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Navigating ADHD's ripple effects:

At The Reconnection Institute, we recognize ADHD as a significant factor affecting many couples. Our dedication to providing comprehensive, life-altering articles goes beyond superficial content, focusing on shedding light on crucial factors that impact intimate relationships and are often overlooked by other therapists.

By offering these valuable resources for free, we aim to significantly improve the lives of those affected by ADHD and strengthen couples’ connections. We believe that understanding the root causes of problematic behaviours is the first step towards healing and growth, empowering individuals to take charge of their journey and create a brighter future.

A personal message from Michael Myerscough

From Chaos to Connection: Uncovering ADHD's Impact on Couples

In recent years, it has become blatantly obvious to me that ADHD, or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, is the elephant in the room when it comes to a lot of couples' issues. I had always assumed that ADHD was made up by people that couldn’t get it together or who wanted to be able to control children with medication. Sadly, ADHD appears to only be gathering momentum with higher rates of diagnosis year by year. You may also have been somewhat sceptical about this ‘epidemic’ that seems to be sweeping a lot of the developing world. It was only when I worked with Stephanie and Ian, who came to me in a state of crisis, that I realised I’d been making a huge mistake. Everything Stephanie was complaining about could be attributed to the ADHD diagnosis Ian had received as a child. I was embarrassed when Stephanie pointed out that I was overlooking this fact in my work with them.

Interestingly, as a result of working with Stephanie and Ian I ended up with my own ADHD diagnosis. This came as a painful surprise but helped me better understand the areas where I was still falling short in my marriage, despite my best efforts. Looking back, I sometimes wonder how different my life might have been if I had received a diagnosis earlier. It’s clear to me now that I caused quite a lot of pain over the years and always hid this behind an excuse of it being “just who I was”. While I primarily struggle with inattention and distraction due to my ADHD, the people who have tried to be in intimate relationships with me over the years have undoubtedly suffered far more.

As a result, I’ve done the research for you and I’m willing to say that ADHD diagnoses are real and have genuine implications for romantic partnerships. As of 2023, the number of papers focusing on ADHD, or ADD as it used to be known, has significantly increased. According to PubMed, over 40,000 papers have been published on this topic, demonstrating the growing recognition of ADHD as a genuine and prevalent condition. This figure has leapt up in the past few years, which highlights the increasing attention given to ADHD research and underscores the importance of understanding and addressing this condition effectively, especially for couples.

It's alarming that, according to Gina Pera, Author of ‘Is it You, Me or Adult ADD’, therapists often don’t know how to recognise ADHD or do not know how to specifically treat individuals or couples affected by adult ADHD. This can result in couples who have given therapy a shot with genuine intentions leaving these sessions feeling befuddled, frustrated and even angrier with each other.

It’s essential to understand, however, that acknowledging the presence of ADHD in your relationship doesn't absolve individuals from personal responsibility. Instead, it's essential to strike a balance between understanding the condition and actively working on strategies to manage it. I am hopeful that this page will provide valuable strategies to help you achieve that balance.

Wading through the terminology

Firstly, let’s clear up a couple of obvious pieces of confusion. The ADHD label serves as an umbrella term, encompassing both the hyperactive and inattentive types of the disorder. Not everyone exhibits hyperactivity, and, in fact, once past childhood, very few people actually do. It can be cumbersome to keep saying ADHD or ADD, so the powers that be have combined them, trusting that the reader can differentiate between the terms.

Another common confusion is that a person with ADHD is incapable of focusing. In fact, people with ADHD are totally capable of focusing, provided the subject is interesting to them. According to Gina Pera, people with ADHD find themselves closer-than-average to one end of the human spectrum; the end requiring greater stimulation to trigger interest and release motivational chemicals. Among these neurochemicals, dopamine, which is often associated with ADHD, is known as the "pleasure" or "reward" molecule. This is why some experts quip that ADHD might best be called the ‘Search for Stimulation Syndrome.’

While the nature of ADHD may make mundane tasks more challenging, it's crucial for individuals with ADHD to develop strategies to manage their symptoms and fulfill their responsibilities, rather than using the condition as an excuse to avoid necessary tasks or responsibilities. It is not responsible, cute, or even fair to live a life on the basis of, ‘If it’s boring, it ain’t gonna happen unless you make me.’

It's helpful to note that boys and men are more likely to exhibit the hyperactive-impulsive type of ADHD, which is often more noticeable/problematic and tends to be diagnosed earlier. On the other hand, women are more likely to display the inattentive type of ADHD, which is subtle and easily overlooked. So, whilst ADHD is present in both sexes, the way it manifests can vary, leading to differences in diagnosis rates and societal perceptions. Recognising these subtler signs of ADHD can contribute to a better understanding and more effective management of the condition.

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Believing ADHD doesn't matter

In conjunction with the emotional volatility and RSD associated with ADHD, another common challenge in relationships is when the partner with ADHD downplays or dismisses the impact of their condition. This creates tension with the non-ADHD partner who experiences the challenges it presents. This situation often leads to conflict, as exemplified by my client Mary, who said, "It’s not my fault you’re boring and just can’t keep up with me!" as she rapidly switched between five different topics in a conversation with her husband.

People with ADHD have had plenty of time to become comfortable with themselves and may perceive their symptoms as part of their personality. Mary continued, "I like me; you are the one with the problem. Stop being so critical!" This can be infuriating when attempting to discuss recurring issues such as finances or chores. In such cases, it might be necessary to involve a professional who can help emphasise the importance of addressing ADHD-related challenges.

In the end, it's about taking responsibility. Although ADHD can significantly impact a person's emotional regulation and interpersonal relationships, it's crucial to understand that the condition does not excuse one from the consequences of their actions. Individuals with ADHD must take responsibility for their behaviour, make a commitment to manage their symptoms and communicate openly with their partners. By doing so, both partners can build a healthier and more understanding relationship in which ADHD is not seen as an excuse, but as a challenge that can be overcome together.

Common ADHD behaviours

With a clearer understanding of ADHD's nature and its varying manifestations, let's examine some common behaviours associated with ADHD that may be incorrectly perceived as callousness:.

  • Hyperfocus: This is both a superpower and a super pain in the butt. Hyperfocus, or fixation, is an intense concentration on a specific subject or activity for an extended period. People with ADHD often throw themselves into things in a big way–‘go big or go home’ is their mantra. You can look at their hobbies as examples; ‘That’s the year I learned photography’ vs ‘That’s the year he spent a crazy amount of money on camera equipment that he never uses.’ Scuba gear, bicycles, motorcycles, hi-fi equipment, crypto-currency–there is probably a list of projects that didn’t get completed, especially once the challenging/exciting bits were ticked off. This can range from hobbies to career choices.The transition from hyperfocus dating to a more settled relationship can change the dynamic between partners. The initial ADHD-related intensity diminishes, potentially leading to misunderstandings and hurt feelings. Suddenly, you’re no longer basking under the sun lamp of their love and undivided attention. Understanding this phenomenon can help you and your partner to adapt and work together in order to maintain a healthy connection.
  • Poor Communication and Understanding: Communication in relationships where one partner is neurodivergent can be complex. In partnerships where one person has ADHD, their neurodivergence can lead to unique challenges in communication and understanding. For example:
    • Inattention: The ADHD partner may struggle to maintain focus during conversations, leading to missed details or misunderstandings.
    • Impatience: ADHD-related impatience can result in interruptions or hurried exchanges, creating frustration for both partners.
    • Distraction: External stimuli can easily distract the ADHD partner, disrupting the flow of communication.
    • Impulsivity: The tendency to blurt out random thoughts might lead to inappropriate or off-topic comments, making meaningful conversations more difficult.

From the neurotypical partner’s perspective, these challenges can be frustrating and painful, especially when seeking depth in their interactions. By recognising and understanding these ADHD-related communication issues, you and your partner can develop strategies to foster empathy, patience and effective communication.

  • Impulsivity and Financial Challenges: Impulsive behaviour is a common symptom of ADHD that can lead to financial difficulties in relationships. Here are a few ways impulsivity might manifest:
    • Impulsive Spending: The thrill of the purchase, combined with the hyper-focus on a new hobby or interest, can result in overspending.
    • Budgeting Challenges: Sticking to a budget requires organisation, discipline and foresight—skills that may be challenging for individuals with ADHD.
    • Forgetfulness: Not keeping on top of bill payments due to forgetfulness can incur late fees and damage credit scores.

     

    To overcome these challenges, couples can implement strategies such as establishing a shared budget, setting financial goals together, using reminders or automated payments for bills and practicing delayed gratification techniques to reduce impulsive spending. By working together, couples can mitigate the impact of ADHD on their financial wellbeing.

  • Emotional Volatility and Rejection Sensitivity Dysphoria: Due to the unique neurobiology of ADHD, emotional volatility and Rejection Sensitivity Dysphoria (RSD) can be common challenges in relationships. This can manifest as:
    • Impulsivity: ADHD individuals might respond to situations quickly and intensely, leading to conflicts that escalate rapidly.
    • Intense Reactions: A heightened sensitivity to rejection or criticism can result in extreme emotional responses, making it difficult for partners to navigate conflicts.
    • Emotional Regulation Issues: Managing emotions can be an ongoing struggle, causing distress for both the individual with ADHD and their partner.

These struggles were perfectly summed up by a client of mine, Lisa, who shared, “If I say anything even remotely critical or express anything close to anger, he becomes totally unreasonable. This man cannot hear criticism!” It’s important for couples to understand that these emotional challenges stem from the ADHD itself, rather than a character flaw or intentional behaviour. Learning coping strategies such as mindfulness techniques, deep breathing exercises or cognitive reframing can help both partners to better manage emotional volatility and RSD in their relationship.

Finding out that our partner has been unfaithful unleashes an unfathomable pain in most people. It also creates a mountain of emotional uncertainty, distrust and sense of abandonment that is specific to the experience of being betrayed by a loved one. The experts all agree that interpersonal trauma is the worst of all. Fundamentally, we must hold a sense of trust and commitment within our relationships if we are to feel loved or to want to extend that love to our spouse. That sense of safety has been badly injured and it’s a lot more like a gaping wound than a gash. If you want to recover from an affair, this wound must be repaired but, as you’re probably experiencing right now, it’s not that simple.

The foundation for healing after the affair and repairing betrayal is trust. Again, it sounds simple, but in reality, you’re probably wondering how you can trust what you don’t believe is true anymore. I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced an earthquake, but it feels as if the ground that you’re used to being solid has suddenly turned to liquid. It’s shocking and it’s scary, and, like we touched on earlier, something you assumed to be trustable no longer is.

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Remember, the key to overcoming ADHD-related challenges in relationships lies in taking ownership, prioritising self-improvement and nurturing a supportive partnership. By doing so, couples can not only navigate the complexities of ADHD, but also create a thriving and resilient relationship built on understanding, empathy and love.

Misinterpreting symptoms

Both partners may misinterpret each other's motives and actions, leading to feelings of disrespect and frustration rather than recognising that certain behaviours may be related to ADHD. For instance, getting distracted while spending time together might be perceived as a lack of interest or love, even though it's actually a manifestation of ADHD.

As stated above this issue can be further complicated by the fact that ADHD symptoms can present differently in men and women. As a result, diagnosis rates and perceptions of ADHD may differ between sexes, making it crucial for partners to educate themselves on these nuances to better understand and support each other. By understanding how ADHD symptoms can vary in presentation and impact, couples can approach challenges with more empathy and work together to find solutions that address both partners' needs and experiences.

Tackling the chore wars

Due to the organisational, time management and attention challenges associated with ADHD, household tasks may be distributed unevenly, leading to frustration and resentment. This imbalance can create a parent-child dynamic in which the non-ADHD partner assumes a more responsible role, naturally causing frustration and dissatisfaction for both partners. It's important to recognise that the root of the problem is the ADHD partner's distractibility and untreated symptoms, rather than their motivation.

It’s extremely important to know that one of the factors contributing to ADHD-related challenges is a dysregulated dopamine system. Dopamine plays a crucial role in motivation, reward and pleasure, and people with ADHD often experience fluctuations in dopamine levels. This means that they might be highly motivated for tasks that are novel, challenging or provide immediate gratification, but struggle to maintain motivation for routine or less stimulating tasks. It's not that individuals with ADHD lack motivation entirely, but rather that their motivation is influenced by their brain chemistry in ways that can be difficult to regulate. Understanding this aspect can help partners empathise with each other's experiences and find more effective strategies for managing tasks and chores.

It's easy to see why nagging or excessive reminders may not be effective and could even lead to the ADHD partner feeling overwhelmed, isolated, and ashamed.
To counteract these tendencies, couples can implement the following strategies:

  • Creating visual reminders: To-do lists, whiteboards or smartphone reminders can help the ADHD partner to stay on track with their responsibilities.
  • Establishing routines: Consistent routines can reduce the mental load for both partners and help the ADHD partner to develop effective habits.
  • Prioritising tasks: Focusing on the most important tasks first can prevent overwhelm and improve overall task completion.

Intimacy challenges

ADHD can have a significant impact on sexual intimacy, causing dissatisfaction and a sense of disconnection between partners. The desire for novel and stimulating experiences, driven by the need for larger dopamine hits, may lead the ADHD partner to seek variety in their sex life. This can be misinterpreted by the non-ADHD partner as dissatisfaction or lack of commitment, resulting in feelings of inadequacy or resentment. Distraction can also be a painful issue. I heard a story from one couple about how he leapt out of bed during an intimate moment to trim a finger nail that was suddenly bothering him. As you can probably imagine, that did not end well for either of them.

As a result, it's not uncommon for couples to face challenges such as differing expectations, difficulty in maintaining focus during intimate moments or an imbalance in the attention given to each partner's needs. Communication, empathy, and understanding are key to addressing these challenges. Couples can explore ways to satisfy the ADHD partner's need for novelty, such as trying new techniques, settings (Graveyard, anyone?), or even roleplays whilst also ensuring that the non-ADHD partner's emotional and physical needs are met. By fostering a safe and open dialogue about intimacy, couples can work together to create a more satisfying and connected sexual relationship.

The blame game

The blame game is a detrimental pattern that can emerge in ADHD-impacted relationships. This occurs when the non-ADHD partner attributes relationship issues to the ADHD partner's unreliability, whilst the ADHD partner blames the non-ADHD partner's anger or criticism.

This dynamic can lead to a toxic parent-child relationship, with the non-ADHD partner assuming more responsibilities and the ADHD partner feeling misunderstood or marginalised. Both partners end up feeling frustrated and dissatisfied in the relationship. It's helpful to understand that, while there may have been little evidence of ADHD-related dysfunction before a committed relationship, the increasing demands and responsibilities of a shared life, especially those with children, can expose the ADHD partner's reliance on inadequate coping strategies and defence mechanisms.

As the relationship progresses and demands grow, these once-sufficient strategies begin to falter, revealing the ADHD partner's vulnerabilities and challenges. Acknowledging this reality and working together to develop more effective coping strategies can help to strengthen the relationship and foster a more equitable partnership.

Breaking free from this cycle requires acknowledgment of the role that ADHD plays in the relationship and committing to open, empathetic communication. Strategies to counteract the blame game include:

  • Understanding symptom manifestations: Learning how ADHD symptoms affect both partners helps cultivate empathy and reduces blame.
  • Practicing self-awareness: Recognising personal triggers and taking responsibility for one’s own emotions and actions can diffuse tensions.
  • Implementing shared routines: Working together on tasks or routines fosters teamwork and reduces the burden on one partner.
  • Seeking professional support: Couples therapy or ADHD coaching can provide a safe space to learn effective communication strategies and build a stronger relationship.

One common manifestation of ADHD that can contribute to the blame game is the tendency to lose or misplace items. ‘Why would I put my car keys in the bin?’ or abandoning mobile phones in cafes or wallets in the fridge, or maybe leaving your work laptop behind at your pole dancing class. These are things that have actually happened. This can be a significant source of frustration for both partners and may lead to accusations or resentment. Negative thoughts of ‘What the hell is wrong with me/you?’ just isn’t going to fix it.

To begin addressing this challenge, consider implementing the following strategies:

  • Designated spaces: Establish specific areas for frequently misplaced items such as keys, wallets and phones. Using labels or colour-coding can also help.
  • Shared calendars or apps: Utilize technology to set reminders or track important items, events, and tasks. This can reduce the mental load on both partners and encourage collaboration.
  • Avoid shaming: Recognize that losing items is often a symptom of ADHD, not a character flaw. Instead of blaming, focus on finding practical solutions and supporting one another.

By working together and addressing the challenges of misplaced items with empathy and understanding, you and your partner can navigate this aspect of ADHD more effectively and mitigate its impact on your relationship.

Where acknowledgement meets personal responsibility

In conclusion, acknowledging ADHD's presence doesn't eliminate personal responsibility. As someone with ADHD, I absolutely understand that I can be a total nightmare for my wife at points. Because of this, I’ve made it my mission to not only compensate for the places I drop the ball, but to also make it an absolute priority to establish systems that support me to show up in a more adult fashion than I previously might have.

Whilst understanding the condition is crucial, it's equally important for those with ADHD to actively work on strategies to manage their symptoms. This might involve therapy, medication or personalised coping mechanisms. Embracing the unique strengths of ADHD, such as hyperfocus, can be a powerful tool in developing these strategies and fostering a more balanced relationship.

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