Sometimes living with someone who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) can present its own challenges.
“Although there are positive aspects to being in a relationship with someone with ADHD, there are also issues that can pose as problems,” said Roberto Olivardia, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist and clinical instructor in the department of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.
For instance, managing a household can become a source of tension for both partners. “The stereotypical pattern is that the non-ADHD partner winds up taking on more and more of the workload, while the ADHD partner feels increasingly criticized and like they can’t do anything right,” according to Ari Tuckman, Psy.D, a psychologist and author of More Attention, Less Deficit: Successful Strategies for Adults with ADHD and Understand Your ADHD, Get More Done.
Non-ADHD partners also often misinterpret their partner’s behaviors. These assumptions can trigger more problematic patterns. As Tuckman said, an ADHD partner forgetting to buy the milk — maybe one too many times — becomes “He simply didn’t want to.” “When we assume behaviors are intentional, we tend to react with anger, which only makes the other person defensive–and then perhaps it does become intentional.”
Similarly, when an ADHD partner gets distracted during conversations, the non-ADHD partner may assume they just don’t want to pay attention. And they can feel insignificant or disrespected, Olivardia said.
Building intimacy can create another challenge, since it requires partners to be present in the moment, he said. “It can feel as if [the partner with ADHD is] anywhere but here.”
In other words, certain actions and circumstances get lost in translation, chipping away at your relationship. Fortunately, there are many strategies for overcoming these kinds of challenges. Below, Olivardia and Tuckman share 10 suggestions.
Fortunately, there are many strategies for overcoming these kinds of challenges. Below, Olivardia and Tuckman share 10 suggestions.
1. Educate yourself about ADHD.
It’s important for both partners to get educated about ADHD. Behaviors you think your partner is doing intentionally often are symptoms of their ADHD. Learning about the disorder can help you avoid jumping to erroneous conclusions.
For partners with ADHD, getting educated provides a window into myriad effective strategies for managing symptoms such as distractibility and impulsivity. (It’s also important to make sure you’re getting properly treated.)
2. Educate yourself about your partner.
According to Tuckman, consider: “What situations do they handle well and what situations tend to not work out? For example, if they want a reminder, what is the best way to give it?”
3. Avoid attacking your partner’s character.
Non-ADHD partners may call their partners “lazy, disrespectful, self-absorbed or immature,” Olivardia said. Again, educating yourself about ADHD will help you better understand how it functions. What looks like laziness, for instance, is really an impairment in executive functioning, which affects a person’s ability to start and complete a task. (This includes everything from getting organized to sustaining attention.)
4. Get involved in treatment.
It’s often very helpful for non-ADHD partners to participate in their partner’s treatment. “For example, [they can] offer their observations to help a prescriber get the medications right or to work together with a therapist so that both people’s needs are being met,” Tuckman said.
5. Reframe conversations.
“Encourage the ADHD partner to be mindful of their traits and how some of them can be problematic in relationships,” Olivardia said. For instance, when talking to your partner, frame an ADHD symptom as having both an upside and downside.
He gave this example: “Your need for stimulation can be an asset in that you find the coolest places for us to go out on dates. However, that same need for stimulation makes it difficult for you to focus when we are having serious conversations.”
“It is important that the ADHD person does not get the message that they need to change the essence of who they are, but rather work on changing aspects of how they do things,” Olivardia said.
6. Do chores at the same time.
While one person washes the dishes, the other can do laundry, Olivardia said. “It gives the ADHD partner a degree of accountability,” and after you’re finished, “do something fun.”
If you can’t do chores simultaneously, delegate, he said. “Make a list of what and when chores will be done and by whom.”
8. Preserve the passion in your relationship.
“Relationships take work and it is important to maintain fun and excitement,” Olivardia said. Have each partner take turns picking a new activity at least once a month. He suggested everything from an improv class to salsa dancing to camping.
9. Build intimacy with sensory elements.
ADHD partners may require a higher degree of stimulation, even in the most stimulating of situations, Olivardia said. Non-ADHD partners can help enhance their partners’ attention by adding sensory elements. “Light a candle, have music on, or buy sheets that are extra soft…Being verbal and having eye contact can also be grounding to someone with ADHD and keep them in the mment.”
10. Remember you’re on the same team.
Communicate regularly about what needs to be done, Tuckman said. “…Have a mentality of both people being on the same team, rather than feeling like it’s a zero sum situation where for one person has to win, the other has to lose.”
ADHD can make relationships challenging. But problem-solving around these obstacles and maintaining the excitement and enjoyment in your relationship can help tremendously. As Tuckman said, “You don’t need to re-invent the wheel and figure everything out on your own.”
Try the above strategies, seek resources specifically on ADHD and relationships (like this website), and consider counseling.