Don’t Let ADHD Consume Your Relationship: Know the Signs

couple arguing in parkAdults with attention deficit (ADHD) tend to experience problems with relationships. At one time, it was believed that ADD was outgrown by adulthood; however, in 1992 research proved that it continued into adulthood. Families and couples report that there are tremendous problems in relationships as a result of ADHD. Often, individuals who are successful in careers and education report the enormous impact it can have on their relationships.

The relationship with your partner is the most important relationship you have. So why does it seem so hard? It’s a question I frequently get from the individuals and couples I see in my couples counseling practice. Why do we hurt the ones we love the most?

It’s where we are most emotionally vulnerable, and with vulnerability comes the fact we are impacted and/or triggered by things we normally overlook. A look, an expression, a nuance all have meaning to us and usually represent our vulnerabilities from our present and past relationships. For those couples with the added complexity in which one partner has a diagnosis of ADD or ADHD, this can become a disastrous combination.

This impact on couples is not something that gets discussed frequently. I see a number of couples in my practice with this challenge in their relationships. One frequent question I hear from couples is, “how do I know if ADHD is impacting my relationship?”

Emotional safety in a relationship requires compassion for one another, respect, and emotional presence. This does not always happen for couples in which one or both partners have ADHD. It is important to identify whether or not ADHD is impacting your marriage, so that together you can understand how to make adjustments to your relationship so that this neurobiological issue doesn’t impact your relationship adversely.

Here are five things that may help you determine whether ADHD is a factor in your relationship:

Situation No. 1: The Parent/Child Dynamic

One of the most common patterns in marriages affected by ADHD is a parent/child dynamic, where one adult in the relationship is the “responsible” one, while the other one is carefree or considered irresponsible. The partners without ADD often find themselves telling the other what to do. There is an imbalance in the handling of tasks in this type of relationship.

The partner with ADHD frequently has difficulty doing routine, mundane tasks, while the partner without the symptoms frequently find themselves taking these on. They may feel the person with ADHD lives a carefree or irresponsible life. While the ADHD spouse is not in actuality carefree or irresponsible, it seems that way because he or she can’t follow through easily on daily tasks.

Partners with ADHD often feel like they burden their partners, which can be devastating and can put a real emotional distance between the couple. The imbalance of power seems very much like a parent/child interaction, which can create resentment in both partners. This can often lead to disrespectful, rude, and emotionally inappropriate interactions.

Situation No. 2: The Nag

You prefer not to nag a partner who has ADHD, but to get him or her to complete unfinished tasks you feel more like a boss than an equal partner. Unless there is a clear discussion of tasks, both people feel uneasy and disconnected. In evaluating your relationship independently, each person feels the relationship is filled with arguing and dissention, which can make it feel like your relationship is falling apart.

As a couple it is important to strategize about how tasks should be done, mutually determining the steps to complete the task and the time it may take to complete the tasks. Likely the time will be underestimated; add about 30 minutes to the normal time you expect, taking into account distractions that likely will occur. Don’t forget the issue isn’t one of “willpower”; it is important to set habits and daily routines to support completing tasks in a timely fashion.

Situation No. 3: Hyperfocused Attention

Hyperfocus a common symptom of ADHD can have both positive and negative consequences to a relationship. You haven’t really been romanced until you have experience the amazing hyperfocus a person with ADHD can deliver! All the excitement and passion from the hyperfocused partner can have you feeling incredible love and devotion.

Hyperfocus often is temporary and can leave the non-ADHD partner feeling confused and unimportant. This change is interpreted as having a meaning to the relationship that the passion is gone.

Situation No. 4: Feeling Stuck

No matter how forcefully you attempt to change the interactions in the relationship, everyone may feel stuck. Things don’t seem to change in spite of promises and commitments that get made to one another. Until there is a realization that ADHD is part of the relationship, there will be a tendency to pick apart the behaviors of the partner who has ADHD, looking for answers for the issues.

Many partners approach this situation with an attempt to try to understand the cause of the incomplete tasks or follow through on promises made. Typically the conclusions have to do with negative characterization regarding the person or the relationship. Asking a partner with ADHD to simply “invest more energy” into the relationship will not improve things.

This approach just brings about defensiveness. Once you know about ADHD, you can pick distinctive strategies to help with knowing how to connect and truly believe that both people are impacted. Quite often this may take a professional who is an expert at relationships and attention deficit problems.

Situation No. 5: Child with ADHD

Having a child diagnosed with ADHD means it is very likely one or both of the adults have ADHD. ADHD is highly inheritable. If you have a child with ADHD, chances are high that at least one of the parents has it, too. If you already know one of you has ADHD, then just assume it’s impacting your relationship. Once you learn more, you’ll see the impact and ways to minimize the adverse effects.

These interactions can become ingrained in how a couple relate to one another. When this happens there may be pain and heartache impacting how each person sees the other. Unless the couples have tools to change their opinion of one another, this pattern can become a cycle in the relationship that is difficult to break.

A counselor can help couples see and alleviate bringing both people to a much more vulnerable place with each other, allowing them to feel close and connected. When you feel emotionally safe around your partner your love for one another cannot be shaken.

How Emotionally Focused Therapy Can Help

There is a road map to a better relationship for couples for whom ADHD is a factor. It comes out of an extensive body of research on love and attachment. This research helps us understand how couples get off course and how to guide partners back to a close, loving relationship, where each of you feels like the other person will always be there for you.

Emotionally focused couples therapy (EFT) is a proven method for creating loving connections. Research shows that couples going through EFT go from relationship distress to relationship health. In addition, relationships continue to improve after therapy ends. Take care of your relationship and discover this method of loving again.

Don’t let ADHD symptoms define your relationship. Working together, both of you can have the love and relationship you desire.

© Copyright 2014 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Stuart B. Fensterheim, LCSW , Emotionally Focused Therapy Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Nan

    April 9th, 2014 at 7:41 AM

    Shouldn’t you by the time you are ready to have an adult relationship also be ready to manage your ADHD and be ready to handle the responsibilities that will come along with this diagnosis? I know that it can be an impediment but it is not anything that has to permanently cripple having relationships with others unless you allow it to do that. And to me if you are an adult and ready for all of the things that having an adult relationship will imply then you will be far removed form all of the games and the blame and you will be ready to take this on on your own.

  • Donald

    April 9th, 2014 at 11:48 AM

    I think that for a lot of men who move immediately from home with their parents to the home with a girlfriend or a wife there is going to be this tendency to develop a kind of parent/child relationship/ Let’s face it, most men like to be taken care of and there are a whole lot of moms out there who have been all too willing to play into that. You know that if this has involved taking daily meds or needing reminders about things because of ADHD then this is going to be what they are accustomed to and will want from the next woman in their lives. I am not saying that this is what they need, because what they need is time to grow up and learn to do it for themselves, but the tendency will be to try to make this the dynamic that they have become used to over the years. Probably not the healthiest routine to get into.

  • Nolan

    April 10th, 2014 at 3:39 AM

    All of that attention that you wind up paying to someone in the beginning tends to lose its appeal though, because they kind of get tired and I guess it can feel like they are being smothered.

  • Stuart Fensterheim

    April 10th, 2014 at 8:52 AM

    Thank you for writing in. I am honored that you took the time to respond. I absolutely agree with you that ADHD is not something that needs to cripple any relationship. It is something that needs to be understood and with understanding may actually be an asset to any relationship. Those with ADHD seem to be more conscious and appreciate the small details more than other folks. When they are able to acknowledge the small gestures partners learn to feel the intensity and appreciation of their partners love. . Learning how to decrease the frustrations that comes from those that do not have the symptoms is the key. This diagnosis for some can feel embarrassing and may even want to try to hide the diagnosis. What it really is about is trusting your partner enough to be vulnerable and sharing all parts of yourself and truly believing that you will be loved for all those parts as well


  • Stuart Fensterheim

    April 10th, 2014 at 8:55 AM

    Nolan thank you for writing in. I disagree with you position on this. I don’t think its about feeling smothered. I think some of it may be about trying to compensate for a feeling that unless I overcompensate I may get rejected. When a conversation about sharing and how to express ones love occurs that come with being vulnerable then both people in the relationship feels loved through their connection.

  • Melanie

    April 11th, 2014 at 3:36 AM

    I suppose that having a child with an ADHD diagnosis could be hard on a family, but at the same time I try to look at it as how much worse it could be, and I should be happy that this is all that there is. I know that it will take a lot of work on everyone in the family to find a routine that encourages the most success but this is a possibility and should not be ignored, nor should it have to feel like it is some impassable hill that can’t be climbed. There is so much information out there and there are numerous resources for getting and receiving ongoing help. ADHD makes things a challenge but definitely not impossible.

  • Stuart Fensterheim

    April 11th, 2014 at 10:13 AM

    Thanks for writing I believe having the right attitude is half the battle. I agree with you that although a challenge is can also be a blessing. For some people the challenge is giving up on the expectations that you have had on raising a child in a particular way. There is a wonderful article called Welcome to Holland. It is written about a child with a medical disability but can also apply to ADD. There are plenty of resources out there. One of the best one is CHADD, a national organization for children and adults with ADD. If you need support they are great. The website is Good luck and thanks for your thoughts.

  • Melanie

    April 12th, 2014 at 1:08 PM

    Thanks for the reply Stuart! I love to hear words of encouragement from others because we all know that it takes a village, right?

  • Stuart Fensterheim

    April 13th, 2014 at 6:11 AM

    That is correct!!! You definitely sound like someone who has the right mindset in making sure that the relationships in your life know how important they are to you and special. Nothing is more important than that. Take care


  • matthew m.

    March 24th, 2015 at 2:26 PM

    iv lived with adhd all my life, im 24 now and i feel the wrong move was made when they forced me on drugs in 1st grade, i feel if a child is i taught about what they have and is instructed on how to fight it, they will have a better chance in the long run, being put on meds at a young age just makes you feel like you need to have something to clam you down. ether way, adhd has been a life long war for me and im getting sick of it.

  • matthew m.

    March 24th, 2015 at 2:28 PM

    no one should have to take xanax or adderal/ any salt meds for anything.

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