You may have heard of Cassandra Syndrome, or maybe you have not. As the neurotypical partner in a neurodivergent intimate partnership, you are likely trying to better explain your emotional experience in your relationship with your partner who may have autism and/or ADHD. More often than not, your neurodivergent partner may not even be aware of how you are feeling in the relationship or how their behaviors impact you and how you are doing day in and day out. Maybe you’ve begun to wonder if you are alone in your experiences or if there is a better way to describe your challenges within your neurodiverse relationship. As a result, let’s dig a little deeper into what Cassandra Syndrome is, and what it means for those who are experiencing it in their neurodiverse partnership.
Cassandra Syndrome 101
The Cassandra syndrome (adapted from Greek mythology) is an attempt to describe the relatively common experiences of the neurotypical partner in a neurodiverse relationship where their partner may have autism and/or ADHD. Autism and/or ADHD are neurodevelopmental conditions that impact how the neurodivergent individual engages in emotional reciprocity, social connection, communication, and perspective-taking skills. As an unintentional result on the neurodivergent partners’ end, this can leave the neurotypical partner feeling emotionally deprived, misunderstood, and invalidated. Complicating the neurotypical partner’s experience is often the poor understanding of this issue with friends, family, and mental health professionals. Whether at work, school, or home, they may have difficulty feeling understood and mindfully present due to the internal stressors they carry around from being in their neurodiverse relationship.
Some professionals believe that the Cassandra Syndrome is another experience that can contribute to relational trauma also referred to as Complex PTSD. Complex PTSD is a form of trauma that doesn’t occur from one singular big traumatic event but rather from a series of ongoing contextual trauma events through lack of intimacy, social connection, emotional deprivation, and misattuned relationships. It should be noted, that in most cases we see at Spectrum Connections Therapy, the neurodivergent partner lacks some skills to communicate and meet the neurotypical partner’s needs, but this is often unintentional and no one is necessarily to blame in these dynamics. Usually, both partners are speaking a different language so to speak. As neurodiversity-affirming and trauma-informed therapists, we strive to validate and honor both individuals’ experiences in the couples therapy process. With that said, signs that your neurodivergent partner’s behavior is contributing to relational trauma may include:
- a lack of emotional connections and reciprocity
- missing cues that you are feeling upset, misunderstood or ignored
- trouble understanding your perspective of an experience
- limited interpersonal skills
- difficulty with communication
- sometimes what appears to be a lack of empathy (this really depends on the neurodivergent individual and isn’t applicable to all)
- challenges with reading your emotional experiences
- difficulty regulating emotions
- needing lots of time alone to decompress
- lack of intimacy and emotional connection
Symptoms of Cassandra Syndrome
The misalignment in the neurodiverse partnership can negatively impact the psychological and physiological symptoms of complex trauma and may include:
- negative self-image
- interpersonal challenges
- anger and emotional regulation
- anxiety and/or panic attacks
- hypervigilance; easily startled
- social phobias
- dissociation, flashbacks, and/or nightmares
- physical illness and weakened immune system
The first step in managing the neurotypical experience is learning more about this common relational dynamic in intimate neurodivergent partnerships. The neurotypical partner is not alone and validating the experience is often the first step toward relational healing. We often find that the neurodivergent partner is not intentionally causing this issue but lacks insight, skills, and awareness to understand these complex relationship dynamics and the neurotypical needs due to how their brain is wired. Oftentimes, the two individuals are essentially speaking a different language and need professional support from a highly specialized couples counselor to help cultivate learning new skills and effective ways to communicate within the neurodiverse relationship.
Trying to navigate healthy neurodiverse relationships can feel hard and exhausting. You are not alone, and help is out there. The Gottman Method is an effective, evidence-based couples therapy approach that we find incredibly helpful in supporting neurodiverse partners in learning how to communicate, connect and move forward together toward a healthier relationship.
If you know the diagnosis or even suspect your partner may have autism and/or ADHD and that this may be contributing to the conflict and frustrations in your relationship, couples counseling can help. A good couple’s counselor, who is specialized in the complex dynamics of neurodiverse partnerships is essential. Finding a couples counselor who can understand both of your experiences and neutrally support you both in cultivating a healthy, balanced relationship is key. If you would like to learn more about our neurodiverse couples therapy approach, please reach out for a free 30-minute phone consultation today.