Navigating love and relationships when neurodivergent

This Valentine's Day, writer Charlotte Colombo shares her experiences of navigating dating and relationships as a neurodivergent person. 

“You see, there’s someone out there for everyone!”

Those were the triumphant words of a friend’s parent when I mentioned that I was in a long-term relationship. Sure, they meant well, but the implication was clear: by "successfully" dating as a neurodivergent person, I was a minority. Like Peter Pan, autistic people are perceived as being suspended in permanent, childlike limbo, encompassing a level of innocence that makes dating them not just difficult, but borderline immoral.

love with neurodivergence
Photo by Shaira Dela Peña

In my personal experience, autistic peoples’ thinking patterns are frequently classified as "lesser". We have "less" emotional intelligence and maturity, and our confusion around these highly specific unspoken social rules makes us fall just that little bit short of being fully functioning adults. It’s honestly a matter of non-conformity, but the expectations around dating are so rigid it’s seen not as a difference but as a deficiency.

However, the secret dating club is gatekept to the extreme. Nobody wants to tell us the secret password, and even if they let us in for a little bit of a walk around, we’re not there for ourselves. We’re there for the neurotypicals and on their terms. Take, for example, shows like The Undateables (Channel 4) and Love on the Spectrum (Netflix). In these kinds of shows, autistic people are rounded up like cattle, set up with other autistic/disabled people (because God forbid they mingle with "normals") and then observed like zoo animals.

I’ve dated people who seem to not just relish in the fact I’m autistic but almost fetishise it. They enjoy the fact that they’re more world-wise than me, fully immersing themselves in the role of the romantic protagonist who swoops in to "save" us manic pixie dream girls from a life of loneliness because they were just so noble enough to turn around and give us a chance.

"Statistics show that neurodiverse women are more likely to experience abuse and exploitation"

"My girlfriend is a bit quirky", they say, proudly. "She’s not like other girls". But then, when autism and ADHD present in a less palatable way, they’re the first to lose patience. It feels as though we're allowed to be neurodivergent, but only on their terms: if you get overwhelmed, run late, misunderstand a conversation or don’t act in a way neurotypicals "ought" to act, this isn’t your autism but a fatal character flaw. Worst of all, you shatter the illusion they have of you as this soft, pretty little china doll that they want to admire on a pedestal instead of having an authentic relationship with.

And then there’s the other type. They, too, relish in the fact I’m neurodivergent because, to them, it’s a big neon sign saying "VULNERABLE" above my head. And with vulnerability comes exploitation. It’s wrong, disgusting and upsetting, but statistics do show that neurodiverse women are more likely to experience abuse and exploitation. Like many neurodiverse people, I’ve taken things at face value in the past. If someone seems trustworthy and genuine, why wouldn’t I believe them? Why would people say things they don’t mean, act like they liked me if they didn’t or use me as a means to an end?

a couple sit by an open fire on the beach
Photo by Manuel Meurisse

A lot of dating relies on euphemisms and codes, but that isn’t how my brain works. I expect people to say what they mean, so if someone invites me to their flat for a coffee at 11pm, I’ll assume that they’re genuinely content with me sipping their Nescafé even though it's way too late actually to drink coffee. After one first date I remember saying I needed to go home for dinner, and my date saying that I should come to their flat because they had food there. Looking back, it's probably naive to think they didn’t want anything more, because if someone asks you to eat food at their flat, what else could they mean?

Growing up as a neurodivergent person, I felt hugely isolated. I had an innate sense that if anyone showed interest in me, I should be grateful and content to "settle" with that regardless of how I was treated or how compatible I was with them. This means that I didn’t believe that I was deserving of love in the past because, after all, if that message is hammered into your subconscious or directly to your face often enough, you start to believe it. For a long time, my love life be led by my ten-year-old self’s fear of being alone. I’d compromise my own happiness, accept things that no person should accept and put myself in the palm of this person’s hand like a brand-new blob of play-doh they could mould and shape at will, until they got bored and threw me aside.

"I’ve learned that I don’t need to meet anyone’s standards but my own"

It’s a widely-held misconception that autistic people are cold and unfeeling—for me, that couldn’t be further from the truth. When I care about someone, I care a lot, and when I trust people, I do so completely. With autistic people seeing the world in black and white, we don’t do things by halves. And being able to love and trust people as intensely as I do is something  I’m proud of—my only problem is that I used to pour a lot of the love I should’ve given to myself onto that person too, which, again, led to me becoming vulnerable and putting my own needs second. This tendency isn’t related to being neurodivergent primarily, but it has manifested directly as a result of the way neurodivergent people are so often ostracised by society.

I used to deeply resent myself, not just for how relationships panned out but for how I reacted to them ending. With every experience, no matter how inconsequential it was or how at fault I actually was, I would internalise each and every inch of it, seeing it as "proof" that I was born to die alone. But I’m trying to be better. Maybe I won’t meet every dating milestone on time, and perhaps I’ll come across more people who are unable or unwilling to understand how neurodivergent people experience dating differently, but that’s OK.

I’ve learned that I don’t need to meet anyone’s standards but my own, and that walking the tightrope of neurotypical euphemisms isn’t necessary to "succeed" at dating. What is necessary is being happy and at peace with yourself, and if there was one piece of dating advice I’d impart on other neurodivergent people, it would be that.

Read more: Why women’s romantic fiction deserves more respect

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