ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) does have an impact on relationships. This includes relationships with friends, family, and of course, a romantic partner.
In this article, you will learn some basics about ADHD including common symptoms. You will also learn more about the impact of ADHD in a couple including common problems as well as what to do to work around them.
ADHD or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder is a diagnosis which comes from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5-TR). This manual guides mental health professionals in providing accurate diagnoses for client concerns.
The DSM calls ADHD “a persistent pattern of inattention and/or hyperactivity-impulsivity that interferes with functioning or development.” This includes symptoms of struggling to focus, being disorganized, talking a lot, being fidgety, and making impulsive decisions which may cause harm such as driving recklessly or having unprotected sex.
Finally, you may have heard of ADHD called “ADD.” But the current term is ADHD whether a person has an inattentive, hyperactive, or combined presentation of this diagnosis.
Adults and ADHD
Historically, ADHD was considered a disorder of childhood. However, research now reveals that ADHD exists throughout one’s life.
This is because a person with ADHD has a different brain. As such, experts Sari Solden and Michelle Frank explain in their book, A Radical Guide for Women with ADHD,
“ADHD is a lifelong, neurobehavioral, genetic syndrome that leads to structural, chemical, communication and arousal differences in the brain that subsequently impact what is called the ‘executive functioning’ system of the brain.”
Therefore, if you have ADHD – or you’re in a relationship with someone that has ADHD – it’s important to honor that this is a lifelong experience. And that neurodiversity is perfectly acceptable.
ADHD and Relationships
As ADHD is a lifelong experience, it’s very helpful to understand more about how it impacts relationships. This knowledge enables you – whether you have ADHD or your partner does – to better support your relationship.
Without being mindful of common pitfalls, unfortunately, ADHD tends to have a negative impact on relationships. Researchers have found that adults with ADHD tend to struggle more in their relationships leading to divorce and multiple marriages. And when they are married, partners of a person with ADHD tend to report less marital satisfaction and less intimacy.
Ways ADHD Can Be Stressful on a Relationship
Unmanaged ADHD symptoms can be very difficult on the non-ADHD partner. These symptoms include:
- Impulsivity which leads the ADHD partner to not think before they speak; this may make them offensive, hurtful, or overwhelming at times
- An apparent lack of empathy or consideration for their partner as the ADHD brain lacks the ability to prioritize tasks in a hierarchal way like a neurotypical brain can (for example, the ADHD brain may struggle to notice to turn off the oven before washing dishes thus leading dinner to burn)
- The ADHD partner may look entitled as they may overlook tasks around the house like cooking or cleaning,
- Hypersensitivity to criticism in the ADHD partner which may make the other partner feel like they can’t say anything,
- Emotional dysregulation is common with ADHD which means people with this diagnosis can struggle to stay emotionally balanced therefore their partner may feel like they’re “walking on eggshells,”
- Hyperfocus during courtship due to how stimulating this time is for the ADHD brain but then seemingly “checking out” of the relationship once it’s established,
- Rushing through sexual intimacy is common for people with ADHD i.e., jumping to sex without foreplay which is frustrating or isolating for their partner
People with partners with ADHD often feel alone, exhausted and resentful due to these symptoms. They may also start to think they are with a “narcissist.”
ADHD versus Narcissism
Some ADHD symptoms can appear like narcissism at a first glance.
For example, a person with ADHD being super attentive early in a relationship and then apparently checking out can look like love bombing. But the intent and goal is different.
Narcissists love bomb to later manipulate their partners and gaslight them. When a narcissist appears so perfect early on, they are confusing their partner’s future reality when they start acting abusive or cruel.
Instead a person with ADHD comes on strong early on because their brains crave stimulation and an early relationship is highly exciting. Of course, this drop off in attention is still hurtful and needs to be addressed but the goal isn’t to manipulate or abuse the partner.
Or both people with ADHD and those with narcissism may talk excessively and interrupt. But for those with ADHD this is related to impulsivity and hyperactivity. On the other hand, as narcissism expert Wendy Behary explains, narcissists interrupt because they assume their words are more important than others’ words.
Of course, a person with ADHD still needs to practice skills to be a better listener to best support their relationships even if they don’t think they are better than others.
The Cycle in the Relationship Can Become Toxic
ADHD doesn’t need to be a problem in a relationship. However, it often becomes one because of the cycle in which couples interact around the ADHD.
Circular causality is a concept from couples and family therapy which explains that in a relationship (unless it involves domestic violence against one person to the other) neither person is right. Also, neither person is wrong. Rather, the cycle in which they interact has become the problem.
In the case of ADHD in a relationship, many couples develop a highly problematic and sometimes toxic cycle.
A Common Problematic Cycle with ADHD in a Relationship
A common problematic cycle in a relationship with one person that has ADHD looks like this:
- The spouse with ADHD becomes lonely and resentful because the ADHD person tends to overlook responsibilities like cleaning or childcare. They begin to feel like a responsible parent to their partner with ADHD and resent that it feels like they have a child not a partner in life. They may begin to develop symptoms of codependency in response to living with a partner who has unmanaged ADHD such as overly giving and neglecting to self-care.
- They are critical, or worse contemptuous, to the ADHD partner out of their resentment. They may be passive-aggressive i.e., say things like “It must be so nice to have time to relax.” Or aggressive i.e., yell at them at times or call the partner names like “lazy.”
- The ADHD partner shuts down, and withdraws. Many people with ADHD are hypersensitive to criticism due to a history of being rejected by peers growing up for their differences.
- The ADHD partner feels like their non-ADHD partner is a nag and they can never satisfy them and they distance themselves. They may voice these feelings as well that their partner is too “controlling” or “hard on them.”
- The non-ADHD partner feels further alone and hopeless. They may become critical again but the more they voice their frustrations, the more the ADHD partner shuts down.
- Both build up walls of resentment towards one another.
Note as this is a cycle both are influencing one another and neither person started it. But both people have are able to interrupt this cycle equally by working on their personal skills.
Changing the Cycle
Couples therapy is focused on supporting each partner in interrupting the cycle where they personally can. Of course, a couple can work to do this one their own too.
Each person must focus on interrupting their part of the cycle rather than wanting the other person to change. (This is where couples get stuck often).
Here’s an example of how this would look in practice:
- The ADHD partner has a right to their frustrations and a right to voice these. However, this person must work on developing assertive communication skills. This is when you speak directly and clearly about your needs with kindness i.e., “I notice that you’re relaxing right now but I need to finish dinner and the kids are arguing. Would you be willing to please pause your show to support the kids? I don’t want to burn dinner.”
- The ADHD partner needs to work on reducing their sensitivity to complaints by their partner as their partner has this right. Developing distress tolerance skills to tolerate the discomfort of getting negative feedback is crucial. This can look like reminding themselves that all people are imperfect and that this is a fact of life they’re remembering to Radically Accept. They may remind themselves that since they’re imperfect like all other people it’s natural that they won’t always meet their partner’s needs perfectly. With this radical acceptance and positive self-talk, they can then develop the strength to be able to say, “Of course, thanks for asking” rather than shutting down like leaving the room or telling their partner that they’re always on their case.
- The non-ADHD partner can work to be more mindful of their internal dialogue regarding their partner. And rather than labeling their partner as “selfish” or “uncaring” for instance they can instead be mindful of their behaviors in the moment, i.e., “I notice that they left their clothes in the dryer all week.”
- The ADHD partner also can work on developing mindfulness skills to help them be a more, active engaged partner rather than waiting for the non-ADHD partner to make a complaint. Maybe they set a timer for a certain time of day to walk around the house looking for messes to clean up.
- Developing mindfulness skills (which include meditation and practicing deep breathing) also helps the ADHD partner become a better listener which helps the non-ADHD partner feel like they have a true partner in life rather than feeling so lonely.
- The ADHD partner can practice using more balanced, supportive internal dialogue. This is instead of what researchers identified is an ADHD person’s tendency to use negative self-talk like calling themselves “stupid” or a “failure.” Positive affirmations can help with this.
- The non-ADHD partner needs to practice Radical Acceptance that the ADHD person isn’t going to magically become someone without ADHD. They can work on positive mindfulness also. This means actively paying attention to the ways that the ADHD partner brings excitement, joy, and color into their lives.
What to Do if You or Your Partner May Have ADHD
If you think you have ADHD it’s important to seek out an evaluation with a psychiatrist or clinical psychologist. With an evaluation you can receive this diagnosis – or rule it out. If you have ADHD, that’s completely ok! Many successful people have ADHD and you can learn to manage the symptoms which cause you and your partner stress.
If you believe your partner may have ADHD, encourage them to attend an evaluation. Try to make this request with a non-judgmental attitude. Explain you’re just hoping to get more clarity on how to best support you both.
Supporting You and Your Relationship
If you or your partner have ADHD, and it’s causing relationship stress, remember you can interrupt the cycle any time. But you must focus on your personal thoughts and behaviors which are adding to the stress. Reference the above example of how to create a better cycle for tips and tricks to do this. But most basically it’s about developing communication skills, mindfulness, and emotional coping skills.
This blog is full of articles to support with these concerns.
Books to Support You and Your Relationship
Reading is a wonderful way to develop better skills and improve relationships with little to no money invested.
Books you may find especially helpful to best support yourself and your partner around ADHD in your relationship are:
Finally, if you find that you and your partner are “stuck” it is wise to seek the support of a couples therapist. Here you can learn more tools that are personalized for you and your partner. You may also be held accountable by the therapist to truly practice the skills necessary to break the cycles you don’t like.
A Wonderful Relationship is Possible
By committing to learning and practicing skills, you are ensuring that you can have a wonderful relationship whether you or your partner has ADHD. This diagnosis – like many others – just requires that you stay mindful and compassionate towards one another.
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About The Author
Krystal Mazzola Wood, LMFT is a practicing relationship therapist with over a decade of experience. Currently, Krystal sees clients at her private practice, The Healthy Relationship Foundation. She has dedicated her entire career to empowering people to heal from unhealthy relationship processes. She does this by teaching the skills and tools necessary to have a life filled with healthy and loving relationships.
This passion led her to write her best-selling books and create courses. Her books, The Codependency Recovery Plan: A 5-Step Guide to Understand, Accept, and Break Free from the Codependent Cycle and The Codependency Workbook: Simple Practices for Developing and Maintaining Your Independence have helped many people heal.
Her third book, Therapy Within Reach: Setting Boundaries, will be released September, 2023.
If you have any personal dating or relationship questions, Krystal is happy to provide advice using her expertise and compassion. If you feel comfortable, feel free to leave any questions in the comments of this post. Otherwise, you may send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or DM her on Instagram. Your name and any other identifying information will always be kept confidential.