Relationships are hard work.
But when ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) is added to the equation, some unique elements come into play. According to research, people with ADHD face a multitude of specific challenges in the realm of romance.
For instance, they might find it difficult to deal with so many tumultuous emotions that arise in long-term relationships or to keep up with the high number of responsibilities such a relationship requires.
And while ADHD poses some obstacles when it comes to dating, just like any relationship road bumps, these can all be dealt with when you have the right tools to navigate them.
These are 4 challenges you may encounter in an ADHD relationship and how you and your partner can overcome them together:
Challenge 1: Forgetfulness
Perhaps your partner forgot that tomorrow is your one-year anniversary.
Perhaps they promised to run an errand, only to realize two days later they’d forgotten.
And perhaps they’re so overwhelmed with everything going on in their life right now that no matter how many times you tell them to take the trash out, they’ll just keep forgetting.
Forgetfulness is a common trait in people with ADHD. In fact, research shows that ADHD is associated with impaired working memory, which is the ability to temporarily retain information necessary for various mental tasks, such as a one-time code or a quick sequence of requested tasks. They may also struggle with long-term memory, or storing knowledge for a long period of time, such as the date of your anniversary.
This is because alpha brain waves (one of the electrical impulses in the brain), which are responsible for filtering out sensory information while we focus, are particularly weak during the creation or retrieval of memories in people with ADHD.
Trying to remember something is a bit like listening to one person’s voice in a crowded room - there are a lot of distractions in the background, making it difficult to concentrate.
Here’s how you can make it work:
When faced with an obstacle, approach your partner with a calm and understanding attitude and try to talk through the issue together. To achieve this, you can follow a 4-step process as described by the author and one of the foremost authorities on ADHD and relationships, Melissa Orlov:
Acknowledge: When you get angry with your partner for forgetting something, acknowledge that this is but one of the many aspects of your relationship. Think back to all the good things your partner has done in the past.
Address: Deal with the issue at hand. For example, if your partner forgot to pay the bills, do it as soon as you can.
Explain: Take some space to calm down and then ask your partner to discuss the issue together. Explain to them why you got angry.
Forgive: Forgive yourself for getting upset and forgive your partner for forgetting – this will allow you to move on.
Pro Tip: In order to address your partner’s ability to retain information and prioritize tasks, you can also set up a time management planner. For instance, hang up a shared planner on the fridge or use an app, such as Google Calendar, to keep you both in the loop when it comes to important dates.
Challenge 2: Disorganization and messiness
ADHD is linked to impaired executive functions, which include the ability to prioritize and finish tasks. This challenge manifests in multiple different ways, such as messiness and disorganization.
Of course, not everyone who has ADHD struggles with disorganization, and not everyone who’s disorganized can say it’s all due to ADHD. But the point remains that many people with ADHD are prone to disorganization and creating clutter in their homes, which may naturally give rise to conflict in their romantic relationships, especially if you live together.
Maybe your partner has hung up their laundry and forgotten to take it down for a whole week straight, or maybe they rarely manage to wash all the dishes in one go because something else always grabs their attention in the middle of the task. Whatever it is, know that this may be a symptom of ADHD and that it is possible to make cohabiting a pleasant experience for both of you.
Here are a few solutions to consider:
Try out body doubling. Body doubling occurs when both of you agree to work alongside each other, though not necessarily on the same tasks. The presence of another person functions as a motivation booster that may help the ADHD partner stay on track.
For example, you can schedule a weekly cleaning session when you both tidy the house together. While you’re cleaning the bathroom, your partner can take on vacuuming. Once you’re both finished, you can move on to the next set of tasks.
Make cleaning fun. Make a playlist with all your favorite songs to listen to while you clean. Tap into your competitive side and race to see who manages to finish their chore first. ADHD expert Kirsten Milliken, Ph.D., PCC says that creating a sense of urgency can turn a mundane chore into a fun, ADHD-friendly game.
Challenge 3: Heated conflicts
Do your disagreements tend to get out of hand very quickly? Is your partner quick to anger and do they find it difficult to calm down?
It may seem like average anger on the surface, but it’s possible that feeling easily frustrated is actually due to their ADHD. Adults with ADHD commonly struggle with emotional self-regulation, which means they have a harder time dealing with strong emotions.
Their reactions to conflict might therefore seem disproportionate. For example, your partner may snap at you, blurt out something insensitive, get easily frustrated, or feel very emotionally overwhelmed and shut down.
To handle conflict effectively, try to:
Take a time-out during disagreements. ADHD expert Michele Novotni, Ph.D. recommends that if one of you gets angry, you should stop the discussion right away and take some space. Once you’ve both calmed down, you can pick up the conversation again. This will allow you to communicate in a respectful manner and solve the issue together.
Start with a complaint, not a criticism. According to Melissa Orlov, when something bothers you, frame it as a specific issue. For example, instead of attacking your partner by saying, “You always forget to wash the dishes, it’s really annoying,” simply tell them, “It upset me that you didn’t do the dishes yesterday evening.”
The latter sets a respectful tone for the conversation, while the first immediately puts your partner on the defensive, thereby increasing the chances of an argument.
Communicate your intentions properly. If your partner says something insensitive such as, “This date is boring, let’s do something else,” try:
Telling your partner that you know they didn’t mean to be hurtful but that their communication came across as a bit harsh
Asking them to elaborate on what they’re truly feeling
Getting to the core of the issue together and taking action
For example, your partner may realize that they are feeling on edge because of their interview tomorrow and that they’d prefer to do something more energetic during your date. Together, you can figure out a different activity to switch to and talk about how you’d prefer to communicate similar feelings in the future.
Challenge 4: Parenting your ADHD partner
Another challenge that occurs in ADHD relationships is the tendency to parent your ADHD partner and take on too many unnecessary tasks just to help ease their life. You may also be tempted to criticize your partner if they forget to do something, which might only make things worse as your significant other could feel ashamed and get defensive because they feel like they’re being parented.
It’s important that you try to steer clear of the parent-child dynamic because this can hinder both you and your partner’s sense of independence.
Give your ADHD partner the benefit of the doubt. If they haven’t yet taken out the trash, they may just need a bit more time to do it. Don’t jump to conclusions and try to remain patient.
Avoid “overhelping” – Keep in mind that your significant other is an independent adult and, while they may appreciate your help in some areas, it’s vital to let them learn how to manage their ADHD on their own as well. If there is something that you don’t mind doing and that doesn’t get in the way of your partner’s growth (for example, washing the dishes when your partner forgets from time to time), it’s okay to help out occasionally. But don’t take on too many of your partner’s responsibilities.
Try not to slip into “learned helplessness”, which occurs when the ADHD partner learns to rely on their significant other too much and automatically expects them to take on too many tasks and responsibilities that should be their own. Overhelping and learned helplessness could easily become a vicious cycle. Both of you should cultivate a sense of independence and self-sufficiency.
Every relationship has its own unique trials, and dating someone with ADHD is no exception to this rule. Now that you know how to deal with the four challenges outlined above, you are on track to make your relationship the best it can be.
Remain patient, communicate openly, and express just how much you value your significant other. Sometimes, love truly is all you need in order to overcome every obstacle thrown your way.
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About the author:
Denisa Cerna is a non-fiction and fiction writer who's passionate about psychology, mental health, and personal development. She's always on a quest to develop a better insight into the workings of the human mind, be it via reading psychology books or combing through research papers.
About the reviewer:
Kaija Sander is a cognitive neuroscientist and scientific consultant for Myndlift. She holds a BSc in Biomedical Science with a specialization in Neuroscience and Mental Health from Imperial College London and a PhD in Neuroscience from McGill University. Her doctoral research focused on brain connectivity relating to second language learning success. She is passionate about the broader applications of science to have a positive impact on people’s lives.
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