ADHD in Relationships
Is Untreated ADHD Causing Trouble in Your Relationship?
“I just cannot understand why I have to ask him to take out the recycling fifty times. I’m so sick of being the one who has to think of everything. It’s like I have another child, not a partner.”
Gabby sits in my couples counseling office, recounting the details of the latest horrible fight. Her voice is full of exasperation, and I can hear the pain underneath it. I know this isn’t about who took out the trash; it’s one more instance in a long string of broken promises, forgotten birthdays, and spur-of-the-moment decisions made without her input.
Meanwhile, Scott is on the other end of the couch, looking down at the floor. I know that what she’s saying is hard for him to hear, but he’s too worn out to mount a defense. Gabby finishes and they both look up, waiting for me to speak. What I say surprises them both.
“Scott, have you ever been screened for ADHD?”
You would be surprised how often scenes like this play out in marriage counseling sessions. Unmanaged ADHD can create big problems for couples, especially when both partners don’t understand what’s going on. I know this from experience — not only because I’ve worked with so many couples like Gabby and Scott, but because I have ADHD myself. Like many women with ADHD, I wasn’t diagnosed until adulthood, and it created a lot of unnecessary stress in my relationship, until I learned I had the condition and began actively managing it.
I hope this article helps you understand the ADHD brain, how it can impact relationships, and what you can do if you or someone you love has ADHD.
I’ve also created an episode of the Love, Happiness and Success podcast on this topic. My guest is Dori B., a marriage counselor, sex therapist, and ADHD coach on our team at Growing Self. Like me, Dori also has ADHD — and she’s a walking example of how you can thrive in spite of it. You can find the episode on this page, Apple podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen.
Our authentic relationship experts know how to help you learn, grow, and move forward into a bright new chapter.
ADHD and Relationships
Over time, little conflicts over things like household chores or running late can begin to pile up and take on a big emotional charge, with the non-ADHD partner believing they just don’t care enough to try, and the ADHD partner feeling hurt and defensive — because nothing could be further from the truth.
Learning about how ADHD impacts you and your partner will help you both change your story about why certain things are happening, so you can 1) stop taking ADHD symptoms personally, and 2) find solutions that work.
ADHD and Self-Esteem
One of the most insidious impacts of ADHD is the way it can warp your self-esteem. Anyone who has ADHD but wasn’t diagnosed until adulthood has received a lifetime of messages about how they’re lazy, disorganized, incompetent, or careless. They carry around guilt and shame about their shortcomings, without understanding that they’re battling something most people don’t have to deal with.
Low self-esteem sucks to live with, and it can also be bad news for relationships. When the partner of someone with ADHD raises an issue — about how they forgot to pick up milk, or they mowed half the yard then wandered off and started building a birdhouse — the ADHD partner may react with defensiveness, because calmly admitting fault is pretty hard when the problem is so bound up with old feelings of inadequacy. Defensiveness leaves the non-ADHD partner feeling invalidated and unheard, and they may become increasingly angry as they work harder to get their point across, adding fuel to the conflict.
Getting a diagnosis is not only the first step in learning to manage ADHD, but in repairing your self-esteem if it’s been mangled by a lifetime of negative messages. People who learn they have ADHD as adults often feel like everything suddenly makes sense — they knew they weren’t lazy or stupid, they just had a hidden obstacle they needed to address.
Adult ADHD Symptoms in Women
Women with ADHD often aren’t diagnosed until adulthood, if at all. They more often have the “inattentive type” of ADHD, which is characterized by spaciness, rather than the hyperactive type, which is characterized by bouncing-off-the-walls energy and impulsivity. The hyperactive type (more common in boys) is harder for parents and teachers to miss, while kids with a short attention span often fall through the cracks.
It’s common for women to receive the diagnosis after becoming mothers. Having a baby has a way of disrupting all the systems they’ve built up over the years to compensate for their ADHD. After the baby comes home and the mother has to keep body and soul together for two people, not just herself, those systems no longer cut it, and it becomes clear that there’s a real issue.
How ADHD Impacts Relationships
ADHD affects everyone differently, and the ways it can show up in relationships varies. Here are ten examples of what ADHD in a relationship might look like:
- The ADHD Partner Is Always Wrong
For people with ADHD, the feeling that they’re forgetting something is an old friend. When something goes wrong in a relationship, the person with ADHD may assume it’s their fault because they’re so used to their brain letting them down. They may routinely take on blame that isn’t theirs, which can create an unequal relationship dynamic that’s bad for both partners.
- The ADHD Partner Needs Stimulation
If you’re a low-key person who would be very happy to pass every evening in front of Netflix, dating someone with ADHD can be tough, especially if they have the hyperactive or impulsive variety. They may be restless and constantly seeking new experiences, which can make them incompatible with certain personality types.
- The ADHD Partner Struggles with Housework
If you create a chore chart to divide household labor with someone who has ADHD, they may do their best to adhere to it, but,
a) Get sucked into a weird side mission, like rearranging the living room when they’re supposed to be cleaning out the garage,
b) Start various tasks, but get experience ADHD paralysis and leave them unfinished, or
c) Forget about it all together.
This leaves the non-ADHD partner feeling like they have to take on more than their fair share of the housework, or nothing will get done.
- The ADHD Partner Forgets … A Lot
ADHD causes significant problems with working memory, which means the ADHD partner is going to forget things…often. They may forget plans, things their partner told them, and things they agreed to do. They may tell their partner the same story half a dozen times. It’s not that they don’t care, it’s that forming and holding on to memories isn’t as easy for someone with ADHD.
- Listening Is Tough with ADHD
Staying focused is difficult when you have ADHD, even when you’re trying to focus on something important like what your partner is saying. They may have a hard time listening attentively during conversations, which can leave the non-ADHD partner feeling like they’re not important to their partner.
- Trouble with Correspondence
When you have ADHD, you’re often startled by the realization that you forgot to do something, like return your boss’s phone call or text your partner back. For the non-ADHD partner, these weird periods of silence can provoke a lot of anxiety in the early stages of dating, particularly for people with an anxious attachment style.
- The ADHD Partner Struggles with Impulse Control
Some people with ADHD have a hard time not acting on their impulses. This can look like buying a new refrigerator without consulting their partner (or their checking account), making a last-minute decision to radically revise their vacation plans, or blurting things out that they really shouldn’t say. Impulsivity can be frustrating to the non-ADHD partner and may even create trust issues in the relationship.
8. The ADHD Partner May Be More Reactive
ADHD not only causes trouble with executive functioning, it can make it difficult to regulate your own emotions, and to remain tuned in to the emotions of others. Because of the way an ADHD brain is wired, a feeling like hurt or anger can sometimes gobble up all its capacity for a period of time. This is called emotional flooding, and it makes it difficult to remain calm and collected in conflict.
9. ADHD Symptoms Become a Weapon (or a Crutch)
Many couples aren’t aware that one member has ADHD, but even when they do know, the diagnosis can sometimes be misused by both parties.
The non-ADHD partner may weaponize the label to dismiss their partner’s point of view (“No, that’s not what happened, you’re just saying that because of your ADHD!”). On the other hand, the partner who has ADHD might use it as a crutch to avoid accountability (“You can’t expect me to do better next time — I have ADHD!”).
To keep your relationship healthy, it’s important that you have empathy and understanding for the condition, while also actively working to find solutions that work for you both.
10. Hurt Feelings Abound
The partner without ADHD might take ADHD symptoms personally, and interpret them as signs that their partner doesn’t really love them or care about meeting their needs. The partner with ADHD will probably feel guilty and bad about repeatedly letting their partner down.
Managing Your ADHD
ADHD coaching involves getting clear about your ADHD symptoms and how they’re impacting your life and your relationships, and then finding systems that help you mitigate those impacts. For example, your ADHD coach may help you design systems that will help you compensate for memory problems, or that enhance your listening skills. What’s important is that these systems are specific to you — ADHD impacts everyone differently, and there are no one-size-fits-all solutions.
Trying out new approaches will not only help you find better ways to manage your ADHD, it will be meaningful to your partner. When they see you making an effort, they’ll know their concerns are important to you and that you want them to be happy in your relationship.
Supporting Your ADHD Partner
If you’re in a relationship with someone who has ADHD, there are a few things you can do to make things easier for you both.
First, try not to take things personally. If they forget what you told them, or go about household chores in a baffling way, it’s not because they don’t care about you or what you want, it’s because their brain is wired differently than yours. Learning about ADHD and its symptoms will help you understand your partner, and increase your patience for them.
Next, set reasonable expectations. You should expect your partner to work toward improvement, but forget about perfection. They can find better ways to manage their ADHD, but it will always be a part of them.
On that note, it’s also important to avoid slipping into a codependent relationship dynamic with your ADHD partner. You can support them in getting help for their ADHD, but ultimately it’s your partner’s problem to solve, not yours. (Check out this article to find out if you are stuck in a codependent relationship dynamic).
While they may do weird things that get under your skin occasionally, make sure you’re also staying connected to your appreciation for your partner. They likely have many wonderful qualities — like flexibility, creativity, and out-of-the-box thinking — that keep your life together interesting.
Finally, work together with your ADHD partner to find systems that work for you both. Maybe you need to leave notes around the house, or organize your space differently (many people with ADHD lose their belongings if they can’t see them out in the open). When you lean on each other’s strengths, you become an unstoppable team.
P.S. — I created the “Growing Together” collection of articles and podcasts to give you a one-stop-shop for expert advice on overcoming common relationship issues like this one. After you listen, I hope you’ll check it out!
ADHD in Relationships: Episode Highlights
- Many people misinterpret common ADHD symptoms as statements of disrespect or lack of love. ADHD can create a lot of stress in a relationship, so it’s vital to understand and learn about it if it affects you or your partner.
[09:49] Living with Someone with ADHD
- Inattentive ADHD, which more often affects women, often goes undiagnosed.
- People with ADHD can seem lazy, but often have to work twice as hard for half the results.
- People with ADHD in relationships tend to assume problems are their fault, creating an unbalanced dynamic where they pressure themselves to do more.
[17:02] Differences in ADHD Thinking
- It’s possible to think that someone with ADHD is incompetent, but the truth is they think differently.
- The differences in ADHD thought processes make some things easier for people with ADHD, while other things are much more difficult.
[30:43] Navigating ADHD in Relationships
- A coaching model may be better than therapy for addressing and managing ADHD.
- Both partners should avoid weaponizing the condition, or using it as an excuse.
- Making an effort to manage ADHD symptoms will reassure your partner that you do care about them and their experience in your relationship.
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ADHD in Relationships
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Music in this episode is by Beta Wolf with their cover of the Pixies song, “Where is My Mind?” You can support them and their work by visiting their Bandcamp page here: betawolfmusic.bandcamp.com. Under the circumstance of use of music, each portion of used music within this current episode fits under Section 107 of the Copyright Act, i.e., Fair Use. Please refer to copyright.gov if further questions are prompted.
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby is the founder and clinical director of Growing Self. She is a licensed psychologist, a licensed marriage and family therapist, and a board-certified coach, as well as the author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to Your Ex Love,” and the host of The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.
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