How Having a Partner with ADHD Can Affect Your Relationship—And How Couples Therapy Can Help

You knew your partner was a little disorganized when you met him, but he could pursue a passion with every ounce of his energy. That’s what living with attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD) can do. But while it may have been endearing in the beginning, his lack of time management is now taking its toll on your co-parenting. Or his hyper focus on new interests makes you feel like he’s forgotten you exist. Even if you already know you have a partner with ADHD, that doesn’t make the struggles in your relationship feel any easier.

About ADHD:

ADHD is the most common developmental disorder, affecting up to 10% of children. Within those children, ADHD is diagnosed twice as often in males as females, and for about 50% of people diagnosed with ADHD, the symptoms last into adulthood.

If your partner has ADHD, he may tend to be easily distracted and may seem impulsive with his actions. He may also seem to move around a lot, maybe jiggling a knee or constantly playing with whatever item is in front of him.

In ADHD, thinking processes called “executive functions” are affected like the ability to stay organized, or plan ahead and time manage. ADHD can also affect working memory, so it’s harder for a partner with ADHD to hold things in his mind while working on another task or goal.

Executive functions also help people manage or communicate emotions and self-motivate or self-monitor. This may mean your partner struggles to find the words to tell you what he’s feeling, or may seem to lack motivation or the ability to maintain progress toward a goal.

In general, ADHD can be divided into three types: inattentive, hyperactive and impulsive, or a combination of inattentive and hyperactive. A partner with ADHD may not even notice the chores piling up around the house, or may impulsively do a task that’s not even on the chore list instead.

Common Signs of ADHD

In a relationship, very often a partner with ADHD will have some of the following tendencies:

  1. Inconsistent attention

Your partner can focus on something he likes (video games, a fun project for work) but not on you or your kids, or daily tasks like cleaning and laundry. Likewise, he may seem distracted when he talks to you, making you feel like he’s not interested in you or what you’re saying.

This distractibility can get worse with the constant interference of phones, text messages, the ping of a new email. You try to have a conversation with your partner, and the next thing you know he gets a text from work and you’ve lost him

2. Moves fast and has difficulty stopping

Think of a race car with bicycle breaks, that’s how your partner approaches life. He can have poor impulse control, acting first and thinking later.

3. A different sense of time

If it’s not now, it doesn’t matter to your partner. He tells you it will take only 15 minutes to finish work, and that was an hour ago.

4. Difficulty seeing what’s important and what’s not

Planning and prioritizing are areas your partner needs help with. He might feel flooded with information and think everything seems important. It’s like having 20 tabs open on your browser at the same time and getting lost in which you should look at first.

5. Disorganization

His stuff is everywhere and it’s taking over the house.

6. Poor emotional control

You might describe your partner as “explosive.” He easily loses control of his emotions and can’t seem to reign them in.

With these pervasive symptoms, it’s not a surprise that ADHD can affect your partner’s work, school, marital and social life.

A Partner with ADHD May Have Difficulty Managing Emotions — An Under-recognized Symptom of ADHD

There are two sides to how people with ADHD may experience and manage emotions. Both over activation of emotions and under activation of emotions are common.

If your partner experiences over activation of emotions, he may have frequent mood swings and seem to over-react at the slightest provocation. He may seem overwhelmed easily and unable to manage daily stressors. Disorganization and impulsivity may be his standard mode of operations.

On the other side, if your partner experiences under activation of emotions, he may try to avoid situations he finds uncomfortable and shut down if he’s unable to get away. Your partner might distract himself with activities he prefers, even while you’re trying to have a nice conversation with his folks over dinner.

How Your Relationship With a Partner With ADHD Can Change Over Time

Like any relationship, over time, a relationship with a partner who has ADHD will change. However, the changes in your relationship may feel more stark, more frustrating.

In the beginning, your relationship is exciting. It has everything that a person with ADHD needs to maintain focus and pay attention to you, his new partner:

  1. Interest in something new and exciting – you! Also, new experiences, doing things together for the first time, etc.
  2. Challenge – how is he going to win you over?
  3. A tight timeline – either he woos you or he loses you.

A partner with ADHD is present early on in the relationship. He’s romantic, and hyper-focused on you. He sends you messages during the day and goes to great lengths to learn everything about what makes you tick. It’s exciting. You feel like the luckiest person alive.

As the relationship progresses, your experiences together become routine. He knows and understands you now, and you’ve become comfortable with each other.

These are all positive, natural progressions for a more mature relationship. However, they’re less exciting than the start of a new relationship. When the relationship becomes predictable, the partner with ADHD seems less interested and pays less attention.

How ADHD Symptoms Influence Your Relationship

When you’re with a partner with ADHD, you will tell yourself stories to explain your partner’s behavior. This is referred to as “meaning making” and some examples of meaning you might make for different types of common ADHD behaviors include (Kneubühler & Thompson-de Benoit):

  • Distraction: You think, “I’m not important to him. I am invisible.”
  • Disorganization: You tell yourself, “he doesn’t care about me.”
  • Hyper-activity: You tell yourself, “I am not enough for him.”
  • Impulsivity: You think, “he doesn’t respect me.”
  • Forgetfulness: You feel like you don’t matter to him, and tell yourself “apparently what I say is not important.”

How You Might Perceive the Behavior of Your Partner with ADHD

Just as you make meaning of your partner’s actions, it’s possible that you have labeled some of his behaviors through how you perceive them. For example, you might find yourself thinking of your partner as (Kneubühler & Thompson-de Benoit):

  • Rude (when he is impulsive)
  • Mean (when he is quick to anger)
  • Lazy (when he doesn’t follow through or finish tasks)
  • Anti-social or emotionally crippled (when he retreats)
  • Stupid (when he has difficulty planning, thinking ahead)
  • Clueless (when he is not efficient)

Typical Interaction Patterns and the Beginning of a Vicious Cycle

You may find yourself becoming more critical of your partner as your relationship progresses. You might start nagging, or treat your partner like another child. And then you’re not happy with yourself for constantly nagging.

Additionally, you may feel ignored and exhausted from having to do all the work.

If this is the case, you might try to get attention by being loud. You scream and yell to get your partner to pay attention to you or to help you clean the house. But eventually you’ll get burned out and give up. Deep down, you feel alone, forgotten, unloved, and uncared for.

Your partner is likely triggered by the constant criticism and nagging.  Deep down he feels hurt, guilty and inadequate, and tells himself “she hates me.” He copes with these feelings by  tuning out, numbing out, denial, or getting defensive.

He doesn’t feel safe to open up, so he hides and avoids you even more. In turn, this triggers you to feel even more alone, and in response you might become louder and criticize even more.

Both partners end up alone and hurt. You’re stuck in a negative interaction pattern.

You don’t know how to turn to each other and help heal the other’s hurts.

Couples Therapy Can Help Both Partners Understand ADHD and Stay Focused on the Relationship

Understanding the common signs of ADHD is the first step in creating a successful relationship with a partner with ADHD. It can help you avoid getting stuck in blaming the partner with ADHD and seeing him as a problem.

From there, coaching can help teach practical strategies to counteract some of the more disruptive ways ADHD is affecting your lives together, like keeping a calendar and arriving on time.

Psychotherapy can come in alongside coaching, and help couples approach the health of the relationship as the responsibility of both partners.

In practice, couples therapy helps both partners see how they respond to the trigger of ADHD and to each other. It helps them see how they get stuck in unproductive criticize-defend interaction patterns. Couples therapy can create a safe space for the partner with ADHD to express vulnerable feelings and share what they need. And the guidance of a counselor can help you learn how to support your partner through any struggles he might have with ADHD and give you the opportunity to explore how your partner’s ADHD affects you. It can even open space for acknowledging the ways that ADHD makes your partner the wonderful person he is.

About Dr. Irena

Dr. Irena uses Emotionally Focused Therapy to help couples express their needs and fears and learn to support each other in new ways. She offers online therapy for women and couples in Houston, the Woodlands, and New York City.

If you would like to schedule a session, email Dr. Irena for a free 10-minute video consultation:  [email protected] or call (281)-267-1742.

References

Kneubühler, B., & Thompson-de Benoit, A. (October 8, 2021). ADHD Impacted Relationships Through the EFT Lens.

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