Relationships are hard. The average long-term relationship lasts two years and nine months,(Opens in a new tab) regardless if the couple are married or not. And, according to Northwestern University psychologist Eli Finkel, a staggering 90 percent(Opens in a new tab) of relationships started before our thirties will inevitably end. If you add in your possible partner having a chronic illness or neurodivergence — a term used to indicate someone whose brain doesn’t function as “typical” (or neurotypical) brains do, including anyone who has ADHD, autism, dyslexia, dyspraxia, or any other spectrum disorder — it can make an already difficult task seem pretty impossible. But there are things you can do to make the experience easier, and more worthwhile.
As someone who is chronically ill and “neurospicy” (how I describe my neurodivergence) who is married to a neurodivergent man, I’ve learned a few things over the years that will help people build successful relationships without discounting the chronically ill and neurodiverse. Something that should also be taken into account is that not everyone who is neurodivergent has known about it since childhood. This is the case with both myself and my husband.
It’s more common for women to be diagnosed in adulthood and a lot of adults aren’t diagnosed or don’t identify their neurodivergent traits and processes until later on in life and have been used to “masking” (hiding your true feelings and behaviours and learning to act like everyone around you) since childhood. This means they are now in a stage of “unmasking” and figuring out how to be themselves in a neurotypical world with purpose. It can lead to a lot of unidentified trauma and personality crises.
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As Dr. Samantha Hiew(Opens in a new tab), who specialises in demystifying ADHD and neurodiversity through her advocacy company ADHD Girls(Opens in a new tab) combining her PhD in medical science, told Mashable: “Being diagnosed as neurodivergent later in life can make you reassess everything — your life, the people in it, the type of partner for you, and your work.”
“Being diagnosed as neurodivergent later in life can make you reassess everything — your life, the people in it, the type of partner for you, and your work.”
“You want to be more authentic to yourself and we want to be accepted for who you truly are, not the person you were when you’re trying hard to fit in,” Hiew added. “This is an incredibly empowering place to be, but can cause serious challenges in relationships. As we tend to unmask towards those we love and feel the most comfortable with.”
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No matter what stage someone is at in their neurodiversity journey, if you are a neurotypical person, the main rule you need to put into practice is this: Don’t try to make a neurodivergent person neurotypical. This ties in with what true inclusion is, it is an understanding of a person, their likes, dislikes, and their difficulties and making sure you make an active effort to make any amendments needed into action. Acknowledging someone is neurodivergent and actually altering your behaviour and narrative are two very different things.
Thomas Henley(Opens in a new tab) — author of Strong Powerful Autistic, autism advocate, and podcaster who covers autism awareness for neurotypicals (including dating and relationships) — has had his own experience with people he’s dated who have tried to make him neurotypical and made a great point about it from his point of view. “I have definitely experienced this,” he says “I think some people see our outside presentation and skills in other areas as an indicator that we are great and able to do things consistently. A lot of the time this is done without malice, as a way to encourage growth but sometimes it crosses into the world of ableism.”
Don’t try to make a neurodivergent person neurotypical.
He adds that being treated in this way feels deeply frustrating. “Some toxic people may think that you are actively avoiding doing or understanding certain things, highlighting that they aren’t ‘pulling their weight’ in the relationship or ‘not really listening,'” he explained. “It can be extremely demoralising to hear that you aren’t trying hard enough, when you just simply can’t do or understand something. It can also be hard when you understand, but have a different perspective that isn’t seen as valid!”
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The ground rules: Be open. Don’t try to fix people.
First things first: Being chronically ill and neurodivergent is a long-term deal. If you are someone who goes into relationships with the intent to “fix” someone else, swipe left. This is not going to be a good fit for you. To be in a relationship with someone who is chronically ill or neurodivergent, and sometimes even both, you’ve also got to be open to making a commitment (you still have to date and get to know people, right?), so if you are someone who is flighty, fickle, or irresponsible, again, this probably isn’t the best option for you.
Maybe you’ve dated or been in a previous relationship with someone who has chronic illness or neurodivergence. Don’t write off everyone who describes themselves as such as the same; all neurodivergent and chronically ill people don’t have exactly the same needs, nor will it be the same experience to date them. Similarly, if you meet someone who tells you they have chronic illnesses or are neurodivergent, this shouldn’t be considered a red flag — and if it is, you might need to unpack some internalised ableism.
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Communication is key.
If you can establish a good connection and communicate well with your partner, especially when it comes to what their needs are and how best to support them, it can lead to a really fulfilling and enriched relationship in the long term.
In order to do this you have to have patience and get curious. It’s OK, even great, to ask questions. All anyone who is chronically ill or neurodivergent really wants is someone to be ready to understand the basics of their illness or neurodivergence. So, if you don’t know how to respond or handle something, just say so.
Neurodiverse people communicate in a very direct manner that can often be misconstrued as “rude”. This then creates difficult spaces and frustration for communicating. Neurotypical people all too often assume that there are lines to be read between, however that is not the case. Communication for most neurodiverse people needs to be crystal clear.
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Sharing plans in depth is a must, I like to know all the Ws (who, what, where, when and why) and it must have a clear and concise logic about it. Try hard to not get annoyed if a neurodivergent person asks “unnecessary questions” (that is, unnecessary to the neurotypical mind). When you have to navigate the world in a different way you want to be prepared for any and every outcome possible.
Important areas of communication for neurodivergent people.
Hiew told me what she felt the most important areas of communication were in her experience both professionally and personally:
Listen with intent: We’re used to being misunderstood, while being confused about the way we think and act. Listen empathically while we’re talking, validate our challenges, and watch our eyes light up.
Understand challenges: Many neurodivergents have executive function challenges which would impact the day to day life, such as housework and keeping up with life admin. It’s important to recognise that this isn’t done intentionally but that our brains tend to fixate on a new interest or project, and may not notice our surrounds! Autistics are also known to have PDA, which can make it incredibly challenging for us to do what others want us to do on demand. Have conversations to decide which responsibility they wouldn’t mind taking on.
Rethink the traditional and release perfectionism: You must be willing to allow yourself something different in a relationship with someone who is neurodivergent. Many neurotypical people seem focused on the sort of idealised romance and relationships they’ve seen in the media and movies, for example, the spontaneity of their partner on dates, thoughtful gestures (flowers, messages first thing in the morning and last thing at night etc). Neurodivergent people are very loving in a different way, and it is rare that you will find someone who is able to give you this picture of perfection; In fairness, I don’t think anyone really can live up to that, neurodivergent or not.
According to Henley, while most neurotypical people he’s dated expect the relationship to follow a “set, socially normative framework, many neurodivergent people have their own ideas of what they want.” This includes how they think about living together, communication frequency, activity choices, being spontaneous vs. planning, and the pace at which the relationship develops. “Often, those who are stuck in their ideas of how the couple ‘should’ be tend to make their partner very uncomfortable and unhappy in the long run,” he said.
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Don’t overload your partner.
In general, taking a break from heated conversation is very useful and recommended by therapists, however if you are in a relationship with a neurodiverse person, it is a necessity in order to not overload the neurodivergent person, which can lead to meltdowns and or, shutdowns. Allow your neurodivergent partner emotional space in a relationship to process and recognize their emotions, map out time to discuss issues at a suitable time for both people, using cue cards and a structured plan for the conversation.
The cue cards can be on the lines of:
Processing card — I hear you are upset and want to take time to answer appropriately.
Time out card — I am feeling overwhelmed with information. This is important but I need a break.
Confusion card — I am finding this difficult to process or understand and need extra support.
As Henley explained, “If you expect a neurodivergent person to understand indirect and subtle methods of communication, you are at fault if they don’t get the message!”
“If you expect a neurodivergent person to understand indirect and subtle methods of communication, you are at fault if they don’t get the message!”
“It’s worth learning ways to indirectly communicate your affection for them or how to soften how direct your language is around sensitive topics,” he added.
An example of this would be, being more precise with times and dates, instead of “just whenever is good for you” and not communicating your wants or needs, say: “8.30 on Wednesday at Duke’s would work great for me. How does this feel for you?” This takes out the guesswork and leaves no room for the neurodivergent person to over-analyse and gives a clear directive.
Hiew recommends a few things to relieve the pressure in a relationship with a neurodiverse person, including avoiding emotional or sensory triggers. “ADHDers tend to suffer from Rejection Sensitivity Dysphoria,(Opens in a new tab) which is an extreme emotional sensitivity and pain to a perceived failure or rejection,” said Hiew. “Don’t make a neurodivergent second guess your feelings for them and try to work with your neurodivergent partner to understand what situations can land them into emotional overload, and consider swapping roles in those situations.”
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“Laugh often, avoid criticising or publicly embarrassing us, try and compliment us, spend quality time together but also recovery time alone is very important to the neurodivergent wellbeing in the long run,” added Hiew.
The challenges of dating while neurodivergent.
Both chronically ill and neurodivergent people often use a form of “masking(Opens in a new tab)” to hide conditions and symptoms, trying to appear as society deems acceptable. This can be damaging as it can become an unhealthy copy mechanism and it also makes it harder for these communities to be taken seriously. It is exhausting physically, mentally and emotionally.
It is a good idea, if you’re setting up a date, to ask how the neurodivergent or chronically ill person would feel comfortable proceeding. Some may like texts instead of phone calls; some may decide that communication outside talking about the date isn’t necessary at this time. If you match on a dating app, talking online or through messages for a while before meeting in person can allow time for neurodivergent people and chronically ill people to process and reply with what they truly want to say.
Going out in public, a norm for dating, can be hard for the chronically ill or neurodivergent, as it takes a lot of physical and mental energy and can cause anxiety. Being open to nights at home together, in a comfortable environment or asking them what they want to do are good places to begin. It should always be about compromise; neither person should feel more entitled than the other because of differing capabilities.
A neurodivergent person is sharing a lot about hobbies or giving you lots of information, this is their version of a ‘love language’,(Opens in a new tab) They are showing interest, love, and that they are comfortable with you. Try not to be too overwhelmed by it and accept what it is underneath the conversation.
Chronic illness is unpredictable, you can be maintaining your illnesses for weeks or months and then all of a sudden, a flare hits you.
Dating someone who is chronically ill means they’ll likely need to reschedule or cancel plans at some point. In this instance, when they text to say they aren’t up to making it after all, it’s understandably going to be disappointing and at times, possibly a bit annoying but approaching it with compassion and being aware of how the tone you respond in (you are entitled to show your disappointment but back it up with understanding and a want for rescheduling) as it will help your future relationship a great deal. Chronic illness is unpredictable, you can be maintaining your illnesses for weeks or months and then all of a sudden, a flare hits you. Just with neurodivergence, communication is a big factor as is understanding and compassion. Remember that the chronically ill person never asked for this life, so if you find yourself getting frustrated, that’s valid but know that the chronically ill person is feeling the frustration tenfold as well as overwhelming guilt.
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Don’t infantilize people.
It is really important for neurotypical people to be aware that there is no need to infantilize the neurodivergent person or chronically ill person and this can be a role the neurotypical person does on their own accord.
Across age brackets, cultures, genders, and social groups neurodivergent people are often treated as immature individuals. In relationships, this can lead to a lot of unwanted power exchanges and can be damaging to a person’s self-esteem and executive functioning.
Infantilizing can look like: Talking for or over someone, taking on a carer or parental role, assuming they don’t understand, and not respecting opinions. In a nutshell, treating that person as an immature child.
Don’t assume you are doing the person a service by speaking or acting for them. Have a conversation with your partner or potential partner about where they struggle, if you’ll need to be of assistance, and how best you can do that.
Keep it super simple (KISS) and definitely tell.
Being in a relationship with someone who is chronically ill or neurodivergent requires a lot of dedication but truly, this is no different to what’s needed in any relationship. It takes a lot to be so vulnerable when you are treated differently and stigmatised so often.
As Hiew explained: “Emotions can run high in a relationship with neurodivergents, it is best to avoid those long arguments as it can feed a destructive loop. When you can’t say anything good to each other, get outside help — focus on the emotions that are expressed, find the source, and rewrite these patterns before they have had a chance to form.”
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There is no guarantee that any relationship will work, despite adding possible problematic issues that come along with neurodivergence and chronic illness. As Henley expressed to me: “The best neurotypical people I’ve dated have been calm, patient, caring, open-minded, direct communicators, adaptable, compromising and non-judgmental (that goes both ways though). Neurodivergents are not all perfect either.”
Generate an idea of what you want your short-term and long-term future to be like, and make sure both parties have their say. Direct communication is understood by both neurotypes, remember that!”
If you are lucky enough to capture the heart of a chronically ill or neurodivergent person, tread gently and dare to see where it leads. It might just be an adventure you will never forget, and you might learn a thing or two along the way. It certainly will never be boring.