Empathy and ADHD

Empathy is an issue for some with ADHD, and that can be a real problem in struggling relationships.  When you are hurt, you want to feel as if your partner will notice that and try to soothe you.  Yet quite a number of ADHD adults have trouble with this aspect of relationships.  What's going on?

Trouble being empathetic may be attributable to any of these things:

  • Research suggests that those with ADHD have trouble reading the emotional cues of others - so if you can't see if someone is distressed, then you're less likely to respond to it even though they might expect you to.
  • Distraction plays a role.  I can be totally into feeling miserable and talking with my husband, but he can only keep his attention on me for so long.  Over the years the time he can stay in an emotional conversation has increased considerably, but it's hard to feel your partner is empathetic if you have to remind him to stay seated to listen to you  :-)
  • Gender may play a role.  We spend less time teaching our boys/men the skill of being empathetic.  And many women long for an empathetic response similar to what they might get from a close girlfriend...yet many men simply haven't learned the skills of listening and putting themselves in your shoes.
  • Neurology may have something to do with it.  One of the characteristics of autism, for example, is great difficulty with empathy...and ADHD shares some characteristics with that.
  • Anger may be at play.  Chronic anger is a big element in many relationships impacted by ADHD.  An angry person tends not to be very empathetic.
  • Defensiveness may also lead to less empathy.  Lots of times the hurts that you are healing from are directly related to something the ADHD partner did.  The hurt you express may feel like a criticism or rebuke, which would diminish an ability to remain open and empathetic.
  • Fear and lack of confidence may paralyze, particularly if you've just talked about a lot of emotions and the ADHD partner thinks "what do I do with that?  Will I respond wrong?"  I've had a lot of male clients, in particular, tell me they have no idea how to respond to their partner's pain.
  • Some people, particularly men, try to solve your problem when what you want is someone to listen.  That can feel unempathetic when, in reality, the person is trying help...just not the way you had hoped.

What to do about lack of empathy in those with ADHD?

Here are some specific strategies that might help improve the situation:

  • Be very specific about what it is you want your partner to focus upon.  "I'm feeling upset about my mother's dementia treatment" is better than "I'm feeling upset."  The latter might trigger defensiveness if an ADHD partner assumes you're upset about him/her
  • Word it in a way that doesn't sound like blame.  "I feel depressed by the combination of COVID and our marital struggles and need some reassurance" will open the door to empathy more easily than "I'm depressed about COVID and how you treated me last night."
  • Ask for a hug or touch when you need it, and don't hold it against your partner that you have to ask.  If you have a partner who struggles with knowing you need support at a specific moment, that doesn't mean s/he doesn't want to support you.  It may just mean they don't know how to.
  • Don't assume your partner will respond as you expect or hope (for all the reasons cited above).  Be open to how your partner intrinsically responds and, if it's not enough, ask for what you need specifically.  If you just want your partner to listen and not solve, let him/her know up front.
  • Spend some time in non-critical situations talking about emotional topics.  These conversations don't have to be about you - they can be about how you feel about parents; about how you feel about COVID etc etc.  Practice discussing and experiencing emotions, which can build skills over time.  In addition, don't talk too much or inadvertantly dominate these conversations.  Stay quiet and attentive long enough to give your partner time to open up.
  • Make sure you have the emotional support you need, somewhere.  If your husband has trouble with empathy or supporting you, use your relationships with close friends or get a therapist to help work through emotional issues
  • A journal can be a good way to work through emotions, too

Tips for Partners with ADHD to Show More Empathy

For the reasons stated above, it can be hard for a person with ADHD to know when to be empathetic, or even to find an empathetic response inside him or herself. However, relationships thrive when other partners feel seen.  So finding ways to attend to your partner is critical.  In general, creating a system or some rituals to do this may be the most effective way to proceed.  Here are some ideas:

Set a weekly emotional support meeting with your partner.  That might be an hour scheduled for every Saturday morning in which partners take turns discussing what emotional issues are important to them at that moment.  You lead one week, your partner leads the next.  This regular meeting has a number of benefits:

  • It assures each partner that there will be time soon to discuss big emotions...therefore they don't have to be addressed as they come up
  • Each partner can mentally prepare for this conversation because it's planned.  You can take a moment that morning to open yourself up to what might come.  In addition, some couples start this meeting with an appreciation to reassure each other of their connection and start on a positive note.
  • Because it's planned, you have the ability to structure the meeting.  Examples include setting a timer so it doesn't last more than an hour; starting with that appreciation; ending with an appreciation or thank you; setting rules around talking (sharing a talking stick, etc); limiting how long one person can talk before letting the other person talk; using a reflection method such as a learning conversation.  Choose techniques that keep the meeting calm and productive for the two of you.

Set daily rituals of 'seeing.'  I often suggest that couples create a short conversational ritual where they complete an open-ended sentence that allows the other partner to see into their world.  That way your partner sees you, and you see them.  Express appreciation for their insight and sharing at the end of the ritual ("thank you for sharing that with me!") and/or a hug.  Sentences I've recommended to couples include:

  • "The most important thing you need to know about me today is..."
  • "The thing I most appreciate about you today is..."
  • "The thing that I'm most grateful for today is..."