You’re a Combative Communicator? That’s a Red Flag!

A black and white draw image of an open mouth is on the right. On the left, there is a twinkling gif of the words, "...that's a red flag!"
That’s a Red Flag! is a miniseries about the warning signs we look for in queer dating & relationships.


Red flags help us determine compatibility and check up on the health of relationships, but they’re also largely subjective markers that tell us more about ourselves than anyone else. As an autistic person, I’ve learned that generalizations about human behavior often don’t apply to me (do they apply to anyone, really?). This includes popular sentiments about red flags, particularly those regarding communication. Conventional dating wisdom says that communication in relationships should be easy and comfortable — two things communication rarely is for me.

If I manage the simplicity or ease that is characteristic of a “good” date or “healthy” relationship, then I’m likely masking (mirroring my words, body language and actions to match my best understanding of social norms). But while I’ve been told my masking makes conversation easier for allistics (people who aren’t autistic), it leaves me confused, stressed and a few breaths away from a meltdown. And at the point in conversation where I’m forced to mask, I’m not sure what’s going on with me or what the other person is trying to communicate. I’m just going through the motions.

I spent most of my life thinking this confusion was my fault. For example, when I was being diagnosed, the physician asked if I struggle with crowd control signs in buildings, the ones that direct people on where to que or sit. A positive response from me was one of the many things that led him to conclude I’m autistic. Prior to my autism assessment, I either waited in line and asked questions when it was my turn or sat until someone came to find me.

I’m confused often, and for some reason, the popular response to my confusion is to speak slowly and loudly to me or to do things for me instead of just answering my question or explaining what I might be misunderstanding. These kinds of interactions make me feel hyper-visible with the strong urge to shrink myself. I feel like I’m doing something wrong, especially because people tend to grow increasingly frustrated with any lack of comprehension on my part — sometimes to the extent where I’m given less than adequate service or denied service entirely. Society dissuades the kind of confusion that is near constant for me, and that taught me shame.

It felt natural then, when that same frustration was reflected in my relationship. I dated someone who used societally-reinforced ableism to exert their will. Before they grew comfortable with outright mocking words and I learned the painful acquiescence that marked the end of our relationship, one red flag was their resistance to mutual understanding. At first, they would respond to my questions for clarity in conversation with — I thought — genuine confusion. Eventually, that morphed into disbelief that I was confused or had misunderstood something they said — and finally, frustration and anger.

I tend to be hyper-literal. I struggle with knowing when the “you” being referenced is me or a general you, for instance. It’s led to a lot of mixups, but I’ve gotten the hang of explaining how my brain works and asking for clarity. Knowing I’m autistic has given me the language to explain myself, and sometimes that provides a reason for people who refuse to accept my word. I shouldn’t need a reason, but my diagnosis, which happened after the aforementioned relationship, offered me the privilege of not having to fight for my experience to feel real.

My ex was staunchly devoted to keeping me confused, preventing me from internalizing my own experience and privileging their own. My confusion in social situations became about my perceived “anxiety” or “clinginess” or “insecurity,” and any pushback against this narrative was “defensiveness” and proof I was “rejecting the truth.” My questions for clarification became “overthinking,” and I grew nervous to take up space.

The first step in regaining clarity for me was minimizing masking, which I could do once I became aware of it. When I stopped masking, I was able to see my ex’s willingness to prolong my confusion for what it was — an unwillingness to face the emotions or thoughts behind their actions. They were so caught up in their own shame and projection that they couldn’t see any reality beyond it. They refused to understand differences in experience, identity and meaning — things that make life very fun.

I much prefer relationships that meet confusion with curiosity and center attempts for clarity and mutual understanding. Relationships are about creating, maintaining and sharing space that is reciprocal and conducive to growth. They blossom when mutual understanding is prioritized.

If you’re dating someone who is trying to “win” conversations rather than understand your experience, they aren’t likely to see you or hold space for your reality. Chances are, they’ve got their mind made up on what everything means without your input. What’s the point of a relationship where one person’s experience subjugates another? We all deserve relationships where we are invited into discovery.


Feel free to share your own red flags in the comments!


We keep Autostraddle majority free-to-read, but it isn't free to create! We need YOU to sign up for A+ to help keep this indie queer media site funded. A+ membership starts at just $4/month or $30/year. If you can, will you join?

Join A+

Chinelo Anyadiegwu

Chinelo is a Nigerian-American Texan and soon-to-be Long Beach resident and English Graduate Student. They’re super interested in stories and narrative and they hope to write a queer, afrofuturist fantasy epic that’s years in the making.

Chinelo has written 21 articles for us.

15 Comments

  1. Thanks for this. You sounded a lot like me toward the end of a relationship with one of my exes. I started feeling like winning was more important to them than figuring out a solution to a problem or having us both be heard. And once I got diagnosed with autism, that’s then the ableist attitude came out and the loud slow talking.

    If you (general “you”) have to constantly explain that you want a solution, not an argument and you’re not being “obtuse” on purpose, that dynamic’s probably not going to change. BTW English really needs a general “you” again.

  2. “ Chances are, they’ve got their mind made up on what everything means without your input. What’s the point of a relationship where one person’s experience subjugates another?”

    This really resonated with me in terms of familial and platonic relationships. The focus on winning and lack of any real curiosity or attempt at mutual understanding has led me to decide the continued relationship was not worth the effort or frustration. Life is so much better without those relationships in it.

    Thanks for this thoughtful take.

  3. “When I stopped masking, I was able to see my ex’s willingness to prolong my confusion for what it was — an unwillingness to face the emotions or thoughts behind their actions.” Thank you for naming this. It’s something I run into a lot, and it can be so hard to deal with, but easier when I can at least identify what’s happening.

  4. Yes to all of this. I’m not autistic as far as I know, but I have anxiety, OCD and probably ADHD, and this kind of person – who has to always one-up you in a conversation, makes any perceived problem immediately your fault, and makes assumptions about your thought processes based on their own warped projections – is so, so exhausting to be in a relationship with.

  5. I was in a relationship like that for a very long time, too, and towards the end I finally realised that my ex didn’t respect my perspective or what I could add, for the same reasons you describe. I had internalised that my perspective was wrong and it made it so much harder to stand up for myself, but eventually I managed to leave. I’m so glad you and I are both out of those relationships now ❤️

  6. Thank you for sharing. I am not on the spectrum, but I often experience confusion of some form or another due to having very low vision. So I struggle with crowd control signs, facial expressions, and nonverbal body language/iContact. The world generally needs to become far more patient and less ableist

  7. This is a very good article. Also I think it is bold. It’s hard to assert autistic experiences as valid when much of society views it as disordered. That being said, I find people so combative when asked for clarification, and so turned off by communication in general. My only successful relationships were with men, because they found me easy to talk to.. and likely because they focused on my mouth and not so much the words coming out of it :-(

  8. I feel like when people are really focused on “winning” a conversation, it’s because they are trying to be understood and are seeking validation for their experience.where it goes off the rails is when they think their experience is the only, “true” experience there is. I think it’s important to always have the perspective that two people are going to see, feel, and communicAte the same experience differently, and that both experiences are still valid. I don’t think I’m autistic (though it’s been suggested to me before), but I often struggle with reading certain social cues and need direct and clear communication to be successful in any context. But sometimes other people dont thrive with my communication style. It’s just hard because no one teaches us how to navigate conflict in a healthy way, let alone how to switch communication styles to best meet another person where they’re at. All in all, I don’t think it’s the combative aspect of communication that’s the red flag. Some conversations will be combative because there are two people invested in mutual understanding, not getting what they need from the conversation, and experiencing hurt. But the lack of curiosity and Empathy for the other person are red flags for sure.

  9. love this and really appreciate this article especially:

    “If I manage the simplicity or ease that is characteristic of a “good” date or “healthy” relationship, then I’m likely masking (mirroring my words, body language and actions to match my best understanding of social norms). But while I’ve been told my masking makes conversation easier for allistics (people who aren’t autistic), it leaves me confused, stressed and a few breaths away from a meltdown. And at the point in conversation where I’m forced to mask, I’m not sure what’s going on with me or what the other person is trying to communicate. I’m just going through the motions.”

    relate to a lot of that. thank you, chinelo!

Contribute to the conversation...

Yay! You've decided to leave a comment. That's fantastic. Please keep in mind that comments are moderated by the guidelines laid out in our comment policy. Let's have a personal and meaningful conversation and thanks for stopping by!