Advice for the Partner of an ADHD Spouse

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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, 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, non-ADHD spouses can feel isolated, distant, overwhelmed, resentful, angry, critical, and accusatory, while partners with ADHD feel nagged at, rejected, and stressed. A relationship can easily unravel if these frustrations are not acknowledged and addressed.

Adult Symptoms of ADHD

Dr. David W. Goodman, M.D., 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, says “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.

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 their child is diagnosed, they may recognize ADHD traits in themselves. It can be a relief to finally understand and put a name to what they have experienced.

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.

Treatment

“If the ADHD spouse is receptive to diagnosis and treatment, functionality typically improves fairly dramatically,” 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.

“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," Goodman says.

If an ADHD parent has an ADHD child 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.

David W. Goodman, M.D

Many adults incorrectly assume or have inaccurately been told that an individual cannot have ADHD as an adult. This is simply not true.

— David W. Goodman, M.D

When 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 individual 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 individuals, there is anxiety or worry about losing control. They might resist treatment to maintain the sense that they are in control.

“People want to feel in control of their psychiatric treatment, especially in regards to how it affects their mental functioning,” Goodman says. He works hard to make an in-road and engage reluctant patients and typically starts by providing education and accurate information about adult ADHD.

Treatment is a partnership with a health care provider, but the ultimate control is held by the patient. “Most people understand that when they come into treatment they are functioning ‘less than’,” Goodman says.

Generally, if people experience an improved quality of life after starting treatment, most will become invested in continuing. “Few people chose to function at a lower level once they experience the benefits.”

Advice for Partners

Goodman says it can be helpful for a non-ADHD spouse to develop an understanding of how ADHD can affect their partner's daily functioning.

David W. Goodman, M.D

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

“The non-ADHD spouse may assume their ADHD partner is being passive-aggressive when they are late, procrastinating, or forgetful,” Goodman says. “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.”

The problematic behaviors of the ADHD partner can be a function of inability and impairment rather than a lack of motivation. The non-ADHD spouse is often less frustrated once they have this understanding.

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.

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