Donald Trump is a Narcissist. Your Partner with ADHD Probably is Not

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.

Comments

Thank you

I have been wondering this my self. In fact, I came to narcissism conclusion before I came to the ADD conclusion. Thank you for differentiating. I agree, my husband is not narcissistic, self oriented is an EXCELLENT way to describe him. He occupies a lot of space physically, mentally, emotionally, conversationally, etc. Before I figured out he had ADD, it used to drive me crazy when he would call me, talk 5 minutes about himself and then hang up before even asking my where I was, what I was doing and how my day was. I am getting better at getting him to listen to me about my day, not by getting angry but just catching him before he hangs up. He does care about me, he just forgets. I can't tell you how thankful I am I have found this website. It has been very helpful. 

Getting him to ask about you

Thanks for this comment - I find that my husband also is not that great at saying "how are your?" or "what are you doing right now that interests you?" or "what was your day like?"  In fact, he almost never asks these questions.  On the other hand, now that I have stopped feeling that he 'must' ask these questions, and stopped resenting that he didn't show his interest in me in that way, I've discovered that he is quite happy to talk with me about my interests - I just have to bring them up.  As you say, his lack of asking is not the same thing as a lack of interest.  As I think about it - he doesn't ask ANYONE about themselves - just sort of not his thing.  Yet he's quite engaged with a lot of things.

And, there are a whole lot of other ways that he shows his interest in me, that aren't about asking me questions.  He just finished planning a fabulous vacation for the two of us - and put in a huge amount of effort to bring it off...texts me that he misses me when he is out of town, etc.

It is really helpful to be able to make this distinction between narcissistic or self-centered (in the negative way) and self-oriented as a way of dealing with ADHD.

Lucky You!

I don't know if my husband misses me when he is out of town. He is off in hyper focus ADD land and he has no idea that I exist. Sometime he doesn't miss me when I am out of town, even if it is hard for him to come home to an empty house, where he has to face his demons in the stillness. He does love me when we are present with each other. And those moments are beautiful. The thought of them fills me with joy. And in the last five months I have been learning not to look for them when they don't exist, but to cherish them while they are there. 

Another thing I noticed on this website (besides the fact that I have found a lot of people who are going through the same thing I am) is the use of the word "cherish". I don't think that word had ever been in my vocabulary before three years ago. I would never had "being cherished" as a goal. I have seen other ladies use it on this site. I know abandonment is a huge theme for non ADD spouses. I wonder if "cherished" is an ADD flag. We should do an exploratory study! (I am laughing). 

Feeling Cherished

I felt cherished in my relationship while we were dating (way back when) and recently.  But in between, no.  I think cherished is a word that is used here as a goal because it really does say 'focused, loving attention.'  If you get to that place with your ADHD partner, chances are good that you have got a system in place that allows for enough 'attend time' combined with an ability to empathize with the ADHD partner's tendency towards 'inward focus.'

Neckbone's picture

Finding Answers

I've been searching for answers for over 5 years now. So happy to have come across this article and website. I've gone from thinking my fiance is on the spectrum with Aspergers, narcissistic, has ADHD, or all three. Self-orientation explains a lot. Thank you for helping in my search for answers.

Narcissistic husband

This was helpful for me, as it describes and identifies personality characteristics I see in my husband and probably haven't been very objective about. There's a whole big iceberg beneath the surface behavior...So I'm glad to have vocabulary to describe what I experience. I nonetheless think he's narcissistic, but not emotionally bankrupt. Sigh.