For adults who have been affected by ADHD, a relationship can be filled with bliss, joy, excitement and passion. It can also be filled with frustration, misunderstandings and shame.
There’s no getting away from the fact that many of the key characteristics of ADHD – inconsistency, impulsivity, disorganization and forgetfulness – can directly clash at times with how many people feel a strong and conventional marriage or cohabiting relationship should be.
We tend to value consistency, reliability, stability and feeling that we know where we stand with our spouses over the long term, especially when co-parenting.
Even those who have deep knowledge of their partner’s condition can sometimes become overwhelmed or frustrated with the difficulties that ADHD can bring.
However, there are ways to ensure an ADHD marriage is successful, depending on the willingness of both parties to listen, emphasize and work together:
“The ADD issue is just what you bargain for in a marriage. It can be a blessing or a curse, depending on how it affect(s) you. Like other characteristics you bring in a relationship, it is just part of how much they can become problems and how you deal with them.” (Frank Lawlis)
Common ADHD Challenges
One of the biggest challenges when living together with ADHD is how differently certain characteristics can be viewed as priorities change.
When dating, it’s often much easier to ‘let go’ of areas which can cause friction – such as lateness, or a lack of organization. However, when it comes to sharing a house and building a life together, the impact of these issues can intensify.
Some of the most common complaints that people living with ADHD report are areas such as feeling chronically disorganized, with clutter and chaos building up in the house. A lack of structure and routine can make for filing paperwork or remembering where an important object – like car keys or a bank card – is placed a constant challenge.
As Rae Jacobson describes in her article about living with ADHD, it isn’t only that these issues happen, but they happen with a frequency which is severely disruptive to a person’s life. While we’ve all had experiences of misplacing things, feeling impulsive, or realizing we’ve got behind on the housework, with ADHD this is often ongoing and chronic.
This is incredibly frustrating and demoralizing and adults with ADHD frequently suffer from co-morbid disorders such as depression. Around 50 percent of adults with ADHD also suffer with anxiety disorders.
Living with someone who displays these tendencies can severely test the patience of those living with them, especially when they directly impact on daily life for the non-ADHD partner. It’s hard to see your partner suffering with guilt and self-esteem issues because they’ve forgotten another important meeting. But it’s also hard to feel that you are the one who has to constantly ‘pick up the slack’ when it comes to practical organization and emotional support.
Many couples who have successfully navigated dating with these issues often find that over time their patience and empathy begins to wear thin when cohabiting. This can lead to fights and breakdowns in communication.
How Spouses are Affected by ADHD
Melissa Orlov, a therapist who specializes in working with couples where ADHD is an issue suggests there are three main ways that spouses can be negatively affected by ADHD.
Firstly, is the interpretation of ADHD symptoms as a sign of a lack of love and care. This can particularly be a problem in relationships where ADHD has been undiagnosed. We are all familiar with the idea that actions speak louder than words, and that ‘love is a verb.’
However, in the case of ADHD this isn’t always true. Forgetting important occasions, not being fully ‘present’ or being distracted can lead a partner to feel unloved and unappreciated. But these may be symptoms of ADHD rather than a sign of how the partner truly feels.
Secondly, Orlov describes the issue of “symptom-response-response.” This is where the ADHD symptoms plus the response of the partner to the symptoms causes additional problems. An example might be the ADHD spouse reacting negatively if they’ve been interrupted while hyper-focusing, and then the non-ADHD spouse also reacting negatively with anger to that response. It can create a vicious circle of negativity which is hard to break out of.
Lastly, Orlov describes the problem of the “parent-child dynamic” – where the non-ADHD partner picks up all the tasks to do with organizing and scheduling and other responsibilities. This can lead to burnout, frustration and resentment which are all destructive to relationships.
In these examples the spouse is often left feeling unappreciated and frustrated, as well as suffering from a natural resentment at feeling their needs aren’t considered. This can cause irreparable damage to the relationship over time.
On the other side of the coin, the partner with ADHD will often feel depressed, anxious, guilty and like a failure when issues arise, which can severely damage self-esteem and confidence in tackling their challenges.
Co-Parenting and ADHD
Parenting with ADHD can be extremely challenging. Because children need structure, discipline and boundaries, the parent with ADHD can often feel overwhelmed and like they aren’t parenting well enough.
In many households both parents work in addition to child-rearing, and attempting to juggle running a household, work and looking after children can leave all involved feeling pressured and disorganized. Add ADHD into the mix and at times this can cause the marriage to reach crisis point.
For children, it can be confusing to have rules which change, or routines which are disrupted. It can also be difficult for younger children to understand how things like interruptions or being loud can impact the parent with ADHD.
Managing ADHD as a Team
Some of the key ways of managing ADHD as a team is to work on three primary areas together –
Being able to adequately communicate frustrations, needs, desires and hurts to one another is important in any relationship, but it’s even more important when pressures from ADHD are felt.
Agreeing boundaries for disagreements, such as cooling off time for when things get heated, and being honest about tough emotions are key ways to improve communication.
Building an atmosphere of mutual empathy is also important. For the partner with ADHD feelings of guilt, low self-esteem and a feeling of being misunderstood or that they are lazy or not ‘good enough,’ can be debilitating emotions. For the partner without ADHD feeling unheard, unappreciated and like they have to shoulder too great a load will lead to similar feelings.
When both parties are able to put themselves in each others shoes, as well as acknowledging their own pain, a deeper bond can be created.
Using empathy as well as a degree of give and take can be crucial. For example, for some people with ADHD organizing their environment can be one way to feel a greater degree of control and order, and they can become overly controlling over their possessions. This can lead to friction if the non-ADHD partner feels they are walking on eggshells to avoid confrontation or interfering with the system.
On the other hand, a partner without ADHD might find that writing down requests – such as asking for a task to be carried out – like laundry – can be helpful, instead of getting cross when their spouse forgets.
Mutual responsibility for not only the relationship, but dealing with the challenges that ADHD can bring can also help ease tensions. For the ADHD partner this might mean ensuring they seek help for a diagnosis and to access support and treatment.
Keeping up to date on coping techniques and tools to help with ADHD symptoms is important for both parties. Education and increasing knowledge about the condition and how it manifests can both to cope with negative effects.
For the non-ADHD partner, ensuring they are also accessing support if needed in the form of counseling or ways to deal with resentment can be extremely effective. Reaching agreements on how to manage mutual tasks such as household chores and parenting which embrace as far as possible both parties’ strengths can help rebuild confidence and trust.
One way that both parties can help to improve all three aspects is by using Mindfulness Meditation. Although some have been skeptical about Mindfulness’ use for people with ADHD, it has been shown in initial research to indicate improvements in attention and hyperactivity.
Mindfulness is also well-known generally for helping with anxiety, emotional processing, depression and concentration. It’s also been shown to increase the ability to emphasize and to respond rather than react to anger and other challenges.
If both parties engage with a practice of mindfulness, it can help to address issues of communication and resentment, as well as building self-esteem and cognition.
One final way to improve any relationship which is under strain is to practice gratitude and remembering the positives in the relationship. Although ADHD can be challenging, it’s also a condition which has positives. A mutual commitment to remembering the positives of both having the condition, as well as the others unique personalities can lead to happier, less stressful relationships.