If you are married to someone with ADHD, your relationship may have a lot of challenges. In fact, research has found that relationships are twice as likely to fail when one of the partners has ADHD than those in which the partners don’t have it.
A big part of the reason for this is that people with this condition often may be:
- Easily distracted
All of these characteristics can make it hard for a person with ADHD to be in a successful relationship. It’s not just that the burden falls on their partner, either: Research suggests that adults with the condition report that they’re more dissatisfied with their marriages than even their partners.
Unfortunately, it’s a problem faced by many couples. The American Psychological Association estimates that more than 4% of all American adults have ADHD.
The good news is there are things you can do as a couple to help ensure your marriage or relationship gets through some of these rough patches. Here’s a look at some of the most common challenges, and ways to support your relationship so it can thrive.
The Biggest Challenges for Couples With ADHD
Here are some reasons it can be hard to maintain a relationship when one partner has ADHD:
The non-ADHD partner feels like the caretaker. You’ve probably heard the expression that opposites attract. This is often the case when it comes to long-term relationships and ADHD. Sometimes a person with this condition instinctively seeks out a partner who’s super organized and detail-oriented. As a result, they end up in charge of not only the house and the kids, but also of their partner. The non-ADHD partner may have to get up earlier to help their partner get ready for work, for example. This is known as “overhelping.”
While overhelping works in the short term, over the long term it can cause big problems. When one person repeatedly steps in to help their partner, that person can’t learn the skills they need to manage their ADHD. As a result, symptoms get worse. Both people start to resent each other.
It’s also quite overwhelming for the non-ADHD partner. They may feel like they constantly have to check in and micromanage the other person to make sure they’re on top of things. This leaves them with feelings of exhaustion and anxiety.
One study found that 96% of all spouses of adults with ADHD reported that their partner’s symptoms make it harder for them to manage their household and raise kids. More than 90% said they had to do more to make up for their spouse’s difficulties in these areas.
When one partner in a relationship is forced to take over as caretaker, there’s another bad side effect: learned helplessness. The partner with ADHD begins to believe that they truly can’t do it themselves. When their partner begins to feel overburdened and complains, their partner is surprised, because they’ve honestly come to believe that their partner is just faster and better at it. This worsens the resentment the couple may have for one another.
You have a “parent/child” relationship. When one partner has ADHD, the other may start to talk to them as if they were their parent. For example, the person without ADHD may yell at the partner who has it if they forget to pick up the kids from their softball game and accuse them of simply not caring. The truth is, the ADHD partner does care, but the condition makes it hard for them to register and hold onto what’s important. As a result, they forget things more easily, unless they have systems in place to help remind them.
If the partner with ADHD feels attacked and misunderstood, they may respond in a childlike way. For example, they may put their hands on their hips, tap their feet, or roll their eyes. This can escalate the “parent and child” pattern.
You lack intimacy. If one partner has ADHD, problems may spill over into the bedroom, including a sexless relationship. Part of this is the continuation of a parent/child like relationship. But people with ADHD are more likely to have sexual problems, too, according to a 2020 study published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine. There are a few reasons why:
- People with ADHD may find it harder to be intimate with someone due to symptoms such as impulsiveness and being easily distracted.
- Sex may be less enjoyable for both partners. For the partner with ADHD, they aren’t able to fully focus on either the physical or emotional aspects of sex. The person without ADHD may feel hurt if their partner is inattentive during lovemaking.
- People with ADHD may have a higher sex drive than their partner. This may lead to tension between them. Some medications for the condition can also lower sex drive.
- The partner with ADHD may be impulsive. This can lead to risky sexual behaviors such as cheating on their partner with unprotected sex.
How to Stay Connected
Here are some things couples with ADHD can do:
Practice self-care. This is especially important for the partner without ADHD. There are many things you can do for yourself:
- Get enough sleep
- Eat well
- Take time for yourself. That may seem too hard. But it’s OK to put your kids and significant other second for 10 to 15 minutes each day to do something you enjoy. For example, ask your partner to take the kids on an errand so you can have some alone time.
- Keep a journal. It’s a good idea to keep a “venting book” where you write down your thoughts. This helps you express emotions and move past something that angers you.
Set boundaries. Boundaries are very important if you are part of a couple with ADHD. Since the person who has this condition can be very easily distracted, it may seem like they’re being disrespectful to their partner. Or they may say or do something impulsive that hurts their partner’s feelings. That’s why it’s a good idea for the non-ADHD partner to make a “will do/won’t do” list. If the partner with ADHD is forgetful and blames it on the other person, for example, the other partner may write down that they won’t respond defensively. But they may do other things, such as:
- Listen calmly.
- Show empathy.
- Don’t step in to “rescue” the ADHD partner from the consequences.
- Disengage and walk away if they need to.
Work together as a team. Figure out what each of your strengths are, and delegate accordingly. If one of you is a great cook, then that person can make dinner every night while the other gets the groceries. If you’re both weak in a certain area, then outsource it as much as possible. If you both struggle with paying bills and managing finances, find a good money management app. Keep a running list of chores and responsibilities to make sure you both shoulder an equal burden. If you have kids, have them pitch in, too.
Take ADHD medications. It’s very important that the partner with ADHD takes their medication as prescribed to keep symptoms in check. If they do find that it’s impacting their sex drive, they can talk to their doctor about another drug option. They may also find that they can tweak the timing: For example, take it in the morning so they can be sexually active at night.
Make things visible. If you’re the partner of a person with ADHD, there are things you can do to make life easier for both of you. Put sticky notes on mirrors with a list of tasks. Label drawers and cabinets. Create a shared online calendar so you each know who is responsible for what.
Finally, you both should remember to say, “I love you and I’m in this with you.” Repeat this as needed whenever you both feel frustrated and upset. Stop for a minute and remember that you’re both in this together. Yes, there will be rough spots, but if you follow the two “Cs” (communication and commitment) your relationship can go a long way.