ADHD & Relationships

ADHD & Relationships

ADHD & Relationships

The ADHD relationship hamster wheel: Forever revolving and forever evolving

There is hope for couples teetering on the brink of disaster due to the poorly managed impact of adult ADHD on their relationship

Interestingly, it could be said that if a couple have ADHD in their relationship, they are no longer a ‘couple’ as there is a pervasive, tangible third element in that setting that needs care, love and treating with respect. The couple, as defined, is perhaps now a ‘triumvirate’, and this is important. In this T3 paper we will explore the impact of ADHD on relationships and offer some coping strategies that we hope can make your life easier, more productive and happier. But first let us explore some ADHD basics that have relevance to the relationship context.

This quote sums up the future for couples with ADHD in their relationship, as ADHD becomes more understood and more clinical practice becomes acutely aware of the impact of adult ADHD on lifestyle and outcomes, there is hope.

Back to Basics

In seminars and when delivering coaching I am frequently quoted as saying “people with ADHD do not choose to behave destructively, hyperactively, without reason; they are hardwired to this”. Our job is to seek to help, tolerate difference as much as possible and as much as we can understand the lack of choice and manage the fact that the ADHD partner, the protagonist, the grump, is the loving caring person we saw originally. I also use a phrase with couples when talking about treatment for ADHD that goes something like this: “You fell in love for some very valid reasons. They will still be there. Treatment for your partner’s ADHD is aimed at making them easier to love, that’s all.” This is generally met with tears, agreement and a commitment to have ‘hope’. Douglas Snyder, a renowned couple’s therapy expert states that “ADHD presents a critical destabilising influence on couple relationships that has, heretofore, been largely understudied and under-treated.” So, let’s change that. The single most impactful detractor from a successful relationship where there is the triumvirate with ADHD is not recognising that ADHD is involved. It isn’t just ‘present’, it is involved. ADHD manifests in many ways in a relationship, the contenders for ‘most destructive ADHD behaviour’ in this context will be a long list but here are our top 10:

The relationship top 10 for most destructive ADHD behaviour:

  1. Single focus to the exclusion of others, perhaps seen as selfish.
  2. No focus on anything, perhaps seen as slovenly.
  3. Being genuinely easily hurt emotionally but wanting to hide this, perhaps seen as weak.
  4. A lack of ability to ‘do’ the things required, such as laundry, perhaps seen as lazy.
  5. A total inability to manage money and household finances, perhaps seen as reckless.
  6. An inability to hold down a steady job, perhaps interpreted as because they are so challenging to work with.
  7. Being a shopaholic, especially an online shopaholic, seen as wasteful of precious finances and uncaring.
  8. Never paying bills, returning library books and meeting important deadlines, seen as uncaring and wasteful.
  9. Not listening and hearing what was asked, often looked at as ignorance.
  10. Not caring about the relationship anymore, whereas they did at first, often interpreted as a lack of love.

Here is the fact: All of these are classic, and I mean classic, ADHD behaviours that should feature in a diagnostic manual if we are honest. Rather than asking benign questions about fidgeting and moving around, (which are actually relevant), we could / should ask more questions about real lifestyle and relationship challenges.

If we look at what ADHD actually is, we know that it is often referred to as ‘differences in the hardwiring of the brain’. Once explained to me as ‘just electricity and chemicals’ the brain is the most complex thing known to man, so when it isn’t built to its best, we notice but we don’t always understand. This is because it is extraordinarily complex.

Single Focus

The capability to ‘hyper focus’ is incredible for people with ADHD. The excitement, the motivating thrill, and euphoric feelings of something new and exciting override the usual challenges of focusing and concentrating. The emotions and thrills change the basic brain chemistry, remember it’s only chemicals and electricity, and those changes improve the way the brain works. But that isn’t sustainable and very soon the thrill loses impact, the motivation drops, the person is exhausted and the chemical levels in the brain drop back. The motivation has gone. Not through choice but through clinical reality.

No focus on anything

The inability to concentrate is incredibly destructive in a relationship. Whether that is watching a movie together, starting then finishing a job around the house, maybe some DIY. Not completing the task, or finishing the movie isn’t chosen as the outcome, the third party in your relationship, the ADHD prevents it. That part of the brain is wired differently, and that’s a fact.

No Focus

Emotionally easily hurt

Oh boy, this is an unseen reality for people with ADHD, but let’s think “why?”. Imagine being misunderstood all through childhood, struggling to get things right, never completing homework, never REMEMBERING your homework, not being invited to sleepovers because of your behaviour. It all hurts. And then as an adult, struggling with studies, work, relationships. It all hurts. It hurts so much EVERYTHING hurts and you feel insecure. Now ask “why is my partner emotionally vulnerable?”

A lack of ability to do things that need doing

Procrastination is a foundation of untreated ADHD. Not being able to see how to start a task stems from not being able to see the steps through to the end, not being able to see how the steps fit together, not seeing little baby steps and only seeing enough to be overwhelmed. Let’s not leave out the inability to remember that we agreed to do the task, and then an accompanying absence of recollection about the task. Not doing jobs around the house is common amongst people with ADHD.

Sad Emotions ADHD

Inability to manage money and paying bills

This links to being a shopaholic. The difficulty managing a budget, keeping a constant eye on cash flow, money in and out, ensuring the cash in is more than the cash going out, is a real problem if you can’t focus and concentrate. It isn’t just about focusing on the ‘accounting’ tasks, it’s also about not considering the tasks as important in the first place, because we aren’t wired up that way. But then add into the equation, the dreaded ‘add to basket’ and the apparent simplicity of online shopping, and we can see how thrilling spending can become and how difficult it is to manage.

Holding down a steady job

When we ‘couple up’ the thrill seeking behaviour that doesn’t last forever, and the challenges of communicating effectively about emotions and add procrastination, lacking focus and being easily emotionally upset, perhaps we start to understand how hard it is for someone with ADHD to hold down a job.

Not hearing or listening in conversation

This is an Olympic level challenge for people with ADHD. Being in a conversation needs focus, concentration and a capability to listen, think and process information and speak at the same time. That is a real challenge for someone with ADHD. In fact it is almost impossible. A common coping mechanism, and one that seeks to avoid being criticised for not listening, or to prevent being shown up by not following the conversation, is to dominate the conversation. Add in a sprinkling of impulsivity and we find people with ADHD taking over others, interrupting and being the loudest to ensure they are heard.

Not caring about the relationship

It is all too easy to determine ‘love’ and ‘passion’ by the first acts and activities of a new relationship, when things are exciting and addictive. Of course, we all know that over time these things change and although the love and respect are still there, the manifestations can be different. We may do different things together that are just as loving, but perhaps not as exciting. But what if ‘exciting’ is what you need due to your ADHD and as your relationship expands and settles, even becomes more routine, you are content, happy, and secure, but your ADHD requires constant excitement.

You may turn to a hobby, an addiction to TV, gambling, driving, Xbox, it doesn’t really matter what is turned to in this context, but we shouldn’t transfer that ‘change’ into insecurity over the relationship. Things change and evolve. It is also fair to comment that people with ADHD struggle to correctly read body language, and because that skill requires the prefrontal cortex to process what you see, what you feel and what to do simultaneously, it is often an opportunity missed. Again, that can be mis-read and instead of acting like we need a cuddle, we may need to start saying ‘I feel quite low, I need reassurance, can we have a cuddle?’

Coping and Succeding: Recognise the hamster wheel is real and here to stay

The greatest coping mechanism in a relationship with someone with ADHD is to understand. It genuinely makes your partner easier to love. But there are also more tangible things that can be considered:

  • Learn to ask without nagging, maybe jointly make a list, agree what’s going on and stay true to that agreement.
  • Listen to your words as you speak to your ADHD partner, imagine you are also speaking to the third element of the relationship, the ADHD, you’ll choose your words differently.
  • Get away from the blame game. Whether we are blaming the partner, or their ADHD, forget it, it is never going to help. Accept things are different, move on…
  • If it is you with ADHD and you feel unloved, remember that isn’t true, but your symptoms may be challenging your partner, so let’s understand them more, together.
  • Stay far away from anger, difficult as that maybe, stay clear. Learn to cope and divert things when they are brewing. Develop anger avoidance techniques, change the subject, agree to disagree, say sorry… it all works.
  • Remember some basics. You fell in love, remember to work hard to stay in love, not just with your partner, but also with the third element, the ADHD. Look for the strengths, maximise on them, list them, remind yourself of them.
  • Also remember, that our brain is complex and it lives. We need to nourish it. Our personalities change based on how much sleep we get, how hungry we are, intestinal bacteria could be the determining factor of our emotions. Eat well, together. Exercise frequently, together. Sleep well, together.

No matter what treatment regime the partner with ADHD is on, no matter how good that can be, you will be living as three. Embrace and understand ADHD, get to know the third element of your relationship, don’t try to exclude it.

Further reading:

The ADHD effect on marriage by Melissa Orlov

Is it you, me or ADD? by Gina Pera

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