ADHD Complicates Romance

 ADHD Weekly 2017-04-27

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Relationships can be challenging in the best of circumstances – add ADHD to the relationship and it can become downright difficult. Misunderstandings can lead to frustration and, if unresolved, resentment. ADHD symptoms create significantly more stress for the couple. When you are aware of potential ADHD pitfalls, you can take steps to avoid them. 

Successful relationships rely on consistently bringing our focus and attention to our partner. We demonstrate that we care when we interact, listen well, and support our partners. For many people affected by ADHD, key symptoms like inattention, forgetfulness, and disorganization negatively affect their relationships. The partners without ADHD can misinterpret their partners’ intentions, resulting in increased frustration and resentment. 

What can you expect when coping with ADHD’s effect on your relationship? It will vary based on your particular circumstances and symptoms, but here are some common issues for couples affected by ADHD.

From hyperfocus on the relationship to inattention 

Our brains are wired to tune out things that are consistent in our lives. A smell that was initially overwhelming quickly fades from notice. When you sit in a chair, you feel the weight of your body on the seat against your legs, but after a little bit, you don’t notice the sensation. Our brains quickly sift through constant stimuli and ignore what is perceived to be nonthreatening, freeing our minds to focus on the things requiring us to react or respond.

This can create challenges for most people in romantic relationships, as the newness of the relationship diminishes and attention shifts to other concerns. But for a person affected by ADHD, this presents significant challenges. Due to differences in the ADHD brain, you can shift focus even more quickly, causing you to seem to lose interest in your partner or your relationship suddenly.

During the early stages of a relationship, the partner affected by ADHD can focus intensely on the romance and the new partner. This sends the message that the new partner is the center of the person’s world. It typically generates feelings of connection, love and validation, and the relationship seems to grow quickly. And then, the person’s focus shifts just as quickly and the new partner may be left wondering what has happened.

Many people with ADHD have difficulty focusing. A person may quickly lose sight of how frequently he pays attention to his partner and the things that matters to the partner. In turn, this can cause the new partner to feel uncared for or ignored.

Distractions abound at home

ADHD impacts a person’s ability to focus, or remember commitments. How might that play out in a relationship? Here’s one example:

Partner: “Let’s watch a movie.”

Partner affected by ADHD: “Okay. I’ll make popcorn.”

  • Walks toward the kitchen to make the popcorn, sees toys and clothes lying on the floor of the den. Picks them up and takes them to her son’s room and puts them away.
  • While there, she notices a toothbrush lying on the table where her son left it. Annoyed, she takes it into the bathroom and puts it away in the cabinet.  
  • Thinks, “This bathroom has gotten really dirty. Shoot, I forgot to clean it today!” 
  • Gets cleaning supplies and starts cleaning. 
  • Meanwhile, her partner is waiting for popcorn and a movie, which has now been forgotten.

When her partner discovers her cleaning the bathroom, he may think that she didn’t want to watch a movie after all and chose to do something else instead. For her it was not intentional, it was a series of distractions that led her off course, a symptom of adult ADHD. But if this type of outcome occurs frequently enough, it is easy for the partner to believe the partner affected by ADHD has little interest in spending time with him.

Sharing chores in a home  

A smooth home life depends on working together to manage and accomplish day-to-day chores. Cleaning, taking out the trash, paying the bills, getting groceries, and preparing meals are a few chores that help life run smoothly. The symptoms associated with ADHD can make accomplishing chores a significant challenge.  

The partner who doesn’t have ADHD can become frustrated from frequently reminding her partner to chip in at home. The other partner feels nagged, rather than reminded. It is easy to see how this dynamic can generate intense frustration and resentment on both sides.

Melissa Orlov, author of the book The ADHD Effect on Marriage, discusses these dynamics with Psychology Today.

“Non-ADHD partners often report feeling unloved and lonely, as well as very angry and frustrated,” she says. “It’s almost impossible to understand how an adult can promise to do something, then not do it…over and over again…never seeming to ‘learn’ to do better.”

Social skills

When you are dealing with the symptoms of ADHD, you often find yourself struggling with social skills. Success in social settings requires focus and attention on the people and situations around us, and an ability to read social cues. This is a challenging requirement when coping with the disorder. 

In addition, ADHD can decrease your ability to regulate your emotions and reactions toward others. Often, someone can become prone to intense reactions when frustrated, and is likely to lash out at others, especially those emotionally closest to the person. Emotional outbursts and inappropriate or harsh comments can lead to hurt feelings. 

A sense of empathy is essential for healthy relationships. When we empathize with others, we imagine how they are feeling. It requires us to let go of our own thoughts and feelings and see things from someone else’s perspective. ADHD can negatively impact a person’s sense of empathy. 

A recent study examines how dopamine plays a role in empathy. Dopamine production can be low because of ADHD. Several recent studies point to differences in genes that may impair the normal creation of dopamine receptors in brains affected by ADHD, resulting in the inability to absorb dopamine or the inability to metabolize it appropriately. 

Creating healthy relationships

There are several factors that can negatively impact relationships. For those with ADHD, the disorder can present more challenges. Understanding what they are likely to be is the first step. Educate yourself about ADHD, and separate the behaviors and symptoms of the disorder from the person. Identify potential, or existing, harmful behaviors and create a plan to change them. Create structure to support communication and interactions. Address issues as they arise, and work with your partner to reinforce each other’s strengths.

Tips to help strengthen your relationship:

Remember your relationship as a partnered couple is the most important. 

  • Go on a date together where you can talk about rebuilding your relationship one step at a time.
  • Find things to laugh about and celebrate about your relationship. 

Be patient with your partner. 

  • Change takes time. Find ways to give positive feedback every day.
  • Concentrate on your partner’s strengths.

Learn to differentiate between “facts” and “feelings,” especially during emotionally charged moments. 

  • Your spouse may have hurt your feelings and made you feel unloved by apparently not listening to you. But the fact is that he or she may not even be aware of how he or she is affecting you.

Work on building better communication.

  • Agree to certain times during the week when you spend time together without distractions or interruptions. This is a time to clarify what hasn’t been working in the partnership and what is truly important for the relationship. Always be honest with each other. That is the best way for a healthy relationship.
  • If you feel that you can no longer communicate together, seek professional help such as a mediator or marriage counselor.
  • When you speak with your partner, try to speak directly face-to-face, with good eye contact. You might want to check in to make sure that your partner understands what you were saying.

Learn to recognize when you or your partner is in an “ADHD-charged moment.” 

  • This may occur when your partner is overwhelmed, frustrated or running on stimulus overload. It can happen anytime, but often it happens in the evening or late at night after a stressful day. This may not be the best time to bring up certain subjects that may lead to a heated discussion.

 – Adapted from Survival Tips for the Spouse Who Doesn’t Have ADHD by Terry M. Dickson, MD, ACG.


Acknowledge the role that ADHD can play in a relationship, and take steps to help you consistently care for and nurture your relationships.

How do you keep the romance alive when ADHD gets in the way?

Even in the best of situations, ADHD symptoms can make romance hard. When one or both partners have ADHD, the rush of emotions can seem chaotic and the hurt feels are not far away. What can you do to keep your relationships strong and healthy?