The Present and the Past: How to Navigate the Complexity of Learning Differences in Couples Therapy

As learning differences have become better understood, a wider array of coaching and dating services have become available for young adults facing these challenges. However, what has been less researched, but is equally important to understand, are the long term emotional impacts of learning differences on a relationship. Many couples in which one or both partners have learning differences will not only face challenges in their daily lives: taking care of chores, leaving adequate time for activities, and managing finances, to name a few. In addition, they will confront challenges in navigating difficult and potentially emotionally charged conversations. I suggest that therapists working with these couples develop strategies for allowing these difficult issues to be expressed and shared during therapy sessions.

Although underlying emotional challenges are important to identify and discuss, with many couples, it is more helpful to begin with the practical. As suggested by the writer and editor Kate Kelly, there must first be an agreed upon time to meet and delegate daily responsibilities (Kelly, 2014-2017). During their busy lives, couples may forget to assign each other responsibilities, but doing so is especially important when one or both partners may easily forget, or become disorganized. These meetings are also helpful if they allow the time to consider the strengths and challenges of each person, and how to assign tasks accordingly. For example, if one partner struggles with folding laundry but enjoys reading, then maybe he or she would be best suited to the task of reading to the children at night. It also important to use a written schedule that will help with memory and keeping track of progress, as well as taking care of other daily responsibilities, such as finances.

While it would be ideal if every couple could communicate regarding navigating daily tasks, doing so may require a mutual level of trust and commitment. However, learning differences can create a unique strain on a relationship that can make even a more practical conversation difficult to have. Brita Miller, the Adult Issues Chair for the Learning Disabilities Association of California, states “A person with Learning Disabilities may be frustrated about the way a partner provides assistance by feeling stifled when too much is provided, which may give rise to the perception that he or she is stupid or being treated like a child.” She also states that the person without the disability “may experience resentment at having to continually tend to the needs of the other, while many of his/her needs seem to go unmet” (Miller, 2017 ). A couple may benefit from creating ground rules that guide difficult discussions, such as respecting and encouraging autonomy by asking before providing help, actively listening to a partner’s explanation of his or her needs, and refraining from advice giving. However, it is also important to acknowledge that being the significant other of somebody with learning differences presents unique challenges. At times, it may be a nuisance to have to pick up your partner’s socks on a regular basis, or return to the grocery store to pick up items your partner forgot, for example. The art of effective therapy with these couples is to provide a space for both the person with learning differences and his or her partner to express and listen to one another’s needs and frustrations, but reaching this place does take time, and it may help to start by analyzing the impact of past events.

Many individuals with learning differences are impacted by the past. For example, the feeling of being treated like a “child,” may stem from previous experiences of infantilization by educators, family members, and even in past relationships. However, if a person with a learning difference has the opportunity to explore these feelings with a significant other, not only will he or she feel more validated, but the partner may also begin to understand the sensitivity of someone with a learning difference, and what may be done to alleviate it, simply by making a conscientious effort not to repeat the perhaps well-intentioned but misinformed behaviors of others in the past. However, it is never easy to acknowledge these past feelings and experiences, and a therapist should be careful to allow each person to do so on his or her own timeline.

Part of what may make it a challenge to discuss the past for some couples in which one or both people have a learning difference are feelings of inadequacy and shame. Individuals with learning differences have often received the message that they are not good enough, whether at school, on the job, or in social relationships or dating. In fact, some individuals with learning differences may wonder if their partners would still find them attractive if they fully understood their struggles to read, tie their shoe laces, navigate social relationships, or even remember and follow through on directions. When an individual with a learning difference has the opportunity to express these feelings in therapy, his or her partner has the opportunity not only to express understanding, but also to look for ways to reassure him or her of their attractiveness despite whatever challenges he or she may have.

While it is critically important for a person with a learning difference to feel comfortable identifying and expressing how past challenges have impacted him or her, the reverse is also true. The partners of individuals with learning differences may at times not only feel frustrated by the challenges of their significant other, and the possible delays, reminders, and even arguments that they seem to cause, but may also be reminded of the times that they too may have felt ignored, burdened, or had to care for others. Although it may be a challenge for a person with a learning difference to hear and empathize with the partner’s own experience, doing so is important for building mutual understanding and compassion. A couple’s therapist, in this context, would be wise to reassure the person with a learning difference that validating how his or her challenges impact the partner does not take away or minimize his or her own personal challenges. Therefore, an effective couple’s therapist will work with both individuals on how the past impacts the present, creating a safe space for these painful experiences to be identified and explored.




Kelly, K. (2014-2017). 9 Ways to Keep Your Challenges from Affecting Your Relationship. Retrieved from Understood: For Learning and Attention Issues :

Miller, B. (2017 ). Dealing with Learning Disabilities in Relationships. Retrieved from LD Online:

Call Me