How ADHD Impacts Sex and Marriage
For many people, building a healthy marriage is one of life’s most difficult, worthwhile challenges. For couples touched by ADHD, that challenge may feel more like an impossibility at times. A recent survey of ADDitude readers found that respondents with and without the disorder felt its effects on sex, love, and everything in between — and some feared their union could not endure it all.
A strong marriage — like any long-term relationship — is built on trust, connection, and commitment. Most marriages begin with all the best intentions. Then real life begins to muck things up. For those unions touched by attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD), the most common daily interferences are inattention, impulsivity, and deficient executive functions. Not to mention poor or unhealthy communication and unfair expectations.
To understand exactly how ADHD shapes real-life marriages and other long-term relationships, ADDitude conducted a survey of 1,256 partners, both with and without the disorder. Every respondent shared a unique experience, but some trends were immediately clear. Here’s what we learned.
ADHD Hampers Sex
Statistics from our survey revealed that intercourse can be a major point of contention for couples affected by ADHD. Forty-two percent of partners with ADHD reported that the disorder’s symptoms affected their sex lives “a lot.” The partners without ADHD were even more emphatic — 51 percent of them said that ADHD put a significant damper on intimacy with their significant other.
For one, non-ADHD partners frequently cited distorted relationship roles as a source of sexual dissatisfaction. “I feel like a parent to my husband,” said Kellie, a 43-year-old woman without ADHD. “That’s not very sexy!”
In addition, unbalanced household responsibilities lead to burnout, spouses reported — making them too physically and emotional exhausted for intimacy.
ADHD’s link to extreme emotions — particularly anger — was also frequently cited as a mood killer. “His short temper and irrational responses to situations is a complete turn off,” reported Kristen, age 35, said about her husband with ADHD. In those explosive moments, she said, “I want nothing to do with him” — meaning sex is off the table.
Sometimes, ADD-related anger problems echo beyond the bedroom. “He is angry all the time, constantly creating conflict, and saying hurtful [or] insulting things that cannot be forgotten,” said a 48-year-old woman who chose to remain anonymous. “That does not make me want to be intimate with him” — and ultimately contributed to their current separation, she said.
While partners with ADHD were less likely to recognize symptom-related disruptions in their sex lives, those who did cited distraction, stress, medication side effects, or mismatched sex drives as the main culprits. Routine arguments about common ADHD trouble spots also played a part in discord.
“Because I can’t keep things clean, the time we have alone is often spent cleaning,” said Baru, a 27-year-old man with ADHD. After a long day spent trying to get organized, he added, “in the evening I am tired and go to sleep early” — cutting into their alone time even further.
Time itself is a problem, too. “Time management is our #1 argument,” said Trish, 40, a woman with ADHD. “Because I can’t seem to get better with it, I feel like I constantly disappoint him — and I don’t feel confident or sexy.”
Inattentive symptoms are a common roadblock, respondents report. “It’s hard to stay focused long enough [for sex] to be enjoyable for me,” said one 53-year-old woman. Jennifer, 48, agreed: “My thoughts would drift and I would say things not connected to our intimate time.”
Medications can address wandering focus, but their efficacy relies heavily on dosage and timing, respondents said. “My stimulant medication can lead to feelings of irritability as it’s wearing off,” said Tiffany, age 31. “In those moments, I don’t want to be touched.”
While ADHD itself often comes with a heightened desire for sex, respondents said, medications — particularly antidepressants used to treat comorbid mood disorders — can reduce libido dramatically. “The antidepressants I take definitely affect my sex drive,” said Elizabeth, 54.
Still, some respondents said they enjoy the effect ADHD has on the intimate side of their relationships — citing its link to spontaneity, passion, and romance.
“ADHD enhances [our] sex life,” said Alice, 54. “We’ve learned to take our time better, though.”
Divorce and ADHD
Estimates vary, but some studies suggest that the divorce rate among couples touched by ADHD is as much as twice that of the general population. Of our sample, only 10 percent said they were actively considering or pursuing divorce — much lower than either the estimated ADHD divorce rate, or the U.S. Census Bureau’s overall divorce rate of 30.8 percent. But our sample was relatively small, and only included un-divorced couples — so that number is misleading.
More revealing is the fact that 38 percent of respondents with ADHD said their marriage had teetered close to divorce in the past. An additional 22 percent said divorce had “crossed my mind;” just 31 percent of respondents with ADHD said they had never given a thought to divorce.
“I’ve thought about leaving many times because I can’t take the criticism,” said Barbara, 66, who has ADHD. “He thinks he is helping me to be a better person” when he points out her ADD-related flaws, she said — but she mostly ends up feeling “unloved.”
Again, those without ADHD perceived even more turmoil in their relationships than did their partners. Only 24 percent of this group said divorce had never crossed their mind, and 12 percent said they were in the midst of separating or divorcing at the time of the survey.
Unaligned perspectives are acknowledged on both sides. Michael, a 62-year-old man with ADHD, doesn’t think he and his wife have ever been close to divorce — but he acknowledges that his perspective may not match hers.
“I do believe my wife’s answer [would] be different,” he said. “With the amount of frustration [my ADHD causes] her, I do not know how she would not at least fantasize about leaving this mess and living on her own.”
Some respondents without ADHD admit to keeping their dissatisfaction a secret from their spouse. “I’ve often thought about what it would be like to leave for a time period and see how that goes,” said Heather, a 46-year-old woman without ADHD. “I feel certain he has no idea the amount that I do.”
In many cases, counseling was vital for getting past these periods of turmoil, respondents on both sides said.
“It wasn’t until [meeting] my son’s ADHD counselor that we both understood how to fix our issues,” said Myriam, a 50-year-old woman with ADHD. “It was a bonus learning all about ADHD and what works for him, and I applied those same tactics to myself. I’m not where I want to be — but I am 70 percent better, and my husband sees it. He also uses the same tactics on me he learned for my son. Positive reinforcement, etc.”
Counseling doesn’t make ADHD-related issues go away, respondents said, but it does provide tools that allow couples to avoid or react better to conflicts. “Over and over we faced down that beast,” said Alice, 54. “With God and good counseling, we are still married.”
Getting Past Challenges
Though ADHD can certainly lead to increased tension in a marriage, it doesn’t cause divorce, respondents say. And both sides agree that one of the best ways to push back against ADHD-related marital disputes is to pursue and maintain adequate treatment.
“If you have ADHD, make sure you are getting treatment and be very aware of the potential negative impact your symptoms can have,” said Carol, 44, who has ADHD. “At two points in our marriage, my husband felt very unloved and unappreciated because I was so out of control. Once I got treatment and we worked together, we made it through — and we are now at a very good place.”
Partners without ADHD said it helped to bolster their knowledge of attention deficit, to encourage their spouse to pursue treatment, and to remain open and honest about the challenges ADHD brings — to both sides of the relationship.
“I would suggest a very open discussion about ADD before marriage,” said GH, 64, who added that things have gotten “progressively better” in her marriage since her husband was diagnosed. “Knowing makes a HUGE difference.”
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Updated on October 6, 2020