14 Tips for When Both Partners Have ADHD

What’s different when you both have ADHD?  Do the same patterns apply?  If so, who is in the role of the non-ADHD partner?

And I also get this question – can dual ADHD couples make it?

The answer to the last question is YES!  Absolutely!  It isn’t the ADHD that dooms you so much as how you handle it, so assuming that you are willing to acknowledge and manage the ADHD, dual ADHD couples can be happy and thrive just as any other couple can do.

When thinking about living together successfully, there are two areas that all couples impacted by ADHD, and dual-ADHD couples in particular, need to be thinking about:  1.) how to get enough stuff done without rancor and 2.) how to stay connected when distraction (and often emotional lability) is a big part of your relationship.

With that in mind, here are my tips:

Both partners need to manage their ADHD.  But they may not end up managing it the same way and should not assume what works for them will work for their partner.  ADHD manifests in different ways in different people, meaning that the primary symptoms of the several that define ADHD can vary widely by person.  So one partner’s primary target symptom may be impulsivity, while the other’s might be hyperactivity or planning.  The treatments for these varied symptoms are quite different.

Two distracted partners may mean you need more outside help.  People with ADHD often (not always) are pretty messy and disorganized.  In ‘mixed’ relationships, the more organized non-ADHD partner picks up the slack, albeit often at a physical and/or mental cost.  It’s in the non-ADHD partner’s wheelhouse to do this organizing, but the sheer volume needed can create extreme stress.  This physical/mental cost escalates when the more organized partner also has ADHD.  I’ve had more organized ADHD partners tell me repeatedly how hard it is for them to take on the organizational role in the household, and how incompetent it generally makes them feel because even though they are more organized than their partner, they still have ADHD!  So doing staying organized is particularly taxing.  To get around this, I recommend hiring outside help with organizing.  That might mean: a housecleaner who is willing to also pick up; a personal assistant for bills; a handy-person to do small repairs a few times a year; yard assistance; tutoring assistance for children, etc.  Yes, these all cost money, but overwhelmed adults with ADHD don’t function well, so stretching to pay for this help can be worth it.

Use as much automation as possible.  Put as many bills as you can on autopay; set up your home’s thermostats onto Nest or similar that can be managed away from home (in case you forget to turn down the heat when you leave for vacation); use MINT to keep you on budget; share your calendars electronically and more.  The more that happens automatically, the better you will be.  (Try to set these things up before you have kids if you can because after that you are even busier...)

Don’t try to be like your neighbors.  It’s okay if your house isn’t picked up and your lawn needed mowing last week.  What matters most is the love in your home, not your organizational skills…assuming your electricity doesn’t get turned off and your home repossessed because you forgot to pay the bills.

Live well under your means.  Adult ADHD brings with it a chance that one or both of you will have employment issues at some point.  All families (ADHD or not) should save in order to set aside at least 6-12 months of living expenses in case of an emergency.  If you both have ADHD, I recommend at least a 12 moth reserve and making sure you always live below your means so that a sudden shift in employment status doesn’t put your life together at risk.

Make your conversation about ADHD open, but don’t make it the star attraction.  You both have ADHD and will both need to learn how to manage it so you can contribute your best self to your relationship.  But that doesn’t mean your lives should be all ADHD all the time!  Focus on love, connection, and enjoying each other, too.  You are not your ADHD.

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking your partner should manage ADHD as well as you do.  I talk with a fair number of couples in which one partner has known about ADHD since childhood and the other is only recently diagnosed.  The person who grew up with ADHD has a better management plan in place and is frustrated by the slow progress of the other partner.  That’s not fair!  It takes time to learn how to manage your own variety of ADHD.  Be patient and supportive and you will see better results for all than if you are critical and impatient.

If possible, try to get ADHD fairly well managed before you have your first child.  Having kids puts a ton of stress on your relationship, and when one or both partners have ADHD, the lack of sleep and new responsibilities can be a particular burden, in part because sleep deprivation makes ADHD symptoms worse.  The better the two of you have figured out your respective ADHD, the more resilience you will have when faced with these stressors.

Resist acting like a non-ADHD partner.  In dual ADHD couples the more organized partner often takes on the role traditionally played by non-ADHD partners – that of acting like a ‘strict and demanding parent’ to the other ADHD partner, who takes on the role of ‘irresponsible child.’  This parent/child dynamic destroys relationships.  If you find yourself in the role of organizer, reminder, leader, punisher and educator then you are the parent figure.  Read my books and heed the advice I provide non-ADHD partners.  You MUST get out of this dynamic if you are to thrive.  (A note here – ADHD partners must actively move away from the child-like role, as well.  This isn’t all about the more organized partner!)

Know your strengths.  The nature of ADHD is that you may be ‘lopsided’ in your strengths and weaknesses.  This is not a negative thing.  You’ll do some things brilliantly, and others not at all well.  As an example, a successful entrepreneur with ADHD might be great at thinking up new business ideas but horrible at organizing and doing the paperwork to keep them going.  Chances are the two of you are both lopsided in your talents and so between you there may be some significant gaps if your skills aren’t complementary.  Take an open-eyed view of your actual strengths and weaknesses and figure out if you need some outside help to bridge the gaps.  If both of you are great idea people and horrible at paperwork, for example, you may wish to hire an organizer to keep your household accounts and paperwork organized in a way that allows you to do your taxes or complete the billing for your small business on time.

Schedule time to keep the communication open.  You will both live in the ‘now and not now’ time zones of ADHD.  That means that you will be often engaged with the thing that is right in front of you, and that may not be your partner.  In order to keep your connection with each other strong, you should consider scheduling regular ‘emotional conversation’ time, as well as task coordination time (not the same time!)

Schedule time for romance.  The same idea holds true for romance.  You must both create time for romance – actively setting time aside to focus just on each other – if you are going to thrive.  Otherwise you’ll be too distracted from each other and, over time, your connection will fray.

Learn mindfulness.  Mindfulness is a skill set that can really help ADHD partners – since you both have it, your relationship will doubly benefit from learning these skills.  I've seen greater mindfulness, including learning how to 'pause before doing' be very useful in both managing emotional responses and in learning to do things more efficiently.  Take a mindfulness class together, even!

Finally, don’t sweat the small stuff.  There will be lots of surprises in your lives.  Try not to be hard on yourselves when they arise.