9 Ways ADHD May Strain Relationships
“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 mistakes, and how to remedy them.
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 marital problems. If your partner has ADD, you may feel ignored and lonely. Your partner can focus on things that interest them, but not on you. They never seem to follow through on what they agree to do. They may seem to act like a child instead of an adult. You nag them, 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 them is to leave them 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?
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, they can’t force their partner to get organized or become more attentive. Both partners must change. Often, an ADHD partner sets up a system that works well for the other, yet seems inefficient or strange to the non-ADHD partner. Their criticism or suggestions about how to do it better demoralize them. 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?
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 their 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 they notice 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.
1. Hyperfocus Dating. The biggest shock to ADHD relationships comes with the transition from courtship to marriage. Typically, a person with ADHD hyperfocuses on their partner in the early stages of a dating. They makes them feel like the center of their 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 their 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.
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 they love. This can be interpreted as “they don’t care” rather than “they’re 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 their way of doing things doesn’t work for their 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 their motivation, nagging won’t help them get things done. It causes the ADHD partner to retreat, increasing feelings of loneliness and separation, and reinforces the shame that they feel 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 they 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 their 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 their status as “partner.”
Excerpted from The ADHD Effect on Marriage, by Melissa Orlov. Copyright 2010. Reprinted by permission of Specialty Press, Plantation, Florida. All rights reserved.
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Updated on June 15, 2021