ADHD (Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder) can be hard on any relationship, and can take a big toll on long-term commitments. I was married for twenty years; for the last seven I was aware I was living with ADHD. What didn’t occur to me was that if I was living with it, then so was my partner. When our marriage ended several years ago, it never occurred to me that ADHD had played a part in it. Now that I know a whole lot more about ADHD and the executive functions it impacts, I see it differently. In hindsight, here are a few of the ways that ADHD affected my marriage. If they seem familiar, then it’s time to find some support.
#1 I Received an Assessment of ADHD – But Forgot To Educate Myself and My Partner
The consequence? I didn’t even see the possible ways it could make a relationship more difficult. I thought ADHD was mostly about attention, and I didn’t believe I was all that bad at paying attention. If I’d known that ADHD affects a whole range of executive functions – such as planning, organising, physical and emotional sensitivity, time management, impulsivity – I might have been on the lookout for other issues.
#2 I Didn’t Understand Why I Was Bored
ADD’ers crave novelty. We get the energy and ability to focus on mundane stuff by doing a variety of activities that stimulate us. But in marriage, there’s a tendency for couples to settle into a routine. It was an ongoing struggle for me to live in a world where everything was predictable and there was little novelty, but I didn’t know why it was such a struggle. A neurotypical partner is inclined to look at their ADHD spouse and question, “Why can’t they just settle down and grow up?” And as ADHD spouses, we look at our partners and wonder how they got to be so … dull.
#3 My Need to Be Independent Created Distance
Like many people with ADHD, I am fiercely autonomous. And I’m also somewhat introverted, so spending time alone on creative or outdoor activities is necessary to my well-being, no matter how much I care about the people in my life. But if you’re married to someone with ADHD, this might look more like rejection than your partner’s need to spend time alone. As a very independent ADD’er, I didn’t intend to tell my partner, “I don’t need you”, but there’s a good chance he interpreted it that way.
#4 I Lacked an ADHD Framework to Understand (Or Explain) Why I Did What I Did
ADHD makes people more sensitive to their physical environment. For me, trying to get anything done in an untidy or cluttered space is akin to trying to meditate in a room full of screeching cats. My ex, on the other hand, was way more comfortable with mess and clutter. My attempts to explain that if things were out of place it interfered with my ability to concentrate just made me look like a neurotic neat freak. If I’d been able to explain this in an ADHD context to my partner, it might have led to greater understanding and cooperation.
#5 I Didn’t Connect My Bad Habits with ADHD
In the early years of our marriage, a big bone of contention was my weakness for addictive substances – like caffeine, nicotine and alcohol. I had no clue I was constantly trying to boost the dopamine level in my brain. I just looked like someone out of control. If I’d known the strong connection between addictive behaviour and ADHD, my ex and I might have focused more on seeking solutions and less on blaming. As it was, I just learned to hide my bad habits to avoid the glare of disapproval from my spouse. And secrecy is tough on a marriage.
Fortunately, having children made these habits much less appealing to me. (It’s a simple equation: hangover + toddler = very bad day.) But as a couple, we never quite escaped the “good parent/bad child” dynamic we’d set in motion early on.
Recognising and Addressing the Challenges…
Six years later, I don’t regret ending the relationship. Ultimately, it was the defining challenge of my adult life that allowed me to grow and finally become comfortable in my own skin. In my own case, there were compelling reasons besides ADHD that my ex and I are better off apart than together.
My intention, however, is to emphasize that if you’re in a relationship you value and one of you has ADHD, you need to understand how that plays out if you’re going to make it work. It’s important to seek out information about ADHD, and possibly professional support, from someone who understands the territory and can help you navigate. As someone who has experience both as a relationship coach and as an ADHD coach, it won’t surprise you that I believe coaching is the most positive step you can take for your relationship. But there are resources in addition to coaching. For instance, Melissa Orlov, one of the few experts on ADHD and relationships, used her personal experience to write a very insightful book, The ADHD Effect on Marriage. And my perennial favourite, TotallyADD.com, has some great videos about relationships on their site.
The bottom line is – if you’re in a partnership that includes ADHD, it’s critical to recognise and address the challenges, so that ADHD doesn’t get a chance to tank your relationship. What you may discover is that when it’s under control, ADHD has the possibility to bring as many joys to your relationship as it does challenges. Creativity, humor, lightheartedness, honesty, youthfulness – these are just some of the gifts that ADHD often offers in exchange for what it takes.