We have all heard the stories and statistics around children who struggle with ADHD, but have you ever thought about how that same disorder may affect you later in life? Adults with attention disorders often learn coping skills to help them stay organized and focused at work. Recently though, experts have reported that many of them struggle at home, where their tendency to become distracted is a constant source of conflict in their primary relationships. Some research suggests that these adults are twice as likely to be divorced; another study found high levels of distress in 60 percent of marriages where one spouse had the disorder.
Over 80 percent of adults with ADHD are undiagnosed, so most couples are not aware of the impact it has in their relationships. Here are just a few examples of the role it can play:
Trouble paying attention. If you have ADD/ADHD, you may zone out during conversations, which can make your partner feel ignored and devalued. You may also miss important details or mindlessly agree to something you don’t remember later, which can be frustrating to others.
Forgetfulness. Even when a person with ADD/ADHD is paying attention, he or she may later forget what was promised or discussed. When it’s your spouse’s birthday or the formula you said you’d pick up, your partner may start to feel like you don’t care or you’re unreliable.
Poor organizational skills. This can lead to difficulty finishing tasks as well as general household chaos. Partners may feel like they’re always cleaning up after the person with ADD/ADHD and shouldering a disproportionate amount of the family duties.
Impulsivity. If you have ADD/ADHD, you may blurt things out without thinking, which can cause hurt feelings. This impulsivity can also lead to irresponsible and even reckless behavior (for example, making a big purchase that isn’t in the budget, leading to fights over finances).
Emotional outbursts. Many people with ADD/ADHD have trouble moderating their emotions. You may lose your temper easily and have trouble discussing issues calmly. Your partner may feel like he or she has to walk on eggshells to avoid blowups.
Put yourself in your partner’s shoes. With these kinds of issues (and more) certain predictable patterns develop. For example, the non-ADHD partner tends to become a “parent” figure — controlling and nagging in order to remind the ADHD partner to get things done, while the ADHD partner becomes a “child” figure who lacks authority or responsibility in the relationship.
Many couples feel stuck in this unsatisfying parent-child type of relationship. It often starts when the partner with ADD/ADHD fails to follow through on tasks, such as forgetting to pay the cable bill, leaving clean laundry in a pile on the bed, or leaving the kids stranded after promising to pick them up. The non-ADHD partner takes on more and more of the household responsibilities. The more lopsided the partnership becomes, the more resentful he or she feels. It becomes harder to appreciate the ADHD spouse’s positive qualities and contributions. Of course, the partner with ADD/ADHD senses this. He or she starts to feel like there’s no point to even trying and dismisses the non-ADHD spouse as controlling and impossible to please.
As you expect, the issues outlined above negatively affect the quality of your relationship. In fact, the divorce rate for older adults who have ADHD is almost twice that of those who don’t have ADHD. So what can you do to break this pattern?
Tips for the non-ADHD partner:
*You can’t control your spouse, but you can control your own actions. Put an immediate stop to verbal attacks and nagging. Neither gets results.
*Encourage your partner when he or she makes progress and acknowledge achievements and efforts.
*Stop trying to “parent” your partner. It is destructive to your relationship and demotivating to your spouse.
Tips for the partner with ADHD:
*Acknowledge the fact that your ADD/ADHD symptoms are interfering with your relationship. It’s not just a case of your partner being unreasonable.
*Explore treatment options. As you learn to manage your symptoms and become more reliable, your partner will ease off.
*Find ways to be more attentive to your spouse. If your partner feels cared for by you—even in small ways—he or she will feel less like your parent.
Tips for both partners:
Develop a routine. Your partner will benefit from the added structure. Schedule in the things you both need to accomplish and consider set times for meals, exercise, and sleep.
Set up external reminders. This can be in the form of a dry erase board, sticky notes, or a to-do list on your phone.
Control clutter. People with ADD/ADHD have a hard time getting and staying organized, but clutter adds to the feeling that their lives are out of control. Help your partner set up a system for dealing with clutter and staying organized.
Ask the ADHD partner to repeat requests. To avoid misunderstandings, have your partner repeat what you have agreed upon.
If you think you or someone you care about has adult ADHD, the first thing you should do is learn about the disorder and how it’s diagnosed. You can start by looking over free online resources from organizations like Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD) and the National Center on ADHD. These sites can help you find local doctors, and support groups where you can meet people facing similar issues. You can also find out how to get tested for the condition.