Executive Functioning in Neurodiverse Relationships: Everything You Need to Know

In all intimate relationships, different types of executive functioning play a silent but crucial role, especially when you or your partner struggle with these cognitive processes. Let’s break it down so you can understand more about how executive functioning impacts yourself and your partner in a neurodiverse relationship.

What is Executive Functioning?

Executive Functioning in Neurodiverse Relationships

Executive functioning is like the control center of your brain, helping you manage and direct your thoughts and actions. It includes a set of mental skills that help you get things done, make decisions, solve problems, and control your impulses. For example, when you plan a project, stay on task, or resist the urge to procrastinate, you’re using your executive functioning skills.

These skills are crucial for everyday life, helping you navigate both simple and complex activities, as well as interpersonal interactions. Although there is no standard “list” of executive functions, they are often divided into the following key categories:

 1. Planning and Organization

 2. Time Management

 3. Working Memory

 4. Self-Monitoring

 5. Emotional Regulation

 6. Mental and Behavioral Flexibility

 7. Task Initiation

 8. Inhibition of Impulses

Let’s explore how dysfunction in these areas can impact you and your partner in your neurodiverse relationship and what you can do to tackle these challenges together. For some real-life examples, check out How 8 Types of Executive Functioning Impact Neurodiverse Relationships.

Types of Executive Functioning in Neurodiverse Relationships

Types of Executive Functioning in Neurodiverse Relationships

1. Planning and Organization

This executive function is like a project manager in your brain which helps your mind set goals, figure out the steps to achieve them, and keep track of all the details along the way. Frequently, neurodivergent individuals will be exceptional at planning and organizing in some settings (like work), but struggle in others (like planning a DIY home project). 

A former intimate neurodivergent partner of mine was a professional project manager, who successfully planned and organized multimillion-dollar projects in his career, but in his personal life, he struggled to organize a budget and manage bills. I’ve had neurodivergent clients who were well-respected military leaders who had to be meticulous planners in order to protect the lives of soldiers. These same individuals struggled to organize a family vacation or plan and cook a family meal without forgetting ingredients or burning the food.

When you’re planning and organizing, you’re deciding:

  • what you need to do,
  • when you need to do it,
  • and in what order. 

Whether it’s planning to go see a concert, keeping up with automobile maintenance, organizing your workday, or even just making a grocery list, executive function is key. 

2. Time Management

This executive function, which is related to planning and organizing, is the process of estimating and controlling how much time to spend on specific activities in order to meet various kinds of deadlines and to maximize efficiency and productivity in daily life. It involves prioritizing tasks and using various techniques and tools to track and manage your schedule effectively.

Poor time management can result in chronic tardiness due to inaccurate estimations of how much time is needed to get to an appointment or event, missed deadlines, and a general sense of being rushed or running out of time. You or your partner may be highly structured with your routines to compensate for these challenges and may be rigid with your schedule. 

Personally, as someone with ADHD, I tend to frequently believe I can do one or two more things before I leave for an appointment, thinking I have enough time – and I am often 10 minutes late! I also underestimate how much time I need to complete projects and regularly take on more than I can manage. As a result, I become overwhelmed and exhausted, and sometimes feel the need to work on the weekends to get caught up, which takes time from other important aspects of my life and family.

3. Working Memory

Working memory is like your brain’s notepad. It’s where you temporarily hold and process information you need right now or in the next few hours or days. It is a mental workspace that helps you juggle different bits of information at once for a temporary period of time.

Unlike long-term memory, where information and memories are stored for years to come, working memory is more short-term and has limited space. It’s the part of your mind that keeps a phone number in your head just long enough to dial it or holds onto the steps of a recipe while you cook. Long-term memory is like your hard drive storage versus working memory which is more like your RAM on a computer. 

You or your neurodivergent partner may regularly struggle with this type of executive functioning in ways like frequently losing your keys, forgetting important upcoming dates like birthdays or anniversaries. Just this weekend, I booked lunch with a long-time friend for the following day and didn’t add it to my calendar, thinking I’d remember since I had no other plans. When my friend texted me from the restaurant the next day, I was busy ordering my groceries and hadn’t even showered yet – my brain had not held on to my new plans for the day. 

Fortunately, my friend had some extra time to wait for me, and forgave me, knowing it wasn’t an intentional slight. Nonetheless, it was embarrassing and I felt awful for being 30 minutes late. This was a one-time slip-up with my friend, but couples in neurodiverse relationships experience this type of executive dysfunction daily, and it can create frustration and conflict for both partners. 

4. Self-Monitoring

Self-monitoring is a type of executive functioning that helps you keep track of your behavior and performance in real time. This skill allows you to assess how you’re doing in a given situation and make adjustments as needed. Self-monitoring helps you notice if you’re speaking too quickly or too softly for your partner to understand you, and then adjust your pace or volume accordingly. It also prompts you to recognize when you’re getting too distracted and need to refocus.

Just as the dashboard in your car provides real-time feedback on your car’s speed, fuel levels, and engine status, self-monitoring involves keeping track of your own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors as you navigate different situations.

Both of my neurodivergent children, who are young adults, often struggle to recognize when their voices are too loud in public. A good friend of mine regularly speaks so quietly when ordering in a loud restaurant that the server has to ask him to repeat himself multiple times. He’s not speaking quietly out of anxiety or shyness – he just doesn’t recognize how quiet his voice is relative to the surrounding noise.

In your neurodiverse relationship, you may encounter difficulties when a neurodivergent partner isn’t aware of increasing anxiety or agitation until the point of exploding or having a panic attack. If you are neurodivergent, you may not realize you have been in the shower for 30 minutes, using all the hot water. As a neurodivergent partner, when you commit to a specific household chore like taking out the trash or washing the dishes after dinner, you may not realize how often you get distracted and forget to follow through. 

5. Emotional Regulation

Emotional regulation is like a thermostat for your feelings affected by your interactions with others (like your partner) and life events. When this executive function is working properly, you control your emotional reactions and responses like a thermostat responds to the temperature in the room and is controlled by how you set it. When you struggle with emotional regulation, it’s like a thermostat kicking on to warm a room, but then blasting well beyond a comfortable temperature to the point of sweltering heat. On the contrary, the thermostat may not recognize that the room is cold and never kick on, resulting in a freezing cold room.

Emotional regulation helps you avoid reacting impulsively with anger or defensiveness, but instead, respond calmly and thoughtfully – or recognize that you feel mad or defensive so you can communicate a need for a break or “pause” in order to process your feelings. It’s also what allows you to cheer yourself up when you’re feeling down or to calm yourself down when you’re feeling anxious. Neurodiverse partners who have challenges with emotional regulation may have difficulties with managing anger, anxiety, or sadness, impacting the relationship and overall well-being.

It is estimated that about 50% of autistic individuals experience alexithymia, difficulty in recognizing and differentiating between various emotions and physical sensations, as well as challenges expressing emotions. It stands to reason that emotional regulation is more difficult if your brain and body struggles to effectively inform you of the emotions and sensations that your body’s nervous system is responding to.

6. Cognitive Flexibility

Cognitive flexibility is all about adapting your thinking and behavior when things change or when you get new information. It means you can switch between tasks, look at things from different angles (including your partner’s perspective), and adjust when needed. This skill is super important for experiencing and expressing empathy, solving problems, being creative, and handling everyday challenges smoothly.

Your neurodivergent partner may exhibit rigid thinking and behavior, and struggle with adjusting to new situations or coping with changes in plans. Difficulty with this type of executive function often limits spontaneity and can be quite problematic when life suddenly changes. I have had many neurodivergent clients who wanted children and welcomed starting a family, only to become increasingly distressed and burned out over time from the constant switch-ups that result from life with children. 

As a neurodivergent individual, you may find it challenging to compromise or adapt to your partner’s needs, leading to frequent conflicts. You may find it difficult to update your understanding of your partner’s feelings or preferences, despite their attempts to clarify and explain. It is important to learn and utilize communication tools to help you with cognitive flexibility so your partner can feel heard and understood.

7. Task Initiation

This type of executive function allows us to start tasks when necessary without putting them off. When you struggle with task initiation, it can lead to delays, rushing to finish things at the last minute, or even leaving tasks incomplete. Your neurodivergent partner may be aware of tasks that need to be started as well as the approaching deadline, but may experience something almost like a mental paralysis that prevents them from getting started. If you are neurodivergent, you may also struggle to know where and how to begin (planning and organizing), which leads to avoiding taking any action.

In a neurodiverse relationship, challenges with initiation can be really frustrating for both of you, especially if one partner regularly has to remind the other to get things done. It can cause feelings of inadequacy and shame for you as a neurodivergent partner but also result in your neurotypical partner carrying an unbalanced load in managing household and family responsibilities. Many neurodiverse couples describe a parental dynamic where one partner feels treated like a child, and the other resents feeling the need to act like a parent.

8. Inhibition Control

Inhibition control is the ability to manage impulses and resist distractions. This skill is really important for keeping things on track, both in daily life and in a partner relationship. For example, instead of blurting out the first thing that comes to mind or getting sidetracked easily, someone with good inhibition control can pause and think things through. If you’ve seen the movie “Up,” you might remember that Dug, the lovable talking dog, often struggled with inhibition control – “SQUIRREL!” 

As a neurodivergent individual, you might interrupt your partner in the middle of a story about work with advice on fixing the situation instead of listening to the whole story and then asking if your partner wants help or advice. I once had a neurodivergent partner suddenly stop kissing me to tell me that my mouth was cold and to ask me if I always brushed my teeth with cold water. He was incredulous and continued asking me questions while I tried to kiss him more. The intimate moment was soon over for me and he was sidetracked for much longer by the idea that anyone would brush their teeth with cold water – he used warm water and thought everyone did. 

When inhibition control is a problem, it is challenging in a partner relationship because it might create unpredictability or hurtful misunderstandings, even when harm is not intended. The key is understanding these tendencies and finding ways to support each other, helping create a more stable and understanding partnership.

How to Support a Partner with Executive Dysfunction?

How to Support a Partner with Executive Dysfunction?

In your neurodiverse relationship, you can help each other by using strategies such as open and clear communication, but also by using shared calendars, time management apps, alarms and reminders.

Navigating Executive Functioning Challenges in Relationships

Understanding these executive functions and their impact is the first step toward fostering a healthier relationship. Practice patience and compassion with yourselves and one another, and seek professional help from a therapist or coach who understands neurodiversity.

If any of these examples remind you of similar situations in your relationship, contact Jodi Carlton, a neurodiverse relationship expert, today! She helps couples seeking to improve their relationship and overall quality of life while also understanding how brain differences (neurodiversity) impact their relationship.

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