The Intersections of Nonmonogamy & Neurodiversity

Reviewing Nonmonogamy & Neurodiversity by Alyssa Gonzalez

As a solo polyamorous AuDHD person, it certainly has not escaped me that my neurotype seems to mesh quite well with my approach to relationship! As a relationship and and sex educator, I often focused on deconstructing relationship and identity, helping folks to step off the relationship escalator and see all the scripts they were practicing that made absolutely no sense to me. “If folks just have the tools to see how basic labels for love and relationship don’t fully describe their experience, they’ll communicate so much better!” I thought.

After all, as soon as I dove deep into the details of relating and realized how many standard relationship assumptions are baseless, it really helped me to find self-actualization and effective ways of communicating my needs, my preferred relationship styles, and my boundaries. I wanted to share that with other people, because it was so transformative—what I missed at the time, though, was that a lot about how I theorized relationship and how soothing I found my approach actually came from my undiagnosed autism. Many of the relationship norms that were helpful for me to deconstruct and release were actually serving neurotypical folks just fine! And while a lot of neurotypical folks did learn useful concepts and a new perspective from my workshops, this “could I just have a detailed manual to your relationship style?” urge I was feeling probably stemmed in part from my own neurodivergent confusion.

In Nonmonogamy and Neurodiversity, author Alyssa Gonzalez offers a take that very much resonates with my own experience and what I’ve realized since that time about how the nonmonogamous community norm of introspection and DIY relationship styles was particularly appealing to my neurotype. It also covers some of the biggest challenges for neurodivergent nonmonogamous folks, and how we might mitigate them. The book is short and accessible, part of a series on nonmonogamy topics, and focused on the author’s first-person experience and theories as an autistic trans woman.

While I’d love to see something on this topic in expanded form, with research and stories from different contributors and a broader array of topics covered, as a quick primer this book offers a lot of food for thought and affirmation for specific challenges. The material is clear, concise, and well-organized, which neurodivergent brains will appreciate! The condensed format also makes it a reasonable ask for neurotypical partners to peruse as an introduction to the topic. A lot of the points Gonzalez makes I’ve noticed myself or seen conversation about on TikTok, but for neurodivergent reader who is either nonmonogamous or considering nonmonogamy and hasn’t been exposed to these discussions, I suspect it will be delightfully brain-massaging.

While some of the benefits of nonmonogamy may be obvious to certain neurotypes—being able to ignore the textbook understanding of what romantic and sexual relationships mean, for example, or operating in a culture where very explicit communication is celebrated—folks who have operated in fairly mainstream settings may not be aware of these benefits, or may get tripped up on the challenges of “managing” multiple relationships at once. This book doesn’t go super in-depth on what a nonmonogamous relationship is like, but it does highlight some of the upsides, particularly around communication and getting to design your own relationship, that a reader who mainly sees such relationships through the lens of taboo and stigma is likely to miss.

One of the biggest strengths of the book in my view is how it highlights the differences between neurodivergent and neurotypical brains and the ways our different approaches to relationship might create difficulties or confusion. For example, autistic folks who love having long-winded, super-specific conversations about a special interest may exhaust neurotypicals or not be seen as “serious” partners, while neurotypical conversations can easily bore us and feel burdensome. For some mixed relationships, nonmonogamy can be a helpful bridge where the neurotypical person enjoys us in small doses, and we get to be fully ourselves with several different partners.

Similarly, an ADHD person who is often seen as too scattered and impulsive might have trouble “settling down” in a monogamous commitment and not understand a partner who wants to do the same routine every night, but can find variety rotating among partners with different hobbies and habits. Or if we have sensory issues, are frequently seen as “too much” when we’re around all the time, or just need a lot of alone time to feel regulated, nonmonogamy gives us the option to date folks we might not be comfortable cohabiting with. And if we just straight-up get confused about the meaning of ambiguous terms like “dating,” nonmonogamy can provide us with some flexibility to figure out our own relationship styles.

On the flip side, we may also blame ourselves for stigmas and shitty treatment that we don’t realize is rooted in misunderstanding of our neurotype, while neurotypicals completely miss that they’re perpetrating harmful behavior. I appreciated the discussion of how neurodivergent people are often stereotyped as fitting into particular archetypes such as the robot or the manic pixie dream girl. All too often, I’ve seen how our relationship needs and personality traits are unfairly assigned a hierarchical value through these lenses—if we’re most interested in bonding around special interests, for example, those bonds might be seen as less serious to a neurotypical partner even though they have huge importance for us, or if we need to live separately we automatically get assigned “secondary” status. Folks with certain diagnoses like borderline personality disorder, Gonzalez points out, may even be seen as natural abusers or unstable when they’re actually especially vulnerable to abuse because of their neurotype.

While this treatment is sensitive and nuanced, there was one topic that I found surprisingly centered neurotypical needs. Gonzalez talks about how neurodivergent enthusiasm and confusion about social cues can be misunderstood as flirtation, which may anger a monogamous neurotypical partner. Certainly, nonomonogamy does have a benefit here—however, I’d also add that such confusion can subject a nonmonogamous neurodivergent person to unwanted advances that aren’t any less confusing (or in some cases disturbing) than they would be for a monogamous person.

In addition to the challenges of being stereotyped, Gonzalez discusses how rejection-sensitive dysphoria and alexithymia can make relationships especially challenging for neurodivergent people. These issues aren’t specific to nonmonogamy, but the complexity of nonomonogamous relationships and the simple fact that a person might be in more than one relationship at once can of course compound these issues. There are some basic tips included to address these challenges, but I think their inclusion is mainly important for awareness, since neurotypical partners may be completely clueless about what a neurodivergent person experiences in these areas.

I do wonder why there wasn’t more coverage of the benefits of neurodivergent relationships in the context of nonmonogamy. I can see the argument that mixed relationships are especially relevant to discuss, since monogamous mixed-neurotype relationships where one partner is neurotypical are so much less likely to work and be healthy for the reasons covered here. But I’ve also seen how nonmonogamy can have similar benefits when everyone involved is neurodivergent—for example when two neurodivergent people have different needs, both require variety or independence, or they just see nonmonogamy as a more logical model. Neurodivergent polycules have major advantages as a community care model, given how much trouble neurodivergent people tend to have finding relationships in general, and when everyone in a polycule understands the importance of prioritizing access intimacy and not making neurotypical assumptions about relationships, everyone can thrive.

Overall, I’d definitely recommend the book to both neurodivergent and neurotypical readers. It’s a conversation starter and a useful tool for raising awareness, as well as for expanding our perspectives on what relationships can look like.

ARC provided through Edelweiss. Purchases using the above link support me, as well as local bookstores!

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