There are a lot of adults with ADHD in this world, and so it's not surprising that there are a lot of adults with ADHD in relationships around too. But is a relationship with a person with ADHD any different than a relationship between two neurotypical people? Well, it doesn't have to be, but a lot of partners of people with ADHD will tell you that ADHD influences your relationship.
I'm an autistic woman, and I've been partnered to an ADHD man for over 10 years, having children and running a household together. I know firsthand that there are certain ADHD traits that can make a relationship a little different: sometimes easier, and sometimes a lot harder. Learning more about ADHD has helped me become a better partner to my person, so in that spirit, here are 3 ways your partner's ADHD might be affecting your relationship, and what you can do about it.
3 Ways Your Partner's Adult ADHD Influences Your Relationship
This is one of those traits that can be very positive or very negative. Impulsivity is often related to hyperactivity and self-regulation, and is another piece of the executive function puzzle.
On the negative side, impulsivity can manifest as a lack of attention to things that matter and less attention on things that don’t matter. For example, one issue that my ADHD partner and I have is that he often pulls out his phone and starts checking social media in the middle of a conversation with me.
I know rationally that this behavior says more about his lack of self-regulation than his respect of me, but in a situation where I feel like I’m telling him something important and I look over and he’s checking Reddit, it’s really disheartening, frustrating, and makes me feel like he doesn’t care about me.
It is one way that a symptom of ADHD influences your relationship. This is something we’re still working on, but giving him more cues about when I’m really trying to get at something important versus when I’m just chatting has been one helpful intervention for us.
On the more positive side, impulsivity can be a great trait for artists, musicians, and other creatives. And, as someone who’s the opposite of impulsive myself, having a more impulsive partner has led to some really great experiences in my life, of going places or meeting people I wouldn’t have by myself, and I’m very grateful for it.
Let me know if this sounds familiar: your partner agrees they should go fold the laundry now. They walk out of the room toward the laundry, and then you find them an hour later playing a game or clearing out their desk, with the laundry still sitting there. When you ask them why the laundry isn't folded yet, they say they forgot about it. But it's sitting right there. What's going on?
Well, a weak working memory is probably at fault in this scenario. People with ADHD often have trouble with working memory, and that trouble can exacerbate under stress. Working memory is a type of short-term memory, where you might hold information before it goes into long-term memory. Working memory is notoriously weak in most ADHD folks, and often just looks like more general inattentiveness or absentmindedness.
This can be really annoying and frustrating, for you and your partner. Your partner is almost certainly doing their best, and would like to complete the task of folding the laundry, but part of working memory issues is that, not only do they not remember the task, they don’t even remember that there was any task. That basket of clothes floats out of their brain as soon as they turn their head.
It's an issue where ADHD influences your relationship in a negative way. Your partner might feel like they’ve disappointed you and themselves, which can lead to self-esteem problems and trust issues in the relationship for both of you.
And, you may feel like your partner doesn’t care about helping you enough to remember what seems like a simple direction, even though you may know rationally that they can't help it.
So, what you you do to interrupt this downward cycle?
- There are some interventions available to help strengthen working memory - ask your medical professional.
- Some folks also find medication can help.
- Sometimes, simple things work best:
- Place visual reminders everywhere you can think of.
- Set alarms on your phone for common tasks
- Put a sticky note on your shirt so you don't forget what you're doing when you go into a new room
Interested in learning more about ADHD? Listen to the Neurodiverging podcast: "What Disorder? Neurodiversity, Autism, and ADHD" wherever you stream your podcasts.
Understanding the Overwhelm
Many people think of sensory overwhelm or sensory processing disorder as an autistic thing, but it’s actually really common in ADHD folks too. A lot of people with ADHD are more easily overstimulated by their environments (lights, sound, a lot of movement, etc.) than neurotypical people, which means many of them have less bandwidth for extra stimuli than their partners.
This might mean that a person with ADHD gets overwhelmed more easily and needs more time to themselves to regroup. But since it can be hard to communicate when we’re overwhelmed, it can look like they’re running away from a difficult situation, rather than trying to regroup and come back later. So sometimes, your partner with ADHD may seem avoidant or distant, when they’re actually completely overtaxed.
This can cause stress in a relationship if the partner with ADHD feels they can’t handle the world and/or are not contributing enough to the household, and the non-ADHD partner feels they can’t rely on their ADHD partner to help out or communicate consistently. If you’re struggling with this, you’re definitely not alone, and couples counseling can really help. Just find a counselor who has experience working with adults with ADHD!
Lots of ADHD Folks Have Happy, Fulfilling Relationships
It's true that being in a relationship with an ADHD partner, or being the ADHD partner yourself, can create some different challenges than you'll find in neurotypical relationships. But you will have different strengths, and learning to work with each other strengths and balance out any weaknesses will take you very far in your relationship. Try some of the tips above, and don't hesitate to get more support from your doctor, psychiatrist, or counsellor if you need it.
If you're interested in learning more about neurodiversity in general, or in reading more about autism, ADHD, or sensory processing challenges specifically, here are some of my favorite books!