The Surprising Ways ADHD Symptoms Affect Your Marriage

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The Surprising Ways ADHD Symptoms Affect Your Marriage

By Melissa Orlov,

It’s amazing how consistent are the patterns in struggling ADHD marriages.  These patterns start with an ADHD symptom that triggers a series of pretty predictable responses in both partners, creating a downward spiral.  Couples who know what the patterns are, and what the triggers are that send them into those patterns can choose strategies that improve their interactions and dramatically improve their relationship.  Instead of falling prey to symptoms and responses to symptoms, they can thrive.

This is a brief overview of the most common patterns partners fall into in ADHD-impacted relationships.  For more information about these patterns consider reading The ADHD Effect on Marriage or attending my couples seminar, given by phone.

Pattern 1 – Painful Misinterpretations of ADHD Symptoms and Motives

Particularly when ADHD is undiagnosed, as it is in between 80 and 90% of adults who have it, ADHD symptoms are easily misinterpreted.  Chronic distraction, the number one symptom of adult ADHD, can be misinterpreted as “my partner doesn’t love me any more” by a non-ADHD partner who feels s/he isn’t getting any attention.  Emotional dysregulation – very common with adult ADHD – can result in fast escalations into arguments that the two of you don’t need to have if you know it’s part of ADHD.

The ways to move away from misinterpretation of ADHD symptoms in your relationship is to learn all you can about ADHD and how it shows up in a marriage.

Pattern 2 – The Destructive Symptom-Response-Response Cycle

It’s easy to try to blame an ADHD partner for marital problems, but that’s not accurate.  Relationships struggle when unmanaged or under-managed ADHD symptoms show up AND non-ADHD or other ADHD partners respond to them in ways that hurt both partners.  That might include anger, or shutting that partner down, or starting to remind and pursue an ADHD partner who has trouble paying attention, to name just a few.

When couples understand symptom-response-response, and understand ADHD, they can choose both different symptom expression AND different responses.  This clears the way to building a healthy partnership again, in which both partners are satisfied.

Pattern 3 – The Hyperfocus Courthship

All couples, ADHD or not, create a great deal of extra dopamine when they are first falling in love – it’s a natural connection mechanism.  ADHD, however, is about low-dopamine (among other things) so the extra dopamine tends to mask ADHD symptoms.  When the infatuation wears off, dopamine levels return to normal (i.e. low for the ADHD partner).  It is a confusing and difficult time when ADHD symptoms finally start to show up because the non-ADHD partner often feels ignored and, eventually, unloved.  When he or she starts to express this, the ADHD partner is often very confused.  For them, it's 'business as normal.'

Pattern 4 – The Parent-Child Dynamic

One of the most painful – and most common – patterns in ADHD-impacted relationships is the Parent-Child Dynamic.  In this pattern, non-ADHD partners take on too much responsibility to compensate for the difficulty ADHD partners have following through.   Eventually they become resentful about the amount of responsibility they bear.   Simultaneously, ADHD partners under-perform, either not managing ADHD well (and therefore continuing to have trouble being consistent) or because they become angry at the non-ADHD partner’s resentment and start to retreat.

Couples MUST move away from this dynamic in order to thrive.  Luckily, there are many strategies they can use to do so.

Pattern 5 – The Chore Wars

One of the hallmarks of having ADHD is inconsistency, particularly if it’s not well managed.  In addition, the ADHD brain is wired to respond to, and be interested in, things that are rewarding.  Sadly, rewarding does not generally describe chores, and that means that many with ADHD have real trouble engaging with the dull drudgery of everyday household tasks.  Over time a war of sorts breaks out between partners over who is doing what, when, and who is in charge.

When it is the woman who has the ADHD, this dynamic is particularly difficult because there are so many societal expectations that a woman will be well organized around, and motivated to do, household tasks.  Non-ADHD male partners will come home and say some variation of "what have you been doing all day?" or "why isn't the (house in better shape?/ dinner on the table?/ kid in bed yet?...")  You've been busy all day outside the house or in it, yet...

Couples who understand ADHD often create ways to change the dynamics of their interactions around household tasks in a way that works for their particular partnership and issues with ADHD.  This might include a specific chore system, hiring help, setting different expectations, and more  They can stop the wars and significantly calm their home life.

Pattern 6 – The Blame Game

Partners struggling in their relationship often blame their partner for the problems they see.  However, that’s not a reflection of what is going on.  Yes…ADHD plays a role.  But responses to ADHD plays an equally significant role.

Blame is corrosive to relationships and makes it too easy for partners to avoid looking at their own issues.  And yet, progress comes when both partners are willing to take steps to impact the only thing they have control over – their own behavior.

When ADHD is in a relationship, it’s particularly easy to blame ADHD (there is a label, after all).  This interferes with progress as it puts the ADHD partner on the defensive (and many with ADHD are sensitive/defensive in any event) and stalls out progress a non-ADHD partner can make.

Pattern 7 – Nag Now, Pay Later

When ADHD-impacted couples get into the Parent-Child Dynamic it is all too easy for the non-ADHD partner to start nagging and reminding to get things done.  “Have you done X yet?” seems innocent enough, but what the ADHD partner hears is ‘You’ve failed again to follow through…” 

Nagging feels necessary to many non-ADHD partners, as they fear that an ADHD partner won’t remember if not reminded.  And they have reason to think this way…but taking over the timeline (i.e. reminding over and over) isn’t the solution to the issue.  Depending upon the specifics of the situation and the ADHD symptoms, there are many more productive responses that result (over time) in the ADHD partner being able to be more consistent.

The Bottom Line

These patterns are created by the presence of ADHD symptomatic behaviors (which, by definition, a person with ADHD has) and by very human responses to these behaviors.  If you are ignored because your partner is chronically distracted, for example, it is human to feel unloved or unattended.  When you have a deep understanding of ADHD, you and your partner can address these patterns head on - changing your interactions in ways known to work.  The result is that you both can thrive again.  I invite you to learn more, because in this case, knowledge is certainly power.  You can improve your relationship with the right information and tools and find that love you thought you had lost.