Although people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) can be very successful in life, the symptoms of adult ADHD can put a real strain on relationships.
In the early stages of a relationship, people with ADHD may talk too much or find themselves unable to follow the conversation. They may also misread social cues. A person with attention deficit disorder may have shifts in energy, making it hard for their partner to keep up with. Those with poor impulse control may come on too strong, and it can be particularly difficult to manage a relationship at times of stress.
In a relationship, the non-ADHD partner can find that they have to carry out all the planning, cleaning, organizing, bill paying and other responsibilities such as family commitments and arriving on time, as well as diffusing awkward situations caused by blunt comments or actions. One’s partner may struggle to help the person with ADHD find the most suitable treatment, and to deal with side effects and the cost of regular medication.
The major symptoms of attention deficit disorder — forgetfulness, inattentiveness, difficulty completing tasks and impulsivity — can all cause issues in a relationship. These can become even more complicated if children are involved. Adults with ADHD may find it difficult to remain attentive during conversations. They may be forgetful, failing to pay bills or keep the home safe for children, and miss important birthdays or anniversaries. The partner can feel hurt as a result, even if they realize it’s due to the ADHD.
Impulsive behavior can lead to reckless, irresponsible actions and overreaction to small problems. This can cause major misunderstandings and arguments that quickly spiral out of control. Adults with ADHD may also have built up emotional defenses resulting from years of not being understood, believed or trusted. When these defenses are not recognized or resolved, they can trigger anxiety and anger.
A study by Dr. Klaus Minde of McGill University in Montreal, Canada, looked at the family relationships of 33 adults with attention deficit disorder. His team found that married adults with ADHD had “poorer overall marital adjustment and more family dysfunction.” The researchers say, “The findings in this study underscore the need for assessments and treatments to address marital and family functioning of adults with ADHD.”
The same team also looked at the impact on the children of these ADHD adults. They report, “Family and marital functions were impaired in ADHD families regardless of the gender of the affected parent. Children without attention deficit disorder from families with one psychiatrically healthy parent did well, while the behavior of children with ADHD was always poor and not associated with parental mental health.” They highlight the important influence of the non-ADHD parent.
To help manage the obstacles that will arise and maintain a workable relationship, both partners need to understand the differences in their perception and communication styles. Acknowledging and accepting differences helps the adult with ADHD to feel respected, then the process of successfully negotiating those issues or behaviors becomes easier.
Expressing negative feelings like resentment or anger is important, yet it’s often difficult when one or both partners have a hard time listening without interrupting. One approach sometimes recommended is for each partner to write down how they feel, what’s bothering them or what’s working well. Since this is not done face-to-face, neither partner can interrupt, be distracted, or make impulsive judgments.
Another tool which can help gain clarity is making a list of each partner’s top priorities, both day-to-day and long-term. This can reveal possible causes of tension. Working together to overcome such obstacles helps build mutual trust and clarity.
Some other practical strategies that may help include: shopping lists and lists of daily responsibilities, a calendar of important dates, routines to simplify housework as much as possible, planning projects and outings in advance. If repeated financial or legal problems occur, the non-ADHD partner may choose to take responsibility, as long as resentment does not arise. Computers and cell phones can be used to set reminders for tasks that need doing.
Research shows that relationship problems are less likely if the person with ADHD has the condition under control. Several medications are available and their pros and cons are widely discussed on the many ADHD websites. But drugs alone might prove insufficient. There is only so much medication can do so it may be a good idea to speak to a psychologist experienced in attention deficit disorder. Counseling or cognitive behavioral therapy are useful for some sufferers.
Other approaches are group therapy, family therapy, coaching, tutoring, physical exercise, proper rest, and adequate nutrition. ADHD and partner-focused peer support groups can also help. Marriage or couples counseling could also resolve problems that have arisen in the relationship as a result of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Eakin, L. et al. The marital and family functioning of adults with ADHD and their spouses. Journal of Attention Disorders, Vol. 8, 2004. pp. 1-10.
Minde, K. et al. The psychosocial functioning of children and spouses of adults with ADHD. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, Vol. 44, May 2003, pp. 637-46.
ADHD/ADD Online Resources (UK-based)