Working with Your Neurodivergent Partner to Create a Healthy Relationship

Written by Anna Smyth, Clinical Psychologist

Being in a relationship is challenging for everyone! Understanding and connecting with another human who has a different set of beliefs and life experience to you can create all types of ups and downs. So, what about those situations where you are in a relationship with a partner who has a different brain style to yours? The great thing for you if you know your partner’s brain style differs from yours, is that you can educate yourself in the strengths and challenges that they experience. It will also be important to spend time listening to their lived experiences to appreciate their take on the world. All relationships need work and understanding, and no situation is more so than in a relationship between a neurotypical and neurodivergent individual.

What is neurodivergence?

Neurodivergence simply means having a brain that functions, processes, learns and/or behaves differently from what is considered ‘typical’. Usually, people who have and/or Attention/Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) are described as being neurodivergent.

Navigating Intense Emotions

All people, neurotypical and neurodiverse, have a range and variety of strengths, and areas of difficulty. Commonly, those with ADHD and/or Autism may experience emotional dysregulation, or be quick to anger, experience sadness, anxiety or intense emotions, more often than those who are neurotypical. While this can be difficult for both partners in the relationship, there are ways to navigate these intense emotions. One way is to ground, validate, mirror, empathise and instil a sense of belonging.

This technique can be done by first helping the other person to ground themselves through techniques such as deep breathing and utilising the five senses. Then, validation is key through acknowledging the other person’s emotions and experiences, and letting them know their feelings are valid and understood. Mirroring involves taking the time to understand the other’s perspective, and mirroring their experiences and emotions back to them to ensure you have understood. Empathy and support is then crucial to let them know you are there for them and that you are supporting them. Finally, instilling a sense of belonging can involve asking for feedback as to how the person could do better, and creating a collaborative solution.

Getting Your Needs Met: Ask Don't Tell 

Any relationship, including romantic, platonic and familial, will often involve care and compromise. In order to get our needs met, we often wait and hope that our partner will know exactly what we need and how we would like to receive it. Without communicating our expectations to our partner this can often lead to miscommunication and feelings of guilt and sadness. Instead, it is important to be clear with your partner in terms of what your needs are, and having open conversations as needed if it is not evident what your needs are.

Core needs are those that are fundamental to us and are typically not negotiable, and successful relationships involve ensuring each person feels loved, fulfilled and secure. If ourselves or our partner are not willing to compromise, the relationship cannot thrive. Instead, aim for clear communication about your needs, and communication that you understand your partners needs. Be clear about why this is important to you, and set explicit boundaries, while compromising when needed. 

Rejection Sensitivity Dysphoria  

To manage Rejection Sensitivity Dysphoria (RSD), it is firstly important to understand what it is. RSD is a common occurrence for those who are neurodivergent. This is an intense emotional reaction to rejection, or perceived rejection. Those with RSD can be hypervigilant and hypersensitive to criticism, and may avoid situations where criticism is possible.

To manage RSD, it is firstly important to name it. If both people in the partnership understand that one has RSD, key triggers and how this may play out for them, further control is gained over its impact. Identify triggers, particularly in the relationship, and practice self-compassion and emotion regulation skills when triggered.

Try to remain patient and understanding of your partner; while you may not be doing anything wrong, to them they feel an intense sense of rejection. To manage misinterpreting the intention of others, ask clarification questions and seek confirmation around the accuracy of their interpretations. Additionally, ensuring that important conversations are had in person rather than on the phone or on text message, to ensure that each partner understands the other’s tone.

Managing Time and Disorganisation

Neurodivergent individuals, particularly those with ADHD, often find organisation and concentration difficult. This is because those with ADHD often have difficulties in executive functioning, which can impact problem-solving, memory, and behavioural monitoring abilities. Additionally, those with ADHD often describe having ‘time-blindness’, where they may often be late for things and have an inability to sense when time has passed and estimate the time needed to do something. This could lead to missing important events like a date or planned experience, leading to unintentional upset and hurt.

To manage this, it is important for the neurodivergent person in the relationship to recognise and acknowledge how these difficulties may affect their non-ADHD partner. Similarly, it is important for the non-ADHD partner to separate who their partner is from their symptoms or behaviours. Avoid parenting your partner, through nagging for example, and instead encourage them when they make progress and acknowledge their achievements and efforts.

Making Deposits into Your Relationship

Finally, while all relationships take consistent work and effort, and can be difficult at times, ensure you and your partner plan conscious, quality time together doing things you enjoy. This could look like going to the cinema, going out for dinner or on a hike, or even a movie night in. Compliment your partner when they make progress or achieve something, and show genuine interest in them and their world.

If you are interested in obtaining some support around your relationship with a neurodivergent partner, or assistance being in a relationship as a neurodivergent person, Spencer Health provides coaching support to couples around these issues. You can find more information on our website

As our clinicians have a solid understanding of the double empathy problem, we can provide support and assistance so that couples can better understand and communicate with each other and have richer and more fulfilling relationships. Please don’t hesitate to get in touch with our friendly intake team who can talk to your further about you and your partner’s needs.