Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) can dramatically affect a relationship. Research has shown that a person with ADHD may be almost twice as likely to get divorced, and relationships with one or two people with the disorder often become dysfunctional. *
While ADHD can ruin relationships, the good news is that both partners are not powerless. There are steps you can take to significantly improve your relationship.
Below, Melissa Orlov, marriage consultant and author of the award-winning book The ADHD Effect on Marriage: Understand and Rebuild Your Relationship in Six Steps, discusses the top challenges in these relationships and the solutions that truly make a difference.
The Relationship Challenges of ADHD
One of the biggest challenges in relationships is when a partner misinterprets ADHD symptoms. For one, couples may not even know that one partner (or both) suffers from ADHD in the first place. (Take a quick screening quiz here.)
In fact, “more than half of adults who have ADHD don’t know they have it,” according to Orlov. When you don’t know that a particular behavior is a symptom, you may misinterpret it as your partner’s true feelings for you.
Orlov recalled feeling miserable and unloved in her own marriage. (At the time she and her husband didn’t realize that he had ADHD.) She misinterpreted her husband’s distractibility as a sign that he didn’t love her anymore. But if you would’ve asked him, his feelings for her hadn’t changed. Still, to Orlov his actions — in reality the symptoms — spoke louder than words.
Another common challenge is what Orlov terms “symptom-response-response.” ADHD symptoms alone don’t cause trouble. It’s the symptom plus how the non-ADHD partner responds to the symptoms. For instance, distractibility itself isn’t a problem. How the non-ADHD partner reacts to the distractibility can spark a negative cycle: The ADHD partner doesn’t pay attention to their spouse; the non-ADHD partner feels ignored and responds with anger and frustration; in turn, the ADHD partner responds in kind.
A third challenge is the “parent-child dynamic.” If the “ADHD partner doesn’t have their symptoms under control enough to be reliable,” it’s likely that the non-ADHD partner will pick up the slack. With good intentions, the non-ADHD partner starts taking care of more things to make the relationship easier. And not surprisingly, the more responsibilities the partner has, the more stressed and overwhelmed — and resentful — they become. Over time, they take on the role of parent, and the ADHD partner becomes the child. While the ADHD partner may be willing to help out, symptoms, such as forgetfulness and distractibility, get in the way.
Solutions for ADHD in Relationships
1. Get educated.
Knowing how ADHD manifests in adults helps you know what to expect. As Orlov said, when you know that your partner’s lack of attention is the result of ADHD, and has little to do with how they feel about you, you’ll deal with the situation differently. Together you might brainstorm strategies to minimize distractibility instead of yelling at your partner.
In other words, “Once you start looking at ADHD symptoms, you can get to the root of the problem and start to manage and treat the symptoms as well as manage the responses,” Orlov said.
2. Seek optimal treatment.
Orlov likens optimal treatment for ADHD to a three-legged stool. (The first two steps are relevant for everyone with ADHD; the last is for people in relationships.)
“Leg 1” involves making “physical changes to balance out the chemical differences in the brain,” which includes medication, aerobic exercise and sufficient sleep. “Leg 2” is all about making behavioral changes, or “essentially creating new habits.” Which might include creating physical reminders and to-do lists, carrying a tape recorder and hiring help. “Leg 3” is “interactions with your partner,” such as scheduling time together and using verbal cues to stop fights from escalating.
3. Remember it takes two to tango.
Regardless of who has ADHD, both partners are responsible for working on the relationship, Orlov emphasized. Say a couple is struggling with a parent-child dynamic. A way to overcome this obstacle, according to Orlov, is for the non-ADHD partner to give away some of the responsibilities.
But this has to be a done in a thoughtful and reasonable way so you don’t set your partner up for failure. It requires a specific process that involves assessing the strengths of each partner, making sure the ADHD partner has the skills (which they can learn from a therapist, coach, support groups or books) and putting external structures in place, Orlov said. Also helpful is generating ideas together about completing a project and “coordinating [your] expectations and goals.”
As you’re starting to work on your relationship, the partner with ADHD might initially react defensively because they assume that they’ll be blamed for everything. But this usually subsides “once they become more informed and less threatened and see that their partner is willing to take a chance [to improve the relationship] and make changes themselves” such as managing their own anger and nagging.
4. Set up structure.
External structural cues are key for people with ADHD and, again, make up another part of treatment. So it’s important to pick an organizational system that works for you and includes reminders. For instance, it’s tremendously helpful to break down a project into several actionable steps on paper and set cell phone reminders regularly, Orlov said.
5. Make time to connect.
“Marriage is all about attending to each other adequately,” said Orlov, who suggested that couples consider how they can better connect with each other.
This might involve going on weekly dates, talking about issues that are important and interesting to you (“not just logistics”) and even scheduling time for sex. (Because ADHD partners get easily distracted, they might spend hours on an activity like the computer, and before you know it, you’re fast asleep.)
6. Remember that ADHD is a disorder.
When untreated, ADHD might affect all areas of a person’s life, and it’s hard to separate the symptoms from the person you love, Orlov said. But “a person who has ADD shouldn’t be defined by their ADHD.” In the same vein, don’t take their symptoms personally.
Understanding the impact that ADHD has on both partners is critical to improving your relationship. Put yourself in their shoes. If you don’t have ADHD, try to appreciate just how difficult it is to live every day with a slew of intrusive symptoms. If you do have ADHD, try to understand how much your disorder has changed your partner’s life.
8. Seek support.
Whether you’re the partner that has ADHD or not, you may feel very alone. Orlov suggested attending adult support groups. She gives a couples course by phone and one of the most common comments she hears is how beneficial it is for couples to know that others also are struggling with these issues.
Friends and family can help, too. However, some may not understand ADHD or your situation, Orlov said. Give them literature on ADHD and its impact on relationships.
9. Remember the positives of your relationship.
In The ADHD Effect on Marriage, Orlov writes that “remembering the positives in your relationship is an important step in moving forward.” Here’s what one wife loves about her husband (from the book):
On weekends, he has a coffee ready for me when I wake up in the morning. He tolerates my “morning grumpies” and knows not to take any of my grousing personally until an hour after I get up. He shares my passion for random trivia. He has no problem with my odder personality quirks and even encourages some of them. He encourages me in my passions. His need to keep life interesting can really keep life interesting in a positive way.
10. Instead of trying harder, try differently.
Couples who try with all their might to improve their relationship can feel disheartened when nothing changes, or worse, when things deteriorate, as Orlov experienced first-hand in her marriage. Trying harder made both her and her husband feel resentful and hopeless.
What does it mean to try differently? It means adding ADHD-friendly strategies and knowing how ADHD functions. It also means that both partners change their perspective. According to Orlov, the non-ADHD spouse might think that the ADHD or their partner is to blame. Instead, she encourages non-ADHD partners to shift their thinking to “neither of us is to blame and we are both responsible for creating change.”
Another common belief non-ADHD spouses have is that they must teach their ADHD spouse how to do things or compensate for what they can’t do. A better way is to think “I am never my spouse’s keeper. We will respectfully negotiate how we can each contribute.”
Having ADHD can leave many feeling defeated and deflated. They might think, “I don’t really understand when I might succeed or fail. I’m not sure I want to take on challenges.” Orlov suggested shifting this thinking to “My inconsistency in the past has an explanation: ADHD. Fully treating ADHD will enable greater consistency and success.”
People with ADHD also can feel unloved or unappreciated or that their partner wants to change them. Instead, Orlov suggested altering your perspective to, “I am loved/lovable, but some of my ADHD symptoms are not. I am responsible for managing my negative symptoms.”
Even though your past might be riddled with bad memories and relationship problems, this doesn’t have to be your future, Orlov underscored. You “can make quite dramatic changes” in your relationship, and “there is hope.”
To learn more about Melissa Orlov, her work and the seminars she gives, please see her website.
* Research cited in The ADHD Effect on Marriage