(Polyamorous) Romantic Relationships and Dating While Autistic

I spend a decent amount of time thinking about dating and relationships. I don’t know where this stems from – whether it’s society’s effect on my life, suggesting that my value is only as much as what I am to other people/if I’m in a relationship. If it’s because during my adolescence, no one wanted to date me. Or perhaps it’s one of my autistic obsessions, a puzzle that I want to figure out and understand better.

My experiences with relationships and dating is very much coloured by the fact I’m autistic, though. I can be a very different person in a romantic relationship compared to who I am as a person/friend, and it has been a struggle and journey to temper some of those autistic behaviours/traits so I don’t freak out my romantic partners. Before I knew I was autistic, this was even more challenging, because I first had to recognise how my behaviour differed from neurotypical people. Dating whilst knowing I’m autistic leads to greater understanding, because then at least I can talk about those challenges with the person/people who are interested in me. But since I’ve been thinking about this a lot, I thought it would be worth blogging about, so maybe other people can see my experiences through my eyes.

Autistic Challenge: Obsession

I didn’t really talk about the obsession side of autism when I wrote about how autism affects me the other week, but it’s one of the most obvious autism traits I have.

When I find something (someone) I like, I really, really like it (them). So when it comes to a person, I have been known to obsess. I want to find out more about them, experience/watch the things they do, and spend a lot of time with that person because I can never (or rarely) get enough. Being polyamorous, if I actually have multiple partners, this allows me to temper the obsession so I’m not giving it all to just one person, because it could be very overwhelming to that one person if they got my constant obsessive attention. But even in polyamorous relationships, I have taken it too far without realising it. I feel like it takes a special person to recognise that side of me and be okay with it. I have some specific examples of this.

If I think back to how I was with the first guy I was with after my husband and I chose to be polyamorous, I know I recognised my obsessive side with him. I would contact him a lot more than he could handle (sometimes with very long emails), and I’d get upset when he didn’t have the capacity to respond as often as I’d like. I still don’t understand how he put up with that, and why he remained attracted to me through it all. Or even what he was attracted to about me, or why I can say he still is, all these years later. I mean, it can freak me out when someone gives me that level of attention when I don’t want it. The lesson I learned from that experience, though, so I could handle his sometimes poor response time, was to rarely bother to contact him myself, and simply reply when he contacted me instead. I’m just in the fortunate position now where he actually contacts me with a frequency that doesn’t cause me to freak out (because we are still very good friends and I enjoy talking to him a lot).

Sometimes I feel sad that I’ve had to adapt that to other relationships I’ve been involved in, though. I have recognised a bit of a pattern in this area. There was a guy I dated last year, who I’d been pretty interested in, and he ended up being bad at communicating as often as I liked. It got to the point where I had to only let myself contact him if I wanted to organise a date, and even then sometimes he wouldn’t reply. Needless to say, we didn’t end up dating very long, but I’d built him up in my head at the time as someone who’d be a great partner for me because he truly seemed to understand polyamory, and we had some mutual interests. We’re still in touch on occasion, but he’s in the same position as that first partner – I very rarely contact him unless he messages me first, because I can’t stand the lack of reply if I reach out and he ignores it. At least his behaviour put him in a position where I’m actually glad we don’t communicate that often any more. I’m glad he’d decided we should stop dating, because that all showed me we really weren’t compatible after all. I need someone who respects me enough to communicate at my level, and it seems like that’s difficult for me to find.

Then there’s Lee (not his real name), who I’ve written about before because he was the man who made me say “no more secret relationships” and “I need to be publicly polyamorous.” I understand that my obsession with him was the downfall of that relationship. I needed more from him than he was able to give. And when he ghosted me, I became obsessed with understanding why, and trying to analyse everything that went wrong, to the point that it made me spiral into a depression that required medication to recover from.

Of course, recognising I behave like this doesn’t make it easy to stop myself from going down that path. I regularly have to find distractions so I don’t obsess over the fact I’m not getting the level of attention I want, and remind myself that I’m not the centre of that person’s world. It’s a big part of why I have to stay busy with other activities, and have more friendships where I can spread my emotions out amongst multiple people so no one person has to feel overwhelmed by them.

Then there’s the level of obsession with a person where I’ll want to talk about them all the time, or be inspired by our relationship and want to use the experience in my writing – this is the major reason why being in secret relationships was so difficult for me, and one of the reasons I had to say no more. I can’t be involved with someone who won’t let me write or talk about them. Although secret relationships are great to write about because there’s a decent amount of drama that goes along with having to keep it secret, and that can make for a more interesting story.

On the other hand, my obsession with certain interests can also present its own challenges in relationships. Like when I focus so much of my time and attention on improv, or reading comic books, sometimes it’s to the detriment of paying attention to giving my focus and attention to my husband, and working on my relationship with him. It’s easier to take for granted the constants in my life, because I trust that he’s never going to leave me, and that he loves me regardless. But that doesn’t mean I’m being fair to him. Fortunately for us, he has a girlfriend who lives with us who can give him attention when I get into those obsessive states.

Yes, I can frame my obsessions positively by labelling myself passionate, because I am passionate, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t recognise when I’m giving too much of myself to something, to the detriment of other things in my life, or to the point of scaring people away.

Autistic Challenge: Sensory Processing Issues (Touch)

Intimate touch is a significant aspect of most people’s romantic relationships, but touching me when I’m not in the mood, or not ready to move to that stage of the relationship can leave me feeling incredibly uncomfortable. I dated someone sporadically for a number of months this year, and whilst I could tell he was ready to level up our relationship to that, I wasn’t. I felt bad, because he was a nice guy, and willing to wait until I was ready, but the thought of touching terrified me. On the fortunate side of things with him, I was learning about how I’m autistic while we were dating, so I was at least able to vocalise what I was experiencing, and credit it to autism. In the end, I decided to stop dating him, because I realised I was emotionally unavailable to him (which likely affected my touch feelings) due to still being hung up on my love for my first polyamorous partner (knowing he’s still attracted to me hasn’t made it easier).

I have had positive touch experiences in relationships, which can be incredible, but the negative ones can leave my partners feeling unloved, unwanted, and confused, even if I do love them. I’ve yet to recognise what triggers my negative sensitivity to touch from people. Also, a negative touch experience too early in the dating life with someone will cause me to run far away from the possibility of dating that person again.

Autistic Challenge: Reading Between the Lines

Because I’m not very good at reading subtle cues, from facial expressions to tonal inflections, it’s incredibly difficult for me to recognise when someone is attracted to me in the first place. Several months ago, when I had just learned that I am, in fact, autistic, I had a conversation with a friend about this very subject, in part because he didn’t understand how I’m autistic, or how I differ from neurotypical. During the conversation, I took my back-of-my-mind-thoughts that go on when I’m trying to figure out the meaning behind the conversation, and expressed them aloud. This was a man who I hadn’t been able to figure out what kind of attraction he had to me, so I ended up pointing out all the times he did or said something that, in my mind, suggested he was sexually attracted to me. As the conversation progressed, I realised that my mind often conflated the facial expression of admiration for the person to sexual attraction. And that was, perhaps, how I managed to confuse myself into believing certain people in my past were attracted to me, only to have them reject me when I asked.

Additionally, the neurotypical’s obsession with being polite can make it difficult to understand what is being asked of me. I’m bluntly honest, and often need that in return to know what someone needs from me. When I don’t understand those subtle requests, it can leave my partner feeling rejected, because they assume I’ve understood their needs when I haven’t, and have therefore been unable to act upon that. On the other hand, being bluntly honest can also lead to hurt feelings, because as I share mine, I don’t always recognise when I should tone them down to be more palatable and not hurtful. In my mind, I’m just stating my truth, and it’s more hurtful to keep them to myself, because that leads to resentment.

Autistic Challenge/Benefit: Experiencing Emotions Differently

I listed this as a mixture between challenge and benefit, because it is, for me, at least when it comes to polyamory. Jealousy seems to be a common reason many people choose monogamy over polyamory, but I find that I don’t experience it in the same way those people do. I don’t get jealous at the thought of my partner being with someone else, and especially not if my partner is still meeting my needs that I expect from them. That doesn’t mean I don’t experience jealousy, I’m just more likely to be jealous of something else. Like my husband having more interest in him than what I get. (That he gets more interest than I do may or may not be true – as I said above, it’s difficult for me to pick up on subtle clues that someone is attracted to me, and also I instantly rejected a decent amount of interest I got through online dating when I was still trying to find partners that way because it wasn’t the kind of interest I wanted).

My emotions also seem to hit me harder than they hit neurotypical people, which means that sometimes I find it very easy to fall in love with the “right” person pretty quickly. With the way I experience empathy (taking on other people’s emotions), sometimes I will confuse my emotions with theirs, and deduce that they’re in love with me too, and will strongly believe that’s the case even if they tell me otherwise. I’ve had two partners who I was sure loved me back, contrary to the fact they never told me they did, and in fact implied that they didn’t feel as strongly toward me. I tell you, it’s an odd thing to try and understand why someone would choose to stay with you once they learn you love them and they suggest they don’t feel the same way, and that likely feeds into my belief that they do, in fact, feel the same way, they just don’t recognise it or aren’t willing to admit it to themselves.

Then there are the times when I’ll spontaneously laugh at inappropriate moments, or feel so strongly that I’ll cry after sex, both of which can be confusing for the person I’m with. The laughter may be seen as offensive, and the crying can cause the person to think I’m sad when that’s not necessarily the reason for my tears. Sometimes I’ll turn away when I’m led to tears in those moments, because I feel embarrassed by them and not know how to communicate what I’m feeling in that moment, and I don’t want my partner to feel confused. It’s often just that an overwhelming wave of multiple emotions has hit me all at once.

What It All Means

Dating and relationships seem extra challenging for me, and my differences from neurotypical people make me feel like it’s even more important to find partners who can accept me unconditionally, because it’s not easy to change these things about myself, and it can be very challenging as well as draining to try and appear “normal” or “acceptable.” I think knowing about these struggles also makes it easier for me to believe that people wouldn’t want to be involved with someone like me. They can accept me in small doses as a friend, but that’s it. It severely limits my dating options.

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