I cannot tell you how often I have had a non-ADHD partner contact me and say something such as “I have a partner with ADHD who is also a narcissist.” Sometimes, a therapist (who usually doesn’t know much about ADHD, once I probe) has suggested this, as well. Though your partner seems self-absorbed, it is likely not narcissism, and with the right approach it usually CAN be addressed within your relationship.
Why It’s Probably Not Narcissism
An article in the June, 2016 issue of The Atlantic gave one of the best descriptions of narcissism I’ve seen: “Highly narcissistic people are always trying to draw attention to themselves. Repeated and inordinate self-reference is a distinguishing feature of their personality…people with strong narcissistic needs want to love themselves, and they desperately want others to love them too – or at least admire them, see them as brilliant and powerful and beautiful, even just see them, period. The fundamental life goal is to promote the greatness of self, for all to see.” And, yes, the article was about Donald Trump…with good reason. He is a textbook narcissist.
While some people with ADHD may also be narcissists, for the most part this description does not fit. In fact, many with ADHD have low self-esteem and do not grandstand for attention. They may be defensive, forget to do things they promise, talk about themselves or (and this is particularly common) be living somewhere inside their head…but they are not usually classically narcissistic.
What Is It, Then? My Partner Seems to Pay Attention Mostly to Himself
It is fair to say that many with ADHD are “self-oriented.” By this, I don’t mean selfish – though it might come across this way when combined with a struggling relationship and poor management of ADHD symptoms. What I mean is that they are often somewhere inside their heads…often quite contentedly. They can be completely engaged in something such as work on a computer, thinking through an exciting problem, or with doing a flurry of seemingly unrelated things. Or they might be distracted by the many thoughts running through their head. Or spending a lot of time trying to get their brain to do what they want it to do (such as be more organized, etc.) None of these have much to do with their partner.
Sometimes this internal focus is a good thing. When my daughter was younger, for example, she could play very contentedly for hours and hours by herself – absorbed in a world she created with toys and in her head. My non-ADHD son, on the other hand, doesn’t have such skill at being contentedly on his own.
There is a lot going on in the head of a person who has ADHD. Even if you have the distractible version of ADHD, that brain is very, very fast – with thoughts darting here and there, often with little order or hierarchy. One past seminar participant described it as a “popcorn brain.” A friend once called it “the Library of Congress with no card catalogue.” Both make the point – in order to use that type of brain it takes a lot of energy and effort. That energy is directed inward – to where the energetic thoughts are happening and need to be corralled.
Living Well with ADHD
Couples who live successfully with ADHD learn that this self-orientation is okay – it’s part of taming an ADHD brain. But that time spent inside oneself does need to be offset by enough of what I call “attend time” if the other partner is to feel well-loved. Attend time is the time the two of you schedule to spend together that specifically communicates your love to each other. That might be a date for two, a morning walk and talk, bike riding together and chatting, sex, talking about your dreams, nurturing a garden together…there are many ways to be together where you end up feeling closer.
Even if your partner is inwardly focused much of the time (as is my husband), if you have enough meaningful time scheduled to pay attention to each other and communicate your appreciation and love for each other, you will still probably have a loving, fulfilling relationship.
But if the ADHD partner does not have the ADHD symptoms well managed, is often ‘escaping’ from the demands of the non-ADHD partner or resistant/defiant, and the non-ADHD partner feels lonely and abandoned, then you have the combination that starts getting the non-ADHD partner resentfully describing the ADHD partner as ‘narcissistic.’ Unmanaged ADHD symptoms, plus ADHD self-orientation, is a bad combination.
What to Do
As with many things about ADHD, it’s helpful to understand what’s going on. Depersonalizing the ‘self-orientation’ of an ADHD partner often provides a path for the other partner to be more empathetic. That empathy, in turn, can lead to working together to vastly improve your situation.
The bottom line is this – this is an explanation, but not an excuse. For a relationship to be successful, both partners must understand they are loved…having a brain that is noisy and fast doesn’t give the ADHD partner permission to be so self-oriented that he or she ignores their partner. Rather, it means ADHD adults and their partners must be particularly vigilant about creating attend time. Here are some simple approaches that can make a big difference:
- As a couple, create a way to let the ADHD partner know you are feeling ‘left out’ or that you would like more attention that doesn’t feel like a criticism. "I'm feeling a bit lonely" is better than "you're not paying enough attention to me"
- Schedule blocks of ‘attend time’ – DON’T leave this to chance or wait for it to just happen – it won’t. Make sure you have at least one block of several hours at least once a week
- Improve your self-intimacy skills. It’s particularly helpful when ADHD partners learn to better express what is going on in their head, helping their partners feel less left out (for more on this, see my course on Recovering Intimacy)
- Make sure ADHD treatment is optimized – see my online treatment guide for information on this
Remember, being self-oriented in order to tame the ADHD brain is not the same thing as being narcissistic. Once you understand the difference, the two of you can change the hurtful dynamic you've had in the past and reinforce your love for each other. If your relationship has other significant problems that interfere with feeling loved (and it may!) please don't despair! Consider taking my live couple's course that I give by phone three times a year. In it you will get to ask me all of your questions about your own relationship, learn a TON of information about how to effectively improve your relationship, find out the latest on treating ADHD, and more. It's a great resource that has helped many, many couples.
Ned Hallowell and I teamed together to give a talk about ADHD an relationships in Seattle in March of 2018. At that talk he said "A simple definition of narcissism is this - a narcissist is a person who is incapable of love."