FEAR in NeuroDivergent Relationships: Danger or Opportunity?

“Never let a good crisis go to waste.”

~ Winston Churchill

The Fear Factor

Have you ever watched a suspenseful movie and found yourself wanting to advise the protagonist to hold fast?

Or have you watched a game show and yelled out the answer when the contestant appeared to freeze?

Or how about watching a professional athlete miss the easy free throw, and wonder why they missed when they are a superstar?

The only explanation is fear, that inexplicable feeling that interferes with a perfectly good strategy. Even just a split second of fear can slow us down, give the opponent the edge, or build into a torrent of panic, leaving us in a puddle of distress.

When we are watching the movie, or the game show contestant, or the athlete, we don’t feel the same fear as they do. We aren’t in the spotlight, are we? We can watch from our comfortable arena seats or living room sofa. Without a speck of fear, we can advise the movie hero to take the right action or shout out the correct answer to the game show question, or masterfully shoot the perfect free-throw.

It’s not so easy to master fear when we are in the middle of frightening situations, though. When there is a lot on the line, in terms of money, or prestige, or love, or safety, we become more intense. With increasing intensity comes risk. And with risk, we just might make a mistake. It is our fear of mistakes that hold us hostage. So, let’s take a look at how to break through this phenomenon.

NeuroDivergent Fear

I have noticed that members of our Meetup group express lots of fear. They fear that their NeuroDiverse spouse will become angry and rage. They fear those sensory overload meltdowns will wreak havoc in their homes. They fear that others will discover that they are seeking professional support and psychotherapy. They fear that their children will suffer in a NeuroDivergent household. They fear that they aren’t doing enough to help their NeuroDiverse loved ones. They fear that friends and family won’t believe them about their NeuroDivergent life. They fear retribution for speaking up about their suffering. They fear that they don’t have enough time in the day — or week — or month to accomplish all they need to keep life going. They fear going crazy or losing their health. They fear losing their sense of self.

Where does all of this fear come from? First of all, it is normal to be afraid about all of these things. Fear is a natural reaction to those things we have no control over. I have felt all of these fears and I know darned good and well that these fears are based on reality. I also feel fear because I have been judged harshly — just because I Iived with NeuroDiverse folk.

Can you relate to these examples?

1. I was scolded by a total stranger when my ASD teenager had a meltdown in public. He told me that I should have more control over my daughter.

2. My therapist told me that I should be more sensitive to my ASD spouse because he was upset with me.

3. I watched my ASD spouse tear the door off a kitchen cabinet, in a fit of rage.

4. I comforted my crying NT child when her ASD father chased her and kicked her to the ground.

5. I had a business associate tell me I should keep quiet about problems with my NeuroDivergent child because the associate has problems with her own mother.

6. I used to fall asleep in the car as I waited for my children to finish with soccer practice, piano lessons, or art class. Fearful to turn this duty over to my forgetful NeuroDiverse spouse.

7. I created color-coded calendars to help my NeuroDiverse spouse keep track of our family schedule because he would show up late or not at all.

8. I stayed up late on Sunday night cooking food for the family for the week, for fear that my NeuroDiverse spouse would forget to feed the children.

9. I was targeted frequently by police and city officials when my NeuroDivergent family members accused me of wrong doing, even though they assaulted me.

10. I have been verbally maligned too many times to recall. Why? Because chaos reigns in my household.

Make a list of your own. This will be the first step toward setting you free from your fears. Once you make that list, you will see how outrageous it is that you should be afraid at all. In this case, yes there are real fears because real consequences abound in ASD/NT relationships and NeuroDivergent families. However, if you are doing your best to hold together your NeuroDivergent family, you can reframe that fear — you are a hero.

Go away from fearful people.

While we can’t stop the normal human predilection to feel afraid of lots of things, lots of chaos, and lots of people, we can learn how to squarely face our fears and do as Churchill suggests. Don’t waste the opportunity that is presenting itself.

The Kanji for “Crisis” is two symbols meaning “Danger” and “Opportunity.” You can either crumble in fear, give up, be a helpless victim, scuttle and hide — or you can take on the opportunity in the danger of these NeuroDivergent relationships — to take you to the opportunity of developing Radiant Empathy.

I have introduced the concept of Radiant Empathy because it goes far beyond being kind or empathic. Those with Radiant Empathy are brave. They have the courage to face their fears and those fearful people — and take the right action. How can anything change if you allow your fears to swamp the right action?

A few years ago, I went to Court for my arraignment on charges of assault, resisting arrest, lying to the police, destroying property, etc. The charges were all false and I was eventually fully acquitted, but in the meantime, I had to fight for my freedom (emotional, financial, physical, and even for my children) from my unscrupulous estranged NeuroDiverse husband.

Standing before the judge I requested to be set free on “my own recognizance,” which he agreed to. Given that the judge was my neighbor, and that his daughters had been my babysitters, we were in an awkward situation. But the facts were clearly on my side, even though I had spent two nights in the county jail.

I asked the judge if I could leave town to attend a church conference since a stipulation of my release from jail was that I not leave town. The conference was several states away. But the judge agreed since he knew that he could trust me.

I felt the fear dissipate in the courtroom and even more as I flew to Minnesota for the conference. It all felt surreal actually. How could I have been arrested when I was the victim of assault? How could I be up against powerful people who wanted to harm me just because I dared to speak out? I was learning that fear is a warning and not to be ignored. But this fearful situation was also an opportunity.

Once in Minnesota, I checked into my room and soon I headed over to the conference. While I didn’t want to miss the keynote speaker, I also wanted to take advantage of the assistance of a Spiritual Director. If anyone needed to talk with a lay minister it was me! After all I had been through, I wanted to know the spiritual meaning behind this false arrest, and all of the people who wanted to bring harm to me.

The spiritual director lead me through an exercise in which I imagined myself walking up to the highest peaks of the Himalayas. Once there I was surprised to meet an enlightened spiritual master.

He asked me, “What do you want?”

I told him about all of the troubles I was having and how frightened I was of the harm these people wanted to cause me. I asked, “How do I handle all of this?”

The master told me, “Look down the mountain and see all of the people below who are threatening you.”

I looked and was surprised to see them from such a lofty position. “Yes, I can see them,” I said. “What am I to do?”

He said, “Go away.”

Ironically at that moment, I felt a sense of peace wash over me. Such a simple solution to conquer fear. Let it go. Go away from frightening people. Do not engage with them.

Go away and let me add more.

Let me add that going away from upsetting and frightening people will set you free from the grip of fear, if not the feeling. To go away does not mean to go away from your loved ones, or your commitments. It means to go away or separate from your fear of those people who want to harm you. Then step up to Radiant Empathy and speak your truth.

Take care of yourself. Know that you know what you know about this NeuroDivergent life. Don’t let anyone be unkind or cruel. You are worth much more. When you come from this strong, self-loving position — you have so much more to offer to your NeuroDiverse loved ones. You have a whole, amazing, empathic, intellectually brilliant, Radiant Empathy Hero to offer.


14 Replies to “FEAR in NeuroDivergent Relationships: Danger or Opportunity?”

  1. The more emphatic and intelligent I become in trying to help my relationship, the more it becomes a challenge to live with my ASH. He cannot keep up with me… cannot give me with what I seek in the way of a satisfying relationship and, of course, that causes me a lot of anger and sadness. He does not understand my wish to have a solid relationship with shared interests. He only sees me as doing my thing and leaving him alone to do his own thing. He doesn’t see us as a couple. He accused me of doing what I wanted on a family day (Easter) and doesn’t see himself as part of my family. Therefore, instead of doing something together today, it is “his turn” to get to do what he wants. He was ungracious of the birthday cake I bought to surprise him with in front of family. I put a lot of time and effort into a surprise getaway for us on his actual birthday, and he didn’t appreciate that either. Seems the harder I try to please him, the more I set the stage for my expectations to get crushed. So, we had a big blow out. The advice in this blog is useful to me. He doesn’t frighten me, but he vexes me. So, I will “go away,” from him in my mind and take care of myself, just like he wants me to do.

    1. I can really relate to your experience, Debbie. The more I try to get my needs met, the angrier we both get. I love my partner very much, especially the quirky, fun-loving side that comes out when he is in his happy place, but he does not have a deep understanding of emotions or my need for that kind of connection. It has now come to a place where we’re parting ways, and he is really angry. I believe he feels threatened and blindsided, but I’ve been telling him for a long time, and I just think it sounded like, “Blah, blah, blah…” to him. 🙁

  2. Wish it was more acknowledged that people considered neurodivergent can hurt or bully other people considered neurodivergent. So tiring that assumed “safe spaces” don’t feel safe at all.

    1. Thank you for this reminder. Not all NeuroDiverse people are bullies, nor are all NeuroDiverse people bullied. Likewise not all NeuroTypical people are bullies, nor are all NeuroTypical people bullied. But bullies are notorious for spotting those who are vulnerable. Narcissism is the issue, not NeuroDivergence.

  3. I’m confused by this story and the responses from the neurotypical spouses. As one who is neurodivergent husband and who loves my neurotypical wife, I come away from reading this that my neurodivergence is at fault for the communication difficulties that we have had over the past 38 going on 39 years. I know and accept the fact that I have difficulty understanding my wife’s feelings, and I know that I tend to become Mr.Fix it when all my wife desires from me is to simply listen to her vent and perhaps respond only by saying, “I understand you feel frustrated, and it is okay. I am here for you.” I might add “ Is there anything I might be able to help you with?” but it depends on the circumstances. I might even hug her if it seems appropriate.

    On the other hand, let me give an example of what I experience when I’m driving together with my wife going somewhere. I am directionally challenged, ambidextrous, and I had dyslexia. From time to time I may turn left when I’m given verbal directions to turn right. This infuriates my wife and she goes into a rage calling me in Japanese (her native tongue) idiot, retarded, senile, etc. Since my official diagnosis this past August, she simply loses it and when I mention that this sort of name calling is inappropriate or have to stop the car because the noise, the anger causes me intense stress, and it is dangerous. She now sits in one of the rear seats. But she never apologizes for this. I know she is fearful, but I have a better driving record than she does. I have ended up having a meltdown and she doesn’t clearly understand or accept that I had a successful business career and she thinks my diagnosis is an excuse. I have dealt with her hormonal problems, severe PMS, menopause and I continually feel like a pin cushion speared with needles. We are both seeing separate therapists but I seriously doubt she has mentioned how angry she becomes when there is some awkwardness that I realize is the result of my ASD. Honestly I feel isolated. The other thing is that she is always saying why don’t you go out and make friends, when she knows that I’m not an extrovert and I don’t like socializing much as it is exhausting for me. In conclusion the communication problems have only gotten worse over the past 3 years. At the moment I don’t see how we can reconcile and mutually learn to be more tolerant of one another.

    1. I am so sorry that you are suffering. There are so many tangled layers after years without a proper diagnosis or treatment. It takes so much courage and persistent to stick with the healing process.

  4. You ain’t kidding. I’m on/in it for the long haul. “Persistence” or stubbornness is in my genes. It took 8 years and 3 proposals before my wife agreed to marry me — awkwardness/warts and all — and I’m thankful and love her all the more. However, it feels like whatever objective and thing she of me expects me to do and to change, once I meet the objectives the goal-post also changes and there is little to no recognition for whatever I do. That is extremely frustrating and I recognize that is part of how my transactional thinking operates. How do I explain to her that her way how she treats me feels like a one-
    sided “putdown”rather than a positive-inducing challenge. Honestly, moving milestones and scolding and/or negative reinforcement instantly results in turning me off. I know this may seem childish to NT’s way of thinking, but that is the instantaneous way my mind (neurology) operates. Does that make any sense?

    1. Thanks for this question Kerry. Plus if you can join us on the next webinar, I would love to talk about it there too.

      First, many NeuroDiverse folks mention that it feels the goal post is always changing with their NT loved ones. This is a typical NeuroDivergent relationship problem that requires patience and finesse. Transactional folks aim to please so they want to know something specific they can do. The problem is that this annoys the NT, who would rather the “to do” depends upon the context. So when your interactional wife gives you an answer, she is only giving you an example of what might work this time — maybe not next time. She assumes you understand this and can ride the wave of the Empathy Triad to figure out how “to do” something the next time.

      To become angry with you isn’t fair of course, but your transactional analysis appears to be pinning her down to an answer she doesn’t want to give. She feels pressured and snaps. Or she snaps when you “Do” the thing she asked for — but it is in the “wrong” time and “wrong” way.

      My theory is that the only way around this chaos is to use the 7-Step Interface Protocol. Starting with Resilience and ending with Apologies/Forgiveness keeps the love alive, regardless of whether the goal post is moved again.

  5. Thank you, Dr. Kathy. I get it and I need to deep read the 7-Step interface Protocol. I’m glad you have called out my “transactional analysis.”

    It appears that there are two separate videos the one with Mary Temple Grandin, someone I can relate with her and even I was a bit surprised/shocked when she basically called the group of animal handlers “idiots”. After a career in 3 Fortune 100 Companies, I eventually learned something of being diplomatic so as not to offend or anger people who couldn’t comprehend what she had designed. You don’t influence or make Allie’s or friends with people by being obnoxiously direct…. I have to go back and watch the other movie 2007 time frame, I think. Back to the class

    1. Dr. Grandin has been a marvelous advocate for those on the Autism Spectrum, but she also demonstrates her autism. It is tough to always hear the good messages underneath her awkward delivery. That’s the point though isn’t it? Seek to understand and accept first.

  6. I hope I’ll be able to join in the November meeting. I have not been successful logging into the last two meetings. I assume these video meetings are on Zoom and not live broadcasts from your Facebook page.

    1. I am sorry I missed the last meeting again and I still don’t know why I have difficulty logging into the webinars. I need to get my laptop to the Apple Repair shop as I find watching meetings and webinars on my I-Phone as the view is small and I feel very stressed out. The stress has kept me from getting many things done that I must do.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

If you have a loved one on the Spectrum, please check our private MeetUp group. We have members from around the world meeting online in intimate video conferences guided by Dr. Kathy Marshack.
Learn More >
Join my Meetup Group