ADHD and Toxic Relationships

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Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a common neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by patterns of hyperactivity, inattention, impulsivity, restlessness, or a combination of all of these.

Now, while building and maintaining relationships can be difficult for everyone, those with ADHD can encounter some unique challenges. For example, they may be seen as poor listeners due to being forgetful and distracted. Additionally, people with ADHD can display high novelty-seeking tendencies, which can sometimes lead them into toxic relationships when compared to the rest of the population.

As a result, this article will explore the ways relationships are impacted by ADHD, the link between ADHD and toxic relationships, as well as the signs to look out for, and some tips for breaking the cycle.

What Is a Toxic Relationship?

A toxic relationship can be understood to be any relationship that leaves a person feeling like their well-being is being threatened psychologically, emotionally, and even physically.

While no relationship is perfect, toxic relationships often leave people feeling unsupported, controlled, disrespected, and consistently misunderstood. As a result, anytime spent with a partner or significant other can leave the person feeling perpetually drained and unhappy.

The Link Between ADHD and Toxic Relationships

While there is a range of ADHD symptoms, the ones commonly impacting relationships are emotional dysregulation, inattentiveness, impulsivity, forgetfulness and disorganization.

This isn’t to say that everyone with ADHD will face these challenges; however, for those with more severe symptoms, these are the ones that can impact a person’s ability to communicate effectively, regulate emotions, and seem present in the relationship. And as a result, in some cases, the combination of these symptoms can make a partner unintentionally take on a parental role.

Furthermore, these issues can also be exacerbated in relationships where an individual’s ADHD is undiagnosed; thus, the perceived lack of commitment and attentiveness is seen as a personal failing instead of behavior exacerbated due to a lack of symptom management. As a result, these relationships can begin to foster symptoms of toxicity and display unhealthy patterns.

In a 2020 study on the effect of partner attachment style on romantic relationships, researchers sought to uncover how the characteristics of a partner without ADHD influenced the relationship quality.

For the study, they looked into 159 couples where one partner had ADHD and the other didn’t; and they found that partners with an anxious attachment style reported lower levels of romantic relationship quality when compared to those with avoidant attachments.

Thus, these results indicate that the negative effects that ADHD symptoms have on relationships can be exacerbated by a partner’s high level of insecure attachment.

Furthermore, while insecure attachments are generally thought to impact relationships negatively; this study suggests that in the case of people with ADHD, relationships with avoidant partners may offer more positive outcomes. Nevertheless, more research in this area is needed before any confirmations can be made.

Why Are People With ADHD More Susceptible to Abuse?

People with ADHD can be highly susceptible to toxic relationships for various reasons. For example, they may be drawn to people who appear to be dominant and well-put-together and miss out on signs that the other person is controlling.

Additionally, relationships in which one person has ADHD tend to have an intense buildup due to people with ADHD having an affinity for those who are expressive, emotionally intense, and spontaneous.

While "boring" relationships can be difficult for anyone, the ADHD brain consistently craves stimulation and dopamine. People with ADHD can find themselves innately drawn to relationships with quick, intense beginnings.

Even though initial intensity in dating isn’t necessarily a bad thing, abusive relationships — where gaslighting and love bombing take place — also often begin the same way. And this is why pursuing relationships that cause hyper-fixations, and deep feelings of infatuation can result in problems down the line.

Another factor for this increased risk is childhood trauma. For example, previous research has estimated that individuals with ADHD were over six times more likely to report being physically abused in childhood than those without it. In addition, a 2018 meta-analysis also found a significant association between ADHD symptoms and experiences of child maltreatment.

Regarding the long-term effect of abuse, an alternate 2018 study on twins also found strong associations between abuse, neglect, and ADHD in childhood. However, they also found that this often led to an increased risk of these individuals experiencing abuse later on in life.

ADHD and Intimate Partner Violence

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines intimate partner violence (IPV) as “Abuse or aggression that occurs in a romantic relationship." This type of abuse can be physical, sexual, psychological/emotional, or involve stalking — and it varies in severity and occurrence. Additionally, previous experiences of violence and maltreatment are documented risk factors for subsequent IPV.

Keeping this in mind, it is clear that people with ADHD are at an increased risk of experiencing IPV due to the high likelihood of encountering abuse and neglect in childhood — the research confirms this too.

For instance, one study on the association between childhood ADHD diagnoses and intimate partner victimization in young women found that participants with a persistent ADHD diagnosis — meaning, they were still diagnosed with ADHD when they entered young adulthood — stood the highest risk of experiencing victimization by an intimate partner, with a rate of 37.3%. In comparison, those diagnosed only in childhood had a risk of 19%, and those without ADHD had the lowest risk rate at 5.9%.

Additionally, these researchers found that overall, participants with ADHD were also more likely to experience physical abuse at the hands of an intimate partner than the comparison groups (30.7% vs. 6.3%). Thus, their work highlighted young women with ADHD as a vulnerable group needing IPV prevention and intervention.

If you or a loved one are a victim of domestic violence, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1–800–799–7233 for confidential assistance from trained advocates.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Please call 911 if you are in immediate danger.

Signs of a Toxic Relationship

As a reminder, even healthy relationships will have periods of toxicity or display unhealthy patterns — particularly during times of increased stress or conflict. However, what makes a toxic relationship distinct is that these issues are persistent and occur long-term.

For that reason, it is crucial to be aware of what behaviors the relationship is displaying and the frequency with which they occur.

Here are some toxic behaviors and traits to be aware of:

  • Jealousy
  • Negativity
  • Insecurity
  • Selfishness
  • Dishonesty
  • Hostility
  • Lack of support
  • Lack of consistency
  • Toxic communication — such as contempt, criticism, and sarcasm
  • Controlling behavior and distrust
  • Abusive — this is also inclusive of emotionally abusive behaviors, such as gaslighting, love bombing, breadcrumbing etc.
  • Disrespectful
  • Financial abuse or dishonesty

Coping With a Toxic Relationship

When it comes to coping with a toxic relationship, there is no single approach that works universally. This is because relationships are dynamic and unique to those within the partnership. That said, there are various general ways people can protect themselves and cope within them.

Ask Yourself If the Relationship Is Fixable, Remembering That It’s Ok To Leave

In some instances, toxic relationships can be repaired — that said, it is also essential to know when a relationship has run its course too. One way to figure this out is by checking to see if all those in the relationship are committed to making things work. This involves changing unhealthy behaviors, respecting each other’s boundaries and even seeking help from a therapist.

Nevertheless, in instances where a commitment to change is continually broken, it is very probable that the relationship has run its course. In this case, breaking the cycle would mean finally letting go.

It is important to note that this step does not apply to abuse in relationships. Abuse is never OK, and in these instances, the most important thing is to protect yourself.

Be Assertive With Your Boundaries And Needs

While open and honest communication seems easy in theory, but it can sometimes feel challenging — particularly for those who weren’t allowed to assert themselves growing up. However, for a relationship to work, both parties need to feel like they’re heard, secure, and protected.

Therefore, it is vital that boundaries are continually set up and that any issues present are communicated healthily.

Shift Your Perspectives

When it comes to arguments, it is important not to communicate in a way that blames another person. Instead, a healthier way to communicate would highlight mutual understanding and learning.

That said, recognizing past behaviors is also vital. Therefore, there also needs to be a mutual acceptance of responsibility too. Not only will these two changes aid in creating healthier communication habits, but they’ll also indicate and reflect self-awareness and self-responsibility.

Find Outside Support

While people often jump to couples counseling in order to fix a relationship, having individual therapy (in tandem or before) could also be highly beneficial for the relationship and general personal well-being of those involved.

Now, there is nothing wrong with wanting to fix the relationship; however, individual therapy has the added bonus of allowing individuals to work on themselves and any attachment issues linked to childhood. Healing individually can also help people recontextualize their dating habits, patterns, desires and also open them up to healthier relationships overall.

That said, there are other forms of support to consider, too; these include support groups, local and online communities, classes and engaging with work created by others who have gone through a similar situation.

How to Break Toxic Patterns

The first step in breaking any pattern is realizing that you’re in one, and it is a lot easier to do this when you’re able to accept the situation without shame or guilt.

Additionally, it may also be helpful to do an internal catalog of previous relationships to work out if similar relationship dynamics appeared previously. This awareness of previous habits can also offer a possible avenue of inner work that needs to take place.

It is important to note that many people with ADHD experience high levels of rejection sensitivity, and this can lead to instances where they overreact, misinterpret or distort what other people say and do. Rejection sensitivity can also result in intense feelings of rejection and grief over a relationship ending — and sometimes make individuals reluctant to end a relationship out of this fear.

For these individuals, working with a licensed mental health professional could be beneficial. They may recommend cognitive-behavioral therapy or offer tools to work on any triggers.

A Word From Verywell

It is important to note that in some instances, toxic relationships may not be easy to point out, and it may take some time to notice the signs.

Additionally, these types of relationships aren’t only found in romantic partnerships; they can also be found in friendship groups, workplaces and even educational institutions. Therefore, it is important to be mindful of the signs and consider either ending the relationship or creating more distance through limiting contact.

That said, if you are dealing with abuse, it is vital that you get help right away. Remember, some relationships are only meant to last a season and leaving doesn’t mean you wasted time. Leaving is always an option.

11 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.
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By Zuva Seven
Zuva Seven is a freelance writer, editor, and founder of An Injustice!. Follow her on Twitter here.