenge negative thoughts and narratives. Have reasonable expectations of yourself and your partner and focus on accepting their flaws as well as your own. See yourselves as human and allow both of you room for errors and imperfection.

• Acknowledge frustration, and then turn it into energy for compassion, understanding and gratitude. Take a deep breath and calm the emotional brain so that this intentional shift can happen. Ensure you are calm before having important conversations.

• Hold positive thoughts of your partner in mind. Foster humour and more adaptive responses to situations. Be open minded. Spend quality time together. Show them appreciation, love, and respect.

• Be aware of taking on a parent role with your partner, and instead, shift to personal responsibility for both of you. Focus on what you can control. Recognize negative feedback loops in your relationship and take a step back so that you can name it.

• Take responsibility for your actions and apologize when you have caused harm. Encourage and support your partner to take responsibility for their actions while avoiding blaming or shaming.

• Recognize that underneath our partner’s defensive, angry or frustrated reactions, there are primal emotions being activated, such as fear, hurt, shame, hurt, and sadness. Look for the emotions under the reaction to help you better understand both your partner and yourself.

• Develop a mindset of being on the same team, and problem-solve the “solvable problems” together. Put the problem in the centre, not the person.

• Develop curiosity about your partner’s experience and the effect your behaviour has on them.

For the Neurodiverse Partner

Chances are that you find your neurotypical partner’s behaviour difficult at times. Dealing with these challenges can lead to strong emotions and negative thoughts about yourself, your partner, and your relationship. You may find yourself thinking that your partners expectations are unreasonable, or you may feel you are always disappointing them. At times, you may feel alone in your struggles. The following are some ideas to help you develop better habits in how you respond to your neurotypical partner.

• Do things regularly that let your partner know that you care about them and that they are important/matter to you/appreciated by you. Find out what makes them feel appreciated. Do not assume they know how you feel about them.

• Love yourself and accept all of yourself –including both your unique gifts and your challenges. Build on your strengths while you continue to face your challenges.

• Practice flexibility vs rigidity: make a point of “going with the flow” in situations to expand your “window of tolerance”. Be willing to step outside of your own comfort zone.

• Consider others: imagine yourself in other person’s position to improve your ability to see the alternative perspectives of others. Accept the imperfections or flaws of others.

• Develop curiosity about your partner’s experience and the effect your behaviour has on them.

• Practice active listening skills and effective communication techniques by being clear, calm, and considerate. Develop ways to communicate that suit both you and your partner’s needs, including texting, talking, and leaving notes.

• Connect with your physical self. Practice mindfulness and pay attention to your physical body, and how your body state impacts your behaviour. Take care of yourself not only physically but also mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.

• Improve your emotional awareness, increase your “feelings vocabulary” and your skills of expressing your needs to others, especially with your partner. Practice in a safe relationship.

• Take responsibility for your own behaviour– step up and be honest with yourself and others -and ask for help if needed. With your partner, recognize negative feedback loops in your relationship and take a step back so that you can name it.

• Apologize with “regret, responsibility and remedy” when you disappoint others: express regret for the impact of the harm, take responsibility for your actions, and offer a way to make amends and commitments.

• Recognize that under our partner’s defensive, angry and frustrated reactions, there are primal emotions being activated, such as fear, hurt, shame, hurt, and sadness. Look for the emotions underneath the reaction to help you better understand your partner and yourself.

• Develop skills of organization and time management. Write lists/reminders/schedules and stick to them. Use technology to support your efforts.


For both partners, recognizing when you may need outside support to help improve your relationship is another step toward wellness. Sometimes it is difficult to see our own patterns of behaviour and we may need some coaching on learning new responses and improving our communication. Accessing help from a trained mental health professional, marriage counsellor or psychotherapist can help both of you feel understood and not as alone. Contact either Pathways To Hope at 519.751.0728 or Brant Mental Health Solutions at 519.302.2300 for more information, or to book a free consultation with one of our staff.





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