We Need to Talk About How ADHD Affects Interpersonal Relationships
Interpersonal relationships define and fulfill us. But for those of us with ADHD, our symptoms can negatively impact our friends and spouses. While we know how ADHD can affect our ability to focus, remember, and get things done, we rarely talk about ADHD’s impact on our ability to create and maintain connections –– and that needs to change.
When you are diagnosed with ADHD, doctors tell you that the condition will compromise your ability to complete tasks, that it will make it difficult to remember things and pay attention, and that it will lead to blurting out things that should never see the light of day.
We understand these ADHD symptoms can affect our job performance, our likeliness to get in a car wreck, and our ability to remember dates (after 13 years, I forgot my husband’s birthday this year — again). But what tends to be left behind is the recognition of how these symptoms come to impact our interpersonal relationships — those with significant others, coworkers, friends, and our children.
How ADHD Symptoms Complicate Interpersonal Relationships
Impulsivity and Romantic Relationships with ADHD
Poor impulse control makes any relationship difficult. In my case, it impairs the ability to discern a good romantic relationship from an unhealthy one.
Many times, in college, the bad boy looked way more fun to me than did the good guy. Impulsive decisions make it hard to stay in a good relationship — or to get out of a bad one.
Studies suggest that people with ADHD are divorced more often than people without it, and that they remarry more. It makes sense: You have more divorces when your impulsivity leads you to pick unsuitable partners, or when you walk out too soon on a good one.
One of my ex-boyfriends (also with ADHD) and I almost ended up married in Vegas. We weren’t even 21. We didn’t care if the idea was good or bad; it sounded like fun. Only a well-timed phone call from a level-headed professor talked us out of it.
Emotional Regulation and Spiraling Reactions with ADHD
Adults with ADHD have trouble taming our temper. No one wants to be around someone who’s always angry. When we’re angry, we say things we regret later. We’re easily overwhelmed by anger, and we can’t hide it. This can bring harsh consequences at work. Blowing up at your boss can get you fired. And even if you keep mum in front of your boss, you may funnel anger toward coworkers or others like your spouse or your child.
If you have ADHD, there’s also a good chance you have what’s called rejection sensitive dysphoria (RSD). You spend a lot of your time feeling not good enough or guilty about things that aren’t your fault.
When my husband asks me to do a simple task, I can spiral: He isn’t asking me to take out the garbage. He’s saying, “Why haven’t you taken the garbage out already? Why do you never take out the garbage?” Really, he’s asking for help with a simple task. But I read it as judging my behavior — and finding it wanting. I freak out and freeze up.
This can also happen when your boss makes suggestions about how to improve your performance at work. You don’t hear constructive criticism, you hear, “You aren’t good enough, and let me tell you the reasons why.” You hear it as an insult. You are resentful; your boss is baffled.
Forgetfulness Leads to Inadvertently Losing Touch
There is another problem with ADHD and relationships: We are terrible long-distance friends. We don’t call old friends because it doesn’t occur to us — out of sight, out of mind.
We are afraid that we have no one from our past, that we can’t hold onto people, that no one cares about us. But it’s not that people don’t care. It’s that we forget to reach out, and, after a while, our friends stop trying. They forget us as we forget them.
One of my best friends from high school unfriended me on Facebook. She didn’t mean to. But she didn’t know I’d changed my married name and started using a nickname on my profile. One more relationship down the drain. And what’s more, RSD makes it nearly impossible to reach out again.
Doctors and researchers need to talk more about how ADHD affects relationships. A planner and a fidget spinner help with my ADHD. But what would help more is therapy that focuses on personal relationships, and the minefield they pose for those with the condition.
Updated on June 24, 2021