ADHD can impact every aspect of a person’s life, including their romantic relationship. And because romantic partners affect each other, one partner’s ADHD can have a big effect on what their romantic partner feels and does. So even if only one partner has ADHD, they are both living with it.
When not managed well, ADHD can affect someone’s ability to be the kind of romantic partner that they would like to be. They want to be more consistent and predictable, more considerate, on time more often, and less forgetful, but ADHD makes all of that more difficult. Meanwhile, their non-ADHD partner wants to be more relaxed, less critical, less over-responsible, better rested, and just plain nicer. I’ve had plenty of ADHD folks in my office who lament how their ADHD hurts their partner, but I have also had plenty of non-ADHD folks who bemoan the angry person that they have become. Nobody is winning at these times.
There has to be a better way, right?
This is where I propose what will sound like a crazy idea if you’re stuck in the heat of conflict and discontent with your romantic partner: Learning to work together to manage one partner’s ADHD can make both partners better people. Not only do I see it happen in my office, but I have the data to prove it—I did a survey of relationship and sexual satisfaction in couples where one person has ADHD and found that there were plenty of folks who were doing great together, even years and decades later. Let’s talk about how these happy couples got there.
Relationships Are Hard; ADHD Makes Them Harder
Any relationship will have its challenges, ADHD or not. ADHD exacerbates the universal struggle that every couple has to work on which is how to balance both partners’ needs. When do we take one for the team and accommodate, and when do we stand our ground on something too important to give up? When do we look to our partner to address an issue and when do we rely on ourselves to address it? When do we push for change and when do we accept something as unchanging, at least for now?
There is a joke in the field that those with attention deficit tend to marry those with attention excess—as in, those people who are really organized, great with details, and super diligent about making sure everything gets done (early). There can be a great complementarity between these partners, as they each bring different strengths to the relationship. After all, we don’t need a partner who is good at what we’re already good at.
The challenge, of course, is that the more two partners differ from each other, the more work it will take to negotiate those differences and find a happy balance. This is where the ADHD can have its biggest impact, especially before it is diagnosed, when both partners are working really hard to make things better, with too little success for all that effort. As much as ADHD can make your life and relationship much harder before it is diagnosed and effectively managed, the good news is that it tends to respond pretty well to treatment and the understanding that comes from a diagnosis can take a lot of the fire out of your arguments. At least initially—then a different kind of hard work begins, but this is the kind that is much more likely to bear fruit.
Treatment Effort Really Matters
One of the many things that I learned from the 3,000 people who responded to my survey was that the couples who had the best relationship and sex life were the ones who felt that their partner put in good effort on managing their own or their partner’s ADHD. Incidentally, everybody rated their own effort pretty high and tended to rate their partner lower. Partly this is a matter of information imbalance—you see everything you do, but not everything your partner does, so they get less credit. Lessons learned here are that sometimes we need to actively look for what our partner is doing, sometimes we need to ask them what they are doing, and sometimes we need to just give them the benefit of the doubt. But if you still don’t feel like your partner is doing enough, then have a direct conversation with them about that—not in the heat of the moment, but calmly and honestly in a quieter moment.
Working together on managing ADHD is the same as working together on managing everything else that life brings. It involves pushing ourselves to do the better thing when we don’t really feel like it. It involves being honest with ourselves (“I was kind of a jerk there; I should probably apologize”). It involves sometimes being willing to do something just because our partner wants it, even if we don’t really care about it or even understand it. On the flipside, it also involves sometimes pushing our partner to do something that is important to us. Ultimately, it’s about being a good teammate.
I have a saying that a good relationship pushes you to become a better person. This is perhaps even a little more true when one partner has ADHD (or any other situation that makes life harder, which is a lot of them). For the partner with ADHD, this may involve things like getting the treatment they need and working hard to get it right; putting in the effort to be a bit more organized and on time and generally be a reliable partner; not getting defensive when their partner points out somewhere they fell short; and being sensitive to their partner’s needs and anxieties. For the non-ADHD partner, this may involve recognizing when ADHD is at play and therefore not taking it personally; managing their own anxiety without looking for everything to be taken care of in order to relax; speaking up for their needs without getting resentful or preachy; and knowing which battles are worth fighting and which just aren’t.
Bring Your Best
I’m not suggesting that you should thank the universe for the wonderful opportunity to grow through adversity, but if the universe gives it to you anyway, then your goal is still the same as everyone else’s: to live an interesting and meaningful life that contains satisfying relationships. ADHD may push you and partner to work harder in that pursuit, but it hopefully also teaches you a lot of useful lessons along the way.
Ari Tuckman, PsyD, CST
Dr. Tuckman is a psychologist and sex therapist specializing in ADHD in West Chester, PA. He is the author of four books: Understand Your Brain, Get More Done, More Attention, Less Deficit, and Integrative Treatment for Adult ADHD. His new book, ADHD After Dark: Better Sex Life, Better Relationship, is the first to look at the important topic of how ADHD impacts a couple’s sex life and how this affects their overall relationship satisfaction. It is based on survey data from more than 3,000 respondents in a relationship with one ADHD partner. The goal of the book is to help couples impacted by ADHD to create a strong sexual connection that enables them to deal with the grind of daily life as a better team.
He has given more than 350 presentations and routinely earns excellent reviews for his ability to make complicated information understandable and useful. His More Attention, Less Deficit podcast has more than 100 episodes and more than two million downloads. He is a former board member of CHADD National and current co-chair of the CHADD conference committee.