Relationship Rescue for ADHD Couples
Relationship experts answer reader questions and share their ADHD marriage advice for couples where at least one partner has attention deficit.
Unique challenges can sink a marriage when one or both partners have ADHD.
Here, our relationship experts provide solutions for common problems when one or both partners have ADHD and offer guidance for creating healthy and enduring bonds.
Q: “How Do I Handle My Spouse’s Mood Changes?”
Q: “My spouse has ADHD. How can I handle their mood changes, impulsivity, and anger outbursts?”
When our partners are dysregulated, it’s often quite difficult to stay calm in the moment. We might hear hurtful or provocative things, or endure behaviors related to anger or frustration, like slamming doors or throwing objects. Witnessing explosive outbursts can be triggering, frightening, and frustrating.
As tough as it may be, your job is to stay neutral while relying on a plan that you have mutually agreed to and committed to follow in distressing times. How do you create such a plan? In a calm moment, discuss what happens in an escalation, and create a safety plan that works for both of you. My STAR approach (Stop, Think, Act, Recover) will serve you well when self-regulation goes out the window.
- Stop the action by calling for time apart when things start to heat up. Decide in advance how long each of you may need to cool down. Give yourselves the time and space you need.
- Think about how each of you contributed to what happened. Talk about it when you come back together. Listen and validate what you hear. Brainstorm together how to move forward without rehashing the argument.
- Act on your options for the next thing to do — calmly and together. If emotions are too raw to solve any problems, set aside time to do this, maybe even the next day.
- Recover. These upsets are draining for everyone involved. Reflect on what occurred and how to work better together.
— Sharon Saline, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist and author of What Your ADHD Child Wishes You Knew: Working Together to Empower Kids for Success in School and Life (#CommissionsEarned).
Whatever the reason for this behavior, it is not acceptable. Walk away from attempts to provoke you. You can’t have a fight when one of you is not present. Also, reflect on your response. Are you enabling your spouse’s behavior by continuing to interact with them when they behave inappropriately?
Consider couples therapy to understand the dynamics at play. If your spouse isn’t interested in attending couples therapy, go on your own. Even when only one partner gets therapy, it can change the relationship’s dynamic.
[Get This Free Download: Manage ADHD’s Impact on Your Relationship]
If your spouse is taking ADHD medication, ask their prescriber whether irritability might be a side effect. When stimulant and non-stimulant medication work optimally, one’s personality does not change. However, if this pattern of behavior has existed since the beginning of your relationship, it may be a function of the person and not the medication.
— Stephanie Moulton Sarkis, Ph.D., is a specialist in child and adolescent counseling and the author of Gaslighting (#CommissionsEarned) and Healing from Toxic Relationships (#CommissionsEarned).
Q “I Resent Having to Give My Partner with ADHD Constant Reminders.”
Q: “I have to give my partner with ADHD constant reminders, and that just makes more work for me. It also puts me in a ‘parent’ role, which fuels resentment from both of us. How do we break this cycle?”
Given that people with ADHD are less consistent in remembering to do things, it can help everyone if the partner with a better memory gives some reminders. However, it is important to discuss how and when those reminders will be given and how the other partner should respond. If your partner reacts like an indignant teenager, that will understandably make you feel like a resentful parent — a problem that must be addressed in advance. If your partner reacts well to the reminder and shows good intentions by doing the task, that is a pretty good deal. The downside is that it does involve some effort on your part, including mentally tracking the task and whether it has been completed.
It is important to be on the same page, so discuss what will get done and by whom. If one partner only pretends to agree, or the other partner isn’t willing to come to a mutual agreement, then you’re setting yourselves up for a tug of war later.
— Ari Tuckman, Psy.D., CST, is a psychologist and author of More Attention, Less Deficit, (#CommissionsEarned) and ADHD After Dark: Better Sex Life, Better Relationship (#CommissionsEarned).
Nobody wants to be a reminder machine — and nobody wants to feel parented in a loving partnership. There is a big difference between reminding your partner in ways that feel belittling to both of you and establishing mutually agreed-upon cues that foster autonomy and accountability. In many relationships with ADHD, the non-ADHD partner often feels burdened and resentful when reminding their partner of things they “should” recall on their own.
[Self-Test: Do I Have ADHD? Symptom Test for Adults]
I am absolutely sure that the adult with ADHD would rather remember actions or commitments if they could. But due to biological challenges with working memory and processing speed, they struggle with recalling things, often judging themselves negatively for this challenge and lacking empathy for what their partner experiences. I recommend this two-step approach:
Step One: Increase compassion for each other. In a calm moment, engage in a reflective listening exercise to discuss your roles and frustrations in your relationship. It goes like this: Together, decide how much time each person will have to speak — say, five minutes. One person is designated as the speaker, and the other as the listener. Setting a timer, the speaker begins, pausing periodically for the listener to repeat exactly what was said without commenting on it. When the time is up, you switch roles. This exercise is an opportunity to speak from your heart without fearing reactivity from your partner. When it’s your turn to listen, you can really hear what is being said.
Step Two: Having a greater understanding of each person’s position, you can now brainstorm solutions, like setting phone reminders or using sticky notes. It builds more autonomy to say: “Check your phone for the list,” rather than: “Have you done this yet?” Agree on words or phrases that foster action, rather than defensiveness, if there’s no progress on an agreed-upon task. Save discussion of your frustration for a short, weekly meeting to assess your new program. Use reflective listening skills to check in, and, together, apply your insights to practical solutions.
—Sharon Saline, Psy.D.
“Will Our Unhealthy Relationship Affect Our Kids?”
Q: “My spouse and I have an unhealthy relationship. What are my kids learning from our relationship? How will it affect them?”
First, I recommend couples therapy to begin working on whatever is hurting your relationship. Unhealthy relationships are often a result of poor communication and a lack of perspective. Whether one or both partners have ADHD, it is essential to work with someone who is knowledgeable about ADHD, since this can pose unique challenges in a relationship.
Children see patterns in their parents’ relationship and repeat them in their own lives, or they may seek the opposite of what they’ve witnessed growing up. It’s important for your children to discuss their feelings and thoughts about their home environment. It’s okay for them to know you don’t have a picture-perfect marriage; few people do. The key is how it is talked about and addressed. Depending on your children’s ages and maturity level, they can learn that adults also need to work on communication. If you suspect your children are highly affected, I recommend a therapist for them as well.
— Roberto Olivardia, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist in the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and co-author of The Adonis Complex (#CommissionsEarned).
Studies show that children who witness any kind of domestic violence are more likely to be victims and/or perpetrators of such behavior in future relationships. Abuse takes many forms: emotional, verbal, physical, financial, sexual, and digital.
Ask yourself: What are your kids learning about conflict and about how you treat someone you love? What are they learning about boundaries? Children watch us to see how they should behave. Your children may already show signs of perfectionism, depression, anxiety, or substance abuse due to what they have witnessed at home.
Consult with a mental health professional about your next steps and consider counseling for your children. If you are considering leaving the marriage, consult a family law attorney to learn about your rights and your children’s rights.
—Stephanie Sarkis, Ph.D.
“Can We Achieve Unconditional Love?”
Q: “Why can’t my non-ADHD partner just love me as I am?”
Worrying that your partner might not love you as much as they used to is a universal feeling. Unfortunately, the issue is exacerbated when one person has ADHD because the courtship phase is so intense. The extra dopamine of infatuation masks ADHD symptoms and often leads the ADHD partner to be super-attentive. This often disappears after about 24 months.
The non-ADHD partner may become confused when their spouse is no longer particularly attentive and has trouble keeping promises. This can lead the non-ADHD partner to feel complicated emotions about the relationship, including disappointment, frustration, and anger. To ADHD partners who already question whether they are “good enough,” these emotions in their non-ADHD partners can be triggering.
Understanding and accepting that the courtship and marriage phases are quite different can help reset the definition of your problem. It isn’t that your partner doesn’t accept you, it’s that your partner is struggling to understand what has changed. With careful work to acknowledge the pain that these changes have caused, couples can reset and build habits of attention, respect, and provide care that makes them both feel loved.
— Melissa Orlov is a marriage consultant and co-author of The ADHD Effect on Marriage (#CommissionsEarned) and The Couple’s Guide to Thriving with ADHD (#CommissionsEarned).
There is a lot to unpack in this question. First, know that you are worthy of love and have inherent value, regardless of whether you are late for things, disorganized, forget to feed the cat, or eat impulsively. People with ADHD carry internalized negative messages about themselves, without even realizing it. It’s easy for parasitic thoughts of not being good enough to take over our identity. Make sure you are getting the proper support and help for your ADHD and find a community of others with ADHD who can empathize with your experience.
Second, your partner loves you but perhaps doesn’t understand how ADHD impacts your personality, behavior, and decisions. They may assume that saying “try harder” or “pay attention” will do the trick. They need to be educated regarding what is doable and what may take great effort on your part. Your wiring is simply different. Accepting someone for who they are is essential. I recommend working with a couples therapist or an ADHD coach to help your partner understand ADHD better.
If your partner is verbally abusive or demeaning, you must question whether this is a healthy and affirming relationship. Your partner may not have ADHD, but I guarantee that they have their own unique set of flaws. Regardless of whether ADHD is in the picture, we must all work to understand our partner’s perspective, communicate assertively and respectfully, and decide whether the positives we get from a relationship outweigh the negatives.
— Roberto Olivardia, Ph.D.
Relationship Advice for ADHD Couples: Next Steps
- Download: Free Resource: Get a Grip on Tough Emotions
- Read: 10 Ways to Save Your Relationship
- Find: Therapists and Counselors Near You
- Read: Married with ADHD: How Real Couples Make It Work
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