What Does a Good Relationship Look Like When One Partner has ADHD?

I was recently asked this question in one of my non-ADHD support groups and I realized this is certainly a topic upon which I should write!  To explore the idea, I thought I would give you some examples of successful couples impacted by ADHD, as well as tell you a bit about why and how my own relationship works.  These couples (real folks I have worked with) represent some of the qualities common to successful ADHD relationships.

Acceptance of each person's issues and acceptance of each partner's way of being

Old situation:  Bob has ADHD and his primary coping strategy for dealing with ADHD and his partner used to be retreat.  His non-ADHD wife brought a significant amount of anger to the marriage from her childhood experiences, then added the classic parenting issues on top of that as her husband retreated and under-functioned due to ADHD symptoms and conflict avoidance.  Once he retired they irritated each other so much they really questioned whether they could stay together.  New situation:  She came to terms with her anger at both her family and him, and has worked through it with the help of a professional.  As part of that, she made a commitment not to parent him.  He got treatment for his ADHD, and committed to becoming more reliable in the relationship.  One of his top tools for this is a white board he uses each week to organize every day.  They learned a great deal about ADHD and now have a better understanding of all that implies, allowing each person to accept his/her differences from the other.  They have developed several things around which they connect, including travel and playing bridge and genuinely enjoy each other's company now.  He also has a deep interest in his hobby, but regulates how much time he spends doing it so they have more time together and she doesn't feel lonely.  She marvels "it still amazes me what he comes up with sometimes!" but she says it with affection, not as a critique.  They have come to realize just how different they are, and appreciate those differences.  She no longer tries to change him, and he no longer tries to resist her.

An overt, thoughtful way to connect around what is important.

Having ADHD in your relationship means you must think about your priorities in a way that resembles triage - there is way too much to do, the ADHD partner has trouble differentiating important from not important (what is in the present moment and 'feels good' is a much bigger motivator than 'important' if you have ADHD because of how your brain is wired) and you have to pick and choose.  Old situation:  This busy couple are both doctors and they have several kids.  They were completely losing track of each other, often in opposition to each other.  New situation:  They couldn't de-stress their lives because of their careers, but they could be overt about how to address their issues.  They decided to focus on conflict resolution and building connection.  Because they were busy and one partner had ADHD, they decided that they needed to schedule their approach.  They added one hour Saturday morning and one hour Sunday morning during which each partner could talk about whatever they needed to talk about that was emotional for them.  They also added once a month outings where they got a sitter, spent an afternoon at a hotel talking as they needed, went for a romantic dinner for two, and spent the night.  They put a premium on respectful interactions, and made sure that problems didn't have time to build up.  Simultaneously, each partner looked for small ways to say "I love you."  One of my favorites was that when she was showering he would take her towel and warm it up in the dryer for her.

Respectful interactions, including active anger management.

Old situation:  One of the biggest issues in my own relationship was lack of respectful interactions once we started struggling as a couple.  This took on a lot of different forms: my parenting my partner, his retreating rather than engaging (classic parent-child dynamics); his distraction leading to my feeling lonely; he developed a 'the hell with you' attitude and I was always on his case, trying to get him to do better.  In addition, he was very emotionally volatile, easily triggered and extremely defensive - a combination of his ADHD (emotional dysregulation is a part of ADHD) and how I was treating him.  I was chronically angry and frustrated.  New situation:  My husband has come to recognize the role ADHD plays in our relationship and has committed to taking care of it in multiple ways and does a good job with that.  I have moved completely away from parenting him.  My internalized point of view is no longer 'you need to be changed' but rather 'you are an adult and have every right to do things the way you choose, just as I do.'  The challenge isn't about who is right, but how to negotiate our differences...and how to have FUN!  Each partner 'gives' to the other, depending upon how important something is to that partner.  We also have created a life that is 'ADHD-friendly' (see below).  My most important priority is that I feel well enough loved, and we have done that quite successfully.

Each partner leads when appropriate, but the non-ADHD partner still leads more

Though not always the case, it is most often true that the non-ADHD partner is better able to stay organized and plan ahead.  This means that if you want a social life, it's usually the non-ADHD partner who leads in that - particularly if that partner is female.  Old situation:  I used to feel that it was important that my husband schedule dates because this ability had become a sort of litmus test for whether or not he could pay enough attention to me and think about my needs.  New situation:  Over time I realized that sometimes mt husband is able to do this, but more often he isn't.  Our new approach is that I generally lead on our social life and dates, and that he very happily goes along with whatever I plan and we have a great time.  Since what I want is to connect, and since I no longer feel he needs to 'prove' his love by scheduling dates, this works for me.  (It has an added benefit that I get to choose stuff I really like to do!)  Though scheduling events is not his forte, he is quite good at picking up other things I hate doing, such as making reservations and planning trips.  So what we have done is shift responsibilities to align with each partner's strength, rather than arbitrarily say that one or the other partner 'ought' to be able to do X.

Frosting on the cake:  building a life that fits well with ADHD

Not all couples can do this, but if you can, it makes life much easier.  Old situation:  When a couple has young kids they often have a lot of 'must do-s' that are boring as all get out and are relatively urgent (you can't leave a dirty diaper on for a week, for example.)  But as we learned more about ADHD and our kids have gotten older, we've had a chance to better align our daily lives in a way that de-stresses us and, therefore, makes it easier to connect.  New situation:  We have crafted a life together that allows frequent connections, lots of fun, and ample time for us to appreciate being together.  Some of the things we have done:

  • align George's job with his favorite activities - assessments and recommendations for tech strategy.  He is a rock star at this, and his last two jobs have been all about doing this.
  • start working part-time to free up hours for fun.  This is recent, but working well
  • move to a more fun place to live, that allows us to be outside and more active during the year.  Exercise is always important, but even more so for those with ADHD.
  • create connection moments throughout the day.  We have both worked from home for over a decade, and eat most meals together, go to bed at the same time now (didn't used to) and set time aside to ride bikes together, go to concerts and talks, and be with friends.  This puts a lower percentage of our lives in the 'drudgery that must be done' category.
  • hire help.  We are lucky enough to be able to hire someone to help clean our home every other week. This is an amazingly effective way to lessen disagreements over 'stuff' and cleaning
  • travel.  Most of the couples I work with do quite well when they are away from home and exploring new places rather than crossing things off their to do list.  We've committed to taking two big trips a year now that our kids are grown, and preparing for those trips (for example, getting into shape by riding our bikes more) brings joy all year round.  These are usually active trips, which is a good fit with ADHD as well as something we both enjoy.

So those are my initial thoughts.  Do you have ideas you would like to add?