When Your Partner Has ADHD

Written by Harold Robert Meyer, MBA, BCC, SCAC and Susan Karyn Lasky, M.S., BCC, SCAC

You fell in love with his boyish enthusiasm, adventuresome spirit and easy-going charm.  Now you are frustrated that he decides to go skiing instead of shoveling the snow off the walkway, or forgets to take the children to the dentist.
You were fascinated by her many interests, creativity and “enjoy the moment” approach to life.  Now you are fed up with the clutter of her incomplete projects, and annoyed by her indifference to planning meals and shopping.
It is easier to love someone with ADHD than it is to live with them.

Equal Partners or Parent/Child?

You began your relationship as lovers, partners and equals.  But, over time, if the non-ADHD partner feels the ADHD partner fails to carry their fair share of daily responsibility, the balance shifts.  The non-ADHD partner may become frustrated, disappointed, angry or detached.   It is ironic that those character traits that initially attracted you are often those that create the most conflict as a relationship matures.

The non-ADHD partner may turn into an Enabler or a Nag, shifting the relationship from equal partners to one that more closely resembles that of a Parent-Child.   It is not unusual to hear the spouse of a person with ADHD saying that their first child is really their second child (their ADHD wife or husband being their first child). When this occurs, resentment builds and the relationship suffers.
The Enabler tries to keep the peace by making excuses and allowances for their ADHD partner’s failures and omissions.  When something isn’t done, they’ll either do it themselves or live without it.  They treat their spouse with the martyred indulgence of a parent with a wayward child.  The person with ADHD might, on one level, like it when their mate does an inordinate amount of things for them (the parent taking care of the child).  Although, on another level, they will often resent or feel guilty about being treated like a child.

The Nag will keep reminding their partner that they aren’t living up to expectations – to the point where the ‘wayward’ spouse will begin doing anything possible to avoid confrontation, including avoiding contact or being dishonest.  This is a pattern often seen with parents and teens.  It also destroys intimacy. The person with ADHD is probably a master at rationalizing and may not even realize the toll this is taking on the relationship.

Keep Partnership Alive:  Communicate

So how do you keep the romance alive? Whether you are the ADHD or non-ADHD partner, begin by recognizing that there are problems… and solutions.  However, successful problem-solving must be both creative and a joint effort.  Approach it from a fresh perspective; let go of the negativity, remember the love you started with, and begin with a fresh slate of possibility.  If you can’t, either bring in a third party  or start separation proceedings.

Begin your commitment to change with an honest discussion, not a finger-pointing diatribe.  Let go of trying to look good.  This is about fixing those problems that are damaging your relationship.  It is not about ‘fixing’ the other person.  Make sure that your partner is on board with the idea of jointly looking at ways to improve your relationship.  Be clear about the things that aren’t working for you, and why.  Some issues are minor, but can get blown out of perspective.  Ask yourself what is truly important.  Realize that the health of your relationship may hang on these issues.

Don’t try to deal with all of your concerns in one sitting.  Pick one or two areas to focus on, in advance of the discussion.  Timing is important.

Don’t do it when either of you are under time pressure, or after an argument, or when you are ready to pull your hair out… or your spouse’s.  Choose a safe location, which is best done away from home.  (Sometimes, just taking a walk together opens up communication between you.)

If you think you will have trouble finding the right words, role play and practice out loud.  (Many people are weak at bringing internal thought to the forefront and, though they might silently prepare what they want to say, when it comes time to retrieve those words it comes out all wrong.)

Avoid accusation and resist being defensive.  Tell your partner how his or her words and actions (or inaction) makes you feel, but try to see things from the other’s perspective.  Listen more than you speak.  If you are the ADHD partner, self-advocate.  Be clear about how ADHD affects you, but remember that it is an explanation, not an excuse.  Highlight your strengths, be honest about your challenges, and be open to ideas.  Work towards possibility and new actions and avoid harping on past failures, disappointments or guilt.   Because things have not worked doesn’t mean they can’t change.

Focus On Strengths

Accept the current reality, even if you don’t like it.  Most people with ADHD tend to have difficulty completing tasks they find difficult or boring.  They forget things when preoccupied, have problems with time commitments and are frequently organizationally-challenged.   Their priorities are often determined by interest, rather than necessity.  When the pressure gets too great, instead of getting going on things they should do, they may just go, or become overwhelmed and less productive.  These are not qualities that work well in a relationship, where another person has to share the consequences.

It makes sense for partners to play to their strengths.  Consider how to best use your talents, rather than divide work by category or by a perceived notion of what a man’s or woman’s role is in within a relationship.  The non-ADHD spouse might agree to take on the bill paying and balance the checkbook, but in return she may ask the ADHD partner to be responsible for mowing the lawn, which would allow him to be outside and move around.  An apparently reasonable sharing of responsibilities.

However, it would be a mistake to assume that a logical division of responsibilities will work.  So instead of proceeding as if it will happen just because it makes sense, then being disappointed when it doesn’t, be open and honest when you agree to something. Does the ADHD partner really buy-in to taking over lawn care, or is he just saying yes to keep the peace?  How will he schedule lawn care into his week?  How does he want to be reminded if he forgets? His intentions may be there but that doesn’t mean performance will follow. It is a good idea to anticipate and discuss possible stumbling blocks in advance, with the attitude of wanting things to work, instead of in anger or accusation, when they don’t.

When you divide chores, be specific.  What does “keep the bathroom in order” mean?  Very little to most people, and even less to the person with ADHD.  Clarify tasks, expectations and frequency.  Check that you are in agreement.  Put it in writing.  Not as a way to point the finger, but as a clarification tool.  That way no one has to rely on memory.   Keep in mind you are looking to share chores, but not necessarily do things equally.  Don’t balance who does what on a scale.  Consider some horse trading:  “I’ll do the dishes; can you make the bed?”

Have a Plan B

What do you do when one partner isn’t getting what they need from the other?   What if one person’s stuff is all over the place and their mate is uncomfortable living with the chaos?  The neat spouse can constantly pick up after their partner (The Enabler).  Or they can constantly complain (The Nag).   Or, they can avoid the Parent-Child role by accepting their partner’s challenges (which existed when the couple fell in love, but weren’t enough to keep them apart), yet still get what they need.  How?  With ‘Plan B,’ which is where, when understanding and a logical division of responsibilities don’t work , the couple removes themselves from the conflict and calls in an expert who can make things work.   There’s a book by Kathy Fitzgerald Sherman called, “A Housekeeper is Cheaper Than a Divorce.”  That may apply to your situation.  Or perhaps it is worth trading off a restaurant dinner to hire a lawn service.  (Although it is critical to schedule some fun, couples-only time out, to keep romance alive.)
Perhaps the underlying problems relate more to a lack of time management or organizational skills, or an inability to prioritize or communicate effectively.

Working with an ADHD Coach or a Professional Organizer can provide compensatory strategies and accountability, while leaving the spouse or partner out of it.  And consider a therapist or marriage counselor if the conflicts or negative behaviors have so eroded your relationship that you are having a hard time remembering why you fell in love.

Let go of the “Shoulds” (I/he/she/we ‘should’ be able to do something ourselves, rather than pay someone else).  “Shoulds” and “Have-Tos” rarely work.  The only feelings they inspire are those of guilt and often, “But I Don’t Want To.” Instead, focus on the “Coulds” and “Want-Tos.”  People with ADHD usually know what they ‘should’ do.  The problem is with the doing.  Change the motivation to something they “Want To” do, and the behavior often follows.  Consider your reaction to “I have to water the plants” versus “I love seeing these plants and want them to be healthy.”  It is a question of taking ownership, which makes follow-through so much easier!

You want a happy, healthy and loving relationship.  Remember that your original attraction wasn’t based on who would do the cooking, cleaning, bill paying, laundry, lawnwork, etc.  So look towards what you can do to regain the feelings that originally brought you together. When asked how she maintains a happy marriage after 30 years with a very ADHD husband, his wife replied that, when need be, she just reminds herself that their relationship is more important than whether or not her husband forgets to take out the garbage.  She knows what is important to her, and her priorities follow.

Additional information on ADHD and relationships and coaching



Harold Meyer and Susan Lasky are both Board Certified and Senior Certified ADHD Coaches.

To contact the authors: haroldmeyer@addrc.org

Fine Print

ADD and ADHD are used interchangeably for Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder.

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