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For couples affected by ADHD—whether it’s one partner or both who have the disorder—the symptoms of ADHD can affect every part of their relationship. Inattention, short-term memory deficits, and difficulties with time management can take a toll on a relationship: anniversaries and groceries are forgotten, lateness feels like a slight, and inattention seems like a lack of affection. Couples who address how ADHD symptoms affect them together, however, can find ways to strengthen their relationship.
Couples affected by ADHD break up at almost two times the rate as the general population. How does ADHD cause relationship problems?
- Inattention: The other partner feels unimportant and less loved when the affected partner cannot maintain attention to what is being said or discussed.
- Short-term memory deficits: Important details of a couple’s life together seem to be minimized or disregarded.
- Disorganization: Repeated requests to help around the home or to address needed family tasks are done poorly or abandoned altogether.
- Poor time management: Constant lateness may make the partner feel less valued.
- Impulsivity: Sudden purchases or changes in plans that don’t take scheduled finances or events into account can create stress in family money management or make the partner feel like he or she isn’t being heard or respected.
Very often, the partner not affected by ADHD falls into a caretaking role in the relationship. This can create disappointment and feelings of resentment between the partners that can become corrosive to the relationship.
“ADHD does significantly affect the other partner in the relationship, often in predictable ways,” says Larry Maucieri PhD, ABPP-CN, in ADHD and Relationships: The Other Partner for Psychology Today. Dr. Maucieri is co-author of The Distracted Couple with Jon Carlson, PsyD, EdD.
“In time the spontaneity and free spirit of the person with ADHD becomes a bit less exhilarating,” Dr. Maucieri says. “A sense of being charmed is replaced with irritation and dread—about what hasn’t been done today, what overdue bill wasn’t paid, what form was lost.”
In some cases, the first step to improving a marriage or partnership is for the affected member to seek a diagnosis or an improved treatment plan. Together, the couple approaches treatment as a joint effort. Many couples will work closely with a marriage or family therapist who can help them see symptoms for what they are and begin to rebuild damaged feelings of trust and affection.
What you can do to help your relationship improve
“The good news is that understanding the role ADHD plays can turn your marriage around,” Melissa Orlov writes in The ADHD Effect on Marriage. “You’ll find out that your problems aren’t because of character flaws or failings, but are the result of the ADHD effect—and that the two of you can overcome it.”
Steps you can take together to address ADHD in your relationship:
Find treatment for both of you, separately and together.
Addressing the symptoms of ADHD and how those symptoms are creating a strain is key to improving a relationship. Adult ADHD is treated by a combination of medication management and, if appropriate, behavior management. This can include talk therapy or cognitive behavioral therapy. The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy can help couples find a professional to help them address the impact ADHD has on their relationship. The partner without ADHD may also benefit from working with a therapist to address feelings and experiences in the marriage or partnership. Working together with a marriage therapist who specializes in ADHD can help the couple to address the strains on their marriage or partnership and work together to strengthen their relationship.
“Couples therapy with a professional who is knowledgeable about adult ADHD is highly recommended,” Dr. Maucieri says. “For the specific needs of the non-ADHD partner, individual therapy and attending support groups through CHADD with others who have similar situations are also quite powerful and affirmative experiences for addressing these challenges.”
Create time for just the two of you.
Work, family, children, and technology create distractions that take the focus away from the partners in a couple. Scheduling time together, without these distractions, can help a couple develop their emotional intimacy. Plan a date night, schedule an afternoon’s walk, or pick a time without distractions to just be in one another’s company.
Share a calendar and check it daily.
Most email systems have the option for a calendar. Share an email address and a calendar to record upcoming family and individual events. Schedule times for just the two of you. Use the calendar settings to send reminders for events, including travel time, to your email and phone. It also allows you to plan for upcoming events and help remember significant dates in your relationship. By having a shared calendar that you check frequently, you are externalizing your memory and using your email and smart phones to help you stay on track.
Practice taking on and giving up additional responsibilities.
Frequently, a pattern is set up whereby the partner without ADHD takes on the majority of the family or the couple’s responsibilities. By working with a specialist, you can identify the areas of your relationship where this may be occurring. The couple can look at those responsibilities and agree to transfer one of those responsibilities from the partner without ADHD to the partner with ADHD. This change can become uncomfortable at first, as new habits are learned. But starting with one responsibility is a good way to begin to rebalance the responsibilities in a relationship. Additional responsibilities can be transferred once things become routine until both members of the couple feel responsibilities are more evenly shared.
Practice apologizing and forgiving.
Learning to say “I’m sorry” is a hard thing; practicing forgiveness can be even more difficult. Many couples need the guidance of a professional as they learn skills that can address the wounds in a relationship and help them begin to heal. The symptoms of ADHD and the misunderstandings that arise can create hurt feelings. Working together to address that hurt can strengthen a relationship and help to prevent additional damage.
Resources to help strengthen your relationship:
- The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy
- CHADD Resource Directory
- The ADHD Effect on Marriage by Melissa Orlov (2010)
- The Distracted Couple by Larry Maucieri and Jon Carlson (2013)
What are some steps you have taken to strengthen your relationship? Share with our community.