Have you and your partner noticed increased marital unhappiness due to constant escalated fights over miscommunication, distractibility, and forgetfulness? This could be an indicator that you or your partner has attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). If you suspect that this could be true in your romantic relationship, it is important that the partner with the symptoms be evaluated for ADHD. The American Psychiatric Association outlines the ADHD criteria here.
If ADHD is present (or you suspect it is present) for one of you, there is no doubt that ADHD is affecting your relationship. In our relationships, we bring our individual experiences and history into the relationship; this includes ADHD. Melissa Orlov, author of the book The ADHD Effect on Marriage: Understand and Rebuild Your Relationship in Six Steps, recently addressed how to know if ADHD is affecting your relationship on her blog. Read on to learn more information on how ADHD could be present in your relationship and potential ways to troubleshoot. If you are interested in learning more, then check out Orlov’s book as a supplemental resource.
The ADHD Relationship
For ADHD couples, it is common for there to be a fast courtship, with high emotions. This is related to the ADHD partner being hyper-focused on their partner and the new relationship. For ADHD partners, there is a stimulus that occurs when new ideas, people, or hobbies spark interest. When the newness of the romantic relationship wears off and the stimulus is gone, the non-ADHD partner typically feels alone and confused. The non-ADHD partner is left wondering why their partner does not seem interested in them anymore and typically receives it as something that they did wrong.
It’s common for ADHD partners to be attracted to planners. This naturally sets up the relationship with two different perspectives about how to get things done and in what time frame. This can lead to the non-ADHD partner feeling that they have to carry the weight of the household chores —planning upcoming events, and feeling alone in handling financial and childcare decisions.
Another dynamic that you may see in your relationship is the parent-child interaction. The non-ADHD partner may notice a one-up mentality coming into play, which usually causes more nagging and ridicule toward the ADHD partner. When the parent-child dynamic enters the relationship, the ADHD partner is pushed away from the non-ADHD partner and internalizes messages of failure and not being good enough. These messages are typically already present for the ADHD partner as they have heard similar lines in school from teachers or parents in regard to day-to-day maintenance.
When there is a stark difference between partners’ makeup, there can be increased frustration in the relationship. However, there can be several ways to communicate in your ADHD relationship.
6 Steps to Rebuild Your ADHD Relationship
Taking your relationship from where it currently is to a more positive and loving place will take work. Orlov outlines six steps that are crucial for improving your ADHD relationship. She also highlights the importance of professional help for both the couple and as individuals. Professional therapy, with someone who specializes in ADHD, can help the couple process the couple’s challenges with communication, grieve the expectations of what they thought their relationship would be like, work on reconnection, and roles that does not leave one partner feeling like the parent.
The other reframe that is important for the couple to consider is that their current relationship does not have to dictate how it will be.Before jumping into fixing your relationship, there is a space for grieving what has not or cannot be in your relationship. Grieving allows for you to accept your relationship as it is, rather than constantly striving for it to be deemed normal.
1. Cultivate empathy for your significant other
The first area that a couple can work to improve their ADHD relationship is cultivating empathy for one another. This can look like appreciating the daily struggles of your partner and seeing things from their emotional world. By considering their logic and validating their experience, you are not agreeing with them or their behavior. Rather, you are acknowledging that you understand where they are coming from. This can go a long way.
2. Address obstacle emotions
The obstacle emotions that regularly come up in ADHD relationships are fear of failure, denial, chronic anger, and hopelessness. In life, all our emotions are valid. Keep in mind that it’s not our emotions that get us into trouble, rather it’s how we respond to them. This is particularly true when we respond with anger. Anger regularly comes up when one or both partners sacrifice their sense of self for the preservation of the relationship. This is where some of the individual work needs to occur as each partner works toward individual growth.
A new relationship can be created as the couple moves forward without the previous failures. This highlights the importance of forgiveness. Not forgetting the past and where you have been, rather forgiving your partner and starting again. It is important to acknowledge that you can only control yourself in your relationship, not your partner. What do you need to improve on in your relationship? What boundaries do you have for yourself? A couple can approach each other differently instead of constantly sharing that their partner needs to try harder. The latter typically implies blame.
3. Get treatment for you both
All ADHD relationships would benefit from speaking to a professional about their relationship. A professional can help the couple understand each individual’s areas of healing that need to take place. For the non-ADHD partner, it may be grieving what is not in their relationship and the anger present. For the ADHD partner, it may mean working on organization and making different choices that impact their relationship.
Orlov gives the imagery of a three-legged stool for the ADHD partner. In this metaphor, the legs are 1) making physical changes, 2) making behavioral and habitual changes, and 3) developing strategies to use when you interact with your non-ADHD partner (i.e. communication). It is key to reframe for one another that the past ADHD cannot be treated, only accepted. Living in the past reinforces old habits and cycles that the couple has. The treatment that each partner chooses to enter into takes place in the present.
4. Improve communication
Another step for improving most ADHD relationships is healthy, respectful communication. When there is poor communication, the couple feels disconnected. By changing how the couple communicates, the couple has the opportunity to connect. This can be attained through active listening, slowing conversations down, validation, and balancing status. This can help balance status in your relationship by eliminating a possible parent-child dynamic. You are both equals in this relationship, which means you each need a turn to listen and share without being told how incorrect your view is.
By slowing down the conversation and focusing on each partner’s view of reality, you can minimize the escalation in conflict. Escalation is regularly present in ADHD couples. It is also worth noting that ADHD partners can bounce around in conversations from one topic to the next. Rather than addressing a whole list of items at one time with each other, try and pick one idea to focus on.
We all like to be heard and to hear our partner validate our experience. When a couple is communicating well, there is shared power by believing one another’s stories and their experienced thoughts and feelings. This does not mean that you have to agree with the stance or view of your partner. Instead, you are acknowledging their reality and that their logic makes sense.
5. Set boundaries and find your own voice
Before you can be a team, you have to know who you are and who your partner is. It can be important to assess for yourself what your preferences and typical ways of doing things are. Similarly, with your partner, it is important to understand who they are separate from ADHD and which steps they are taking to manage their ADHD. Are they willing to be diagnosed and take medication? Are they open to individual and couples therapy for ADHD? You can determine which boundaries and steps need to be taken to either understand your partner’s behavioral responses and emotions. These answers can also help guide an open discussion about the longevity of your relationship.
When we create boundaries for ourselves, this does not mean that we abandon our partner. We are placing limits on what we can live with and defining our own dealbreakers. Your dealbreakers may look like the ADHD partner not being willing to get treatment, substance abuse, anger issues, or infidelity. It is also important to note as you consider your boundaries that you need to be willing to follow through on the boundary you set. There has to be follow-through for it to be effective. Finding your voice to communicate your boundaries and dealbreakers in the relationship can lead to open conversations of change or discernment as to whether the relationship should continue.
6. Reignite romance and have some fun
Lastly, it is important to reignite the passion in your marriage by having fun together. Because ADHD has to do with stimulus, there can be such spontaneity in your ADHD partner. Research shows that doing the same things that you both already like does not change how each partner feels about the relationship. However, changing your hobbies, joining your partner in one of their hobbies (particularly important for men), or spontaneously going on an adventure is the first step to rekindling.
It can be important for you and your partner to carve out some alone time, rather than bringing your children along. It is best to invest in your marriage by getting a babysitter to be able to enjoy being a couple and being separate from your children. If getting a babysitter is too expensive, consider swapping with another couple to watch their kids so they can go on a date.
To continue to build intimacy, try finding 10 minutes at the beginning or end of your day where you and your partner cuddle in bed or on the couch and share affirmations with each other. The goal is not for this time to lead to sex, but to foster positive conversation and connection. When it comes to intimacy, some ADHD partners get distracted during sex and need the spontaneity of changing places, positions, and foreplay activities to increase stimulus. Let this be a fun way of playing with each other by discussing ways to change bedroom talk. It’s important to normalize that some ADHD partners have varying sex drives of lower or higher than the general population.
Navigating ADHD in your relationship
ADHD does not mean the end of a relationship. Rather, if ADHD is present in your relationship, there are well-documented strategies to live life together differently. This does not mean changing one another, but understanding each other. It is crucial that you each work on yourself and your relationship by getting treatment for ADHD’s impact. Consider reaching out to someone at Connect Couples Therapy for couples or individual counseling. Your relationship can improve as both partners work on making the relationship better by seeing each other as allies and accepting ADHD instead of comparing their relationship to others.