Do you or your partner have attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)? Of the millions of people with ADHD, only 9% fully outgrow the disorder. Because many adults have to learn how to cope with ADHD during adulthood, ADHD often has a role in their relationships or marriage.
We’re walking through the signs and symptoms of ADHD and the three pillars of support. We met with a Certified EFT therapist, trainer, and supervisor, Alexine Thompson-de Benoit to learn more about how ADHD can materialize in a couple’s relationships.
5 common signs of ADHD
An individual with ADHD or ADD may experience the following symptoms:
- Losing things or a lack of organization
- Hyperfocusing or losing track of time
- Symptoms are present in work life, home life, and all life aspects
An ADHD person’s brain operates very quickly, making it difficult to slow down a conversation and their thought process. For an ADHD person, it is like driving a Ferrari but only having bike brakes. Additionally, a person with ADHD may find it challenging to plan for an upcoming task. Unless a task impacts the present moment, giving something or someone attention can be difficult. In a relationship, this may look like the non-ADHD partner being interrupted or unable to wrap up a conversation before the ADHD partner moves to another topic. The ADHD partner may feel that the conversation has concluded based on the speed of working through it in their head and assume a resolution or conclusion.
Individuals with ADHD tend to fall in love with planners. This partner attraction type can lead to an overperforming, planning partner and an impulsive, hyper-focusing partner. There is also research that shows if both partners have ADHD that one partner will assume the role of the planner partner. The planner and hyper-focused dynamic can set the couple up for a problematic parent/child dynamic. Instead of operating as peers, the planning partner likely becomes resentful. Executive functioning is complex for ADHD partners, while planners naturally address plans and tasks. On the one hand, the couple complements each other well, but on the other hand, it can feel like misplaced responsibility for the non-ADHD partner to dictate what to do and make plans. The non-ADHD partner usually wants to feel support from their ADHD partner in completing tasks jointly, so the couple operates as peers.
3 pillars of support for ADHD
While the ADHD dynamics in a relationship may feel daunting, there are supports for the individual coping with ADHD and the couple. There are three critical pillars for coping with ADHD individually. Then, the interview with Alexine Thompson explores some of the couple’s dynamics and necessary support for the couple.
There are three pillars of support for those with ADHD:
- Medication management
- The medication management is to help the ADHD or ADD partner’s brain produce more dopamine. Some people are uncomfortable with medication, which leads to the need for a clean diet with Omega 3s and the importance of exercise. It is essential to maintain iron and magnesium levels and avoid preservatives or additives, which can worsen ADHD symptoms.
- It can be helpful to meet with a therapist to work on executive functioning skills (i.e., organization, prioritization, etc.). The needed coping strategies and organizational skills vary from person to person. Communicating with your partner about the best strategies for you can be helpful. Coaching helps the ADHD partner work on their part of the cycle while the non-ADHD partner can work on not taking on too much responsibility.
- Psychoeducation is the process of better understanding and living with various mental health conditions. It can be meaningful for the ADHD and non-ADHD partner to learn more about the disorder. There are resources cited later in this article that can prove helpful to a couple trying to understand the physiology and interactional patterns of ADHD in their relationship.
Alexine is a clinician in Switzerland that has excellent insight into the ADHD community and works with emotionally-focused therapy (EFT). Alexine has presented on ADHD topics on various platforms and offers 2-day conferences around the world to help couples impacted by ADHD. She and her husband also have this dynamic in their marriage, making her insights unique.
Interview with Alexine Thompson
What are key indicators for a couple that ADHD/ADD is impacting their relationship?
One thing that tells me ADHD/ADD might be in the picture is when one partner complains of feeling invisible, forgotten, dropped, and they feel like their partner is unreliable. For example, the non-ADHD partner may have to repeat things a lot or may feel lost in the ADHD partner’s world. The ADHD partner may hyperfocus on work or a hobby, which may leave the non-ADHD partner feeling like an afterthought.
The partner of someone with ADHD is often quite angry and feels like they are doing it all alone. The person who may have ADD/ADHD often does not seem to understand why they do the things they do, or why they do not do the things they do not do. They tend not to finish what they started, not remember things properly, lose things, or interrupt constantly and lack respect. This lead to them ending up feeling like a failure.
All those things are signs to me that ADHD may be impacting them. Another thing that often appears is the parent-child relationship in the couple. When the partner has turned into a mom or a dad, and the ADHD partner feels infantilized.
Should the non-ADHD partner in a relationship try to support the ADHD partner as they work on the three pillars, or does this lead to a parenting dynamic?
The best way to be supportive is to educate yourself on ADHD and understand how the brain works when one has ADHD. That education will foster empathy and understanding. That awareness will also help take responsibility for what you can do. For example, the non-ADHD partner shouldn’t communicate things in passing but instead send very clear signals and ensure your ADHD partner has heard you and recorded the info.
If the non-ADHD partner starts monitoring whether their ADHD partner is taking their medications, doing their tasks, or organizing for their partner, it can turn into parenting. The best is to ask the person with ADHD how their partner can be helpful and supportive. Ned Hallowell says that a supportive partner that is encouraging and cheerleading is super important.
There are things that can be put into place together, such as a structure for the week, a common agenda where everything gets written down, and rituals. The environment must be simplified, as a cluttered house is a nightmare for the ADHD brain. The ADHD partner has to own their own process of taking the medication, going to therapy, and seeking out coaching. No one can do that for them; they need to feel empowered in the process, not controlled.
How can couples practice slowing down the conversation outside of a therapy session and raising awareness?
Developing rituals or keywords can be helpful. I use gestures like touching the nose (which can be funny) or ensuring the couple looks into each other’s eyes before talking to check in. You can use simple and clear phrases like, “Are you with me? Are you listening?” before starting the conversation.
Also, it can be important to keep it short and have it reflected by their partner before continuing. Chunking is important to an ADHD partner’s understanding and increases success in conversations. The more succinct a non-ADHD partner can be, the more likely the ADHD partner can hold the entirety of the conversation. Instead of a 5 or 10-minute vent, the non-ADHD partner can try going through one aspect of a conversation at a time to avoid having to repeat oneself.
How can an ADHD partner enrich the couple’s relationship and hear that they are not the problem?
ADHD partners come with different gifts. Sometimes it’s a lot of energy and new ideas that can allow the relationship to experience things they would have never experienced before. Sometimes it’s a positive attitude about everything. Sometimes it’s incredible entrepreneurship and creativity. I think it’s important to ask oneself: “What am I good at, and am I doing it right now?”.
An ADHD person at the wrong job in an environment without support and encouragement will be miserable and struggle to see what they can bring into the world. But put them in the right environment, doing a task that fosters their strength, and they shine! What are they good at? Let them do that, and you do what you are good at. It’s pointless to insist that all tasks are equally shared. Yes, some tasks need to be done by both, but take the time to see what should be avoided and better handled by each partner. Each partner playing to their strengths is the goal.
What resources would you share with a couple as they navigate ADHD in their relationship?
I love Orlov’s books and resources. I just started reading “The Disorganized Mind” by Nancy Ratey, who is an ADHD coach and wife of John Ratey, an ADHD expert. I also recommend the books “Driven to Distraction” and “Delivered from Distraction,” by Ned Hallowell. The YouTube channel “How to ADHD” with Jessica McCabe can also be a great resource.
Thank you Alexine for providing your insights into ADHD in couples’ relationships. It is encouraging to hear how couples can thrive together and how ADHD can bring assets to couples’ relationships. We appreciate all your insights!
A couple of additional ADHD resources that can be useful are the ADDitude Magazine and Melissa Orlov’s books. Connect Couples did a previous post about Melissa Orlov’s book “The ADHD Effect on Marriage.” Orlov has also written another book called “A Couple’s Guide to Thriving with ADHD.”
Are you struggling with ADHD in your relationship?
Do you think ADHD is negatively impacting your relationship, or are you seeking prioritization tools? We have therapists who can help with these specific challenges. Schedule an appointment today and get the support you deserve.