ADHD, which stands for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, is a disorder of brain development that affects millions of people around the world. It is marked by having trouble paying attention, being impulsive, and being overly active, all of which can have a big effect on a person’s daily life. When one partner or spouse in a marriage or love relationship has ADHD, it can be hard for both people in the relationship.
Is it adult ADHD or just forgetfulness or lack of motivation?
ADHD can show up in adults in many readily apparent ways. For example, maybe your partner or spouse isn’t doing well enough as an adult to be able to support themselves and pay their fair share of the bills. Perhaps you feel upset because you have to pay for their inconsistent work or sometimes careless actions that keep them from taking advantage of their educational opportunities. Your partner or spouse may have quit their job without good prospects for other jobs, leaving you to carry the load.
Another common sign that your partner or spouse might have adult ADHD is that they don’t pay important bills on time and don’t think about what might happen if they don’t. You may have stepped in to stop or lessen the effects, like paying the late car payment to stop the car from being repossessed. Some partners have helped pay child support or set up medical or dental care for problems that had been left untreated for too long and were getting severe. You help them out of their most recent trouble by stepping in.
I’m sure you’re aware of how this could affect your time, life, work, parenting, and other important things that require both partners to be adults in a marriage or love relationship who can support themselves and each other. You give them the extra time they need to talk about their latest problem or try to help them get a “second chance.” You cancel your plans and give up what you want to help your partner. Realizing how much you’ve had to give up to deal with your partner’s latest problem is a big downside. This affects your relationships with other important people in your life as well.
If there have been impulsive feelings or antisocial behaviors, have you lost close friends or been turned away by neighbors because of this? Some examples are making rude comments, showing too much emotion, not keeping promises or paying back loans, and being self-centered or aggressive in social situations. Do you know what it means to give up more than usual for them? You may be making more and more sacrifices while not being appreciated at all.
When reciprocity becomes imbalanced
Both people in a marriage or love relationship have to make sacrifices for each other. But when partners don’t treat each other equally repeatedly, resentment worsens. Even if your partner or spouse helps you back, what they did was likely much smaller than what you did. You might even feel like they’re taking advantage of you sometimes. They may seem self-centered and inconsiderate of your own needs and responsibilities if they keep asking you to save them from their own bad decisions. Some partners feel like they’re stuck on a train that could crash at any time.
As a spouse, you may feel bound by the promises you made in your marriage vows, even though you never meant to “sign up” for all the sacrifice and chaos that comes with your marriage. Your marriage or love relationship may be in a lot of trouble or be about to fall apart.
If you relate to these experiences, be reassured that you are not the only partner of an adult with ADHD who has made a lot of sacrifices without much or any recognition. Many other partners have done the same thing. You’re probably feeling your partner’s stress through them, which means you’re feeling the same way as your partner, who is back in another dangerous situation. The stress of these things can hurt your immune system and health. You may need to work on making yourself more resistant to stress so that when it happens, it doesn’t hurt you as much.
What initially attracted you to your partner or spouse?
What made you want to be with your partner or spouse when you first met? You probably found them fun, exciting, or even thrilling. Depending on how their ADHD makes them act, they might be interesting, adventurous, and full of things to do that make you feel refreshed and alive. They might get excited easily, show how they feel, be funny, and be quick to show affection and charm. Maybe you thought your partner or spouse was brave or even tough because they took risks that most people wouldn’t. This can show up in extreme sports, traveling on the spur of the moment, risky hobbies, or a life that is always changing.
As you spend more time together, these things may seem appealing for a few months or even the first year. When a couple moves in together and sets up a “home” in the real world, impulsive, adventurous actions can start to seem unnecessary and even irresponsible. Underneath the fun may be a partner who is easily distracted and unpredictable and doesn’t think about or deal well with the everyday but important responsibilities of life. If you don’t take care of the mundane, they can become crises.
Keeping promises, keeping a job, being on time, managing money and paying bills, running a household, raising children, taking care of your health, looking out for your safety and the safety of those around you, and following the law are all examples of mundane tasks that don’t tend to be exciting or thrilling.
Feeling embarrassed or shamed about your partner or spouse is a painful way to feel. If your partner or spouse keeps acting badly or making rash decisions, you may start to feel more and more annoyed, irritated, or even angry. When you know a result was likely, but your partner or spouse did nothing to stop it, you may wonder what on earth they were thinking.
Why don’t they just fix the problem and stop?
Repeatedly making decisions on the spot can make you more upset and angry with your partner or spouse. Once the crisis is over, you see that neither your logical arguments nor your emotional reactions affect how your partner or spouse acts. You know that if you don’t get outside help for your relationship or marriage, you’ll fit Einstein’s famous definition of insanity. You are responsible for something else that your partner or spouse with adult ADHD did that other adults their age wouldn’t have done.
If your partner or spouse doesn’t get help for their ADHD as an adult, the consequences of their actions or lack of actions, along with your frustration with them, won’t make it go away. Instead, crises will keep happening over and over again. Your pleas for them to “grow up” won’t make them stop making bad decisions. Before real improvement can happen consistently, your partner or spouse with adult ADHD symptoms needs to be evaluated, diagnosed, and treated by a professional.
Your partner or spouse with adult ADHD may do other things that are rude or embarrassing in public. This may make you feel ashamed or embarrassed. Maybe they did this when they said something to your friend or family member on the spot at a gathering. Perhaps they got drunk and threw a drink in someone’s face at the bar when the two of you were just trying to have a good time in New York City. Even more embarrassing things could occur, like getting drunk and touching a friend in a sexually inappropriate way or “sexting” a revealing selfie to other people (even acquaintances). Perhaps your partner or spouse may have left your toddler alone at some point, causing your child to hurt themselves. You may have heard that your partner or spouse was flirting with a coworker or not doing their job as a team member who depended on them.
At some point, your anger emerges because you can only take so much of your partner or spouse’s repeated impulsive or careless behavior. None of the things you’ve done have accomplished more than address the immediate problem or crisis. You might start to feel down, hopeless, helpless, and even depressed. You may also start to feel grief because of all the missed chances, successes, and accomplishments that your partner or spouse, given their talents, intelligence, and abilities, should have had. You might even feel depressed about what you’ve had to give up to help your partner or spouse with ADHD.
Approaching danger signs in your marriage?
Some partners or spouses feel “learned helplessness” and become emotionally numb to the problems that their adult ADHD partner or spouse has over and over again. Partners stop caring because it feels like it’s too much trouble to keep doing it. They’ve had so many bad things happen to them that they’ve shut down emotionally to protect themselves from more pain (what we call the Detached Protector mode in schema therapy). Partners reach a state of learned helplessness when they feel like they can’t easily end their marriage or love relationship, maybe because they have kids or because of other practical concerns. You may also have sensitivities, like a self-sacrifice schema, that keep you from leaving like almost everyone else would after experiencing so much hardship. Even though it may not feel like it, there are very few situations in which you have no choice, even if the choices you have will cause you a lot of pain initially.
If your partner or spouse is an adult with ADHD and refuses to get diagnosed and treated for their symptoms, the best thing that could happen may be that you take a break or leave them. Stress, disruption, repeated sacrifice, irritation, and anger may have overwhelmed you to the point where you decide it’s best for you (and maybe for your kids) if you cut off contact with your partner or spouse with adult ADHD for a while (navigating practical considerations, of course, like child custody). This will give you time to think about your life and what makes you happy and healthy. If your partner or spouse is an adult with ADHD and they deny that they have it or refuse to get treatment or follow a treatment plan, you may decide that the best thing to do is to break up with them. Talk to a licensed therapist specializing in adult ADHD to discuss what options make the most sense for you if you’re at this point in your marriage or love relationship.
Remember that helping your partner or spouse with adult ADHD is your choice, and you may need some time to “cool off” after a big fight with them because they didn’t deal with the latest problem. Depending on the circumstances, you may need to be apart for a few weeks, months, or even years. Most of the time, if you need this break, it doesn’t mean you’ve failed. It could be a chance to put your own life back together and get your emotions back in balance. You don’t have to be a martyr for your adult ADHD partner or spouse. Your decision to split up could also be because your partner or spouse is pulling away from you. After all, they feel like you attack or criticize them all the time without understanding or validating your feelings of deprivation and sacrifice.
“It’s not me. It’s you!”
It is common for a partner or spouse with adult ADHD to think that their problems are caused by a spouse or partner who is overly critical, demanding, or hostile toward them. They might say that the problem is that both of you have different values or that you don’t care about them because you have to work so much to take care of the house and your kids. Talk to a licensed therapist who specializes in helping couples or marriages where one partner or spouse has adult ADHD. They can help you figure out what will work best for you.
Room for hope?
On the bright side, not all interactions and actions with an adult ADHD partner or spouse are bad. Your partner may find success, happiness, and fulfillment in their life. This is often due to effective and consistent ADHD treatment, as well as your compassion and setting limits. Since you may have helped them get to where they are in their success, you may feel proud that you’ve done something good. In the best case, you can help your partner or spouse with adult ADHD find their life’s work or other skills at which they excel while they get effective and long-term treatment for their ADHD, with very positive and long-lasting results. You and everyone else who practices patience, empathy, and setting limits and whose partners or spouses respond well deserve a lot of praise.
I’ll share with you more ways to know if your partner or spouse might have ADHD symptoms that need to be checked-out by a qualified professional. I’ll also give you some tips on how to handle ADHD landmines and some other things you can do professionally to minimize or navigate some of the problems without blowing up your marriage or love relationship.
Learn about the signs of adult ADHD
When trying to help a couple where one partner or spouse has ADHD, the first step is to learn about the signs of the disorder. ADHD symptoms can be different for each person, different in adults and children, as different between genders.
Some common signs of ADHD in adults are:
• Trouble paying attention or staying on task
• Acting on impulse without thinking about the consequences
• Being hyperactive, like being restless or fidgeting
• Procrastination, having trouble starting or finishing tasks
• Forgetfulness, like losing things or forgetting appointments
• Bad organization and use of time
Understanding these signs is important because they can affect many parts of your marriage or love relationship, from doing chores to talking to each other.
Talk to each other honestly and openly
Good communication is key to a healthy marriage or relationship, and it’s even more important when one partner has ADHD. ADHD can make it hard to communicate well, so it’s important to create a safe, open space where both people can talk about their thoughts and feelings without fear of being judged. Encourage your partner to talk about their feelings openly and honestly. This will help you understand their point of view and strengthen your relationship.
Be kind and patient, but only up to a certain point
Both people with ADHD and their partners can find it hard to deal with the disorder. It’s important to try to be patient and understanding when your partner’s symptoms get in the way of your relationship. Don’t get upset or angry when your partner forgets something or has trouble focusing on a task. Instead, try to support and encourage them and help them find ways to deal with their symptoms. Your partner probably isn’t to blame for having ADHD, and they are probably doing their best to deal with the symptoms. But if these efforts haven’t worked, it’s up to them to find better ways to solve their problems, like getting a good assessment of what’s going on.
Make a plan for organization
One of the most common signs of ADHD is poor organization, which can make it hard to keep track of things like appointments, bills, and chores around the apartment. Your partner or spouse who has ADHD symptoms as an adult needs to come up with a way to stay organized that will help you both handle the daily tasks of your relationship. You could use a shared calendar, make a list of things to do, or give each of you a specific task. Having a system in place can help you feel less stressed and get more done. If none of these tricks work, your partner will have to agree to a test.
Set up a regular schedule
Partners with ADHD often have trouble keeping to a schedule and keeping track of time. A partner or spouse with adult ADHD can better manage their time and feel less stressed if they have a set routine. This schedule can include set times for meals, chores around the apartment, and leisure activities. Your partner or spouse with ADHD can also stay on track with a set routine and be less likely to get overwhelmed or lose focus.
Handle your strong emotions
Partners with adult ADHD often have strong feelings that can be hard for both partners to deal with. Intense emotions can make your partner act on impulse and cause misunderstandings, which can hurt your marriage or love relationship. Your partner or spouse needs to know when the intensity of their feelings is too much and take steps to deal with it. This could mean taking a break from the conversation (asking for a “time out”) or using deep breathing or meditation to calm themselves down.
Use behavior-change techniques
For couples to deal with ADHD symptoms, they need to know how to change their behavior. You can try some of the following suggestions with your partner or spouse. Be aware of the things your partner or spouse with adult ADHD needs to do to improve as you work together to solve problems and make your marriage or love relationship better. Be ready to insist they see a licensed therapist specializing in adult ADHD if they aren’t progressing in the following areas:
1. Break tasks into smaller parts. Partners with adult ADHD can feel overwhelmed by big tasks. Putting these tasks into smaller, easier-to-handle pieces can help reduce stress and get more done.
2. Put tasks in order of importance. Putting tasks in order of importance can help people with ADHD stay focused and stop putting things off. Putting tasks in order of importance means figuring out which ones are the most important and doing them first.
3. Use visual aids. Visual aids like calendars, charts, and diagrams can help people with ADHD stay organized and on track. Your partner or spouse can use these tools to help them remember appointments and deadlines and better manage their time.
4. Set reminders. Important tasks or appointments can be easier to remember for partners with ADHD if they use reminders like phone alarms or sticky notes. Setting reminders can help them remember things and use their time better.
5. Make sure there are no distractions around. Distractions can be a big problem for people with ADHD. Having a workspace that is quiet and free of distractions can help your partner stay on task and get things done.
6. Practice mindfulness. Mindfulness is a way to pay attention to the present moment and accept it without judging it. Mindfulness can help your partner or spouse with ADHD deal with stress and learn more about themselves.
Get help from a Pro in Adult ADHD
Even though the above strategies can help manage ADHD symptoms in a marriage or love relationship, your partner or spouse may also need professional help from a licensed therapist to put them into action.
At Loving at Your Best, we carefully look at symptoms and work with psychiatrists, psychiatric nurses, or other medical professionals to get accurate diagnoses and effective treatments for couples where one partner or spouse has adult ADHD. After evaluating your marriage or love relationship, we evaluate each partner and make treatment suggestions, such as a mix of couple and individual sessions and, if needed, working with an additional individual therapist. You may need more help and support to deal with the problems that adult ADHD causes in your marriage or love life. Your partner or spouse who has adult ADHD may need help from a professional to make progress and stick with treatment to develop healthy, long-lasting habits.
Don’t put off things that will only worsen if nothing is done
Living with ADHD symptoms is hard for the person with them and their partner or spouse who has to deal with them. Taking care of the symptoms can help lessen the damage to your marriage or love life. With patience, understanding, good communication, setting limits, and carrying through on real consequences (what we call “empathic confrontation,” a key term in schema therapy for couples), you can deal with the challenges of a partner or spouse with adult ADHD and build a caring, satisfying relationship together.
When you use some of the strategies I’ve shared above, you can work together as a team to help manage your partner’s symptoms of adult ADHD, lowering your stress, and making your marriage or love relationship work better. To deal with ADHD symptoms in your marriage or relationship, you may need to talk to and get help from a professional who specializes in working with adults with ADHD. If your partner or spouse has always had trouble with their symptoms, or you’ve experienced one too many crises, you can get help from a licensed marriage or couples’ therapist in New York City who specializes in adult ADHD couples, like the ones at Loving at Your Best Marriage and Couples Counseling. With the right tools and help, you and your partner can work through problems while appreciating the struggles you both face.