Can Your Relationship Survive ADHD?

Tips on how to save a marriage, or a relationship, affected by attention deficit hyperactivity disorder

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Maybe he's the husband who manages his time poorly, falls through on promises to mow the lawn or get groceries, and grows bored within minutes. Maybe she's the wife who’s disorganized and cluttered, overlooks details, and flits from one activity to the next. "One of the most common things I hear is, 'If you really loved me, you would remember to close the cabinets in the kitchen, or pay the bills on time, or call before you leave work,'" says psychotherapist Walter Sherburne of Andover, Mass. "I know one couple who ended up divorced because the husband decided he just couldn’t live with someone who didn't close the kitchen cupboards."

Welcome to an ADHD marriage.

"Distractibility, forgetfulness, impulsivity—when you put the symptoms of [attention deficit hyperactivity disorder] into a marriage, it creates havoc," says psychotherapist Terry Matlen, author of Survival Tips for Women with ADHD. "There's a lot of anger and resentment. You think your husband doesn't love you anymore, but he's completely dumbfounded because he has ADHD and doesn't have a good sense of how his behavior affects other people. Things can start to unravel pretty quickly."

Indeed, the divorce rate is nearly twice as high for people with ADHD, which affects roughly 4 percent of adults, as it is for other couples, says marriage consultant Melissa Orlov, author of The ADHD Effect on Marriage. Symptoms include trouble staying focused and paying attention, difficulty understanding or following instructions, and hyperactivity, or fidgeting frequently and talking excessively. In adults, ADHD usually isn't diagnosed until symptoms persist and spread into multiple aspects of daily life, from success at work to the ability to form romantic relationships. There is no cure, but adult ADHD symptoms can generally be minimized with medication, therapy, or both.

ADHD is typically missed or overlooked when couples are dating. The partner with ADHD is often hyperfocused, sending flowers, checking in with frequent phone calls, and showering the significant other with loving attention. The excitement is stimulating—a feel-good self-medication of sorts, Orlov says. The transition to marriage can be jarring. Once the relationship becomes familiar, the frenzy of attention is likely to ebb. The partner without ADHD, bewildered by the abrupt change, may start to feel unloved or unattractive—interpreting a distracted spouse as an uninterested spouse.

As time passes, tensions can build if the condition isn't recognized or its symptoms and motives are misunderstood. The trademark impulsivity could translate into rash financial decisions. Or a husband might habitually interrupt his wife because he "doesn't have the brakes to stop" and is afraid of losing his skittery thoughts if he waits, says Orlov. To the non-ADHD partner, the interruptions are disrespectful.

[Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Can Help With ADHD]

Over time, a parent-child dynamic can develop, complete with constant nagging. The "parent" handles all responsibilities, while the "naughty child" has none. "The person with ADHD will have very good intentions and say, 'Yes, of course I'll do that chore, of course I'll pick the kids up.' And then it doesn't happen, and since they can't rely on that person, the other spouse takes over," Orlov says. Eventually, the uncertainty of not knowing whether a partner is reliable creates intense stress and resentment. And the person with ADHD feels belittled or inadequate.

When both partners have ADHD, the game changes—with mixed results. Personally understanding the condition may make one partner less likely to express frustration, "but you also see more disorganization, and all the symptoms times two," Matlen says. "It can make for a lot of craziness at home."

So what's an ADHD-affected couple to do? Whether one person or both have the condition, certain steps can help strengthen the relationship.

Seek a proper diagnosis—and appropriate treatment. Most deal-breaking problems arise when ADHD is unidentified or untreated. Once aware that a certain behavior is a symptom of an actual condition, you'll learn to respond to it differently. Instead of feeling hurt and angered by your partner's inattentiveness, for instance, start scheduling one-on-one time to focus on each other.