Forgetfulness, procrastination, spontaneity: The behaviors of people who have ADHD can be both draws and turn-offs for potential partners. A sense of adventure and acting on impulse can help keep a relationship fresh and alive. Who wouldn’t jump at a loved one suddenly offering to whisk the two of you away to a cozy getaway for a few days? On the other hand, forgetting to respond to that dating app might lead your latest online crush to suspect that you’re playing the field, even though you’re done with swiping right. Waiting until the last minute to buy your significant other a birthday gift — and coming away with a present that shows it — can make your partner feel unprioritized.
Maintaining a relationship with ADHD requires much of the same soft skills that help people with the condition get through work, school, and daily life. The caveat with relationships though, is that given the deep emotional connection involved, as brain health leader Amen Clinics points out, much of the resultant behaviors of ADHD run the risk of getting misinterpreted as disinterest — or even selfishness.
“If you’re constantly being messy, turning up late or behaving impulsively, you’re going to get negative feedback from those around you,” says Kate Hardy, a UK-based mental health and relationships blogger at lovemyanxiousbrain.com who, in her late 30s, was diagnosed with ADHD last year. “But when your behaviour is just a symptom of your ADHD, and not fully under your control, it can feel like you’re repeatedly being told ‘you’re not good enough’.”
The good news is, ADHD can help enrich a relationship. “Individuals with ADHD can be so full of energy and spontaneity that they really just bring absolute joy to your life,” says Lauren Powell, Psy.D., a licensed clinical psychologist in suburban Atlanta. If you are the non-ADHD partner, every once in a while just go along with them for the ride and see where it takes you!”
We’ve put together some tips from mental health professionals and people with ADHD on behaviors to recognize and skills for interpersonal communication — because when your brains work differently, your heart might misinterpret what’s happening.
- Avoid the “parent trap.”
Long-term, live-in partners of someone with ADHD might find themselves in the position of feeling like they have to nag to get anything done. “Have you paid the electric bill? Stop staying up all night and oversleeping! Why do you keep forgetting to pick up your dirty socks?” After nearly a year of being cloistered at home because of the COVID-19 pandemic, behaviors indicative of ADHD might even seem more magnified. Noticing that a partner is prone to migrating over Reddit instead of doing a day job can lead to resentment and fear over financial security. Says Powell, the “parent trap” is the most common pitfall in a relationship for someone with ADHD. “The non-ADHD partner creates systems to make life easier by setting reminders (with or without asking), and creating lists and organizational patterns.” At first blush, the non-ADHD partner might seem supportive and proactive. In reality, however, it turns out that this often results in accidentally micromanaging the ADHD partner’s life.
In this aspect, it’s important to identify where in a couple’s relationship ADHD has the most impact and seek out behaviors that will help a couple overcome those challenges. “For example, if following through on chores is an issue the couple could set up a weekly routine where they do chores together to serve as a body double,” says Dr. Wyatt Fisher, a marriage counselor in Boulder, Colo.
- Institute deadlines and take steps to prevent procrastination.
That video game she’s been wanting all year is on backorder. Had you ordered it months ago, it could have been ready and waiting for her on her birthday. Now your partner is going to enter her next year feeling ignored and unappreciated.
This is a common scenario. “I noticed a pattern with couples and, in my own relationship, where the non-ADHD spouse feels ignored or not prioritized. They feel that if their spouse really cared for them, they would follow through on their requests, especially after hearing and validating their pain,” says Rabbi Shlomo Slatkin, a licensed clinical professional counselor who, together with his wife Rivka, founded The Marriage Restoration Project. “The common denominator in all of these situations was ADHD. Once this was discovered, it no longer becomes personal. It’s not that the ADHD spouse doesn’t care; it’s just extremely difficult for them to follow through, to be organized, to keep commitments.”
One way to overcome procrastination — whether it’s finding the perfect gift or finally putting together that self-assembly bookshelf — is setting a deadline, however arbitrary. A deadline that is hours away is where the ADHD mind thrives, notes Powell. “People with ADHD can get into a hyperfocused zone and finish huge projects with speed and efficiency where the average Joe would surely fail.”
- Avoid telling people with ADHD — especially your partner — who they are.
While being mindful of the ways in which ADHD might be behind some relationship quirks, avoid using the condition as a crutch or diagnosis for the issue itself.
“If you’re the other person in the relationship, prepare to be patient and open to understanding,” says Jason Lee, a relationship science and data analyst with Healthy Framework, an aggregator of relationship and dating advice and information. “While doing some homework and research does help and shows you care, everyone with ADHD is different. Try to avoid ‘telling your partner how they are.”
Communication is key. Don’t assume that your partner knows what’s going through the other’s mind. “You’ve got to voice your concerns, share your tendencies, and bring them up to speed on what makes you — you,” Lee continues.
The upside is that once a couple is aware of the communication issues at stake, they can be that much more easily rectified. “ I talk to my partner about my ADHD symptoms and he reads articles on it, to learn more about me,” says Hardy. “Based on that, we’ve shared ideas on how to improve things for us both.”
- Be cognizant of anxieties that ADHD might amplify.
Even the most self-assured people harbor some fear of rejection. One potential effect of ADHD that can get exponentially magnified in relationships, Hardy continues, is rejection sensitivity. A feeling of not being “good enough,” whether on the back of critiques from performance at school or in the workplace; childhood berating from parents or peers, or feeling like a failure from failing to follow through on commitments and promises can weigh on the self-esteem of a person with ADHD. This of course, can have repercussions when entering into and sustaining a healthy relationship. “It means I feel intense mental and physical distress at being rejected — even if the rejection is only in my mind,” she says. “So if my partner becomes angry at me for my ADHD symptoms, it can trigger so much pain that I start to distance myself emotionally. And if I keep feeling rejected in a relationship, I tend to walk away.”
Ironically, a behavior for which ADHD sufferers often blame themselves — forgetting or cancelling plans; i.e. “flaking” — can lead to rejection sensitivity on the receiving end. Even losing track of messages in the early stages of a relationship can lead to communication problems. Matt Oney, founder of Zenmaster Wellness, a site that aims to help people master their mental health, has encountered this in his life. “As a 27-year-old man, I regularly use dating apps as a primary means of meeting women. My ADHD can be somewhat polarizing, though: sometimes I fully focus on talking to one girl and getting to know her, and the next day I’m completely engrossed by work or friends, and completely neglect checking my messages,” he says. Generally though, he can work through this. Sure, I can tend to get distracted by other life responsibilities and I may text/call a bit more infrequently, but my partners are understanding.”
- Be honest and open.
ADHD is nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, being upfront about the condition can lead to peace of mind in your partner; any perceived neglect really isn’t about them, but the challenges you yourself are facing. “I open up about my ADHD fairly early on in any new relationship, because I believe honesty is key,” continues Oney. “And if my partner is aware of my mental illness, they have always been understanding and patient with me.”
Hardy also notes the benefits of being open about her ADHD with her partner: the condition is a benefit. “One of the best things is that he’s told me he enjoys some of my ADHD traits a lot,” she says. “My spontaneity, my creativity, and the way I’m always ‘in the moment’ when we’re doing something fun together” are personality traits that he’s not just noticed — but embraced as part of her.
When it comes to relationships, ADHD can add spice and excitement. Yet the same issues that can present challenges in work and school, such as forgetfulness, procrastination, and time management, can also weigh on relationships. Being sure both people in a relationship feel heard and acknowledged is key to any relationship. This is especially the case when factoring in a mental condition. ADHD is part of who a person is; though it’s not the whole person. Working together and creating strategies and deadlines will help make for a smoother lifestyle and many happier tomorrows.
And maybe better birthday gifts.