Medically Reviewed by Smitha Bhandari, MD on August 05, 2020
You, Me, and ADHD
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder can send your most important relationship off the rails. Distraction, procrastination, and other ADHD symptoms can stir anger, frustration, and hurt feelings for both the person with ADHD and the partner. But your marriage or relationship can thrive with proper treatment and tactics to ward off misunderstandings.
This is the main symptom of ADHD. Your ADHD partner doesn’t seem to listen when you talk or fails to follow through on promises. You feel unheard, ignored, and unwanted. In reality, they may love you very much but are too distracted by the TV, the phone, or their own thoughts to show it.
First, calmly tell your ADHD partner how you feel. Bottled-up feelings can lead to resentment and anger. If conversations are a big problem, set a time to talk to your partner face-to-face, away from distractions. It may help to touch your partner while you talk. If you’re the one with ADHD and start to zone out, fess up. Ask your partner to repeat what they said. If the conversation goes on too long and your mind wanders, it’s harder to reconnect.
This is the flip side of distraction. You may be so engrossed in something it’s hard to shift your attention away. You can’t drag yourself away from that new best seller or look up from your smartphone. Hyperfocus can be a gift for productivity. But unchecked, it can make your loved one feel less important than whatever has grabbed your attention.
If you’re prone to hyperfocus during certain activities, like online games or crossword puzzles, avoid them close to mealtimes or whenever you need to engage with your partner. Set alarms and track the time you spend on doing one thing. Get up or move to break your preoccupation when you realize you’re hyperfocusing. If you’re the partner or the spouse, try not to take it personally.
You blanked out on your dinner date and left your husband stranded at the restaurant. Maybe your power got shut off because you forgot to pay your electric bill. Your partner feels they can’t trust you with even basic tasks. You feel like a failure. Anger builds on both sides.
Forgetfulness and other ADHD symptoms aren’t character flaws. Avoid lectures and don’t label the behavior as rude or uncaring. Don’t take over for your partner, either. That can leave you both resentful. Instead, work with your partner to help them remember. Use a day planner or reminders on a smartphone or a laptop.
The partner with ADHD may skip chores or leave jobs unfinished. Or constantly misplace the car keys or lose important papers. Disorganization can cause stress and wasted time and money. It also can lead to nagging and leave the other person feeling controlled.
Calm down and talk about the issues. Then look for fixes. Maybe the partner with ADHD can take charge of cooking and laundry instead of paying bills or organizing carpools. Play to each of your strengths to avoid the chore wars. Respect the ADHD partner’s need to keep items in certain spots -- it may be their way of staying organized.
People who have the hyperactive type of ADHD also tend to be impulsive. They often act before thinking. One common problem is impulsive spending. You may blow money on things you don’t need or max out the credit cards. Some people may have risky sex or drive dangerously. Or they may blurt out inappropriate comments at parties.
Self-control can be learned. You can help your partner role-play how to act in social situations. Or how to wait their turn. If you’re apt to overspend, bring cash and stick to your shopping list. Cut out temptations. Toss catalogues and unsubscribe from retailers’ emails. If impulsive behaviors are out of hand, you may need help from a therapist with expertise in ADHD.
We all put off boring or hard tasks from time to time. But for some people with ADHD, procrastination is a giant hurdle. You might not know how to get started, or feel overwhelmed by a project. You may need last-minute deadlines as motivation. That’s a recipe for a chaotic lifestyle that’s hard on you and your partner.
It’s easier to tackle a project when you break it into small chunks. Focus on only the first part -- don’t think about the rest of it until you finish step one. If you’re the partner, see if you can share a part of the task to offer company. But take care not to take over their responsibility. Most importantly, don’t think of procrastination as a personal defect, but as a trait that can be managed.
People with ADHD often have trouble controlling emotions. You might lash out in anger or have sudden or wide mood swings. That’s because you feel anxiety and frustration -- as well as joy and happiness -- more intensely than some others. That can leave your partner on edge.
Mood Swing Strategies
A healthy diet, good sleep, and regular exercise can head off mood swings. Yoga or tai chi can ease stress and help you control your impulses. If you’re the partner, don’t overreact to flare-ups. Instead, empathize but also explain how they affect you. Go on a hike or do something together.
IMAGES PROVIDED BY:
Melissa Orlov, marriage therapist; author, The ADHD Effect on Marriage and The Couple's Guide to Thriving with ADHD.
HelpGuide.Org: “Adult ADHD and Relationships,” “ADHD in Adults,” Tips for Managing Adult ADHD,” “Treatment for Adult ADHD.”
CHADD of Northern California: “How Adult ADHD Affects Relationships: Strategies for Coping.”
Edge Foundation: “Here are seven strategies to help you manage ADHD hyper-focus.”
Attention Deficit Disorder Association: “Actions and Attitudes: 7 Strategies for Non-ADHD Partners.”
ADD Resource Center: “The ADHD Effect on Marriage by Melissa Orlov.”
Bailey, E. and Haupt, D. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Adult ADHD, the Penguin Group, 2010.
National Institute of Mental Health: “Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.”
Understood.org: “ADHD and Mood Swings: What You Need to Know.”