9 Ways ADHD Ruins Marriages

“The most destructive pattern in an ADHD relationship is when one partner becomes the responsible ‘parent’ figure and the other the irresponsible ‘child.'” 8 more unhealthy ADD marriage mistakes, and how to remedy them.

ADHD Relationships: Marrige and Friendship Help for Adults
ADHD Relationships: Marrige and Friendship Help for Adults

ADHD and Relationships

Relationships in which one or both partners have attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD) range from successful to disastrous. Partnerships affected — or should I say, distorted — by ADHD symptoms can bring “the worst of times.” Pain and anger abound. You can barely talk to each other about problems affecting the relationship. When you do, you rarely agree. You’re frustrated that you’ve gotten to this point, and you’re disappointed that you haven’t made things better.

Can ADHD Cause Divorce Or Other Relationship Issues?

ADHD can be a contributing factor in a wide range of relationship problems. If your partner has ADD, you may feel ignored and lonely. Your partner can focus on things that interest him, but not on you. He never seems to follow through on what he agrees to do. He may seem to act like a child instead of an adult. You nag him, and you’ve started to dislike the person you’ve become. The two of you either fight or clam up. Worst of all, you are stressed about being saddled with the household responsibilities while your partner gets to have all the fun.

If you have ADHD, you may feel your partner has become a nagging monster. The person you loved has become a control freak, trying to manage the details of your life. No matter how hard you try, you can’t meet your partner’s expectations. The easiest way to deal with her is to leave her alone.

Either of these scenarios can ultimately result in the end of a relationship. If the above descriptions sound familiar, your relationship is suffering from what I call the ADHD effect. ADHD symptoms — and the responses both of you have to them — have damaged your partnership. The good news is that understanding the role that ADHD plays in your relationship can turn it around. When you learn to identify the challenges ADHD brings to relationships, and the steps you can take to meet them, you can rebuild your lives. That’s exactly what my partner and I did.

Signs Undiagnosed ADHD Is Causing Relationship Problems

We didn’t know that my partner had ADHD. I had fallen in love with his brilliance, sharp wit, and his appetite for adventure. His intense focus on me was surprising and flattering. He was warm and attentive. When I got sick on our first date, he tucked me under a blanket on the sofa and made me hot tea. I was touched.

Not long after we got married, our relationship began to fall apart. I couldn’t understand how someone who had been so attentive could ignore my needs, or be so “consistently inconsistent” helping out around the house. He was equally confused and annoyed. How could the woman he had married, who had seemed so endearing and optimistic, change into a fire-breathing dragon who wouldn’t give him a break and wouldn’t leave him alone?

[Self-Test: Could You Have ADD?]

By our tenth anniversary, we had considered divorce. We were angry, frustrated, disconnected, and unhappy. I was beyond sad. We stayed glued together only by our desire to raise our children well and by a feeling, deep inside, that we ought to be able to do better. Around that time, our daughter, who was nine, was diagnosed as having a learning disability and ADHD. In time, my husband was also diagnosed with ADHD.

Learning to Treat and Cope With ADHD to Avoid Relationship Problems

Discovering that one or both partners have ADHD is just the beginning. Medication is an efficient way to jump-start treatment, but behavioral changes need to be made. What you do once you’ve started treatment is crucial to your relationship.

If inability to follow through on tasks makes you unreliable in your partner’s eyes, use a smartphone reminder system or another organizational plan to get the task done. Coaching and cognitive behavioral therapy can also help.

Understand that such changes must be voluntary. No matter how much a non-ADHD partner may want to, she can’t force her significant other to get organized or become more attentive. Both partners must change. Often, an ADHD partner sets up a system that works well for him yet seems inefficient or strange to his non-ADHD partner. Her criticism or suggestions about how to do it better demoralize him. My husband and I learned this the hard way, mostly at his expense, as I kept trying to force him to do things differently. The harder I pushed, the more he resisted, and the worse our relationship became. Sound familiar?

[Free Download: Manage ADHD’s Impact on Your Relationship]

Rediscovering romance and joy in your relationship again after years of hurt is a journey. Each partner works at reframing the challenges that ADHD introduces into his or her life. They work on systems and treatments for managing ADHD symptoms. And, one day, each finds that the good things about their partner are what he notices most.

The rewards are worth it. My husband and I moved from dysfunctional to happy. We thrive in our careers, and our relationship is stronger now than before. My husband’s ADHD symptoms are under control, and I understand and appreciate the effort that it takes. We recognize and accept — and laugh about — each other’s faults, and rejoice in each other’s strengths.

You can do this, too. You can move past unhappiness and create something better, if you recognize how ADHD affects your relationship and make adjustments in your attitude and behaviors.

9 Ways ADHD Affects Relationships

Many ADHD relationships are affected by similar patterns, especially when the disorder is under-managed. When you recognize these patterns, you can change them.

Areas for the ADHD Partner to Work On

1. Hyperfocus Dating. The biggest shock to ADHD relationships comes with the transition from courtship to marriage. Typically, a person with ADHD hyperfocuses on his partner in the early stages of a relationship. He makes her feel she is the center of his world. When the hyperfocus stops, the relationship changes dramatically. The non-ADHD partner takes it personally.

My husband stopped hyperfocusing on me the day we got home from our honeymoon. Suddenly, he was gone — back to work, back to his regular life. I was left behind. After six months of marriage, I wondered if I had married the right man. The non-ADHD partner should remember that inattentiveness is not intentional, and find a way to forgive her partner. Feeling ignored is painful. Address the issue head-on by establishing ways to improve your connections and intimacy, and allowing yourself to mourn the pain that hyperfocus shock has caused you both.

2. Walking On Eggshells. Tantrums, anger, and rude behavior often accompany untreated ADHD symptoms. One man with ADHD described it to me as “having to anticipate my partner’s response to every single thing I do. I live my life trying to second-guess her, because I want to please her, but most of the time she’s just mad.” Changing behavior in both partners is critical to turning around a relationship. Don’t assume that anger or frustration in either partner is part of ADHD. Chances are good that you can get these things under control.

3. Believing ADHD Doesn’t Matter. Some partners with ADHD don’t believe that ADHD is a factor in their relationship. They say, “I don’t need treatment! I like myself just the way I am. You’re the one who doesn’t like me, and has problems with this relationship.” My husband was in denial. The good news for us was that, about a month or so after diagnosis, he decided he didn’t have much to lose by considering treatment. He discovered it made a world of difference.

So here’s my plea to all ADHD partners who are skeptical: If you don’t believe the disorder affects your relationship, assume that it does, and get an evaluation and effective treatment. It could save your relationship.

Areas for the Non-ADHD Partner to Work On

4. Misinterpreting Symptoms. You and your partner probably misinterpret each other’s motives and actions because you think you understand each other. For example, a partner with undiagnosed ADHD may be distracted, paying little attention to those he loves. This can be interpreted as “he doesn’t care” rather than “he’s distracted.” The response to the former is to feel hurt. The response to the latter is “to make time for each other.” Getting to know your differences, in the context of ADHD, can clear up misinterpretations.

5. Chore Wars. Having a partner with untreated ADHD often results in a non-ADHD partner taking on more housework. If workload imbalances aren’t addressed, the non-ADHD partner will feel resentment. Trying harder isn’t the answer. ADHD partners must try “differently,” if they are going to succeed — and the non-ADHD partners must accept their partner’s unorthodox approaches. Leaving clean clothes in the dryer, so they can be easily found the next morning, may seem odd, but it may work for the ADHD partner. Both partners benefit when the non-ADHD partner admits that his way of doing things doesn’t work for his partner.

6. Impulsive Responses. ADHD symptoms alone aren’t destructive to a relationship; a partner’s response to the symptoms, and the reaction that it evokes, is. You can respond to a partner’s habit of impulsively blurting out things by feeling disrespected and fighting back. This will cause your ADHD partner to take up the fight. Or you can respond by changing your conversational patterns to make it easier for the ADHD partner to participate. Some ways to do this include speaking in shorter sentences and having your partner take notes to “hold” an idea for later. Couples who are aware of this pattern can choose productive responses.

7. Nag Now, Pay Later. If you have an ADHD partner, you probably nag your partner. The best reason not to do it is that it doesn’t work. Since the problem is the ADHD partner’s distractibility and untreated symptoms, not his motivation, nagging won’t help him get things done. It causes the ADHD partner to retreat, increasing feelings of loneliness and separation, and reinforces the shame that he feels after years of not meeting people’s expectations. Having a partner treat the ADHD symptoms, and stopping when you find yourself nagging, will break this pattern.

It Takes the Two of You

8. The Blame Game. The Blame Game sounds like the name of a TV show. “For 40 points: Who didn’t take out the garbage this week?” It’s not a game at all. The Blame Game is corrosive to a relationship. It is happening when the non-ADHD partner blames the ADHD partner’s unreliability for the relationship problems, and the ADHD partner blames the non-ADHD partner’s anger — “If she would just calm down, everything would be fine!” Accepting the validity of the other partner’s complaints quickly relieves some of the pressure. Differentiating your partner from her behavior allows a couple to attack the problem, not the individual, head-on.

9. The Parent-Child Dynamic. The most destructive pattern in an ADHD relationship is when one partner becomes the responsible “parent” figure and the other the irresponsible “child.” This is caused by the inconsistency inherent in untreated ADHD. Since the ADHD partner can’t be relied upon, the non-ADHD partner takes over, resulting in anger and frustration in both partners. Parenting a partner is never good. You can change this pattern by using ADHD support strategies, such as reminder systems and treatment. These help the ADHD partner become more reliable and regain his or her status as “partner.”

[12 Ways to Save Your Most Important Relationships]

Excerpted from The ADHD Effect on Marriage, by Melissa Orlov. Copyright 2010. Reprinted by permission of Specialty Press, Plantation, Florida. All rights reserved.

Updated on July 9, 2019

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  1. My husband and I both have ADHD and are not getting any treatment for it and things are going surprisingly well. We’ve been married for 11 years and have a 6 year old son with ADHD, which is where most of our struggles come from, but the only big fights that we ever had were in the 4 years that we dated (and yes, we hyper dated… which my parents hated). I had a lot of struggles with my parents, and my husband felt like the first person to ever really understand me.
    We go through periods where we ignore each other, sometimes for weeks at a time, but that’s fine with us. We also have times when we hyper focus on each other. We have bad habits (I laughed when it talked about leaving the laundry in the dryer…. that’s where our laundry is now). I constantly make schedules, but since I never follow them, it’s hard to get upset with my husband for ignoring them too. At least the house gets cleaned once a week when my mom comes over. When I was growing up, the state of my room was a constant battle, now i feel like I have to prove that I can keep my house clean without the constant nagging.
    I’m not saying that my husband and I agree on everything, because we don’t, but we understand each other. I read this article hoping there would be more tips for when both partners and kids have ADHD. It can be a bit chaotic sometimes. Happy chaos.

    1. Lucky for you that you married someone like yourself. Be happy. I did no realize what add was until I had been married awhile , now with an add son. I am lonely and fed up. Second marriage, second divorce. I really see no punt in relationships with someone like this. They don’t even know you are in the room.

      1. I do understand. I stuggle with my ADHD partner but the more Im learning about the ADHD the more understanding I Have for him. Its still very frustrating most of the time but it requires contstant work. Hopefully in time we can find ourselves in a good spot. If you have patience to invest itll all work out. The ADHD parter should seek treatment and maybe you guys could get some therapy together…I hope you find peace

    2. Great article. My ADHD was undiagnosed until I was 73. After 30+ years of struggle in our marriage we developed all 9 of the destructive patterns. Giving truth to the old saying, knowledge is power, we have radically changed our dynamic. The past 2 years are so much better. It is tempting to mourn over past losses but we are instead focusing on enjoying what we finally found.
      As a retired family nurse practitioner, I have the time and energy to engage in helping others deal with their ADHD through CHADD. This author writes with such clarity that I will be recommending her work to others. Thank you, Melissa Orlov

  2. TO MELISSA ORLOV: Please start using gender neutral pronouns. This article was riddled with “him” and “he”. As a woman with adhd I found it bothersome to read this article always assuming men had the problem. Wound you mind using word like “they” or “them” or “your partner” and “their” please?

    1. I actually scrolled down to the comment section for the sole purpose of making the same request. I have a difficult time getting through some of these articles as it is already. When they throw in having to switch every pronoun, well let’s just say it was extremely unpleasant. Working memory is one of my major issues. I would NEVER BUY a book that would frustrate me in such a manner. I truly hope that the author reads these comments.

    2. Are you kidding??? There are people that have real issues because they are on the verge of losing a family they dearly love because of their AHD and all you have to contribute is gender pronouns??? I would kindly ask you to take your feminist propaganda elsewhere. This is a support community and not a centre for your propaganda.

      1. It’s not just about gender pronouns. I’m one of those people having real issues and looking for help. Repeatedly referring to the male as the one with ADHD made this article extremely difficult to read and relate to. I quit reading it because because I constantly had to swap who the ADHD person was in my head. Why do you need to attack people for their comments and opinions? Propaganda? Really?? There are people with real issues here trying to get help from an article and you’re using this as a platform for your anti-feminist whining. You’re the one who’s completely missing the point.

        1. Should it REALLY matter if the author says he or she???? No just quit crying and take the information and put it to use where/if you see fit……geez people!

  3. I was getting positive feedback from this article until I got to the feminist comments and then it became very negative. I was appreciating the pronouns that we’re informing me as to which partner it was with different situations. I felt enlightened to know that my problems occurred from different perspectives and not have to guess if it was the woman or the man for each of the circumstances. Please refrain from the distraction of your sensitivity and let us focus on POSITIVE results from these fine articles that are intended to help us. You have distracted me from the point of this article. And now I must all over again. Thanks.

  4. RUN… do not walk away from any marriage to a person with ADD.

    Especially if you’re young.

    Don’t get involved with them… ever ever ever ever.

    The non-ADD person will eventually feel so very miserable, trapped and completely ignored by the ADD person that they will eventually be constantly trying to figure out how to abandon the marriage at an older age when things get even more amazingly difficult to change.

    It’s not that the ADD person is bad. Not at all. In fact, they have really, really good intentions and it is oddly charming. And the non-ADD person DOES NOT wish their ADD partner harm in any way. It’s just that if a non-ADD person wishes to enjoy living and loving it cannot be accomplished with an ADD person.

    Do NOT trust an ADD person to handle money. They will spend and spend and spend based on the whimsey of the moment and when all Hell breaks loose and life surprises the relationship with an emergency or crisis, they will point at the non-ADD person and blame them, or their boss, or the world or their friends.

    With age, the ADD person will become an even more reclusive shut-in who doubts their own abilities due to the constant criticism of others and the world at large. They will be so very frustrated to see that everyone around them raises kids, keeps a home, has a job, takes vacations, enjoys social events… but they can’t, or more succinctly, REFUSE to. They will lock themselves in a house or room and only go out for brief periods when absolutely necessary. The non-ADD person in the “marriage” is told “go without me” ALL THE TIME.

    This is absolutely no way for a non-ADD person to live and they should never have to. LIFE IS TOO SHORT TO ENDURE THIS.

    1. I have to agree with this. I married a man with ADHD. It was not the first marriage for either of us and I didnt get to know him well enough before marrying him.

      Our 12 years of marriage have been a disaster and the biggest problem has been he cant hold a job. At least half the marriage I have been the sole provider and I’m extremely angry and resentful. I come home from a long days work and find him sitting in front of the tv, nothing done around the house to help out at all. And when he does do something, that maybe took an hour or two of his day I’m expected to make a huge deal of it. We have had constant financial problems because of his reckless spending and inability to keep a job. In 12 years he had over 50 different jobs and the longest was for a little less than a year.

      I feel like his mother, like I’m taking care of a child, and he is angry because I’ve become a control freak. Its a mess and I dont know how to fix it other than to leave the marriage. He admits he has ADHD but says it no longer affects him. He has a very bad temper and is offensive and rude, not just to me but to everyone. He has no friends and yet says he’s a people person and always wants to go out and do things where there are lots of people. But yet he has no patience with people therefore making a scene and causing an embarrassment everywhere we go.

      He is an adult and I can’t force him to get help. I feel like I’ve lost the last 12 years of my life, not to mention most of my life savings trying to keep our heads above water.

      1. Thank you! I am so tired of reading about all the things that I need to do to support my husband because he has ADD. I’m exhausted! What about what HE needs to do?? I understand that he has limitations. But I’m tired of reading articles about my responsibilities to try to help him. He seems to get a free pass at not remembering our anniversary once in 16 years, not acknowledging Mother’s Day (he said, “Why would I tell you happy Mother’s Day? You’re not my mom.” The irony is that I’ve bought the cards and gifts for his mom for mother’s day for the past 20 years.), and forgetting to show up on nights when I’ve gotten a babysitter. I’m so tired!! I’m incredibly jealous of people with typical husbands. He has totaled two cars, put us near bankruptcy twice, withdrawn all the money from my life insurance policies, and lost his job. He refuses to file for unemployment because it’s too difficult and only applies for jobs that I’ve found for him. He’s been unemployed for 6 months despite having two masters degrees. And article after article here talks about how I need to be more patient and understanding and not nag him. I’m ready to walk away from this relationship and am only staying because of our kids and because I have type 1 diabetes and am afteaid to be a single parent. But I can tell his behaviors are hurting the kids too so at some point I’m going to need to get up the strength to walk away.

  5. I’ve been married 33 years to a man with ADD. It was undiagnosed for the first 20. It’s all that I can do to survive. It grates on me to read articles to tell me how to behave. “Don’t nag” in my life would mean accept whatever he actually accomplished regardless of what he promised to do. Don’t have a parent-child relationship. Don’t I wish!!! If only it were that simple when the ADD spouse thinks taking medicine and “wanting” to change is enough. Any article that focuses as much more on the non-ADD spouse just gets my ire.

  6. Hello, I am a 35 years old and I have been married 3 times now and I just started receiving treatment this past year along with both of my children. I have been reading these comments in hopes of seeing how others feel about us. I see that some feel like maybe they shouldn’t get in a relationship with someone that has ADHD and before you read the rest, I just wanna say I’m not trying to step on anybody’s toes or make anybody upset. The truth is we are hard to be with and it’s not only frustrating to the ones that have to live with us but it’s a real struggle living in your own skin. We are just as miserable as we make others. It’s not that we don’t try, but our brains think differently and the majority of the time we feel like an outcast and not loved.

  7. I found that it was not the symptoms of undiagnosed ADD that were the biggest issue. It was the ones associated with the long-term depression and the total lack of self-esteem that has ruined at least 3 long-time relationships (including an ill-advised marriage).

    And I would agree with others here and say that my passage through life has made me a very difficult person to be around or to deal with on a daily basis. I have no real long-term relationships of a romantic nature and do not consider myself to even have friends anymore. We are at best baffling to others outside of this condition as our ability to organise and plan is pretty well non-existent. Often in spite of the ability to cope in work situations or at tasks that are discrete or time-related.

    I can say I feel that my existence now is a fairly loose series of interactions with others that may, or may not, meet their expectations. It rarely meets my expectations anymore and I have had to adopt a world-view that does not involve any long-term goals. I have no confidence in my ability to undertake them or be able to follow-through on them. I would not expect anyone would want to commit to me as a partner due to those factors.

    1. Hey BlackADDer – no one needs to live like this. Remember you are not your brain. You have a heart and a soul and God-given talents. Life is a struggle but there are people who will love you and support you.

  8. I would love to see a comment for the spouse that doesn’t believe that ADD even exists and when I ask for help with very simple things (asking which task I should do first because I was juggling 3 and couldn’t make a decision), he said “Come on, you know what you have you have to do…you just don’t want to do it”. He also said “If I told you, you needed to watch hours of a baking show, you would be able to do it with no problem.”. SIGH! I asked him to pleeeease educate himself. We have an amazing marriage and he is my best friend for almost 25 years, but when he makes a comment like this, I want to hit him with a nerf bat! He also doesn’t believe that my son has it. I don’t get it! Thanks for listening all! Lori

  9. I find the hardest thing to deal with in my marriage to someone with ADD is that he thinks I am going to turn in him because of how people have treated him in the past. And from what I read people with ADD suffer with these same expectations of people. From an ADD/ADHD perspective how can I guarantee my devotion and love for him? I mess up and say the wrong thing and I feel like I have to swear the whole world before he believes I am in his team and not against him like everyone else. How do I prevent this or deal with this scenario? I want him to trust me, if anybody. I see the value of his ADD and the sweetness in his heart but he’s in so much pain, like many of you.

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