Coping With ADHD in Adult Relationships

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Getting married usually means you have someone to share the ups and downs of life with. This person becomes your partner in running the household and possibly parenthood, and you provide each other with emotional support.

If your partner has ADHD, however, your relationship can become lopsided if you find yourself taking care of your partner's responsibilities as well as your own. At times, you might feel like your spouse is someone you need to corral, organize, and direct like a child rather than a partner.

In these situations, the spouse who doesn't have ADHD can feel isolated, distant, overwhelmed, resentful, angry, critical, and accusatory, while partners with ADHD feel nagged, rejected, and stressed. A relationship can easily unravel if these frustrations are not acknowledged and addressed.

This article discusses some of the ways that ADHD can affect relationships. It also covers some of the steps couples can take to help deal with these issues and strengthen their relationship.

Adult Symptoms of ADHD

While ADHD is often thought of as a childhood disorder, approximately 4.4% of adults in the U.S. currently have the condition and around 8.1% will have it at some point during adulthood. Unfortunately, it may also be underdiagnosed in adults, which can create frustration and confusion when symptoms of ADHD are mistaken for carelessness, laziness, or lack of concern.

According to David W. Goodman, MD, assistant professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and Director of the Adult Attention Deficit Disorder Center of Maryland, "many adults incorrectly assume or have inaccurately been told that an individual cannot have ADHD as an adult. This is simply not true."

In a marriage where one partner has ADHD, it is not uncommon for both spouses to be unaware that the condition is contributing to problems in the relationship.

Symptoms That Can Cause Relationship Problems

The symptoms of ADHD in adults are similar to childhood symptoms and include inattention, distractibility, anxiety, taking longer to get things done, problems with time management, being "scattered," forgetfulness, and procrastination.

ADHD symptoms don’t develop in adulthood, rather they persist into adulthood. Symptoms tend to escalate as a person's environment becomes more stressful, and as the demands of their life increase. Symptoms of adult ADHD that may have an effect on a relationship include:

  • Always being on the go and unable to sit still
  • Disorganization
  • Fatigue
  • Impulsivity
  • Inattentiveness
  • Lack of focus
  • Losing things
  • Not paying attention to details
  • Poor motivation
  • Poor time management
  • Restlessness
  • Seeming like they are not listening
  • Talking excessively and interrupting others
  • Trouble following instructions

Dr. Goodman says that ADHD is highly genetic. Some adults are only diagnosed after their own children are evaluated and diagnosed with ADHD. When parents start to learn more about the condition because of their child's diagnosis, they may recognize ADHD traits in themselves. It can be a relief to finally understand and put a name to what they have experienced.

Recap

Many of the symptoms of adult ADHD are misinterpreted. Getting an accurate diagnosis can help adults and family members better understand many of the behaviors that may be caused by the condition.

Relationship Issues Related to ADHD

There are a number of common relationship problems and patterns that emerge when one partner has diagnosed or undiagnosed ADHD. 

  • Conflict: The partner who doesn't have ADHD may feel like they have to nag their partner endlessly to ensure that things get done, which can lead to feelings of anger, shame, and resentment, particularly when it becomes a habit.
  • Emotional outbursts: People who have ADHD may sometimes have difficulty managing emotions. This can contribute to situations where people experience strong bursts of emotion that can appear as irritability, angry outbursts, or rudeness. 
  • Forgetfulness: A partner with ADHD may forget important information like birthdays, appointments, and requests that their partner has made. A person's partner may feel that they are undependable or uncaring.
  • Impulsivity: Someone with ADHD might say things without thinking them through, which may lead to arguments or hurt feelings. Impulsivity can also contribute to reckless behavior or irresponsible decisions that create conflict in a relationship.
  • Misunderstandings: Undiagnosed ADHD makes it more difficult for people in relationships to understand one another. Impulsivity may be misinterpreted as recklessness while inattention might be mistaken for indifference.
  • Trouble finishing tasks: People with ADHD often struggle to start and finish tasks, which means that it can feel like the partner without ADHD is carrying the burden of household chores. This often leads to feelings of resentment.

Treatment May Improve Relationships

Getting treatment for adult ADHD can be helpful for improving relationships. Because it may help alleviate some of the symptoms of ADHD, these symptoms are less likely to negatively affect the relationship.

"If the ADHD spouse is receptive to diagnosis and treatment, functionality typically improves fairly dramatically," Dr. Goodman says. Treatment can be an eye-opener and can help someone learn to manage the condition more effectively, but not all adults who have ADHD are open to treatment. This can be frustrating for a spouse who sees ADHD treatment as a means to improve the relationship.

Treatment for adult ADHD typically includes medication, skills training, psychotherapy, and psychoeducation. Treatment recommendations may vary depending on an individual's needs as well as the nature and severity of their symptoms.

  • Medications: Stimulants as well as some other non-stimulant ADHD medications may be helpful for managing the symptoms of ADHD. These medications affect chemicals in the brain known as neurotransmitters, which may be helpful for improving symptoms.
  • Skills training: Skills training involves helping people develop strategies that they can use to manage their symptoms more effectively.
  • Psychotherapy: Different types of psychotherapy such as cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) and family therapy can be helpful. CBT focuses on changing negative thought patterns that may affect symptoms or relationships, while family therapy can help loved ones learn more about what they can do to help.
  • Psychoeducation: Learning more about ADHD can help people with the condition better understand how it affects their behavior. It can also help families learn more about how to support their loved ones.

David W. Goodman, MD

The larger challenge for the non-ADHD spouse is when their partner has never received evaluation or treatment, is prejudiced against psychiatry, or has had no exposure to psychiatry and is reluctant or afraid of being labeled, or afraid of having to take medication.

— David W. Goodman, MD

If a parent with ADHD has a child with ADHD who is receiving treatment, the dramatic improvements seen in their child can have an effect on the adult’s perceptions. When they see their child thriving, a parent might wonder if they, too, would benefit from learning how to manage their ADHD symptoms.

When Dr. Goodman encounters reluctant patients, he takes a "let’s just sit down and talk" approach. If a medication is indicated, Goodman encourages patients to try it for a month or two. If the person does not see any improvement or doesn’t like how they function on medication, they can choose to discontinue that treatment.

This approach gives the patient a feeling of control. For some people, there is anxiety or worry about losing control. They might resist treatment to maintain the sense that they are in control.

Recap

There are a number of effective treatments available that can help with symptoms of ADHD. Medications, therapy, skills training, and education can help you manage symptoms and minimize the effects on your relationships.

Coping With ADHD

If you have adult ADHD, it can also be helpful to find ways to cope with symptoms in order to minimize the potential negative effects on your relationships.

Get Organized

Find tools that will help you stay organized in daily life. Getting a planner, making checklists, and setting reminders on your phone can be useful when it comes to managing daily tasks and household chores. Set aside 15 to 20 minutes at a time where you can work on checking items off your daily list.

Divide Tasks

Divide up household tasks with your partner based on both of your preferences and strengths. If there is a specific task that you know you are going to struggle with, ask your partner to cover that one while you take over another chore that you're more likely to get done. By playing to both of your strengths, you'll be more likely to stick with it and avoid feelings of resentment. 

Deal With Distraction

When you seem distracted, your partner may wind up feeling neglected and ignored. Finding strategies that help you focus on your partner can go a long way toward helping them feel heard and valued. Putting down your phone, turning off the tv, and talking to your partner away from other distractions can help you stay focused on what's important.

It's also important to be aware of hyperfocus, which causes you to become so engrossed in a task that it's hard to pay attention to anything else. One way to deal with this is to set limits on tasks that you know are more likely to grab your attention. Restrict those activities to certain times of the day or set an alarm to make sure that you know when it's time to focus on something else.

Recap

Treatment is important for people with ADHD, but there are also steps you can take to deal with problems related to lack of focus and poor time management. Organizational strategies, task planning, and reducing distractions can help.

Advice for Partners

If your partner has ADHD, there are also things that you can do to deal with some of the challenges you might face as a couple. If you want to play an active role in helping and supporting your partner, consider some of the following strategies.

Learn About ADHD

Learning more about how ADHD can affect your partner and your relationship is a good place to start. Dr. Goodman says it can be helpful for the spouse who doesn't have ADHD to develop an understanding of how ADHD can affect their partner's daily functioning.

David W. Goodman, M.D

The non-ADHD spouse may assume their ADHD partner is being passive-aggressive when they are late, procrastinating, or forgetful. It may look like the ADHD partner is unmotivated to change or trying to annoy, when in fact the ADHD individual is impaired and unable to perform at the required level.

— David W. Goodman, M.D

Your partner's problematic behaviors may be a function of inability and impairment rather than a lack of motivation. You may find that you are less frustrated once you have this understanding.

Offer Encouragement

Let your partner know that they have your support. Praise and encourage them when they make progress toward a goal. People who have ADHD may struggle with feelings of discouragement or shame as a result of their symptoms, so being positive and supportive can help them feel more motivated and optimistic.

Don't Parent Your Partner

Sometimes people fall into a pattern where the partner who doesn't have ADHD develops a parent-child dynamic with their partner who has ADHD. Instead of allowing their partner to take on responsibilities, they may take over all of the household and personal tasks and treat their partner much like a dependent child.

This type of imbalanced relationship can lead to resentment one partner feels that they are doing everything and the other feels like they are being unfairly controlled. Instead of trying to do everything for your partner, focus on your own actions. You can be supportive and encouraging, instead of micro-managing, yelling, arguing, nagging, or shaming them for their struggles.

Work on Communication

Being able to talk about your concerns is critical. Rather than bottling up your feelings and allowing resentment to build, focus on being open and honest with one another. This includes asking questions, being direct, talking about what you are feeling, and remembering that your partner cannot read your mind.

Recap

If your partner has ADHD, there are things that you can do to help them and prevent symptoms from hurting your relationship. Learning about the condition and offering encouragement can help. Avoid "parenting" your partner, and work on developing healthy communication.

A Word From Verywell

Even if your spouse with ADHD is not ready to seek treatment, you can still get help for yourself. A trained mental health professional can help you better understand your spouse's ADHD symptoms and give you the tools that you need to cope in a healthy way.

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

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Symptoms and diagnosis of ADHD.

Additional Reading
  • Dr. David W. Goodman, MD. Personal correspondence/interview. 12 Feb. 08 and 15 Feb. 08.

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.