While it is not always the case, I observe that many people with ADHD are not all that great at reaching out to partners and family in order to engage, even if they are really good in general social settings. This lack of initiation takes on a lot of different forms – a few examples: not initiating conversation; not spontaneously thinking up or planning dates; not thinking of ways to connect with the kids; not initiating sex, and more.
This wasn’t what non-ADHD and other ADHD partners expected to see in the relationship, because when you first met it was all about ‘hyperfocus courtship.’ The ADHD partners were very attentive and interested, and initiated a lot of (fun) stuff to do together. The result – lack of initiation after marriage creates a good deal of conflict. I hear all the time from non-ADHD partners who say “one of the things that bothers me most about our relationship is that I have to always LEAD! I want my partner to show s/he cares by reaching out to me sometimes.”
Common Reasons ADHD Adults May Not Lead
It’s worth understanding what’s going on. Here are 5 common reasons why ADHD partners can really struggle when it comes to reaching out to show you they care:
Very inwardly focused. Many with ADHD are quite happy ‘doing their own thing.’ At home that can feel disconnected to partners and family, even as the ADHD partner is quite happily off in his or her zone. (Note: ‘inwardly focused’ is NOT the same thing as selfish – it’s just being happy in your own self and doing your own thing. To partners who feel resentful, it can seem selfish…but that’s not the origin and I urge you to move away from that thinking.)
Difficulty reading emotional cues. Research shows that adults with ADHD have more trouble than most reading the emotional cues that others give off. This means that when non-ADHD partners are feeling down and needy, it may not register with the ADHD partner. At times of need, when non-ADHD partners expect someone to notice and reach out, this doesn’t happen. It’s jarring and hard not to take personally, even though it may be a result of ADHD.
Not wanting to disappoint. As relationships struggle, low self-esteem can encourage even previously gregarious ADHD adults to withdraw. Sometimes they fear that they will ‘guess wrong’ with their partner and disappoint them. Other times, they fear being judged for doing something unexpected or ‘stupid.’
The ‘blank mind.’ There are times when some folks with ADHD tell me that their normally incredibly busy minds ‘go on break.’ At those times, it’s hard to connect with anyone.
Difficulty getting organized or remembering. Some connections take organizational skill – for example remembering to send an email or text; setting up an afternoon picnic; or disconnecting from the computer to go have sex as you promised earlier. Living in the present moment, as many with ADHD do to a real extreme, often means that things in the now (whatever it is) is more immediate than the important business of doing things with your partner.
Sometimes, it’s boring. Let’s face it, some of the stuff non-ADHD partners want to engage around isn’t all that fun – household chores being number one on that list. Yes, they need to be done, so ‘boring’ isn’t an excuse to not carry some of the load. But non-ADHD partners need to understand that for ADHD adults, getting yourself going on stuff that you don’t like to do is a pretty big task. It’s much easier to engage with stuff that’s stimulating and interesting. This is a part of how the ADHD brain works that a lot of non-ADHD partners have trouble accepting or understanding.
Your relationship is too bad. I can't leave this reason off, sadly. Some don't connect because they are so angry, frustrated, unhappy or depressed. Disconnection becomes the coping strategy of choice. Sadly, this won't get you anywhere as a couple - you can't fix most relaitonship problems by disconnecting. If you are in this category, I suggest that you consider reading my books and taking my ADHD Effect Couples seminar to change the conversation (or lack thereof) in your relaitonship.
Understand ADHD better – it’s NOT personal (at least, not usually!) If you know ADHD and how it manifests, you can create habits that acknowledge and respect your differences. I’ll give you two examples in our household. My husband doesn’t plan social events. Ever. I understand this isn’t his forte, so I do all of our social planning without resentment. After all, these things are fun for me, too.
A second example. Though that mind is going all the time, my husband doesn’t tend to reach out and ask my opinion of things. It’s not that he’s not interested, it’s that he doesn’t think along those lines. He’s often ‘in his zone.’ So I reach out to start conversations with him so we can share our experiences and opinions. Again, no hard feelings. We get to hear each other, he’s genuinely interested in what I have to say (at least most of the time!) and we connect. Back when I didn’t understand ADHD so well and equated his lack of initiation with disinterest, this was a big area of hard feelings for me. Now I get it – it really isn’t personal.
Speak up. Nicely. Don’t expect your partner to read your ADHD emotional cues. If you need a hug, or your partner’s undivided attention for something, say so.
Insist your ADHD partner provide enough ‘attend time.’ Creating connection isn’t about the non-ADHD partner just adjusting to ADHD quirks. This is about being realistic about how to get what you need. Set aside blocks of time where the whole point is to have fun together and/or show you care. That might be dates; walks in the woods; cuddling…whatever. Make it away from other distractions (read computers and phones!) and just for you two. Schedule it. Don’t miss it. Reach out. Encourage your partner to reach back and reinforce all efforts in that direction in a positive way. It should be fun and fulfilling for both of you.
Acknowledge the boredom factor. Telling an ADHD partner that they ought to be able to engage with boring stuff doesn't help - in fact, it tends to reinforce shame. Instead, accept that this is an aspect of ADHD that you both need to work around. Set up a system where both the ADHD and non-ADHD partner participate in setting the chore priorities, and make sure that you both take on tasks that utilize your relative strengths and interests as best possible. Focus on how long it takes each partner to do things, and fill in the time allotted with your highest priority items. Remember, you both have a say in what those priorities are.
Differentiate ‘leading’ from ‘parent/child.’ This is a really important one. Parent/child is when one partner takes over and the other is diminished or loses status in the relationship. It’s a really common dynamic in struggling ADHD-impacted relationships. Leading is when one partner initiates an activity and invites a partner of equal status to join in. It builds status of the other partner, particularly when that partner gladly joins the activity.
Stop dwelling on initiation. The most important thing isn’t who leads…it’s that you connect. Does it really, truly matter whether one partner plans the date or the other? You both get the chance to have fun. Yep. In our household I often lead (though certainly not always). And here is why I’m okay with that. Because now that our relationship is great, when I initiate something my husband happily joins in. We connect and have fun. It’s not that he doesn’t love me. It’s that he’s not great at getting out of his zone. For me, that connection is way more important than who leads.