ADHD and Its Effect in Marriage

Married couple laughing together

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If you are married to someone who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), you may notice that it affects your relationship in a number of ways. However, it is important to recognize that this goes both directions. Your relationship can also have an impact on your partner's ADHD.

Learn more about some of the challenges you might encounter if you are married to someone with ADHD. Also, explore what you can do to help your partner and strengthen your relationship.

How ADHD Characteristics Affect Relationships

The traits and characteristics that are associated with ADHD can create predictable, consistent patterns in your relationship. For people who have not found ways to manage these patterns, problems can emerge.

According to Melissa Orlov, author of "The ADHD Effect on Marriage: Understand and Rebuild Your Relationship in Six Steps," some of the characteristics that may emerge in relationships affected by ADHD include:

  • Chronic nagging and/or anger
  • Uneven distribution of household tasks
  • One spouse plays the role of always being responsible (a "parent" role) while the other is consistently inconsistent or irresponsible (a "child" role)
  • Your courtship was amazing and you couldn't get enough of each other, now one partner just isn't paying attention at all
  • You argue all the time, even over inconsequential things
  • One partner doesn't seem to remember agreements well or is tuned out
  • One partner has great trouble following through on things that have been agreed to
  • The breakdown of the sexual relationship and emotional intimacy

As a result of such patterns, both partners are often left feeling lonely, unhappy, and overwhelmed. Frequent arguments, lack of communication, and disengagement from the relationship are common.

Melissa Orlov, author of "The ADHD Effect on Marriage"

A common response for the non-ADHD partner is to become overly controlling and nagging ("the only way to get anything done around here") while the ADHD partner becomes less and less engaged ("who wants to be with someone who is constantly angry?")

— Melissa Orlov, author of "The ADHD Effect on Marriage"

Unfortunately, this marital dysfunction can put relationships at serious risk. Statistics suggest that divorce rates for couples affected by ADHD are nearly twice that of couples who are not impacted. However, taking steps to understand the way ADHD traits can affect your marriage and looking for solutions can help improve your relationship.

Effects of ADHD on Marriage

Characteristics of ADHD can vary from one person to the next, and the effect that these traits have on individuals and relationships can also vary. Some people find that they are able to manage these characteristics effectively in some settings such as work, but then struggle more when it comes to relationships.

According to Orlov, a person with ADHD might feel:

  • Secretly or overtly overwhelmed, since keeping daily life under control when you have ADHD takes much more work than others realize
  • Subordinate to a spouse who is "running things," particularly if parent/child dynamics are in place
  • Unloved or unwanted, because they keeps hearing the message that he should "change" or do better
  • Afraid to fail again. As a relationship worsens, typical ADHD inconsistency contributes to anxiety about what may happen the next time one fails.

"People with ADHD understand that the world doesn't work for them in the same way that it does for others. Their minds are often "racing", "noisy" or "cluttered," and so they see experience the world in ways that others often don't relate to well," Orlov explains.

How Non-ADHD Partners Are Affected

The spouse who does not have ADHD is also often affected by these challenges and the dynamic that forms in the relationship. In mild cases, a person might find themselves dissatisfied that their partner always seems distracted or busy with other things.

At the other end of the spectrum are relationships where the non-ADHD partner begins to treat their spouse much like a child, taking over responsibilities and not allowing them to be equal partners.

The non-ADHD partner's experience may be characterized by the following:

  • Loneliness: They feel they are not getting attention from their partner. One study found that non-ADHD partner's often feel dissatisfied with the lack of intimacy in their relationship.
  • Anger: They may become angry that their partner cannot control or change their behavior. The non-ADHD partner may express this anger overtly, or they may bottle it up until they reach a breaking point.
  • Stressed: The non-ADHD partner may take over the other person's responsibilities to the point that they have too much on their plate and don't have enough help. This can lead to stress, but also feelings of anger, bitterness, and resentment.
  • Exhausted, hopeless, and sad: Over time, even the most patient person can feel overwhelmed and exhausted. They may start to feel that nothing will ever change and that there is no way to improve the situation and the relationships.

Destructive Patterns That May Emerge

When a person is married to someone with ADHD, a tendency may emerge where they both blame all of the problems in their relationship on the condition. However, both partners need to recognize their role in contributing to marital distress. Orlov refers to the pattern that emerges as the "symptom-response-response cycle."

ADHD characteristics create unexpected stress in a relationship. This can result in misunderstandings, but it can also lead to a destructive pattern that includes the characteristics of the conditions, the response to those characteristics, and the response to the response.

For example, people with ADHD frequently experience increased feelings of distraction. This can make their partner feel ignored, especially if the individual's ADHD is undiagnosed. Without an explanation for this distraction, the non-ADHD partner might misinterpret the behavior as a lack of care and concern.

This can lead to hurt, arguments, and resentment. And because the person with ADHD does not understand the source of their partner's anger, it becomes a self-reinforcing downward cycle.

An accurate diagnosis of adult ADHD can help both people better understand how these characteristics might affect their relationship. In the example above, the non-ADHD partner might say, "You've been distracted lately and I'm feeling lonely. Let's go do something special together?"


ADHD characteristics can set off a response cycle that creates conflicts in a relationship. A better understanding of what is causing the problem can prevent resentment from forming and lead to more effective solutions.

Tips If Your Partner Has ADHD

If your partner has ADHD, it isn't a matter of trying harder to make the relationship work, but a matter of "trying differently."

Melissa Orlov, author of "The ADHD Effect on Marriage"

You can take your knowledge about ADHD and choose tactics that will help you succeed. I call these 'ADHD sensitive' tactics.

— Melissa Orlov, author of "The ADHD Effect on Marriage"

For example, Orlov notes that trying harder to remember a chore won't make a person less distracted or forgetful. A more effective and realistic solution is to set the alarm on your cell phone to remind you of the chore. The partner with ADHD may still get distracted, but having a reminder can bring their attention back to the task at hand when it needs to be done.

Orlov also suggests that there are several other strategies that can help couples where one partner has ADHD strengthen and repair their marriage.

  • Remember that it is a two-person effort. Both partners need to take responsibility for their own issues. You are not responsible for changing your partner, but you can support their efforts to manage their traits and characteristics more effectively. Provide encouragement and positive feedback.
  • Learn more about adult ADHD. Learning more about your partner's experience will help you have more empathy and patience.
  • Consider treatments to manage ADHD characteristics. Medications, skills training, and psychotherapy can help manage different aspects of adult ADHD, such as impulsivity, disorganization, and poor motivation.  Encourage your partner to consider talking to their doctor about steps they can take to manage some of these characteristics.
  • Focus on improving your relationship. Try not to get too hung up on who is doing what in the relationship; instead, pay attention to how you relate to one another. Strengthen your connection before addressing some of your marriage's logistical issues.

"Ultimately, marriage is about joy," Orlov also suggests. "Remember to find something to celebrate or laugh about as often as possible. Set aside time to create joy, not just time to fix things. You both need relief from the effort it takes to change habits that have been built up for years."

A Word From Verywell

When you are married to someone with ADHD, it isn't uncommon for characteristics of the condition to create stress and conflict in the relationship. The first step is recognizing the signs of problems. 

Once you better understand how ADHD traits and your response to those traits can create conflicts, you and your partner can work together to find solutions. Learning to manage ADHD characteristics, better understanding the condition, and taking steps to strengthen your connection are great places to start.

3 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Symptoms and diagnosis of ADHD.

  2. Ben-Naim S, Marom I, Krashin M, Gifter B, Arad K. Life with a partner with adhd: the moderating role of intimacyJ Child Fam Stud. 2017;26(5):1365-1373. doi:10.1007/s10826-016-0653-9

  3. National Institute of Mental Health. Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

By Keath Low
 Keath Low, MA, is a therapist and clinical scientist with the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities at the University of North Carolina. She specializes in treatment of ADD/ADHD.