When Both Spouses Have ADHD

What’s it like when both partners have ADHD in a relationship?  Is it different from when only one has ADHD?  Are there other resources we need to know about?  Are there different challenges?  These are questions I get regularly and would like to answer here.

Relationships in which both partners have ADHD tend to resemble those in which only one partner has ADHD but with some small variations.  These are:

  • Both partners need to be fully invested in taking care of their ADHD symptoms.
  • It’s harder for one partner to “borrow” the executive functions of the other partner, unless that other partner has a good treatment plan in place.  So treatment is even MORE important in these relationships.
  • It’s possible that you’ll be more sympathetic to your partner’s disorganization and planning weaknesses.  However, what I observe more often as I work with couples is that if both are untreated, the lack of organization starts to take over the relationship and cause resentment in at least one partner – just as if you had a non-ADHD partner there.
  • You likely share a common background and history as relates to ADHD symptoms – that is that you understand your partner’s struggles growing up, as well as his or her “unique” way of being in the world.

When I work with dual-ADHD couples, what I see most often (and this may be because these are the people who find me, I admit) is that one partner takes on the role of the non-ADHD spouse.  This is the person who is more organized and who is frustrated that the other partner isn’t.  I hear things such as “If I can get my ADHD under control, so can you!” and frustration such as “my partner does not completely accept his ADHD as real and has only been somewhat supportive in helping me with my own struggle.”

It’s pretty easy to see which partner is the more organized, so for purposes of using my book, many of the things I describe for the non-ADHD partner can be applied (perhaps with some modification) to that more organized ADHD partner.

If you are in a two-ADHD partner relationship and having trouble, here are some immediate next steps:

  • Learn all you can about how your ADHD negatively impacts your partner.  It’s happening in both directions in this relationship.  That means TWO of you must take full ownership of your ADHD in order to succeed as a couple.  My book is a good resource for this, as is my couples seminar.
  • Measure both of your current treatments up against the three legs of treatment I describe.  It's highly likely you’ll discover that one or both of you is sub-optimizing treatment.
  • Talk about the importance of good treatment in how each of you will experience the relationship…and about what your goals are for the future.  What do you want your relationship (NOT your marriage) to look like?  What would enable that?  How are your symptoms impeding that?
  • Create a plan to get there (again, my book has lots of tips about what that plan should consist of – including the six steps you take to get there)
  • MEASURE your success against your plan – modify the plan as needed until you can measure successes and celebrate them.

Accepting that your ADHD impacts your partner is tough, whether or not you have ADHD.  Inside you, you want to say "I'm doing all this hard work on MY ADHD, why aren't you working harder on yours?"  It's a legitmate question, of course, but not a particularly productive one as it fosters resentment.  This isn't a "tit for a tat" sort of thing.  The best question to ask yourself is "Am I doing the most I possibly can to manage my ADHD?"  Once you can answer that question in the positive, you can more easily go to your partner and say "here are all the things I was contributing which are now out of the way.  But we still have problems, so I'm asking you to start looking more closely at yourself.  No more just blaming me!"  In the meantime, however, one of the good things about being in an ADHD relationship is that as you can have conversations about symptoms that are easy to turn around.  Asking the question "How do my ADHD affect you?" and genuinely listening to the response, validating the response, and acting on it makes it easier to then ask “So if my symptoms impact you so much, can you see how your symptoms impact me?  Let’s talk about symptom impact in BOTH directions.”

As in any relationship, don't wait for your partner's "support" to encourage you to make the changes you need to make.  That support is GREAT to have - don't get me wrong here - but you need to make the changes that improve your life with or without your partner's support.  (It's just easier to do if you get that support, which makes it in your partner's best interests to give that support...but of course there are all sorts of complicated interactions that sometimes prevent spouses from giving support when it's needed.)  More on that topic later.