How 8 Types of Executive Functioning Impact Neurodiverse Relationships

Neurodiverse couples often struggle with communication challenges and relationship problems when one or both partners have different types of executive dysfunction. 

Do you recognize yourself or your partner in any of these examples of how other couples are impacted in their relationships? 

8 Types of Executive Functioning

Types of Executive Functioning and how it Impact Neurodiverse Relationships

Frequently, couples and partners ask me how executive dysfunction actually shows up in relationship interactions and dynamics. In this article, I’ll share some examples of how partners and couples are impacted by these key executive functions necessary in daily life. The couples in this article are all fictional, but each scenario is a compilation of real challenges experienced by hundreds of couples.

1. Planning and Organizing

Impact of Dysfunction: Individuals who struggle with planning and organization may have difficulty setting and achieving goals, both personally and within the relationship. This can lead to frustration, missed opportunities, and a sense of chaos.

Emma and Jack: Emma is autistic and struggles with planning and organizing daily tasks, so she often gets overwhelmed by basic tasks like cleaning, meal planning, and making sure bills are paid. Jack, who has ADHD, often leaves things until the last minute and frequently forgets important dates or deadlines like renewing auto registration or doing taxes. They find it difficult to coordinate their schedules, leading to missed appointments, unfinished chores, and minimal quality time. This creates frustration and stress in their relationship, as both feel unable to rely on each other for support in managing their shared responsibilities.

Sara and Alex: Sara has ADHD and finds it challenging to organize long-term plans, often jumping from one idea to another without completing a plan for any of her ideas. Alex, who has sensory processing disorder, needs a structured and predictable environment to feel comfortable and keep his anxiety from spiking. Sara’s disorganization and constant planning creates stress for Alex, causing frequent arguments and misunderstandings about how to approach household projects, budgeting, vacation planning, and date nights.

2. Time Management

Impact of Dysfunction: Poor time management can result in often being late, missed deadlines, and a general sense of being rushed or running out of time. This is due to difficulties estimating how much time one has and how to allocate time to meet deadlines or arrive at a meet-up on time.

Lisa and Tom: Lisa has ADHD and often underestimates how long tasks will take, such as getting their two young kids ready for their soccer games. She often rushes them out the door at the last minute and regularly forgets important gear like water bottles or cleats. She has even forgotten that the kids had a game on one occasion. 

Tom, who is autistic, meets Lisa and the kids at the soccer field, driving straight from work. He relies on routines and punctuality to feel at ease. When Lisa and the kids arrive late, Tom becomes anxious and stressed, and criticizes Lisa in front of the kids saying things like, “It’s not hard to be on time, Lisa.” She feels guilty and overwhelmed by her difficulties in managing time effectively. Although she knows Tom is right about getting the kids to their games on time, she also resents Tom’s criticism and judgment, and she feels misunderstood. 

Maya and Ben: Ben and Maya are both ADHD. Maya often struggles to gauge how long tasks will take and gets easily lost in her work, frequently leaving her home office well after the time they both had planned to make dinner together. 

Ben has a habit of procrastinating, so when he is responsible for the groceries, they are often missing ingredients for a meal they had planned to make and end up ordering food or eating cereal for dinner. This leads to frequent stress and arguments, as they find themselves unprepared, eating late, or overspending on their food budget. 

Ben gets frustrated with Maya’s inability to keep track of time, while Maya feels overwhelmed by Ben’s constant procrastination, creating a cycle of tension and miscommunication in their relationship.

3. Working Memory

Impact of Dysfunction: Challenges with working memory (short-term memory) can make it difficult to follow multi-step instructions, keep track of tasks, remember important details, or keep up with an important item.

Nina and Eric: Nina, who has ADHD, finds it hard to remember details of conversations or instructions. Eric, who is neurotypical, often wants to chat briefly with Nina when she is in the middle of a task like reading a utility bill or watching a TV show to share about a change in his work schedule or to discuss a household issue. When Nina forgets important details from these quick conversations, like plans they made or tasks she agreed to handle, Eric feels disregarded and stressed. This leads to frustration and feeling undervalued because Eric often has to repeat himself or handle forgotten tasks, straining their communication and trust. 

Nina feels frustrated when she is interrupted because she often forgets what she was in the middle of doing and often cannot remember much of the conversation with Eric. She feels dumb for being so forgetful. Although Eric knows Nina is very intelligent, he feels hurt that she doesn’t pay better attention to him.

David and Sophie: David, who has ADHD, struggles with working memory, often forgetting where he put his keys or wallet. He constantly misplaces his glasses and even lost his wedding ring after taking it off to work on the car one day. Sophie is not overly organized but has effortlessly mapped out general spaces where household items are kept. She gets irritated when David routinely asks for help finding something or when she can’t find something after he unloads the dishwasher. 

Sophie feels annoyed by David’s constant requests for help and overwhelmed by the chaos created by his forgetfulness. When David lost his wedding ring, she thought he was too careless to care about its importance, and they had a big fight. David feels out of control and embarrassed by his memory lapses and the strain this places on their relationship. He is often defensive when Sophie gets upset and lashes out at her for being too controlling. Sophie is aware of David’s ADHD challenges and wants to be supportive, but she doesn’t know how to help without acting like a parent. Both David and Sophie hate the parent/child dynamic that has developed between them.

4. Self-Monitoring

Impact of Dysfunction: Individuals with this challenge struggle to recognize their own mistakes or understand how their behavior affects others. This makes it hard to address and resolve conflicts. Partners may feel unheard or that their concerns are not being taken seriously.

Rachel and Mark: Rachel, who has autism, struggles with self-monitoring and is often unaware of how her actions affect others. Mark, who has anxiety, needs reassurance and clear communication. Rachel often interrupts Mark without realizing he’s focusing on a task. Because she is focused on her own thoughts, she is unaware of how much she is distracting Mark. Rachel often interrupts when their adolescent son is in the middle of a conversation with Mark, unaware of the need to wait on a pause in the conversation. 

When Mark brings this to her attention later, she denies that she interrupted. She isn’t lying because she isn’t self-aware of her behaviors and how she impacts Mark and their son. Mark often feels unloved and insecure because of Rachel’s behavior and inability to adjust. 

Rachel feels criticized and misunderstood because she knows she intends not to be disrespectful. This lack of self-awareness from Rachel leads to repeated misunderstandings and conflicts, straining her emotional connection with Mark.

Josh and Emily: Josh, who has autism, finds it challenging to gauge his tone and body language, often coming across as blunt or uninterested. Emily, who has ADHD, also struggles with self-monitoring, frequently missing social cues or talking too fast or too long for Josh to process what she’s saying. This results in frequent arguments, as Emily feels hurt by Josh’s perceived lack of empathy, while Josh feels overwhelmed by Emily’s constant interruptions and her long-winded monologues. Their difficulties with self-monitoring effectively leads to a cycle of misunderstandings and hurt feelings, impacting their communication and intimacy.

5. Emotional Regulation

Impact of Dysfunction: Difficulties with responding to emotional experiences in a healthy way can lead to extreme mood swings, impulsive reactions, and challenges in coping with stress. Partners may feel they are walking on eggshells or dealing with unpredictable emotional outbursts. This can erode trust and emotional intimacy.

Sam and Lily: Sam has ADHD and often experiences intense mood swings and impulsive reactions to daily life events. Lily didn’t text Sam before leaving work in the city one night because her mobile phone battery was dead. Sam’s anxiety started with wondering if she was angry with him, but after not hearing from her 30 minutes beyond when she was due home (she was stuck in traffic), he had a full panic attack, fearing she had been kidnapped or in a horrible accident. 

Lily, who has autism, finds it challenging to cope with Sam’s big emotions, so when she comes home to find Sam unexpectedly sobbing, she goes straight to take a bath without saying a word to him. Lily felt distressed and unable to process his intense anxiety without getting triggered into a meltdown herself, so she avoided him. 

Sam’s emotions swung from massive relief to despair and abandonment when he saw Lily walk through the door, causing him to follow her into the bathroom. The evening devolved into an argument, leaving Sam and Lily feeling depleted and exhausted. This repeating cycle of escalating emotions, in which Lily retreats from Sam’s overly intense emotional reactions, leaves them both feeling isolated and misunderstood, causing conflict that reinforces the problem. 

Alex and Jordan: Alex, who has autism, often struggles to recognize his own increasing anxiety from day-to-day stressors until he suddenly reaches a tipping point (fight or flight mode in his brain). This usually results in an explosive outburst of anger that is scary for Jordan and their two dogs, who run and hide. 

Jordan often feels blindsided by Alex’s sudden intense anger and is fearful that Alex will harm the dogs, himself, or Jordan, even though this has never happened. Alex usually recovers fairly quickly once the outburst is over and doesn’t understand why Jordan remains anxious and unnerved for hours and even days. 

Although Alex doesn’t like having angry outbursts, he doesn’t see them as a major problem for the relationship. Jordan, however, is wondering if he can stay in the relationship without constantly fearing the next outburst.

6. Flexibility

Impact of Dysfunction: Rigidity in thinking and behavior can make it hard to adjust to new situations, switch between tasks, or cope with changes in plans. Partners may find it challenging to compromise or adapt to each other’s needs, leading to frequent conflicts and a lack of spontaneity in the relationship.

Ella and Max: Ella and Max have been dating for about 8 months. Ella, who is autistic, struggles with flexibility due to her need to prepare mentally and emotionally for daily events, tasks, and stressors. She prefers to have scheduled dates with specific plans for how they will spend their time together. When plans suddenly change, she feels very overwhelmed and will often cancel the date altogether. She becomes intensely anxious and often struggles to communicate with Max how she is feeling. 

Max, who has ADHD, thrives on spontaneity and often suggests last-minute dates or changes existing plans according to his mood or opportunities that arise. He has frequently felt hurt and shut out by Ella and has assumed, at times, that she doesn’t want to be with him. This difference in flexibility causes frequent conflicts, as Ella feels stressed and overwhelmed by sudden changes, while Max becomes frustrated with Ella’s need for predictability. Both struggle to compromise with the other’s needs, creating tension and insecurity in their dating relationship.

Chloe and Ben: Ben, who is autistic, wanted children and told Chloe he was ready to start a family. What Ben didn’t anticipate was the amount of flexibility required to parent babies and children who have constantly changing needs. Ben’s need for structure and routine is constantly unmet with a toddler who wakes up frequently at night. The couple also has an autistic 4-year-old who frequently has meltdowns when the baby cries due to noise sensitivity. Ben loves his children but is totally overwhelmed by the constant chaos of parenting young children. He copes by immersing himself in his career, volunteering to travel often, and regularly working long hours at the office.  

Chloe, who expected Ben to partner with her in sharing parenting tasks, has left her career to be a full-time mom despite never wanting this for herself.  She feels completely exhausted most days and has given up the majority of her personal time with friends and extended family to care for her children. Although she feels abandoned by Ben, she rarely has the energy to tell him how she feels because, when she tries, he usually reacts defensively, telling her he has to make a living to support their family.

Ben and Chloe’s marriage has become distant and disconnected. Ben struggles to manage his anxiety when he is at home and he rarely spends time engaging with Chloe or the kids. Chloe sometimes cries herself to sleep, feeling hopeless and heartbroken about her marriage.

7. Task Initiation

Impact of Dysfunction: Procrastination can lead to delayed task completion, last-minute rushes, and incomplete work. This can cause frustration, especially if one partner feels they have to constantly remind the other to start or complete tasks. It can also create a sense of imbalance in shared responsibilities.

Mia and David: Mia, who has undiagnosed ADHD, finds it hard to start tasks or make the effort to schedule necessary appointments even when they are important to her. She is motivated by pressing deadlines and can actually be quite competent once she finally gets started  However, sometimes her procrastination causes major challenges. 

Recently, she agreed to call a plumber about a small leak under the kitchen sink while David was on a business trip. Whenever Mia thought about it, she couldn’t quite find the initiative to make the call, telling herself there was no rush. The morning after David returned, he discovered a flooded kitchen and was furious that she hadn’t followed through and that her delay would cost them hundreds of dollars. 

David, who uses a structured and timely approach to managing responsibilities, feels like Mia is immature and irresponsible. Mia’s difficulty in beginning tasks leads to last-minute rushes, unfinished chores, and potential big stressors, causing David to feel anxious and overwhelmed. His constant reminders to Mia to start tasks make her feel nagged and stressed even though she admits that her procrastination sometimes leads to problems. She feels shame and guilt when she causes David distress. The couple frequently argues about Mia’s irresponsible behavior, neither of them aware that Mia has ADHD and struggles with neurologically-based executive dysfunction.

James and Olivia: James, who has autism, will not usually initiate household tasks without clear prompts or instructions. He frequently leaves the kitchen a mess after Olivia cooks dinner unless she specifically asks him to load the dishwasher or put the leftover food into containers. 

Olivia, who has ADHD, tends to put things off until the last minute. She routinely walks away from the dinner table, thinking she will clean up after watching T.V. with James. When they get up to go to bed, James walks right past the messy kitchen unless Olivia prompts him to join her in cleaning up. Oliva, who has completely forgotten about the kitchen, feels too tired to clean up and decides to leave it until tomorrow. 

This combination results in a cluttered and disorganized home environment, with many tasks left undone. Olivia feels frustrated by James’s need for structured initiation, while James feels overwhelmed by the clutter. Their shared difficulty with task initiation leads to mutual frustration and a sense of chaos in their daily lives.

8. Inhibition of Impulses

Impact of Dysfunction: Impulsivity can lead to rash decisions, difficulty staying focused, and problems with self-control. Partners may feel that impulsive behaviors lead to instability or unpredictability in the relationship. Trust issues may arise if one partner frequently acts on impulses without considering the consequences.

Jake and Sarah: Jake, who has ADHD, often acts on impulses without considering the consequences. Jake’s impulsive decisions, such as making spontaneous purchases or changing plans at the last minute, create anxiety and distress for Sarah, who has autism. She needs a predictable and stable environment to feel secure.

Sometimes, Jake blurts out hurtful comments before thinking of how Sarah might feel. Once, he brought home a puppy he saw up for adoption when he went to the store.  Jake’s behavior leads to frequent conflicts, as Sarah feels overwhelmed by the unpredictability, and Jake feels stifled by Sarah’s need for control and planning ahead.

Emily and Brandon: Emily, who has ADHD, finds it hard to resist distractions and stay focused on tasks. Emily’s tendency to get sidetracked means that household chores and shared projects often go unfinished or are done haphazardly, causing Brandon significant distress. 

Brandon, who has autism, needs tasks to be completed in a specific way to feel comfortable. His constant corrections and insistence on order make Emily feel criticized and inadequate. She also feels like her creativity is limited due to Brandon’s need to stick to structure.

Both partners feel a sense of imbalance in their partnership, both believing that the other is more in control of their lives and relationship. They frequently experience conflict about who is right and who is wrong, and they tend to cycle through the same disagreements over and over.

The Importance of Understanding Executive Functions in Neurodiverse Relationships  

The Importance of Understanding Executive Functions in Neurodiverse Relationships  

In neurodiverse relationships, understanding each other’s executive functioning needs can lead to a more harmonious and supportive partnership. Embracing these differences not only strengthens the relationship but also fosters personal growth and mutual respect.

Understanding these executive functions and their impact is the first step toward fostering a healthier relationship. To get started, it is important to learn effective communication strategies and skills. Communicating in a neurodiverse relationship does not come naturally for most partners and couples, so be sure to take the time to learn.

I designed a communication course specifically for neurodiverse couples like yourself. Learn the four core stages of communication and specific tools to communicate effectively with your partner. Open, honest communication about each other’s strengths and challenges can foster understanding and empathy.

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