ADHD can strain relationships. Here's how couples cope
The symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder can push couples to their breaking point, but there is hope for those willing to seek help.
When Chris Lawson began dating Alexandra Salamis, the woman who would eventually become his partner, he was “Mr Super Attentive Dude,” he said, the type of guy who enjoyed buying cards and flowers for no reason other than to show how much he loved her.
But after they moved in together in 2015, things changed.
He became more distracted and forgetful. Whether it was chores, planning social events or anything deadline-driven – like renewing a driver’s license – Salamis, 60, had to continually prod Lawson to get things done. Invariably, she just ended up doing them herself.
“I was responsible for nothing,” Lawson, 55, admitted.
Salamis, who is not one to mince words, described that period of their relationship as “like living with a child", later adding, “I hated him, frankly.”
But when she brought up her frustrations, Lawson would become defensive. And as she continued to nag, she started to feel more like a parent than a partner, something they both resented.
Then in 2019, at a friend’s suggestion, the pair read an article about how attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, can affect romantic relationships.
“We both kind of looked at each other and our jaws dropped,” Salamis said.
The couple, who live in Ottawa, had discovered something millions of others have realised, often after years of conflict: One of them – in this case, Lawson – most likely had ADHD, a neurodevelopmental disorder often characterised by inattention, disorganisation, hyperactivity and impulsivity.
When one or both members of a couple have ADHD, the relationship typically has unique challenges, which are usually exacerbated when the disorder goes undiagnosed, experts say. Studies suggest that people with ADHD have higher levels of interpersonal problems than their peers do, and marriages that include adults with ADHD are more likely to be unsatisfying.
Forums like the one found on the popular website ADHD and Marriage are often filled with stories of frazzled, emotionally spent spouses stuck in unhealthy, years-long patterns. But if a couple makes a strong effort to learn more about the disorder, manage its symptoms and find more effective ways to communicate, they can revitalise their relationship.
UNDERSTAND THE SYMPTOMS
People with ADHD may lack self-awareness, which can make it difficult to recognise how they are coming across to other people or how their behaviour contributes to the problems they’re experiencing in their relationships, according to Russell A Barkley, a psychologist and the author of Taking Charge of Adult ADHD.
Those who struggle with impulsivity might take unnecessary risks, or they might opt for immediate rewards, such as the pleasure of playing a video game, instead of focusing on mundane tasks that need to get done. People with ADHD are also often forgetful about what they’re supposed to be doing and tend to have big, emotional reactions that are stronger than what a situation might warrant – which can lead to explosive conflict.
Contrary to the assumption that people with ADHD. are always unfocused, many can focus intently on the things that interest them. But if they are especially attentive to a loved one during a relationship’s honeymoon phase and that intense interest eventually fades, a pattern can emerge where the non-ADHD partner feels unloved.
“If your partner is chronically distracted, that means they are also distracted from you,” said Melissa Orlov, a marriage consultant who leads seminars for couples who are struggling with relationship difficulties, in part because of ADHD. “That becomes very confusing and then it angers the partner because they feel like they’re not really being paid attention to. You’re like, ‘What, don’t you love me anymore? This isn’t the way it used to be.’”
While this can be incredibly frustrating to the partner who does not have ADHD, understanding these symptoms is a step toward embracing feelings of compassion and empathy over continual resentment.
“Our loved ones with ADHD cannot help behaving the way they do,” Dr Barkley said. It is a biological disorder, he added, “not a lifestyle choice". It is not simply something they could change in their mind over time if they wanted to," he said.
FIND COPING STRATEGIES
Dr Alicia Hart, 34, a primary care doctor, met her husband when she was 18. They both said “I love you” within three days and “were in a committed serious relationship from then on", she said. “People thought we were nuts. I mean, we met at a frat party.”
The couple, who live in Portland, Oregon, with their three kids, both have ADHD.
Most of their conflict has revolved around scheduling mishaps, “threatening to record conversations to prove that they happened or me starting another overambitious project without thinking it through or thinking of the impact on him", Dr Hart said in an email. “I also hate being late and have developed one million strategies to avoid this, where he has literally no concept of time and cannot be on time to save his life.”
By playing to their individual strengths, they’re able to keep the household running. He pays the bills and manages all the finances. She keeps track of the daily routine, setting alarms on their smart speaker to help him remember things like lunchtime. They use a shared online calendar and a wall calendar, too.
Robyn Aaron, a 36-year-old mother of two who was diagnosed with ADHD last year, said she and her husband now have a weekly meeting to stay organised, but they try to make it as fun as possible.
“We treat it like a date night – pour a glass of wine, maybe even light a candle,” said Aaron, who lives in Lisbon, Iowa. “He gives the check-in on finances; I give the skinny on the calendar.”
They also discuss their ongoing do-it-yourself projects, upcoming trips and any needs or wants.
“It’s become even more important to us since the pandemic began to connect in this way, and it’s super helpful for my coping strategies with ADHD, too,” she added.
SHOW YOUR PARTNER YOU’RE TRYING
In the book ADGD After Dark: Better Sex Life, Better Relationship, Ari Tuckman, the author, psychologist and sex therapist, surveyed more than 3,000 adults in couples where one partner had ADHD. He found that the people who felt that their partners put in the most effort at either managing their own ADHD or supporting a partner with ADHD had almost twice as much sex as those who said their partners put in the least effort.
For some partners with ADHD, it can be hard to accept the need for change and can also be difficult to be optimistic that new strategies will make a difference, especially if medications or past strategies haven’t worked.
But it’s worth continuing to educate yourself about the different options available to people with ADHD, or perhaps even seeking out a different clinician from the one you’ve been seeing, he added.
Dr Tuckman also advised both partners to choose their battles.
“ADHD doesn’t invent new problems, it just exacerbates the universal ones,” he said. “It’s the stuff that every other couple argues about, just more often.”
It is within your right to insist that your partner get the kids to school on time, for example, and ideally you will find a way to make that happen. But, Dr Tuckman cautioned, “you only get a small number of deal breakers".
CONSIDER A BLEND OF TREATMENTS
Experts agree that medication alone is not the best way to manage ADHD, but it can complement other strategies like cognitive behavioral therapy, coaching, mindfulness and exercise.
It wasn’t until he had been married for 16 years that Taylor Weeks, 36, finally realised that ADHD had been at the root of so much of the discord between him and his wife.
As far back as he can remember, he struggled with time blindness and forgetfulness, continually dropping the ball and then chastising himself for it.
“It has always been kind of a huge stressor for my wife,” said Weeks, who lives in Rio Rancho, New Mexico. “She’s constantly been frustrated with me.”
He is now seeing a psychologist, taking medication for the ADHD symptoms and practicing mindfulness to help ease his anxiety.
He still struggles with forgetfulness, but his mind feels more clear.
“Before, I felt like I always had a bunch of thoughts going through my mind all the time,” he said. “But when it came down to try to articulate what I’m thinking, it was really difficult for me to get that out of my head and get my point across.”
His wife is noticing, he added, and told him he’s easier to communicate with and seems more engaged with their four children.
Lawson’s relationship also improved after he was eventually diagnosed with ADHD and prescribed a medication that improved his memory and ability to focus.
“It’s literally like a blanket has been removed from my head,” he said.
Just as important, they also attended couples therapy and learned how to better relate to each other and develop strategies to get things done at home.
Salamis, for her part, worked to break old patterns of behaviour where she would continually check up on her partner or try to manage every aspect of their household. There was no need to do so anymore, because he was actually doing the things that needed to get done.
It has been a long road to get to this point, Lawson continued, but now, he said, “I can be the guy she fell in love with.”
By Christie Aschwanden © The New York Times
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.