What Is Your Partner Who Doesn't Have ADHD Thinking?

Medically Reviewed by Smitha Bhandari, MD on April 17, 2019
4 min read

If you have ADHD, you may sense your partner is sometimes frustrated by your behavior, but you might not know exactly what's bothering them -- or what to do about it. Everyone's different, but there are some common things like disorganization, forgetfulness, or blurting out your thoughts that can trigger friction. Learn how to recognize the flashpoints and take steps that can ease the tension.

"I'm a planner and organizer, always thinking ahead," says Christine Cox, a producer who lives in New York City with her husband, Max, a professional magician who has ADHD. Christine is so organized that she produces and represents Max's magic show.

Max is the opposite, which is fine for him, but not so good for her. "My husband has lived with chaos all of his life. Meanwhile, for me, chaos is a trigger."

This is common, says Sharon Saline, PsyD, a psychologist who specializes in ADHD. "Many couples living with ADHD have incompatible standards of tidiness and organization," she says. It can leave both partners frustrated.

What to do. Make a list of what you each see as problem areas or triggers. Pick one to start working on. Create a system to improve organization.

"Maybe it's color coding, maybe it's separate boxes arranged alphabetically," Saline says.

"Sometimes I feel like I have to disproportionately shoulder the load of household responsibilities, and map out a plan," says Teri Schroeder, a therapist who runs the Just Mind counseling practice in Austin, TX, with her husband, William, who has ADHD and is also a therapist.

Teri takes charge of things because William doesn't think to. If she doesn't, nothing gets done. "I have to manage and delegate everything," she says.

This is typical in relationships affected by ADHD, says Chad Perman, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Bellevue, WA. "The non-ADHD partner often ends up doing far more of the housework and parenting because they're much more organized, reliable, and able to complete tasks in a reasonable time."

You may find yourself in a "parent-child relationship," where your partner feels like they have to be the responsible "parent" and you slip into the role of irresponsible "child." It can be frustrating for both of you.

What to do. Strategize with your partner. Agree on specific jobs you'll be responsible for. Set reminders on your phone to make sure you get them done.

Forgetfulness can be frustrating, says Teri Schroeder. "Sometimes I'll send William to Trader Joe's to get two things. Then it takes him longer and he comes back with only one of the items."

If it's minor, she'll shrug it off and even laugh about it, which helps. "It's less funny when I worry if he may forget to feed the cats when I'm out of town or the dog runs out of water," she says.

Max Cox knows his absent-mindedness and forgetfulness can be a problem. "I might agree to mail something for my wife and then forget to do so in a timely manner -- or not remember at all," he says.

He feels bad about not keeping his word. "She should be able to count on me," he says. "It's hard to trust someone you can't count on. It must hurt to question your trust in your spouse."

What to do. Try making lists. Strike through each item when it's done. Set reminders and notifications on your phone.

If you forget things that are important to your partner or don't pay attention to their needs, they may feel like you don't care. "This is very common in ADHD-impacted relationships," says Ned Hallowell, MD, a psychiatrist and international speaker on ADHD. The cause is neurological, he says, but it's often interpreted as a lack of love.

This happens to Teri Schroeder when William isn't fully present. "Sometimes he walks too fast, and he's distracted and forgetful and loses awareness of where I am," she says.

"If we go to a bar and he sees friends, he often loses track of me and may not notice if I need a drink or get stuck in a crowd." Even though she knows it's not intentional, she feels like he doesn't care.

"I hate that this happens for her, as it isn't an indication of my intent," William says. He's simply on overload, so he moves faster -- and misses some things.

What to do. William and Teri say expressing themselves calmly, instead of shaming or making the other feel defensive, helps. "Then we can problem-solve together," William says. As the partner with ADHD, you can also try activities that improve mindfulness.

ADHD may affect how you communicate with your partner. You may say whatever comes to your mind, struggle to be present in a conversation, or interrupt.

"These things are usually experienced by the non-ADHD partner as rude, dismissive, or hurtful behaviors," Perman says.

"Many couples with ADHD struggle with emotional blowups and intense arguments," Saline says.

What to do. Think before you speak. In heated moments, take time-outs. Cool down, then come back together to talk about it.

Whatever the source of tension, as a couple, set aside time each week to practice active listening together, Perman suggests. Strategize together about recurring issues. Find humor in the situation when you can. Hit pause when emotions start to rise. Focus on the positive or complementary traits in each other.