“Relationships are hard. Relationships where one or both people have ADHD are even harder,” said Beth Main, a certified attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) coach who helps individuals with ADHD develop the skills, systems, and strategies they need to overcome their challenges and achieve success.
Partners with ADHD often feel misunderstood by their spouses, who interpret their behavior as lazy or willful. (In fact, that’s one of the most common concerns Main hears from her clients.)
Partners without ADHD become increasingly frustrated when their spouses unintentionally break commitments, forget or misplace things, run late and act impulsively, she said.
Communication is another big issue. Adults with ADHD tend to interrupt, have a hard time organizing their thoughts and focusing on conversations, blurt out inappropriate comments and hurt their partner’s feelings, said Main, founder of ADHD Solutions.
“We may become impatient and want our partner to get right to the point, even though that’s something we have trouble with ourselves.”
The relationship may transform into a parent-child dynamic, Main said. By trying to be supportive, partners without ADHD may inadvertently act as parents. “Respect deteriorates on both sides.”
But this doesn’t mean your relationship is doomed. Partners with ADHD can do a lot in building a healthy relationship, everything from learning to become active listeners to communicating better.
(Partners without ADHD can do a lot, too. Here are strategies to try.)
Both communication and listening are skills anyone can learn and sharpen. Here are Main’s tips for that and much more.
“Paraphrasing what the other person is saying and asking questions will help keep you engaged in the conversation,” Main said. It also conveys to your partner that you’re truly interested in their perspective, she said.
2. Be curious about the conversation.
Focus on what you find interesting about what your partner is saying, Main said. “What would you like to know more about?” Ask your partner, or listen for their response, she said.
3. Pay attention to nonverbal cues.
Pay attention to your partner’s body language and tone of voice. “What is the person’s body language telling you? What emotion is in his or her voice?”
4. Limit your conversation.
If you tend to zone out after a certain amount of time, set limits on how long the conversation lasts. Let your partner know you’re having an especially tough day concentrating, she said.
5. Use fidgeting to your advantage.
Fidgeting is actually a great way to stay focused. Main suggested moving around or manipulating a small object, such as a stress ball or rubber band. Try various techniques to learn what works best for you. “Just keep it respectful and make sure it isn’t distracting to the other person.”
6. Educate your partner about ADHD.
Help your partner understand what it’s like to have ADHD, the symptoms you struggle with and what they can expect. This helps them to empathize, avoid common pitfalls (such as developing a parent-child relationship) and build on the positive, Main said.
7. Manage your ADHD.
“Do what you need to do to take care of yourself and your ADHD,” Main said. For instance, that includes getting enough sleep and participating in physical activities. It also may include taking medication and working with a therapist and/or ADHD coach.
8. Talk to your partner about what you’re doing.
Avoid using ADHD as an excuse with your partner, Main said. “A diagnosis is just a starting place. It’s a way to understand patterns and accept yourself.” Talk to your partner about how you’re managing symptoms, working through your challenges and leveraging your strengths.
9. Do what’s important for each other.
Main suggested partners ask each other: “What do you really need from me that you haven’t been getting?” Then identify a specific action, and follow through, she said.
10. Remind each other of what you love.
“Negativity begets negativity. Always focusing on your problems – ADHD or otherwise – will keep those problems center stage,” Main said. Remember why you got together in the first place. Remember what you like or love about each other.
11. Build on what’s working.
“Nurture the things that bring life to the relationship,” Main said. For instance, if you like having interesting conversations over dinner, don’t eat in front of the TV, she said.
12. Get help.
Check out valuable resources on ADHD and relationships. Main suggested ADD & Romance by Jonathan Halverstadt and The ADHD Effect on Marriage by Melissa Orlov.
(Main’s favorite book on ADHD is Delivered From Distraction by Ned Hallowell and John J. Ratey.)
Seek the support of a specialist. “A therapist, marriage counselor, or coach who has training and experience working with ADHD can make all the difference in helping you turn a struggling relationship back into a loving relationship.”
ADHD can affect your relationship. But it doesn’t have to ruin it. Focus on effectively managing your disorder, sharpening your listening and communication skills and building on the positives in your relationship.