Autism Can Impact Relationships: 10 Things We've Learned in Our Neurodiverse Marriage

Every relationship has its challenges, but a neurodiverse relationship may take some extra work. Here are 10 ways we manage our differences.

Published September 25, 2023
Karen and Jim in Sedona

Several years ago, I was having a conversation with my mom about my stepdaughter. My mom is a retired educator, so I was asking her about some behaviors I’d noticed and if maybe my stepdaughter was on the autism spectrum. After discussing her for a bit, my mom said something about my husband that suddenly snapped everything into focus.

"Do you think maybe Jim is on the spectrum, too?"

I'd never considered it, but the moment she said it, I knew it was true. So that evening, I mentioned to Jim what my mom had said on the phone.

"Oh... yeah," he said. "They diagnosed me with that years ago when I was in the Navy. I just never thought it was that big of a deal."

My first response was frustration. Shouldn't he have divulged that before we got married instead of a few years afterward? My next response was a light bulb going on in my mind. Suddenly, so many things made sense.

Jim and I have been married for nearly 21 years, and we're happy together. But it is, as most marriages are, a hard-earned happiness. The early years before I knew he was on the spectrum were particularly challenging, because he said and did things that seemingly came out of nowhere, and I felt hurt by many of them because I couldn't understand how he could be so callous. 

We spent the middle years learning to speak each other's language and understand the meaning behind words and actions. It took a lot of communication, negotiation, and adaptation for both of us.

And now, in the later years, we have reached a place of happy contentment. We've learned how to communicate, how not to project, and that we need to give one another grace in order to have a smooth and happy relationship.

Now I'm sharing what Jim and I have discovered about our neurodiverse relationship, and it could help yours.

1. Neurodiverse Relationships Are More Common Than You Might Think

couple at a rooftop bar

The CDC estimates that nearly 5.5 million adults in the United States are on the autism spectrum (over 2% of the population), and the Neurodiversity Foundation states that about 32% of adults on the spectrum are in romantic partnerships. That means there are over 1.76 million couples where at least one partner is on the autism spectrum in the U.S.

2. You and Your Partner Have Different Operating Systems

If you're in a neurodiverse relationship where one partner is on the spectrum and the other is neurotypical, your brains process information very differently. Jim and I have come to recognize that it's like computers with two different operating systems. I always joke that I'm a Mac and he's a PC, but Jim says it's more like my operating system is MacOS and his is Linux. I'm not computery, so I don't totally get that reference, but he knows his brain better than me, so I'll believe him.

But what I do understand about computers with different operating systems is this: you need to create bridges (I'm sure there's a technical term for that in computerese — but I don't speak it) between the two systems so they can communicate and work cohesively.

3. Be Specific in Your Communication

When two people speak different primary languages and neither is fluent in the other's language, the first thing they do when they talk is slow down and speak more thoughtfully to ensure the other person understands and is able to process what they're saying. They also check in to make sure the other person understood what they said, and they verify their understanding of what that person said to minimize the chance of miscommunication.

A romantic relationship between someone on the autism spectrum and someone neurotypical is a lot like that. 

Jim and I have learned we need to do just that. Sometimes, he will say something that my neurotypical brain interprets as cruel or unkind. In the past, I would react to that as one might when one's partner is being deliberately cruel. But what I've learned to do instead is take a deep breath, check my feelings, and then ask for clarification.

So if Jim says something that I feel is hurtful, I respond by saying, "This is how I heard what you just said. (Explain what I heard and how I felt.) Is that what you meant?"

The answer is almost always no, followed by a more precise statement. Sometimes we have to go a few rounds before I get what he’s telling me.

He does the same with me when I say something that he perceives as passive-aggressive, hurtful, or unkind. By recognizing the ways we mis-communicate, we’ve learned to better understand the other’s language. 

These miscommunications were the main reason things were rough going in the early years, and those simple adjustments have made a world of difference in our relationship. While we still have the occasional misunderstanding (and what couple doesn't?), it doesn't happen nearly as often.

4. Have Important Conversations When You're Not Distracted

couple having a conversation

We've also learned to table conversations and come back to them later if there's a lot going on in the moment. Jim and I both work busy jobs, and we raised two kids, four dogs, and a cat together. So there was often a lot going on in the house that made communication even more difficult.

Sometimes when a misunderstanding comes up and we're both busy, we do the quick check-in ("this is what I heard you say — is that what you meant?") in the moment, and then discuss it in depth later, when there's not so much stimulation happening around us. We've been thoughtful and deliberate about this in the past few years once we recognized how much a chaotic environment made important conversations so much more difficult to have.

5. Recognize When You're Telling Yourself a Story

It's easy to misinterpret what someone is doing or saying and create a whole story about that. For instance, several years ago, Jim and I had a major conflict around me spending time with my girlfriends. He saw how we laughed and had fun together, and he interpreted it to mean that I didn't feel safe to be free around him because I was more fun with my girlfriends than I was with him.

His story became that I didn't trust him and couldn't cut loose with him, and he was really hurt about it. It became a major source of conflict in our relationship. He'd get so angry when I'd go spend time with my friends because he believed that I went out with them because I didn't want to be with him. I had no idea the story existed. All I saw was that he would get upset and act out whenever I spent time with my friends.

I'd be lying if I said I wasn't furious about how he was acting, so I created a story, too. My story was this: Jim's a jealous jerk.

After several months of this with our relationship devolving, I finally recognized that there must be an issue underlying all that was going on, so I asked him why he got so upset when I went out with my friends. That's when he told me how he had reasoned it all out in his mind. And once I understood what he believed, I was able to assure him that wasn't what was happening.

I've always been goofy with my girlfriends, and I love them. But it exhausts me too. I'm an introvert, and my home and relationship are where I can come and chill out after being social. So what for me was sanctuary felt very different to Jim.

Once we were able to have a few conversations about this, where we each clarified what was truly happening versus what we believed the other was doing, we resolved the issue. I agreed to share more of the cut-loose, fun times with Jim, and he agreed to also allow me the safe space within our relationship to be my quieter, more introverted self.  

6. Drop the Need to Be Right

This is true of all relationships — not just neurodiverse ones. You can be right, or you can be happy (although Jim likes to say, "But I'm happy when I'm right.")

And when you're fighting to be right, it's easy to dismiss the other person and not hear what they're truly saying. So during disagreements, Jim and I both ask ourselves whether we simply want to be right, or if we truly believe in what we're saying. And then, if the answer is that we want to be right, we take a beat and then approach the disagreement from another angle focused on compromise rather than the need to win.

Also, we have an agreement that I get to be right at least once a year. I'll take that as a win.

The truth is, nobody is right and nobody is wrong. My way of thinking and communicating is no more right or wrong than Jim's. They're just different. So we choose to set aside that need to be right so we can connect in ways that are meaningful and enrich our relationship. 

7. Tell Each Other What You Need

couple chatting on couch

I think there's a comfortability that comes with long-term partnerships, where we believe our partners can read our minds. And sometimes it does seem uncanny how much each of us knows what the other is thinking. But that's not always the case, so we try to never assume the other person knows what we need.

When something is extremely important to us, we've each learned to share that need with the other person. For example, I might say to Jim, "I'm going to share something that happened at work today. What will be helpful is that you allow me to vent. I don't need suggestions about how to fix it. So, for now, I need you to listen and be supportive. Is that okay?"

In that case, I'm telling him exactly what I'm hoping for from the interaction, and also what won't be helpful. And I'm asking for his agreement that he understands what I need.

Likewise, sometimes in the middle of a conversation where Jim is telling me about something that's upsetting him, I'll ask him straight up, "What do you need from me here? How can I help?" 

When neither of us assumes that the other person knows what we need, things go much more smoothly, and we both get our needs met in the relationship. 

8. Ask Lots of Questions

Jim and I have lots of conversations where we each try to peek into the other’s mind. We’re able to do this because we feel safe with one another.

So when Jim does something that I don’t understand or I do something he doesn’t quite get, we’ll ask each other about it later. We ask questions like, “What was going through your mind when this happened?” or, “How did you receive this information?” or, “How did you feel when X happened?” or “What is your primary motivation/thought when you’re experiencing X?”

We’ve established ground rules around these conversations so they feel safe. First, we always make sure it’s okay to ask about X. If the other person says no, we don’t ask. We also make sure we’re in a calm and happy place when we have the conversation (never in the heat of the moment), and we try to ask open-ended questions and then listen without judgment. When the other person answers, we reflect back what they said, “So what I heard you say is this...” and ask follow-up questions if we need to clarify. It has sparked some truly fascinating conversations, and we understand one another much better because of it. 

Likewise, we also ask about how we handled a situation and what we could’ve done better. When we have a misunderstanding, we always debrief afterward to find out what each of us needed in the moment.

9. A Sense of Humor Is Essential

One reason I fell for Jim in the first place is because of how much he made me laugh. He is truly one of the smartest, funniest human beings I have ever met. He also finds me hilarious, although not as hilarious as he finds himself. We've managed to laugh our way through over 22 years together. 

So in the past, when we've struggled, we've turned to that which initially connected us — our sense of humor. We find it's the perfect way to reconnect, even during stressful times, such as after my dad died or when our nest emptied. When we laugh together, it reminds us exactly why we love each other so much.

10. Seek Support if You Need It

Jim and I are open with people about our neurodiverse relationship. Our friends and family are all aware of it, which is helpful because they served as a great source of support during difficult times. 

For a while, I was reading internet forums about neurodiverse relationships that were listed as support for the neurotypical partner. They were full of angry spouses venting about all the "crappy" stuff their neurodivergent partners did. So while they helped me realize that my experience wasn't unusual, they were a little short on the support part of the equation, unless the support I was looking for was other people telling me, "Get mad about this stuff!"

I wanted our relationship to work. Jim is totally worth it. So instead of spending time on forums that reinforced a victim mentality, I talked to people who had successful neurodivergent relationships who could help me find the things that were right about the relationship, not the things that were wrong about it. 

Likewise, there's no shame in therapy. Either separately or together (or both), a therapist who understands the challenges of neurodiverse relationships can help you create a safe space where you can learn to build that bridge between operating systems.

It Hasn't Always Been Easy, But It Has Definitely Been Worth It

Our marriage has been a challenge, but what long-term relationship isn't? And over the years, Jim and I have kept the most important thing in mind: we love each other, and we want to be together. We've come through some very rocky times and have emerged stronger and better equipped to be the best, most supportive partners that we can possibly be. And in the end, all the work has absolutely been worth it. Which is why I'm so thankful that both of us cared enough to build bridges between our operating systems so we could better understand and enjoy our time together. 

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Autism Can Impact Relationships: 10 Things We've Learned in Our Neurodiverse Marriage