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The Divergent Conversations Podcast is hosted by Patrick Casale and Dr. Megan Anna Neff, two AuDHD mental health professionals and entrepreneurs, as well as features other well-known leaders in the mental health, neurodivergent, and neurodivergent-affirming community. Listeners know, like, and trust the content and professionals on this podcast, so when they hear a recommendation on the podcast, they take action.


Episode 32: Navigating Neurodivergent Attachment: Unraveling Complex Relationships

Dec 25, 2023
Divergent Conversations Podcast

Show Notes

The world of relationships and attachment styles from a neurodivergent perspective is complex and sometimes misunderstood as characteristics of neurotypes and attachment styles overlap and shape social interactions and dynamics.

In this episode, Patrick Casale and Dr. Megan Anna Neff, two AuDHD mental health professionals, talk about partnerships, attachment theory, and relationships across various neurotypes.

Top 3 reasons to listen to the entire episode:

  1. Understand the unique challenges neurodivergent individuals face in feeling connected and present in social situations, and how their experiences with attachment styles can differ significantly from societal norms.
  2. Identify how the impact of sensory and neurodivergent perspectives on attachment styles can shape relationships in profound and often misunderstood ways.
  3. Hear the personal stories and experiences of Patrick and Dr. Neff in relationships before diagnosis and after, including the fantasy of relationships and whether behavior is based on attachment styles or neurotypes.

By exploring the complexities of the neurodivergent experience and attachment styles, it can become clearer how you communicate and what you need to enjoy more balanced and healthy relationships where your and your partner’s needs can “mostly” be met.

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PATRICK CASALE: Okay, so welcome back to another episode of Divergent Conversations Podcast. Megan and I haven't recorded in a couple of weeks, because I've been traveling. We are back, I am sick, Megan has brain fog, story of our lives.

MEGAN NEFF: This will be an interesting episode.

PATRICK CASALE: This will be an interesting episode. So, we were bouncing around the ideas of talking about attachment theory, and neurodivergence, and potentially, even dipping our toe into the water of just discussing partnerships within our own neurotypes and our own relationships. So, where do you want to start?

MEGAN NEFF: Yeah, those are big topics. I think attachment theory would provide the structure to then talk about partnerships. So, attachment theory?

PATRICK CASALE: Yeah. So, Megan may or may not give the bird's eye view on attachment theory. And we don't want to go too far into the clinical realm of that. But we do like to set the stage. So, if you have something you want to share or kind of-


PATRICK CASALE: …put a foundation?

MEGAN NEFF: Yeah, before recording, I was saying like, I like doing that bird's eye view, but also brain fog. It would be easier if I had a transcript. And I think some of the theory will naturally interweave as we talk.

But bird's eye view goes back to the 60s, John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. And initially, it comes from kind of parent-child interactions, and that they noticed distinct patterns of how infants responded when… it's called the Strange Situation, is kind of the big study that's often cited and how infants responded, well, typically, mom, again, talking about 1960s. So, there's a lot of gender and it was typically mom and baby who went into the study, into a room, and then mom would leave, and come back. And they were gauging, like, how does the infant respond?

For securely attached infants, mom was like a kind of safe haven, a secure base is what they call it. And so because mom was there, the child felt more free to go and play with the toys and to explore… there's another, the researcher, there's another person in the room.

With more anxiously attached children, they protested when mom left, and then had a really hard time letting mom up or not letting mom, being soothed by mom. Again, typically mom, care provider, primary attachment figure, we'll say that, when primary attachment figure came back would have difficulty being soothed by them.

With a securely attached kid, they'd still protest, but they could be soothed by the caretaker when they come back.

And then with avoidant, kind of, didn't protest as much when caretaker left and it wasn't as easily self-soothe. But then what they noticed is like heart rate still went up. So, stress markers still went up.

Okay, that's my brain fog version of this strange situation. Where the research got, I think, even more interesting is when they started realizing that attachment style continues, and started looking at adult attachment style. And then that shows up in romantic partnerships. And I think that's probably where we'll talk more about today.

But it gets pretty interesting when we start looking at attachment theory and neurodivergence. Like, some of the questions that come to my mind is, you know, does this theory and framework fit for us? Is one of the questions I have. The research shows ADHD and autistic people tend to be more insecurely attached than neurotypical people, which makes sense to me. But again, I wanted it to be like, well, how much is that capturing our true attachment style? And how much is that capturing other traits that might make us look avoidant? Or look insecure really? Or anxiously attached? How was my brain fog version of attachment theory?

PATRICK CASALE: I think you did a wonderful job. So, you know, as Megan kind of said, attachment theory is interwoven throughout not just childhood development, but throughout adolescent and young adult development too, certainly plays a role in both platonic and romantic relationships, and how you kind of show up, and how you feel safe, secure, connected to the people around you. And I think there's some, like, stuff that's really interwoven here when we're talking about neurodivergence, neurodevelopment, and we're talking about like, feeling safe, feeling secure, feeling like you're attached or connected to, or safe with someone. And this goes far beyond just, like, that emotional feeling of safeness, right? Like, there's also just the ability to be mentally safe and to be neurologically safe, too. So, this is a complicated conversation.

MEGAN NEFF: Yeah, for sure, for sure. So, one of the interesting things about attachment theory is the idea the first year your attachment to your primary caregiver becomes kind of like a blueprint, that that becomes your template. And you tend to continue to attach that way. And it can vary, of course, and people can… it's called earned security, when you earn a secure attachment.

But this is where I think cross-neurotype gets really interesting. Like, if you've got a primary caregiver and an infant who are cross-neurotype, typically, you're not going to know that in the first year. And what might be attunement to one neurotype, right? So, like, eye contact, holding, touch, right? Well, might be attunement for say a neurotypical infant, might be dysregulated and intrusive for an autistic infant. So, I think that's pretty interesting when we start thinking about early development and cross-neurotype and attunement, because that attunement is what's so important for that secure attachment to take root.

PATRICK CASALE: Yeah, and that attunement can so easily be missed, or misidentified, or misclassified, especially, when we're talking about infancy and, you know, any sort of development where the child is not able to actually communicate their needs or have their needs met. And then it can also play a role for that caregiver, too, if it's really challenging to cap that connection with the child as well.

MEGAN NEFF: Yeah, yeah. No, absolutely. And the caregiver, like, might be really confused, because things they've learned is like, this is supposed to be soothing for my child, but it's not. And then depending on that caregiver's role, like that can activate their own attachment stuff. Yeah, it gets, I think, really complex, and yeah.

PATRICK CASALE: What's been the-

MEGAN NEFF: So, what, oh, go ahead.


MEGAN NEFF: I was like, "Okay, this is a lot of theory." I was going to ask, I was going to take it to our experience, because I know we've both talked about, like, "Yeah, we're avoidant."

PATRICK CASALE: Yeah. Oh, for sure. I mean, when I started learning about attachment theory, I was like, I think there was a part of me that was probably like, "I resonate with anxious attachment." And there's some anxiety of like, that push/pull kind of mentality of like, I come closer you back away, or vice versa. But then I realized more and more like, by doing my own work avoidant style made a lot more sense.

And, you know, to all the folks who are, you know, well versed in attachment theory, a lot of folks that are labeled as avoidant attached get a bad rap. You know, because we feel like, this person is self-soothing all the time, this person wants to do things on their own, they cut people off very quickly, they disconnect very quickly, they look for the littlest thing in relationship to kind of move away. It's really hard for me to create this, like, connection. It feels one-sided. And I think that is a challenging label sometimes for people to kind of be classified under when you start talking about all of this different characteristics of attachment.

MEGAN NEFF: Yeah, yeah, I would say both forms of insecure, both avoidant and anxious get pretty bad raps of like, anxious on the other side is like, oh, you're so needy, blah, blah, blah. Avoidant, like you don't care, you're cold.

And I've heard it said that behind every avoidant attachment person is a very anxiously attached person, which I was like, I think that's an interesting idea to play with. But also, yeah, I mean, these things ebb and flow more than any attachment grid will show, right? Like, based on context, and relationship, and life.

Yeah, so the thing I'm curious about, Patrick, for me is before I knew I was autistic, when I learned about attachment, I was like, "Okay, yeah, avoidant, totally ticks the boxes." Now, I'm wondering, like, "Okay, how much of that has to do… Like, how much of that is true attachment stuff, like, from my early childhood and these things, and how much of that is autistic traits?"

Like, I don't like touch. Touch is really hard for me. I like to be alone. I get overwhelmed by people's emotions, positive or negative, so I retreat. A lot of that is due to my autistic neurology more so than… it feels like more so than my attachment. So, that's where I'm like, huh, it's hard to tease out what is my autistic needs and self-soothing versus what is like true attachment style.

PATRICK CASALE: Yeah, that's a great point. Like, how do we differentiate what is neurology? What's attachment system related? What is interwoven and connected? I think about this exercise I did, I was doing this like intensive three days somatic-based attachment training several years ago, DARE training. I think it's dynamic attachment re-patterning experience. And one of the… what's the word I'm looking for? One of the workshops or the protocols that we were doing was like, all right, come into a room, walk towards the person sitting on the couch until you can tell that they no longer want you to walk any closer to them based on like, eye contact, based on body language, based on posture. And that's like your window of attachment or tolerance.

And I felt like mine was, like, so massive, because I was like, "I don't want to make any eye contact. You know, like, I don't want to have any of this connection in terms of you walking directly at me to, like, approach me in this way." So, that's something that stands out to me in terms of like, chicken before the egg situation. Like, how to literally figure out which is which? Or which is both.

MEGAN NEFF: Yeah, because like, yeah, same for me. People approaching me feels very intrusive. And yeah, I think probably both, because having those needs, and I would say, like, sensory needs, because a lot of being around people is a sensory experience, probably then shapes our attachment style. So, yeah, I don't think it's an either-or.

PATRICK CASALE: What about you for your experiences? You said you felt like, okay, you're on more of the avoidance style. But if we were to take that step back and say behind every avoidant is an anxiously secure, or anxiously attached, do you have any examples of that for yourself?

MEGAN NEFF: Totally. Oh, yeah, I want to talk about this too. Like, so there's this study. I don't think it was peer-reviewed, but it was really interesting. And it's been a while since I looked at it, but looked at like infatuation kind of predating during dating, and maybe attachment or just connection between autistic and non-autistic people, and it showed autistic people tend to have higher infatuation, like, before dating, and then it decreases kind of more rapidly than neurotypical. So, I was like, "Oh, that relates."

In college. I had three month's relationships, but I always… so there's this idea of like, a person can become a special interest, right? And I've definitely had that experience. And I would say when a person becomes a special interest, that more anxious attachment stuff does show up. But it's complicated, because part of my attachment is to the fantasy of that person. And I would now say, okay, this is going to sound weird, the fantasy, oh, gosh, this is one of the things I'm like saying and I'm like, "I'm not sure what to say." The fantasy of being non-autistic.

Oh my gosh, I'm actually getting emotional, because in the fantasy when people become special interests, I can be close to them and it's not intrusive. And I can feel connected in the way that like I long for. And that's really hard for me, because being in relationship and being close to people feels so intrusive. But in my fantasy, especially, when people become special interests I get to experience a non-intrusive intimacy.

PATRICK CASALE: Thank you for sharing that, and just being willing to share that, and be really vulnerable about it. Yeah, I can sense that emotion, I can feel that, and I can really take that in. That makes a lot of sense when you put it that way too, because it allows you to feel deeply connected.

MEGAN NEFF: Yeah, yeah.

PATRICK CASALE: So, I would like to just name that and put that out there.

MEGAN NEFF: I mean, I don't like emotion. I talk about that pretty regularly. I also think the most… what's the phrase? Like, the most personal is the most global, I think. Perhaps even now based on conversations that there will be people that relate to that.

For me, like I have talked about this in writing, this is the hardest part about being autistic is, the way I put it in writing a couple years ago is like, my soul longs for connection and my body longs for isolation. And that to me is the hardest part about being autistic.

PATRICK CASALE: Yeah, I can deeply relate with that.

MEGAN NEFF: Yeah, does my emotion bring up anything for you?

PATRICK CASALE: I'm feeling like protectiveness of you. And, you know, you hate physical touch, I hate physical touch, but it makes me want to, like, hug you, embrace you. But I think you just said that perfectly, too. Like, the soul longs for connection and the body yearns for isolation. I think that is pretty spot on.

And you know, I say so often, like, the autistic existence is a torturous one. And I think that always my world that I seem to default to. And I think that's why is just that intense push/pull of "Damn, I want to feel like connected a part of, attuned to. And damn, I need to get away as fast as possible, because I am so uncomfortable physically."

MEGAN NEFF: Yeah, yeah. Uncomfortable, dissociated, foggy. Like, I used to say that all the time, like, I just want to be in my experience. And what I didn't realize I was saying is like, I'm dissociated and I'm not in this moment. And particularly, in like social, like, the things that you're supposed to feel connected in, right? The big ceremonies, and rituals, and holiday gatherings, these are times where I'm, like, supposed to feel connected and around people. And these would be times that I'd feel the most disconnected.

PATRICK CASALE: Which, you know, in regards to what we're talking about, it has further impact in terms of like, your attachment system, too, when these big societal norms/like cultural norms for certain pockets of people, and you're supposed to be connected, and feel joyous, and celebrate, and close to, and present, and all you can feel is dissociated, or foggy, or numb, or just not present in any form. It makes you feel even further other than those situations where it's like, "See, I truly, really don't belong here."

MEGAN NEFF: Yeah, and then the like, "What's wrong with me?" Narrative comes on of like, "What's wrong with me? Like, these people are in this experience. Why can't I just be in it?"

PATRICK CASALE: Yeah. It's a weird timing that we're talking about this considering, like, we're going into like, some major holidays in the United States.

MEGAN NEFF: Yeah. I think holidays is a hard season for a lot of us. I mean, for a lot of humans, but I think, especially, autistic people. Yeah, you know I talk about clashing needs a lot, like in clashing values. Like, talk about clashing values. Like, I want my kids to have memories with extended family over the holidays. I don't want to travel. I don't want to be in a room with more than seven people. Like, yeah, it's a hard time of year for a lot of folks.

PATRICK CASALE: Yeah, it's a hard time in so many different ways. And then bring in the neurodivergent component. And there's almost, like, anticipatory grief.

MEGAN NEFF: Yeah, yeah.

PATRICK CASALE: Like, we're recording, what's the day? November 14th. I have no idea when this will air, probably after Thanksgiving here in the States, but it'll probably air before Christmas. And there is anticipatory grief, for me, at least. I'm sure for you in some ways, too. You've mentioned about your kiddos and your husband. But like, my wife wants to be around her family. She wants to go be close, and connected, and all the things, and there's, like, this anticipatory grief for me where it's like, I can't show up the way she would want me to in a lot of ways. And I also I'm like, conserving energy for a month straight to be able to participate for six hours of my life, which will then therefore drain me for a week of it.

MEGAN NEFF: Yeah, yeah. Like, oh, gosh, I have so many visceral memories. We don't travel as much. But like, when we did travel to see Luke's family or even sometimes, like, extended time with my family, like, I would feel like I became someone else. Like, I'd become a very irritable version of me and again, I couldn't be present, I couldn't get into the experience. And I always do this preparation thing of like, okay, like you're going to be yourself this time. Like, I didn't have other any other words, and just like I don't become myself.

And I didn't understand what was happening. I just knew that anytime, especially, if we traveled, like, I became a version of myself I really didn't, like, I'm not normally a very irritable person, but I certainly am when I have lost my routines, and I'm traveling, and I'm, like, all the things. So, I hear you on, it's like the grief of, I know I'm not going to be able to show up the way I want to for my wife's family. Like, I feel that.

And like, for you, as I remember, for me, I'd be like, "Okay, I just need to flip a switch, I can do it." Like, is there that kind of like belief you should be able to just flip a switch and show up the way you want?

PATRICK CASALE: Oh, totally. I mean, and I think that can even be enforced sometimes like, or reinforced through messaging that you receive. And I know like, before, maybe my wife and I really knew each other or like what I needed, my system needed, and that it wasn't just being selfish, or like, I didn't want to participate, where it would almost be like a pep talk of like, "You can show up for one day of your life. Like, you can do that."

And sometimes I will even have to say it out loud to myself, like, give myself like this, you know, man in the mirror speech where I look at myself, and I'm like, "Yeah, you can do this, you can like, handle six hours, you can manage this. So, you can make it through whatever the event is." Not specifically just talking about her family, because that's not the truth of it, truly any gathering. And then, so often, just, you know, continuously having to rely on just either one alcohol or two complete silence and isolation. And I would become also like, irritable, short one to two-word answers. When people are talking to me, people would label that as like antisocial, dismissive, rude, whatever labels we want to throw on to that presentation. And it just further makes you feel disconnected, because I think, for me, and I don't know about for you, I then go into, like, this internal dialogue of like, trying to force myself out of that reaction where it's like, "Stop reacting like this. This is not how you want to come across. Like, all you have to do is like, just respond for two sentences."

And maybe that will break down this, like, internal barrier, but then you just default back to the same, and it feels harder and harder and harder to then like, really show up in a way that you want to. I don't know if I'm making sense.

MEGAN NEFF: It makes so much sense and I relate to that so much that like, okay, don't do it this way, do it this… and like that becomes part of the stress, right? Of like, again, this idea I should be able to do something different here.


MEGAN NEFF: Yeah. That is where, like, discovering autism has been really helpful, because I was genuinely just so confused. And of course, reverted to, like, I'm a bad person, or now it's like, "Okay, I understand that I have an inner part of my nervous system that is shut down. And like, that's what's happening to me right now." And it doesn't mean that I, like, feel awesome about the situation or the engagement, but I understand it, which is helpful.

PATRICK CASALE: I agree, 100%. The understanding may not always be helpful in some ways, but it is helpful in other ways, where it's like, at least you're no longer doing this, like existential search for what the hell is happening here? And you just default to like, okay, this is happening. Doesn't make it any more awesome. Like, the experience is still painful, but at least I understand why it's painful. I think that helps a little bit.

MEGAN NEFF: Yeah. Oh, for sure. I mean, I think, you know, I feel like I talk about this a lot here. I'm such a fan of, like, self-attunement through self-narration, of like if I can narrate what's happening, that is a form of like, radical self-attunement. So, I think that opens up the opportunity for self-compassion in those moments of like, okay, this is a hard moment, versus like, I know, for me, what it was before is, "What's wrong with me? Why can't I just get in it?" And I was like, "Okay, this is a hard moment, this is what's happening." It's a very different self-experience in those moments.

PATRICK CASALE: So true, so true. We diverge mightily.

MEGAN NEFF: I mean, it's all like-

PATRICK CASALE: It's all connected.

MEGAN NEFF: …clustered around attachment and intimacy. And yeah, it's interesting. I'm not a dualist in the sense of like, I don't like to separate kind of mind, body, you know, that kind of Descartes dualism that took hold and shaped much of western history. But when it comes to this conversation, I actually find the dualistic lens a little bit helpful in a sense of like, there is this really very real split I experience of like, what I long for, and then what my body can handle. And I do think that, of course, it's going to shape attachment, then, an attachment style.

PATRICK CASALE: Absolutely. I also think, you know, just on that, in this perspective too, it's like, for those of you listening and wondering, okay, am I just now forever labeled avoidant attached, insecure, anxious attached? You can actually be in different attachment styles with different people in different relationships. And those can evolve based on learning, healing, growth, introspection, understanding. So, this is not a like, black and white, and all be all situation, either.

MEGAN NEFF: Yeah, absolutely, absolutely. And that's where, like, an ebb flow, kind of hold on attachment theory, I think is really helpful of yeah, like, there's an attachment quiz out there where to, like, map you out on quadrants, like, both your parents, friends, and then romantic partners, kind of how you lean in those different relationships, which I think that's interesting.

But yeah, the idea that like we can heal secure attachment and I think it's going to look different for autistic people. Like, actually I feel really securely attached to my spouse, my children, I would even say my parents. It doesn't look the same way. I need a ton of space. If you were looking at me, you might not say I'm securely attached, you'd say avoidant, but I do think I am securely attached in those relationships.

PATRICK CASALE: I actually think that's the perfect, like, depiction of what we're trying to talk about right now, is that from the outsider's perspective, right? If you're just taking into consideration attachment theory, which there's a lot of things that are missed and mismarked opportunities there as well, in attachment theory, but if we're talking about like, for just specifically, looking at it from attachment theory perspective, and you're saying, oh, well, Megan's disconnected, Megan's on their own, isolated, whatever, must not be secure attachment. But what I'm hearing from a neurotype perspective, and a neurology perspective is, is very secure if the people on the other side are also understanding like, mom needs a break, mom needs to read, mom needs to self-soothe, mom loves us, and is in a different room. Like, that takes into account the sensory needs, which I think is where we're trying to create that much more complex picture.

MEGAN NEFF: Yeah, absolutely. And that's where like, I would love to see attachment theory kind of adaptive for neurodivergent folks of like, what are kind of the markers? Because I think, like most things, you have to go more into the subjective experience and rely less on those behavioral markers.

PATRICK CASALE: Right. And I think that's so important to make a notation of too, is to create some evolutionary language and vantage points on terms of how we view attachment theory for neurodivergent folks, because if our neurotypes are different, if we're talking cross-neurotype relationships, if we're talking about, you know, a neurotypical parent, and a neurodivergent kiddo, or vice versa, or partnership, there's going to be all of these new almost like things, and what's the word I'm looking for? There's going to have to be new ways to really, I don't want to use the word adapt, that's not the right word, to become more comfortable within relationship, understanding that not every single relationship is going to look like this, you know, textbook definition of what one needs to look like.

MEGAN NEFF: Yeah, absolutely, absolutely. And I think for both partners and parents who aren't also, specifically, autistic understanding, because like, I'm sure you see this a lot, right? In cross-neurotype partnerships where, you know, one person's need for space, like that can activate a whole story for the other partner of like, this person's pulling away from me and… oh, I lost the thought. There was a thought but it flew away.

PATRICK CASALE: It's probably because I took so long in that convoluted way of saying what I was saying.

MEGAN NEFF: I don't think it's… Oh, my brain [INDISCERNIBLE 00:30:01].

PATRICK CASALE: You're right, though. I mean, and I think, like, if we're talking about, okay, this person needs space, this is what their sensory system needs is space, but the attachment system doesn't need space. Like, in their embodied experience this is actually like the safest place for them is to have that space, because that means they feel very connected to you to be able to take that space, but then you have someone who might be on the anxious insecure side where it's like whoa, this person is pulling away, they don't love me anymore, they don't care about me, let me come closer. And then odds are you back even further away and it creates that anxious avoidant man.

PATRICK CASALE: Yes, what is it called? Brain fog is so interesting, like things I used to be able to pull into mind dance something pattern, it comes from EFT, the pursuit distance or dynamic is a kind of a classic, because here's the interesting thing, when you are insecurely attached, you're actually more likely to partner with someone who's also insecurely attached but from the other side of the road. So, like if you're avoidant, you might partner with an anxiously attached vice versa, which then of course, there's going to be like, some messy dynamics that show up so that distance or pursuer is what's talked about of like, there's the pursuit, because for… We haven't talked a whole lot about kind of anxious attachment but for anxious attachment, when there's an attachment, kind of insecurity, they need closure. Like, they need to work it through with the person.

The avoidant person needs space to regulate, to be able to come back to our conversation. But that can create that pursuer's coming closer because that's what their attachment needs to down-regulate. The avoidant person's distancing, because that's what they need space to down-regulate. And then the pursuer distance or dynamic because it, yeah.

PATRICK CASALE: And around, around we go.

MEGAN NEFF: And around, around we go, yeah. Yeah, so I'm married to someone who's securely attached, but like, introverted and does really well with alone time. And I realized the reason all my other relationships didn't work before I met Luke was they weren't as independent. And so at some point, my relationships always made a turn where they started feeling really intrusive and really not good. And so that's been interesting.

Typically, too, like, avoidant people don't get together romantically. And again, I wouldn't say Luke and I are truly avoidant, but we're very independent. And like, it's not a classic pairing you see a lot. But I realized, like, I absolutely needed someone like that. Like, I wouldn't work with someone who also had like high need for independence and wore separations okay, yeah.

PATRICK CASALE: Yeah, I think that's a good point. And it's good to know what you both need and then to be able to find it is, I wouldn't say it's a rarity, because it's certainly not. But it does take a lot of like, introspection, and discussion, and communication about needs too. And then each partner being confident in their ability to offer that and offer themselves what they need. I think that's equally as important. Like, knowing what you each, you've mentioned this before, when we're talking about partnerships, but like, just the fact that partnerships, you should not always be solely rely on your partner for joy, happiness, contentment, relational like connection. Like, you've got to get that elsewhere too. And I think you have to have the confidence in both of yourselves and each other to be able to have that space to also have your own interests, to also have your own friendships, also have your own like downtime where every single second doesn't have to be interwoven.

MEGAN NEFF: Yeah, yeah.

PATRICK CASALE: What are you thinking about that?

MEGAN NEFF: I was just thinking about how helpful it would be like, you know, when people are making life partnerships, like to know about things like attachment style and neurotype and like, how these things overlay, and like, just think about how helpful all these lenses are, and how, like, rarely, I think the younger generation they're getting there, but how rarely we enter into these partnerships with these lenses that I think can really unlock so much understanding and alleviate a lot of pain.

PATRICK CASALE: For sure, for sure. I don't even think I knew the word attachment until I was like 26, 27. You know, I really didn't know much about my own neurodivergence at that time, if any at all, and then, you know, through partnerships like doing a lot of trying to figure out like what's working? What's not working? Why are certain relationships typically ending? What am I missing upfront or vice versa?

And I think for, like, my marriage, you know, we're going on 10 years of being married at this point in time, a lot of it at first was doing that dance of like, that anxious avoidant like situation. And I would say my wife is way less avoidant or anxious, probably more secure than a lot of folks. But ultimately, when I would push away, because I needed to push away and I didn't know why I needed space, or I didn't know why I needed to isolate or disconnect, she wouldn't go anywhere. And I think that created that feeling of safety of like, now I can start verbalizing like, this is what I need, this is why I need it. It had nothing to do with you. I just didn't realize like I need a lot of time to be alone, and to be autonomous, and to be independent.

MEGAN NEFF: I love that. I love she didn't go anywhere. And that's a secure base, right? Like-


MEGAN NEFF: She stayed secure. She was there. And she wasn't punishing like when you came back. It wasn't, "And you need to be punished before we can reunite."


MEGAN NEFF: Yeah, yeah. I don't know if this relates, I'm curious. So, yeah, dating, I did it a bit. And yeah, again, I'd hit a part like where it started feeling intrusive and I'd get, oh, this sounds really bad. I'm going to have a vulnerability hangover after this episode, Patrick.

Now, again, I understand it, but when it started feeling intrusive, I would get grossed out but my partner's and once it turned it was really hard to unturn it. I now realize I think it was kind of a sensory, like, you know, I have misophonia. So, like, I joke with my spouse of like, I just won't be in the same room when he's eating cereal. Like, because I will forever be like, grossed out by him and it'll linger for a while.

But it would do this thing where it would turn in my relationships and I want to be able to recover. And I think it was kind of a sensory grossed-out meats intrusion. And I couldn't then like recover from that feeling of intrusion. So, I definitely had a point of like, am I ever going to find a long-term partner? Is marriage ever going to work for me? Or am I always going to have this experience of it turning? And then, right, all or nothing. Like, once it's ruined, it's ruined. Was dating hard for you?

PATRICK CASALE: Yeah. So, I'm actually glad you named that, too. So, I had similar experiences where like, if I was dating, I was really… I wouldn't use the word infatuated, but I was definitely much more excited about the relationship and the person at first. And then-

MEGAN NEFF: Same. High, high infatuation or like [CROSSTALK 00:37:56]-

PATRICK CASALE: Yeah, so I was like, and you probably then come across like more charismatic, you come across like more interesting, you come across-

MEGAN NEFF: Well, special interest energy, right? Like special interest energy plus new, like romance energy. Like, oh, my gosh, it is a powerful combo.

PATRICK CASALE: Absolutely, absolutely. So, this is, again, another example of where we could say attachment, or neurotype, or neurology, right? Or the combination of the two. So, a lot of people who are attachment-oriented therapist would say, like, "The avoidant style, that's very typical." Where, like, you would get really infatuated, you'd be really excited. And then you'd start to pull away, you'd start to find little things about your partner that make you no longer feel connected to them so that you could have your autonomy, and your freedom, and your independence, and you could no longer be connected.

But if we're framing it from the neurodiversion perspective that you are mentioning, like the sensory component, and the intrusiveness, and the feelings of like, "Oh, my body no longer feels safe and it no longer feels like excited, it no longer feels secure in this." That's exactly what I think is missing from a lot of this literature, too.

MEGAN NEFF: And that's where, to return to what I was saying earlier, which I can now revisit without so much emotion. Like, I think a lot of us spend a bit of time in fantasy. And I think, like, that's where fantasy of an ideal relationship or an ideal person, especially, in that early infatuation period becomes so seductive because in fantasy we aren't sensory creatures, in fantasy we don't have, like, that turn when there's a sensory unpleasant experience. And I think that can make relationships hard, right? Like, we are infatuated, many of us might be fantasizing. Okay, I'll speak from my experience. I get super special interest energy, so curious about the person. I think the person would, typically, like my curiosity and my interest feel, I don't have the word… But then I would do a lot of fantasizing, and idealizing, and building it up. No relationship can live up to that, no reality can live up to that.

PATRICK CASALE: Yeah. And then when it doesn't and you're no longer in that special interest energy, and maybe your sensory system is being more activated, because of some sort of partnership or relationship, and then all of a sudden the pendulum swings almost the complete opposite way.

And I wonder, even like, we're talking a lot about this from an autistic perspective, which I feel like we tend to frame most of this podcast from, but I wonder about the ADHD type 2 where stimulation and you know, really [CROSSTALK 00:41:05]-

MEGAN NEFF: Oh, my gosh, yeah, absolutely.

PATRICK CASALE: Right? And like, yeah.

MEGAN NEFF: No, that's a huge like, okay, I'm going to do a little detour. I was talking with one of my children and I could just tell their affect was a little bit different. I was like, "Are you sad?" And they were like, "No." And then they were like, "I feel sad, but I don't know why." And then I looked, and I was like, "Are you understimulated?" And their eyes opened up and they're like, "Yes, I'm understimulated."

And I've started noticing, you know, I've been married 15 years, that like times when I have, like, started to feel discontent in my marriage and I just think everyone experiences seasons of that, if you're married for a long time, what I've realized is like, oh, I was under-stimulated. And that lens of understimulation has been really helpful of like, I'm not discontent with my spouse, I'm like experiencing under stimulation. Okay, I need an infusion of creativity or some sort of stimulus.

But I think that happens a lot for ADHDers is, once the relationship is not as stimulating, it can be tempting to let me go look for that elsewhere.

PATRICK CASALE: Yep, yep, I agree with that 100%. So, you know, stimulation seeking, right? And then when we have that dopamine, when we have that adrenaline rush, when we have all the feel-good chemicals in our body, and then all of a sudden it's like, well, that same person, that relationship, the stimulation is missing, so it must be something wrong with the relationship.

MEGAN NEFF: Right, right.

PATRICK CASALE: And how often can you be in partnership where it's stimulating 100% of the time? I don't think that's possible.

MEGAN NEFF: Right. But I think when our, like, especially, if we don't understand our like, need for stimulus, yeah, exactly. It's so easy to go that narrative of like there must be something wrong here, because we're, yeah…

So, okay, kind of a rabbit trail, but also, I think, important, because we're both, as far as I know, from you, Patrick, we're both in monogamous arranged partnerships. A lot of neurodivergent people are polyamorous or have different structures. And I think this is perhaps one of the reasons, especially, for autistic ADHDers, like if you have a frame that supports that, I see why that works for a lot of people, because you get the new relationship energy, and you have the secure base when well done, right? When there's a lot of good intentional conversations and the framework around it is setup well. So, it kind of, I thought about that of like, yeah, that makes sense where that works well for so many folks.

PATRICK CASALE: Yeah, I think that makes perfect sense in a lot of ways. I think that's why my marriage works really well even though it is a monogamous one. It's non-traditional in a sense, where people will look at the fact that we spend a lot of time apart from one another and say, like, "Is everything okay at home? I see that Patrick's traveling by himself all the time and you're never with him." Or she like has so many friend groups, and so many book clubs, and so many things that she's involved in. And I don't often go to those things, or to those events, or to those parties, or any of those things. So, there is this, like, level of autonomy, and independence, and almost separateness within the marriage and relationship despite, like, neither one of us very often feeling disconnected from each other.

MEGAN NEFF: That like, yeah, I'm smiling so big right now, because like, yeah, that's my marriage, and that's why it works. Does it work for Arielle?

PATRICK CASALE: Yeah, for Arielle, it works. I think there are definitely times she would prefer that I would definitely come to a get together, or a party, or like, I could at times be more spontaneous with my answers instead of nine times out of 10 being like, "Nah, I don't want to do that."

But I think it does work for this stage of our lives. I think the first couple of years it was challenging for her to be like, "What fuck is going on? Like, my husband doesn't want to come to anything with me."

MEGAN NEFF: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And essentially, as soon as I asked that I'm like, "Oh, of course, it works for Luke." But Luke is also, my spouse, I might have him listen to us before we are just to make sure, you know, he's cool with everything. He's a very, very, like intense people-pleaser. So, I also realized, like, and one thing I've been encouraging him to do… Again, this might sound controversial, I've been telling him like, "Hey, I both celebrate and grieve my, like, autism diagnosis. You get to do that, too, because like, it impacts our relationship."

And he's started slowly, like, you know, there's a concert in town that he was like, "Oh, yeah, I did have the thought of, like, it'd be nice to like, go to that with you. And I know that that wouldn't happen. Or that if we did that, that would be really hard for you." And I'm encouraging him to explore his grief around this. So, I'm also realizing, yeah, I do think it mostly works for us, but also that there can be grief for the spouse. And I think it's so important we let our spouses experience that without it feeling like that's ableism, that's just part of the complexity of human relationship and emotion.

PATRICK CASALE: Yeah, and you've actually mentioned that exact scenario on here a couple of times now. And I think it's important, like, it's not only important, it's like paramount to be able to really help support your spouse have their own emotional journey within partnership about what their experience is like, because I'm sure there are times where Arielle is like, "Man, I'm going to this thing tonight, and there's going to be a lot of people there. And I might be one of the only partnered people that is there solo." And that can feel like, you know, there's something wrong on the home front.

When I'm traveling all over the damn worlds by myself and people are always like, "Oh, are you married? Do you have a partner? Like, where are they? Like, do they come with you on these events?" I'm like, "Yeah, they do. They have four weeks of time off and they hate traveling. So, this is just the balance that we have found that works for both of us." And I think it gives me that stimulation, and that sensation seeking that I need, and that freedom. And it just works.

So, I do think finding out what works is important, like you said before, have we had known this earlier on in our lives, it would probably save ourselves, our partners, our friends a lot of pain, but I'm glad to have arrived to it now. And before it was too late to do that.

MEGAN NEFF: I think what I'm feeling like just a lot of gratitude that we both found people that like, because I think for both of us it takes kind of unique people to be able to be married to us.


MEGAN NEFF: And I'm really glad we both found people for whom we've been able to build a life that's secure and also like works with our sensory needs. And I think sounds like works for our partner's needs as well, mostly.

PATRICK CASALE: For sure. I like the mostly caveat, because that's probably the case.

MEGAN NEFF: Yeah, I mean, I don't want to, like, be, yeah, totally works for me. I'm sure of it, yeah, mostly.

PATRICK CASALE: This will be a good episode to then have both of them on here, like we talked about.

MEGAN NEFF: We talked about that. We have talked about having, yeah, do you want to do like a four-way conversation?

PATRICK CASALE: I think it'll be pretty cool.

MEGAN NEFF: Yeah, yeah. Oh, goodness. I think that'd be really interesting. Yeah, I'll try to see if Luke's up for that.

PATRICK CASALE: No pressure. But yeah, I think, again, as so many of these conversations are, there is so much nuance and complexity here. And it's not just attachment style, it's not just neurotype or neurology, it's everything. And I think we have to assess and look at everything when we are trying to figure out not only our client's, you know, struggle areas in terms of their relational relationships and their attunement, but our own, and our friendships, and our partnerships with our families, et cetera, and really taking neurodiversity into account and consideration when we are looking at relational dynamics.

MEGAN NEFF: Yeah, absolutely.

PATRICK CASALE: Other thoughts?

MEGAN NEFF: Is this our ending? Yeah, I don't feel like I have anything to add to that. I kind of feel like we're at our awkward goodbye time.

PATRICK CASALE: I like that it started awkward. We both were kind of foggy, we both were kind of cloudy. And then it developed into what I think was a really good, powerful conversation. And I'm just grateful for you too, in terms of if we're looking at attachment in friendships, because we haven't seen each other in a couple of weeks. And we're both not feeling great, but I'm pretty happy with how that turned out.

MEGAN NEFF: Yeah, same, same.

PATRICK CASALE: All right, everyone who's listening, so Divergent Conversations is out every single Friday on all major platforms and YouTube. You can follow us on Instagram as well. Like, download, subscribe, and share. And, goodbye.

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