How to Create a Secure-Functioning Relationship with an ADHD Partner

adhd lisa rabinowitz Jun 13, 2022

By Lisa Rabinowitz, LCPC

PACT Level 3

Any couple's relationship can be challenging to navigate, but when one or both partners have ADHD, the usual difficulties are compounded, which can cause the couple to feel like they are lost in a maze. 

ADHD Symptoms

The three types of ADHD are inattentive, hyperactive-impulsive, and a combination of both inattentive and hyperactive-impulsive. While every case of ADHD manifests slightly differently, here are just a few common symptoms, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

  • Easily distracted from tasks, loses things necessary for daily activities, or does not follow through on tasks
  • Talks excessively, interrupts, or intrudes on others but does not listen well
  • Reluctant to do challenging tasks over long periods, makes careless mistakes
  • Gets fidgety, feels restless, or has difficulty sitting still 
  • Driven, constantly moving

ADHD in Adults

You might be tempted to self-diagnose with ADHD, but organizations like the Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD) highly recommend that you seek professional assessment and treatment.  Psychiatrists and psychiatric nurse practitioners are able to accurately diagnose and more effectively manage ADHD. They can also recommend medication management to decrease the effects of ADHD. 

In addition to clinical methods offered by these professionals, therapists and ADHD coaches can teach cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) tools to help you cope with the symptoms of ADHD, such as difficulties with time and stress management. 

How ADHD Affects a Marriage

If you, your partner, or both of you have ADHD, organizations like the A.D.D Resource Center can help you understand how ADHD impacts you and how it affects marriage or relationships. In the meantime, here are four ways that ADHD affects marriage.

Hyperfocus. Your ADHD partner probably was able to hyperfocus on you during the dating period. In non-ADHD dating, they had an increase in dopamine, the feel-good neurotransmitter. When an ADHD partner starts to date, their brain experiences an increase in the same chemicals that allow for hyperfocus on the relationship. 

Frequently, non-ADHD partners will comment that they were so happy at the beginning of the relationship because they felt their partners cared and paid so much attention to them. But after the honeymoon phase, the hormones that created the hyperfocus decrease, and the ADHD partner returns to their normal state of inattentiveness. 

Disappointments and Frustrations. As the honeymoon phase ends, couples who have no agreements on how they will protect and care for each other nor on how they will collaborate and cooperate may begin to have disagreements. Then, a partner with ADHD, whose neurological difficulties may make it difficult to keep promises and agreements, will add an additional level of frustration and disappointment to the relationship. These behaviors create patterns in ADHD couples.

Parent-Child. The non-ADHD partner takes on a parental role by acting and speaking in a bossy, nagging manner or habitually reminding the ADHD partner of things so they don’t forget them…again. The ADHD partner feels treated like a child and resents the controlling micromanagement.  

Pursue-Avoid. Sometimes the non-ADHD partner believes if they star pursuing the ADHD partner for attention and love, then the ADHD partner will show up as more loving and responsive. However,  this usually causes the ADHD partner to feel pressured to perform and avoid their partner.

The dialogue below illustrates the parent-child dynamic that might begin to develop between the partners.

Non-ADHD partner: Did you go shopping yet? You said you would go shopping today.

ADHD partner: Yes, I will go soon. 

Two hours pass.

Non-ADHD partner: You said you are going to the store, and it’s going to close soon. 

ADHD partner: I said I’m going. Stop nagging me. 

Later that night, non-ADHD partner asks the ADHD partner where the milk is to put in their child’s lunch for the morning. 

ADHD partner: I ran out of time and never got to the store. Why didn’t you just go yourself?

Non-ADHD partner: You told me you were going to go. You always say you’re going to do something, and then you never do it.

Escalation. As the frustration level builds between the partners, blaming, anger, and negativity increase. Whether you are irritated about the chores, shopping, organization, time, or lack of focus, you may misunderstand your ADHD partner’s actions. You may feel like your partner doesn’t care or love you anymore and is lazy or untrustworthy.

Non-ADHD partner: You never help me with anything. Yesterday, you didn’t pick the kids on time from school, and today you were 30 minutes late, so we missed the appointment with the doctor. I can’t take this anymore. I’m sick and tired of this. You don’t care about me or the kids. You are so selfish and only think about yourself. 

ADHD partner: I can never do anything right. I can never please you. I’m not good enough for you, and I will never be. You criticize me for every mistake I make. 

Non-ADHD partner: A mistake?!

The conversation continues to spiral downward. 

After years of criticism and feeling unloved, the ADHD partner may exhibit tantrums, spurts of anger, and rude behavior due to poor impulse control and self-image. The non-ADHD partner may feel tired of acting as the parent or carrying the load of the household chores, bills, and marriage. Both may start thinking about what it would be like to marry someone else. If you are wondering if your relationship can survive ADHD, turn to specific books and organizations that specialize in guiding couples impacted by ADHD. 

The best method to deal with your ADHD partner is to learn ways to create a secure relationship together. Make an agreement (below) with your partner about how you will handle these situations. Create a plan on ways to care for each other. An agreement and plan are essential to developing a secure-functioning relationship. Also, the ADHD partner who has forgotten to pick up the kids or been late repeatedly can use leading with repair (also below) to resolve the issue. 

3 Ways to Create a Secure-Functioning Relationship

Dr. Stan Tatkin, founder of the Psychobiological Approach to Couples Therapy® (PACT), addresses the importance of secure-functioning relationships built on collaboration, cooperation, fairness, and protection of each other. 

  1. Agreements: Partners need to make agreements on issues through the process of collaboration and cooperation. For example, if you fight about issues around chores, you both need to learn how to set up wins around the issue of chores. You may need to discuss what needs to be completed and possibly write down who does what chores and when each chore will be completed. 
    Sometimes the ADHD partner needs to learn through coaching or other sources, methods of follow-through, time management, and organization. With proper support and guidance, the ADHD partner might choose to make charts or set reminders about agreements. The couple may also decide to make the collaborative process a shared project to create secure functioning
  2. Relationship is #1: Do you, as the non-ADHD partner, feel that your ADHD partner is not putting the relationship first because they become distracted or overly focused on projects or computer games? Set time together to have fun and connect — without discussing bills, chores, kids, or other issues. Another way to care for the relationship is to hug before leaving and returning home. Create ways to connect that grow foundational bonds between you. 
  3. Lead with Repair: Leading with repair means that you quickly take care of your partner by admitting any mistakes or errors that you have made. Sometimes when an ADHD feels like they make so many mistakes and let down their partner with their shortcomings, leading with relief may be difficult to do. So, if a situation happens in which you say or do something that is hurtful to your partner, you can simply take care of them by saying, “I’m sorry for… [be specific].” Don’t explain or justify why you did what you did, which only serves to dismiss how they feel. 

As a couples counselor for over 10 years, I work with ADHD partners, many of whom find this technique a simple and fast way to repair their relationship. They enjoy that the repair does not require a long conversation about how they made a mistake again and promise that it will never happen again. 

ADHD partner: I am so sorry that I was late picking up the kids. I take full responsibility for that mistake. I love you very much and want to figure out a way that I can ensure I am not late picking up the kids. I am going to set two alarms to remind myself about the pickup time right now. Does that help you feel more confident that this will not happen again?

Non-ADHD partner: Yes, I know that setting alarms really helps you, so I really appreciate that you are taking the initiative to do that.

ADHD partner: I want to fix this problem, so I’d like us to discuss it next week — and if you need anything else around this topic to feel more secure, please let me know. 

When you learn about ADHD and how ADHD affects marriage, your knowledge and decision about how to insulate your marriage can determine your happiness and success. Take the time to learn how ADHD may be affecting your marriage and how to create a secure-functioning relationship. 


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