How Does ADHD Affect Relationships?
The impact of ADHD on relationships is a factor that’s often overlooked. The most popularized core symptoms of ADHD like hyperactivity and inattention seem more likely to be issues in the office than in the bedroom, so many people are surprised to learn how deeply the condition can impact your relationships in adulthood.
Gaining a better understanding of the obvious and more subtle ways ADHD can strain a relationship can help both partners find ways to better support each other and meet certain challenges with understanding. This article explores some of the ADHD symptoms that most commonly impact relationships and what you can do about it.
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ADHD symptoms that impact relationships
No relationship is immune to challenges. When one or more partners has ADHD, the condition can throw some extra hurdles and challenges into any partnership. Whether you’re dating, in a long-term relationship or married, gaining awareness into which ADHD symptoms affect your relationships can help you and your partner navigate through them together.
Emotional dysregulation is not considered a diagnostic symptom of ADHD, which means it sometimes gets swept under the rug as a common symptom. Emotional dysregulation refers to difficulties associated with extreme emotional overreactions, which can feel difficult to control. Studies have shown that adults with ADHD struggle with emotional dysregulation quite a bit due to challenges in brain areas involved in executive functioning.
Emotional dysregulation in a relationship often looks like:
Emotional outbursts that are out of proportion
Difficulty calming down when upset
Irritability or hypersensitivity
Zoning out with video games, social media or TV to cope
Oftentimes the trigger for an emotional outburst is something mundane, like misplaced keys or not being able to find the right shirt. A partner with ADHD might handle a massive stressor with ease and then completely meltdown over a seemingly minor inconvenience.
Due to the extreme nature of some emotional breakdowns, both partners may find themselves poking at the relationship for “bigger” answers as to why the ADHD partner had such an extreme reaction. In some cases, the outbursts themselves may also cause some emotional damage for both parties.
How to address it: In addition to seeking treatment such as medication or talk therapy, learning group coping mechanisms can be essential. Ensuring that both partners can identify the emotional response for what it is, along with finding a safe space to decompress, can minimize the damage. Decompression techniques such as deep breathing, journaling, and meditation can all help ease and even prevent future breakdowns. The afflicted partner can also seek out Dialectical behaviour Therapy (DBT) which is specifically targeted for helping to improve emotional regulation. Partners who are able to identify issues with emotional dysregulation are less likely to take things personally and feel more equipped to lean in with suggesting decompression techniques.
ADHD Tax is a term that refers to the actual cost of having ADHD. Symptoms such as disorganization, losing things, forgetfulness, and time blindness can all lead to unforeseen costs. Lost headphones, broken phone screens, and missed bills are just a few examples of the types of expenses that can build up.
ADHD tax is a personal burden when you live alone, but when you combine your life with a partner they can often also feel the pain. While small mistakes are unlikely to cause too much upset, some mistakes can actually be quite costly. Whether it’s a missed opportunity, additional stress, time wasted, or monetary loss — paying the ADHD tax is a real cause of conflict in relationships. Partners of people with ADHD may form resentment over time while the person living with ADHD often has a sense of guilt and shame that builds.
How to address it: You can’t always avoid paying the ADHD tax. What you can do is continue to do your best to implement strategies and coping mechanisms that help you minimize the tax you pay. Most importantly, you should work on keeping clear communication with your partner when mistakes happen. The partner with ADHD should always avoid hiding it, lying, or acting defensively. If needed, wait until everyone has cooled off before chatting about it in depth and work together to mitigate any consequences as needed. In some cases, it may help to shuffle responsibilities, implement a buddy system, or hire professional help (therapist, accountant, house cleaner, or even a personal assistant). Treating ADHD tax like a problem you have to solve together rather than a deficit or purposeful act can save the relationship.
Most importantly, be kind to yourself and your partner. Mistakes happen and the best thing you can do is act compassionately and learn what you can from the experience. To help adjust the desire to blame, when faced with ADHD tax try asking yourself:
Was the intention to cause harm?
Is there willingness to learn from this experience?
How can we improve moving forward?
Disorganization and untidiness
Staying organized and tidy can be a massive challenge with ADHD. Partners often complain about messes, piles, and general disarray. Disorganization can also have a negative impact on other duties and chores like paying bills, taking out garbage and general maintenance.
Although there is comfort in chaos with an ADHD mind, even people with ADHD work better in environments that are clean and tidy. Due to differences in the ADHD brain, staying organized and tidy is mentally exhausting. Unlike a neurotypical individual who can throw away a piece of trash without thinking, oftentimes people with ADHD have to be deliberate with each and every step and often get overwhelmed if the steps build up. Additionally, it’s common for people living with ADHD to need to have everything in their line of vision or it disappears from existence. Unsurprisingly, this leads to clutter.
How to address it: Relationships are about compromise and this area might be one where a lot of compromise is needed. A few thing you can try are:
Task swapping: If one partner is better at tidying, try swapping! To ensure that the burden feels equal, the partner with ADHD can offer to pick up a task that’s unappealing to the neurotypical partner to make up for the challenges with tidying and organization.
Get help: Hire a cleaner or organizer whenever you can to come in and help.
Create systems: Even with treatment, disorganization and untidiness might be a forever challenge. Try making systems such as having designated space for the ADHD piles, buckets to put things in for quick tidying, and working out other ADHD-friendly organization strategies that make both partners feel better
Tackle it together: Set a weekly time and day where you both work together to chip away at clutter. This team effort can help reduce resentment and having a cleaning partner will help the partner with ADHD feel less overwhelmed. Try to set very clear and achievable goals and reward yourselves afterwards.
What not to do: With untidiness and other ADHD symptoms, it’s important to not act like a parent to the partner with ADHD. Introducing a parent-child dynamic to a relationship is demoralizing and can do a great deal of damage. Instead, lean into support strategies and learn more about which communication styles and patterns your partner prefers. As with most issues in a relationship, approach untidiness with a problem-solving hat and the assumption that you both want what’s best for the relationship.
People with ADHD often experience a lifetime of criticism paired with a feeling that they don’t belong. This often leads to a hypersensitivity to criticism and feelings of shame, guilt and low self-esteem. When the person with ADHD disappoints their partner, it can trigger many of these emotions and lead to feeling rejected and isolated within the relationship.
Even seemingly small comments like “why didn’t you do that?” or “why are you like this?” can be extremely upsetting. When the non-ADHD partner feels irritated or upset, it’s important to refrain from language that makes the ADHD partner feel like there’s something wrong with them. Learning how to address problems while still validating your partner's efforts is essential for creating a safe and trusting bond.
How to address it: Both partners should do their best to learn about ADHD and the impact it has on daily life. Always stick with respectful language and spend time apart if tempers are too heated to be able to show compassion. Working with a couples therapist is a great way to help improve communication lines.
For now, you can also try the ”write it out” method:
Write it out: After any time of disagreement, painful interaction or conflict, you should both take time to write down 1) your feelings; 2) how the other person made you feel during the conflict; and 3) what you can both do better next time. Come together when you are calmer and share how each of you was impacted and discuss what you can do to improve moving forward.
Impulsivity is a common symptom of ADHD that manifests in more complicated ways in adulthood. One typical daily manifestation of impulsivity comes across during conversations. The person with ADHD often speaks quickly, interrupts, or even cuts off the other person speaking. This communication style can lead to the neurotypical partner not feeling heard. Likewise, when conversations have lulls and too many pauses, the person with ADHD may feel agitated.
Other types of impulsivity can also take a toll on a relationship. Impulsive behaviours such as impulsive purchases, rash business decisions, risky behaviours, and addictive tendencies, such as self medicating with drugs or alcohol, can all cause quite a bit of harm to relationships.
How to address it: When it comes to daily conversations, learning to communicate your needs and feelings effectively is essential to ensure you feel heard and understood. Even if the partner with ADHD is unable to create quiet space for you to feel heard in the moment, they will surely be able to give you the time and space you need to communicate when you ask for it calmly and compassionately. It may take a bit of patience for both parties to improve this area of communication.
Sometimes impulsivity is such a challenging issue that it might require professional help to improve. Therapy and medication are both effective for helping people with ADHD reduce impulsive behaviours. A few strategies you can try include:
Identify triggers: Try to identify triggers for impulsive behaviours together and see how to reduce their impact. For instance, frustrations at work might lead to impulsive purchases or feeling sad may lead to binge eating. Being prepared with alternative coping strategies when faced with triggers can help curb some impulsivity. For instance, try implementing a self-care evening or the neurotypical partner can try suggesting a walk together after a tough work day.
Practice: Practicing pausing during conversations might sound painful to an ADHD mind, but it can be helpful for improving communication and ensuring everyone feels heard. You can practice this together!
Mindfulness: Practicing more mindfulness exercises such as journaling and meditation can help provide insight into patterns and reduce impulsive behaviours.
Issues such as time blindness, procrastination, forgetfulness, overstimulation, overwhelm, and hyperfocus are other common causes of tension in a relationship with one or more ADHD partners. Many people with ADHD also question their ability to maintain long-term relationships because they simply feel bored with their partner after a certain amount of time. Is this a legitimate issue?
The truth is that finding a balance of stability while also feeding that novelty-seeking portion of the ADHD mind can often feel like a struggle. Exploring deeper into core feelings and spending time practicing mindfulness exercises are all excellent pathways for gaining more clarity about what you truly want and whether you are happy. You can start out simply with morning pages, where you write whatever comes to mind for three pages every morning. This practice helps provide organization to your mind and feelings, which can bring a lot of clarity. You can also try chatting with trusted friends or a therapist to explore your feelings and separate what are symptoms of ADHD and what are your true internal emotions.
The bottom line
Whether one or both partners has ADHD, there is no doubt that there are an array of extra challenges that couples living with ADHD face. Taking time to ensure that both partners better understand the symptoms and lived experience of ADHD can help improve levels of compassion and enhance communication. Although understanding the root cause may not solve the issue at hand, it lends more empathy and understanding which can change everything.
Relationships take work for all people. When tackling the challenges that occur with ADHD it’s important to sometimes take time away from what is occurring in the moment so that you can both gather your thoughts, write down your feelings, and reconvene with a clearer mind. Learning how to effectively express your needs while also practicing patience and understanding might not always be easy. Be sure that both partners also have healthy outlets outside of the relationship such as hobbies and friendships.
Sharing a life together gets a lot easier when you’re better able to have empathy for your partner's lived experience and daily challenges, no matter what they are. Keep an open mind, share resources, and focus on improving communication and building a solid team dynamic. At the end of the day, seeking professional help in navigating your challenges with ADHD in a relationship is an excellent way to build a stronger foundation and find a path forward.