Over-functioning: The neuro-typical partner’s perspective 

So many articles now focus on ADHD and ASD, which is great, exploring and aiding those who are facing the differing impacts of these diagnoses as adults. However, what happens to the (often neuro-typical) partner (‘NT’) – the one who has been functioning within the relationship with the undiagnosed neurodiverse partner (‘ND’)? What impact has the relationship likely had on the NT partner?*  


*In this article, I use ND (neurodiverse) and NT (neurotypical) in the relationship as the common dynamic that crosses my therapy room door, however, it’s useful to note that there are of course relationships that are NT-NT or ND-ND that may well have one partner over-functioning in this way.

Taking on more over time 

Initially, the relationship may have included a lot of masking by the ASD/ADHD partner, they may have remembered to book a restaurant for dinner or fill their car with petrol before they took you out. However, once you moved in together, small changes over time may have occurred and slowly, the NT partner finds themselves taking on more jobs and decisions to keep the relationship going. It feels manageable at first, dashing to fill the car with petrol as the ND partner said they were running late last night, or booking a restaurant for date night as they accidentally ‘forgot’ (even though you can’t now get into your favourite one as its fully booked).

Children changing the ‘mix’ 

Many NT partners say that things were manageable until children came along. Suddenly, there is another human being dependent on their parents and it’s a whole new level of chores and decisions, all of which can literally have physical impacts on the baby. For the ND partner, this level of responsibility alone can cause many reactions, none of which are likely ‘more help’ for the NT partner, and so, they take on more yet again to keep the relationship and now their child alive and well.

Parent-child dynamic 

At this point, there is likely a well-established parent-child dynamic that ensues. This creates an environment where the NT partner is effectively treating the ND partner as another ‘child’, nagging, doing tasks the ND partner could take on, and scolding when they are not done. Effectively, resentment has crept into the marriage (likely on both sides) and the NT partner is beginning to not see their partner as capable as an ‘adult’ at all.  

Overwhelm and burnout for the NT partner

Focusing on the resultant likely impact of this dynamic, with children and work thrown into the mix, has been listed from clients to include some of the following:

  • exhaustion
  • depression
  • excessive crying
  • excessive arguments and tempers in the household
  • resentment
  • despondent in the future
  • anxiety – brain over-functioning as juggling so much
  • impact on the children’s behaviour due to the primary carer starting not to cope 
  • feeling unheard and misunderstood – often the ND partner may appear to the outside world as more functioning than the reality of home life

Counselling for the NT partner 

This is where counselling can become a highly important jigsaw piece in the dynamics at play in the relationship. Often, we focus on the ND partner and getting their diagnosis and support (which is great, and support is something I advocate for with the work I do with ND, diagnosed or suspected, clients). However, the partner absolutely needs help to navigate the dynamic that has ensued to provide themselves with a healthier life/relationship going forward.

Together we would look to work and focus on some of the following areas:

  • Self-care and self-compassion – often lost when over-functioning for two.
  • Delegation of tasks to the ND partner – starting with simple tasks and managing timetables and expectation levels (we cannot remove ND from the relationship).
  • Boundary setting – reviewing with curiosity your own internal feelings of boundary setting, not just with the ND partner, but with your children, friends, work etc. Let’s explore together whether a historical pattern (perhaps from childhood but don’t worry, we don’t ‘have’ to go there) means you're over-functioning everywhere leading to this burn-out.
  • Resentment – processing the sadness and even grief of the relationship you may have wished for will help deal with the anger that is often associated with resentment. This can also add a healthier focus on the first two points.
  • A safe space to feel heard and understood. Many friends will suggest their partners don’t always ‘help with the kids’ etc when you try to convey in words what’s happening in your relationship. They may inadvertently normalise a quite desperate situation, leaving you feeling lower than perhaps before you reached out. Working with the empathy of an experienced ND specialist counsellor is a place where the relationship dynamics are understood and there is a soothing feeling in this aspect alone.

Counselling with ND experience: misunderstood in wider society

Finally, it is worth noting, I write this article from the heart as it is probably no secret, I have been this partner and had to process the impact of what this did to my mind and body.  However, with self-compassion and introducing boundaries and processing those feelings with an experienced therapist in the field – a more positive future is possible (albeit this is not always within the relationship long-term).

Whilst I work mainly with ASD and ADHD, I welcome NT partners to enter my therapy room to receive the open listening ear, empathy and a space to process their feelings and unique experience as they deserve – in the full knowledge that whilst every scenario is different, I have a deeper understanding of exactly what they are saying.  

I offer face-to-face counselling, but I am also very experienced in online counselling sessions, allowing your precious time to be saved by not having to leave your home or office to access help.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Southampton SO16 & Chandlers Ford SO53
Written by Zaenia Rogers
Southampton SO16 & Chandlers Ford SO53

I am an Integrative Counsellor, not specialising just in ADHD and ASD Level 1, but personal knowledge of living alongside it in my household has meant I've acquired a lot of experience and knowledge and look to pass this on where possible. I have also worked extensively with clients with anxiety, depression and trauma from domestic abuse.

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