Navigating Neurodiverse Relationships: A Personal Journey
The Three Principles of Maintaining a Healthy Relationship
One question that frequently arises within the autism community, especially among the recently diagnosed is:
Now that I know I’m autistic, how do I fix and maintain my marriage or the relationship I’m in?
Neurodiverse is a term used to describe someone who is neurotypical interacting or in a relationship with someone who is neurodiverse or autistic. As I mentioned in this article, one reason someone may choose to pursue an autism diagnosis is because of a relationship, such as marriage and dating, or parenting.
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In my experience, I first realized a lack of answers about why I was different from others and out of a desire to ensure my marriage and family were protected. I wanted to give my marriage every possible chance to succeed, and because I had embarrassed Erin in front of her friends, I felt an immediate sense of panic and dread about the future.
One of my life goals was to get married and have a family. Originally, this goal was meant to happen around the time I turned twenty-five and definitely before I turned twenty-six, neither of which ended up happening. I had other goals revolving around turning twenty-five, but those can wait for a different time. The point is that I made a goal and missed it.
There are, of course, reasons for missing a marriage deadline. For example, I had yet to start dating seriously, I moved a lot, and I was pretty immature. None of which mattered to the external influences pushing me to be married and start a family.
In fact, I was thirty-three before I got married and didn’t start to seriously date until my late twenties. All of which suggests I wasn’t serious about my marriage and family goal, though I still maintained it as a goal.
Once married and having started a family, I had no desire to back out of a marriage or leave my wife and son without me. Which meant, as problems arose that only I could fix, I had to do my best to fix them.
Problems that only I can fix, as a point of reference, are personal behaviors, attitudes, opinions, beliefs, and mental health concerns. These are quite literally problems that exist for me as an individual and cannot be fixed by some outside source. Especially if I don’t want to fix them, work on them, or even consider them important.
Which leads to:
Changing for someone else is always a mistake. Changing for yourself is the only way change works.
Please note that this is almost 100% about me. I needed to change. I needed to recognize the problems. I had to decide change was both right and necessary. I had to seek help. I had to be willing to accept help. I had to be open to different kinds of change in attitude, opinion, beliefs, and so on.
While my motivation was externally influenced by my family, my needs were entirely internal.
I met Erin. I liked her. We started dating. Then we got married and had Camper. At each stage, I had to decide, and we had to decide – which meant Erin had to decide for herself, that this was what we wanted. Together.
While I can repeatedly emphasize ‘We’ in terms of our relationship, the initial responsibility begins with me (and for Erin, with her).
Which is also the first principle in making any relationship work:
You have to decide you want to be in the relationship; and, you have to remember why you entered the relationship.
What I’ve found to be true in the sixteen years I’ve been married is that I’m no longer married to the same person. Yes, I’m married to the same woman, but she has changed and evolved into someone entirely new and different from when we first met. Which means, we have to keep coming back to some moving starting line and in different ways decide we still want to be together. I have to decide I want to be with Erin, and she has to decide she wants to be with me.
The second principle is what I like to refer to as: variable middle ground. Which is a response to advice and the nature of care and decisions I’ve heard people talking about decisions as 50:50 in a relationship or implying that meeting halfway or finding common ground is literally halfway or in the middle.
For me, there is no true 50:50, there is never going to be equal or even the same in a relationship. One part of any relationship will always need more. More time. More money. More sleep. More comfort. More attention. This suggests, to me, that the variable middle ground is going to fluctuate and change, the person who needs more is going to switch back and forth, and while there may be times when the needs are greater for one person and more often, this isn’t always going to be true.
Life is change, and everything about life is change. This is true from the simple act of growing older, both inevitable and constant, to changes in health, changes in occupation, quality of life, and so on. Recognizing there isn’t a single answer and there will almost never be one-and-done answers to problems in a relationship, in life, or personally also leads to the recognition of the need and willingness to always come back to decide what’s next. What’s important. Who has the greater need. What needs to change and who needs to give more and who is going to take more.
There is almost never a point when everything will be decided and settled, and because of this, change has to be a constant in any couple’s life. We don’t go to bed to Leno because Leno isn’t on anymore and we never went to bed watching talk shows or anything else. I won’t fall asleep if the TV is on or there is active noise that varies and changes. For a period of time, we didn’t end our day without reading chapters out of a book Camper chose for us to read and only now is Commander really allowing me to read books that have chapters and takes a lot of time to read from beginning to end.
The third principle is one of self-recognition and awareness of others. It’s to recognize that while a lot of the decisions and changes and self-care are all internal and selfish, the relationship changes that and introduces an external element or selflessness. Selflessness in a relationship is both making decisions that are selfish and also allowing for the possibility that some decisions require more than one person and more than one point-of-view that has to be considered.
Personally, I have very strong opinions about the books, movies, TV shows, and music I consume. Not everything is equally good. Most things don’t rise to what I consider worth my time, and at the exact same time, there are things that are complete trash I enjoy reading or consuming. For me, the best way to describe consuming poorly written or created media is more an homage to Finding Forrester when William Forrester responses to Jamal’s observation about him reading the tabloids. While it may not make me thing, it’s kind of like a dessert for my mind, it allows me to feel something different and to unwind.
While there are things I can watch or read with others, most of what I consume is entirely about my interests or my goals or what I need from entertainment in any given moment. However, there are also times when what we watch or read or listen to is directed by someone else, often Erin when it comes to music and Commander when it comes to TV and movies. Camper will also decide what we watch and we’ve put a lot of effort into help Commander understand that he has to share the TV and has to let other people pick what we watch, sometimes.
In our relationship, Erin is the primary breadwinner. I’m the stay-at-home parent to Commander. I’m also the one doing the homeschooling for Commander. I take Camper and Commander to doctor appointments, dentist appointments, eye appointments. I’m the one who is on-call in case someone is hurt or sick. It’s my job to pay the bills and to whatever extent necessary, maintain the household.
We recognize that Erin’s ability and need to work aligns well with my ability to be at home and take care of Camper and Commander (more Commander than anyone else right now). We’ve talked about these needs and desires in our relationship and have adjusted, many times, over the years to make things work. Which also means while I’m not now working, I have in the past worked and I will in the future work.
Everything in our relationship, it seems, is an exercise in growing and adapting the expectations of life to our reality of living. We don’t have what many today might call a traditional marriage or a traditional way of life. And that’s okay. What we do have is a willingness to work together and to keep working together until we get to where we need to be. Together.
For me, the scariest part of maintaining a relationship is when the talking and the working on things and the lack of finding out variable middle ground gets harder or stops. And sometimes, this happens. It’s almost always a problem of self-reflection and self-awareness over what I need and how I can be better.
The point of all of this is to explain how complicated and fraught with potential problems, especially with problems I have to fix, my relationship is and by extension any relationship is. And to say that while it’s difficult, while there may be struggles, while there may be times when things seem impossible, they don’t have to be. Not really.
The final point I’ll make is to say that even while these are my thoughts and opinions about marriage, I don’t believe there’s a single right answer for anyone or any relationship. What works for us, may not work for you. What’s true for us, isn’t necessarily true for you. And that’s okay.
We make a choice to be together, and if the choice works, we choose to keep making it. That’s all it takes. That’s all there is: recognize needs and what has to change; understand why you are or were in the relationship in the first place; and then constantly go back to the beginning, or a beginning, to figure out how to remain aligned and together in this relationship.
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