Bad Romance? ADHD and Relationships
Relationships. They're complicated enough as it is, but add ADHD to the mix, and they can be downright difficult. How do we successfully navigate the unique challenges of ADHD to keep ourselves and our significant others happy together?
ADHD can cause misunderstandings, frustrations, and resentments in our closest relationships. When we are aware of the potential pitfalls, we can take steps to avoid them. Here are some common relationship issues made worse by the symptoms of ADHD, and what we can do about them.
When Hyperfocus Changes to Inattention
What Are the Challenges?
Contrary to popular belief, those of us with ADHD don't have a lack of attention, rather we have difficulty regulating and sustaining our attention. There are four main factors which determine the things that attract and sustain the attention of the ADHD brain:
At least the first three factors are present in any new relationship. However, when the relationship is no longer new, the challenge and the novelty have worn off and our focus can rapidly shift elsewhere.
We often don't realise this is happening, as our impaired ability to focus means we can lose sight of how often we are paying attention to our partner and the things that matter to them. Understandably, our partners can often take this personally, feeling like they are ignored, uncared for, or unloved.
What Can You Do?
Discuss with your partner the areas in which they might feel neglected. Explain that your ADHD can make you "zone out", despite your best efforts, and that this is no reflection on how much you care for them. Create novelty in your relationship by trying new things together on a regular basis. Check in with them frequently to ensure they feel loved.
Forgetfulness and Disorganisation
What Are the Challenges?
Even when we manage to pay attention to what our partner is saying, we may later forget what was promised or discussed, inadvertently letting our partners down. They may start to feel like we don’t care or that we're unreliable.
Poor organisational skills can lead to difficulty finishing tasks and general household chaos. Partners may feel like they’re always cleaning up after us and shouldering an unfair share of the household duties.
What Can You Do?
Firstly, make a list of all the chores and responsibilities for the whole household. Creating a chart can be helpful, often in the form of a weekly or monthly calendar, with all the tasks that need doing on the day they should be completed. Break down longer or more complicated tasks into sequential steps to make it clear exactly what is expected.
Once you've identified what needs doing, when, and how, divide the tasks equally between you and stick to them. To decide who does what, consider that you will both have your strengths and weaknesses; for example, one partner may be more suited to handling bills and running errands, while the other manages the children and cooking.
To stick to tasks as best you can, set up your calendar in a prominent, high-traffic place such as the kitchen, to increase the chance that you'll see it regularly. Use bright colours, stickers, post-it notes, and anything else that might attract your attention to it.
If you have trouble finishing tasks, you could split them up in a way that your partner can step in to complete them once you've started (make sure you account for this in your arrangement to avoid resentments or conflict). Meet once a week to address issues and assess progress you’ve made as a couple.
Finally, you may be able to delegate, outsource, or automate some chores. If you have children, assign them chores! You may consider hiring a cleaning service, signing up for grocery delivery, or setting up automatic bill payments.
Impulsivity and Emotional Outbursts
What Are the Challenges?
We may blurt things out without thinking and cause hurt feelings. This impulsivity can also lead to irresponsible or even reckless behaviour, such as making a big purchase that isn’t in the household budget.
We often have trouble controlling our emotions, meaning we can easily lose our tempers and have trouble discussing things calmly. Our partners may feel like they have to walk on eggshells to avoid major arguments, even over minor issues.
What Can You Do?
The first step to avoiding destructive arguments is learning to see things from your partner’s perspective. This can seem pointless if you’ve been together a long time or continually fight over the same things, as it's easy to think that you already understand where your partner is coming from.
The reality is that you and your partner are more different than you think, especially if only one of you has ADHD. Thinking that you’ve heard it all before means you may not have truly taken in what your partner is actually saying.
It's especially difficult to maintain objectivity, perspective, and rational thinking when emotions are running high, as they usually do around ADHD relationship issues.
The best way to put yourself in your partner’s shoes is to ask how they are feeling and then simply listen. Find a quiet time to sit down and talk when you’re not already upset.
Let your partner describe how they feel without interruption from you. When they are finished, repeat back the main points you’ve heard them say, and ask if you have understood them correctly (you may want to write down some bullet point reminders whilst they talk, which will also help you to focus on what they're saying).
Then it’s your turn. Ask your partner to do the same in return and really listen with an open mind. Throughout your discussion, it's helpful for you both to stick to using "I" statements rather than "you" statements, for example, "I feel as though I'm shouldering too much responsibility," rather than, "You never take responsibility for anything." This helps to avoid unnecessary hurt and accusation.
Tips for Increasing Understanding in Your Relationship
Learn More About ADHD
The more both of you learn about ADHD and its symptoms, the easier it will be to see how it is influencing your relationship. You may well experience a "lightbulb" moment; so many of your issues as a couple finally make sense! Check out my post on what ADHD is all about to help explain it to your partner.
Remembering that an ADHD brain is wired differently from a non-ADHD brain can help the partner without ADHD take symptoms less personally. For the partner with ADHD, it can be a relief to understand what’s behind some of your behaviours, and know that there are steps you can take to manage your symptoms.
Acknowledge the Impact of Your Behaviour
If you’re the one with ADHD, it’s important to recognise how your symptoms affect your partner, particularly if they are untreated. If you’re the non-ADHD partner, consider how your nagging and criticism makes your spouse feel.
Remember That Symptoms Aren’t Character Traits
Separate who your partner is from their symptoms or behaviours. If you are the non-ADHD partner, avoid labelling your partner as “irresponsible,” and instead recognise that their forgetfulness and unreliability are symptoms of ADHD. Remember that they have little control over these symptoms without help and a tremendous effort on their part.
The same is true in reverse; if you are the partner with ADHD, recognise that your non-ADHD partner's nagging usually arises from feelings of frustration and stress, not because they are unsympathetic or a micromanaging overlord.
Relationships can be difficult sometimes, even without ADHD added to the equation. There's no need to feel bad if you're experiencing problems, and by working together to solve them as best you can, you can definitely make substantial improvements over time.
You may well learn a lot about each other in the process, too! Appreciating each other's strengths and supporting each other's weaknesses is part of a healthy, vibrant relationship.
Learn to enjoy the journey, take the lessons from any setbacks, and celebrate your successes. This will allow your relationship to really shine.