Difference is a factor common to every relationship. Whether it is foods or sex or hobbies or other interests each partner will have their own preferences and these are things that can bring life and energy to the relationship as well as being things that need to be worked at and understood together.
But some differences in personality are much more profound that simple personal preferences. I was reminded of this last week when I went to a seminar given by Karen Doherty. The title was ‘How to work effectively with Asperger’s Syndrome in the Couple’ and amongst many other fascinating things she pointed us to was a Ted Talk given by Jac den Houting who is herself autistic.
Why everything you know about autism is wrong
In it Jac stressed how people like her just experience the world in a different way from those who are neurotypical. For instance, the latter may enjoy shopping centres that are bright, noisy, bustling and full of people – the very opposite of what a person on the autism spectrum would prefer – somewhere that has subdued lighting, is quiet and with less people around. It is not that one is right and the other wrong – though she argues that far too much research and far too many resources have gone into working out if the person who is neurodiverse can be made neurotypical – it’s just that they are different. Accepting this can be hugely liberating as Jac discovered in her own life.
Jac also highlighted some research recently undertaken by Catherine Crompton at Edinburgh University. In doing it she took two groups of people – one neurodiverse (ND) and the other neurotypical (NT) and asked them to whisper a message from one to the other. Both of them achieved a similar success rate in terms of accuracy they achieved. What she also did was to form a mixed group or ND’s and NT’s and here the result was markedly different – they were far less good at transmitting the message.
So what has this got to do with therapy?
At Coupleworks we work with couples to help them to understand themselves and each other, looking at their early experiences and what has shaped them from their childhoods. The insights from this process and understanding our anxieties and defences, can help each of them to shift unhelpful dynamics in their couple interaction. But this way of working will only achieve a limited success when the two world views of the couple are deeply embedded in their different neurotypes. Typically, where that is the case, Karen argued that shifting the thinking and experience of the neurodiverse partner is not going to be effective. Rather what is needed is psycho-education – a process whereby each partner comes to understand and appreciate the world view of the other and together they work to find strategies that help to alleviate some of the crunch points in their relationship.
If we revisit the earlier example of the shopping centre, it may be more helpful to find a quieter time to visit when things are less busy and rushed. Or again it may be important to build spaces into life and not to be constantly moving from one activity to another. But equally the ND person may need to understand that the occasional high-tension adrenalin rush really can benefit their partner.
Much of what I have talked about here has been about neurodiverse and neurotypical partners in a relationship. But the recognition and acceptance of difference can be a challenge for all relationships, even where both partners might be neurotypical. We have to learn to accept those differences without seeking to change our partners if healthy relationships are to be built and maintained.