Are you in a relationship with someone who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)? If so, you’re not alone. While many people associate ADHD with childhood, it’s also commonly diagnosed in adults.
And while much research has been done to study the lives and well-being of adults with ADHD, less research has been done to understand what it’s like to be a non-ADHD partner who’s in a relationship with or dating someone with ADHD.
However, as more studies are done and more people share their stories, it’s clear there are some challenges to being a spouse or partner of someone with ADHD. Although this condition can affect a marriage or partnership in a variety of ways, one of the most frequent difficulties is an overwhelming feeling of loneliness.
We’ll discuss the many ways ADHD can affect adult relationships, how to seek professional help, and how to cope if you’re the non-ADHD partner.
ADHD is a chronic mental health disorder that’s marked by symptoms like inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsive behaviors and speech. In the United States, it’s estimated that ADHD affects 8.4 percent of children and 2.5 percent of adults.
Experts aren’t completely sure what causes this common mental health disorder. However, research suggests that genetics, physical makeup, and external factors — like a person’s home environment — may contribute to developing the disorder.
While it’s common to face some challenges during a long-term relationship, there may be specific difficulties when one partner has ADHD. This disorder is known to affect a person’s executive functioning skills, which are the skills necessary to successfully navigate five key daily behaviors, which are:
- time management
For many people with ADHD, this means they often forget to do household chores, seem to ignore their spouses or children, and have trouble holding a job, among other challenges.
While these symptoms are undoubtedly tricky for people with ADHD, they’re also challenging for their spouses or partners. This is especially true in a long-term relationship, which requires a joint effort on behalf of both partners to maintain.
According to some researchers, the spouses or partners of people with ADHD frequently report feelings of dissatisfaction in intimacy and their relationship overall.
In a relationship between someone with ADHD and someone who doesn’t have the disorder, it’s common for the non-ADHD partner to attempt to take more control over family matters like cleaning, paying bills, and staying organized. This is especially true if a partner’s ADHD hasn’t been formally diagnosed and treated.
Such attempts by the non-ADHD partner to “fix” things, while practical and often necessary to keep the family afloat, can lead the ADHD partner to feel insecure and depressed. This throws additional challenges into the relationship, sometimes to the point that it can end the relationship.
This dynamic between a non-ADHD partner and ADHD partner can be similar to a parent-child type of relationship, instead of a healthy adult partnership. This places enormous strain on both partners, as well as the relationship. Often, non-ADHD partners describe ADHD partners as needy and attention-seeking as a result.
If your partner or spouse has ADHD, you may often feel:
- unloved or unwanted
Maintaining a long-term relationship with someone who has untreated or undiagnosed ADHD can have a long-lasting impact on the non-ADHD partner’s mental health in a variety of ways.
The non-ADHD partner’s tendencies to “overhelp” — doing too many things for the ADHD partner due to the partner’s struggles to get things done — can create or worsen unhealthy dependencies and eliminate opportunities for the ADHD partner to practice life management skills.
At the same time, such behavior may lead the non-ADHD partner to develop anxiety because they feel overwhelmed by taking on so many of the daily tasks at home.
Another major issue affecting many ADHD/non-ADHD couples is resentment. This relationship-straining emotion can develop as a result of the non-ADHD partner’s tendency to overhelp and the ADHD partner’s learned helplessness.
When an ADHD partner gets used to having most things done for them and their family by the other partner, they may become unhealthily dependent on the non-ADHD partner. This codependency is a recipe for frustration and possibly the end of a relationship, unless both partners work to address the problems they’re causing in the relationship dynamic.
The symptoms of ADHD can have a profound effect on sex and intimacy. Some non-ADHD partners report feeling that sex is too rough, fast, and sometimes painful. People with ADHD may skip foreplay and go right to intercourse. Because people with ADHD tend toward hyperactivity, they may find slow intimate behaviors like caressing to be unpleasant.
Researchers also observe that those with ADHD may have a tendency to be restless, causing boredom during sex. This can potentially prompt a partner with ADHD to engage in reckless sexual behaviors or seek sex outside the relationship.
While people with ADHD report low levels of sexual anxiety, they tend to have a fear of intimacy with others. And while some people with ADHD engage in compulsive sex, others experience a significantly reduced sex drive and may easily get distracted or bored during sex.
A mismatch between sexual or intimacy expectations and reality can pose a major challenge in a long-term relationship. Making matters more complicated, ADHD is sometimes treated in part with antidepressants, which can reduce sex drive and sexual performance as a side effect.
Antidepressant medications are often accompanied by psychostimulant medications like Ritalin and Adderall that help increase concentration in people with ADHD. Meditation and other relaxation techniques can also sometimes benefit people with ADHD by helping them focus their attention.
Little research has been done to examine how ADHD can affect a coparenting relationship. However, the little research that does exist on heterosexual couples seems to suggest that mothers with ADHD have a less negative impact on a coparenting relationship than fathers with ADHD, though the reasons aren’t entirely clear.
Generally, the nature of ADHD in relationships is that it can create substantial inequality in caregiving and parenting tasks, such as helping with homework, cooking, and cleaning. This one-sidedness of the relationship can create a feeling of loneliness for the spouse without ADHD, and it can sometimes affect the children who are a part of the family.
For the spouse with ADHD
If you’ve been diagnosed with, or suspect that you have, ADHD, seeking treatment can greatly improve not only your quality of life but also your role as a partner.
The first step to getting help is to reach out to a mental health professional. They can help develop a treatment plan that works for you.
This mental health professional will likely suggest a mix of different treatments, such as medication and talk therapy. It’s important you stick to your specific treatment plan to most effectively minimize your symptoms.
One of the most helpful things a spouse with ADHD can do to help their relationship is to acknowledge that their symptoms are interfering with their relationship and get help.
For the spouse without ADHD
If your spouse has ADHD, you might be feeling frustrated, tired, upset, lonely, and perhaps emotionally detached from your partner. Instead of continuing to fight these feelings, you can work on resolving them together with your partner.
It can be helpful to chat with a psychotherapist or other mental health professional who can listen to your experience and offer unbiased insight on how to best navigate your situation. There are also online and in-person support groups for spouses of people with ADHD — ask for recommendations.
Lastly, remember that you aren’t responsible for your partner’s feelings or behaviors.
For the couple together
While it’s undoubtedly challenging to be in a long-term partnership or marriage when at least one person has ADHD, it’s certainly possible to make it work. Your main goal should be to work together as a team.
Family or couples therapy can sometimes help identify problems and develop solutions. Patience is another important element in maintaining a relationship with a person who has ADHD, as this is a mental disorder that the person must cope with and manage for the rest of their life.
ADHD is a common chronic mental health disorder that affects children and adults alike. In a relationship where one of the partners is living with ADHD, there can be some significant challenges to overcome.
However, with treatment, patience, and support, it’s possible to maintain a healthy, loving relationship with a person who has ADHD and to help them function and feel their best. Remember, if you’re a spouse of someone with ADHD, you must also take care of your own needs and seek help if you’re feeling overwhelmed — you’re not alone!