ADHD Relationship Solutions: Action Guide For The Non-ADHD Neurotypical Partner
So you’re in a relationship with someone who has ADHD… are you buying it?
One of the most difficult things to SEE and overcome is your own neurotypical lens. Yes, it’s true. Some of the things your partner does can drive you crazy, but consider that many of those things are often misinterpreted.
It’s hard to swallow when you need to remind him for the 99th time to take out the garbage on Monday nights.
Truly, it is.
But, the truth is, ADHD interrupts many of the signals neurotypicals take for granted. So when one (or both) person(s) in your primary relationship has ADHD, it matters.
Since ADHD affects nearly every part of how your brain works, it makes sense to pay attention to how your partner’s ADHD manifests because it is likely affecting not only your partner, but their family members, friends, and colleagues.
Truth bomb: If you’re a neurotypical partner to someone with ADHD, you may feel largely ignored.
As the neurotypical in the relationship, you may feel the nagging responsibility for all the things your ADHD partner consistently ignores or forgets. You may be in an unintentional, chronic co-dependent situation where you are holding most of the responsibilities in your hands. This easily leads to you over-performing. Over time, you might become resentful, triggered, and angry. Which in turn will drive you to nag your partner, feel taken for granted, exhausted, and even invisible.
How A Neurotypical Partner Feels In An ADHD Relationship
If you are in a relationship with a partner with ADHD, you may not even recognize your partner any longer. The person whom you once loved, cherished, and couldn’t be without has somehow been replaced with an irresponsible, unreliable mess. Or worse, he may have slowly disappeared from your relationship. He may be spending time avoiding interacting with you because you’re often on the aggressive (and unfortunately, too often right) side of nearly every argument and breakdown.
You may be so disgusted, that you barely even recognize who you’ve become in this relationship. What’s worse, ADHD and how it manifests can put you in the unfortunate situation of a pseudo-parent. Over time this parent-child codependent dynamic has you in a controlling, bossy, domineering role you’ve assumed in the wake of his passive forgetfulness. When you play that out, it feels more like you’re dealing with a child rather than an adult. And over time, resentment builds, you feel invisible, taken for granted, and as one of my past therapists so eloquently put it, you just don’t want to go to bed with a child… Let’s just say, it could foreshadow disaster.
Undiagnosed ADHD Hides In Plain Sight
Undiagnosed ADHD often has symptoms that are ever-present, but when you’re unaware, it may be putting your relationship through hell.
You may find yourselves tied up in conflict, endless, irresponsible arguments, or avoiding each other altogether. Over time, you can become completely dysfunctional and wonder why you’re even staying together.
These behaviors are very often how ADHD symptoms manifest between two kind, healthy, reasonable people. And, when ADHD is either undiagnosed or unrecognized, its effects can sabotage even the most robust love affairs. Conflicts arising from undiagnosed ADHD don’t just lead to chronic misunderstanding, it gets worse.
Here are some signs you can look out for if you suspect ADHD but have no diagnosis.
If you’re plagued by undiagnosed and unaware ADHD, your relationship may be heading toward the dreaded 58% of ADHD relationships that end up splitting up. (Barkley, ADHD What The Science Says by Russell A. Barkley, Kevin R. Murphy, and Mariellen Fischer, The Guilford Press 2008 pp. 380-384). This is what author Melissa Orlov calls ‘The ADHD Effect” in her book The ADHD Effect on Marriage: Understand and Rebuild Your Relationship in Six Steps by Melissa Orlov, Specialty Press 2010).”
If you are in a relationship where you either know or suspect one of you has ADHD, here are some smart ADHD relationship solutions to revitalize, restore, connect, and heal your failing partnership.
ADHD Relationship Solutions For the (Non-ADHD) Neurotypical Partner
Learn everything you can about ADHD and the science behind the condition.
There’s this thing about ADHD that is pervasive and insipid. It’s invisibilized, diminished, and discarded as ‘bad behavior’. This is a disservice to the condition and sets neurodiversity up as something that is abnormal, unnatural and makes the world address it as something that must be fixed. Some great places to learn about ADHD are on attitude.com and CHADD.
Break the parenting of your partner.
Unfortunately, as hard as this is to hear, part of the problem in your relationship is you.
Let that sink in a minute.
Yep, I’ll say it. You need to step off the merry-go-round of parenting your partner. The most pre-dominant cycle to break is the passive, aggressive cycle of communicating in a way that your partner feels ‘talked down-to’. This will take intention, attention and clear shifts in your own behavior. You NEED to recognize when you’re doing it, and then address situations more effectively.
Changing how you communicate with your partner is multi-layered, but remember, clear is kind. Start by understanding your own needs and then self-monitor so you can make requests and expectations clear. Understanding your underlying needs is essential to success.
When you find yourself constantly nagging, reminding, or harping on your partner, it’s not helping. (And parents, this rings true for your parenting as well.) While you may have many things on your mind, your consistent nagging is really crushing your partner’s sense of self and resilience. Get into the habit of moving OUT of reminding, and focus more on planning together. For more tips on ADHD symptoms read this post.
Listen for and acknowledge your partner’s emotions, always.
One of the most difficult to recognize ADHD symptoms is emotional dysregulation. This can look like spiraling emotions, overly-exaggerated reactions, being ‘touchy’, and/or difficulties coping with the stresses of life. Many people believe that the key to a happy, functional ADHD relationship is a couples’ ability to navigate dysregulated emotions.
When your partner is dysregulated, think of them as locked into their survival response. In this way, they have very few options: fight, flight, freeze or fawn.
When your ADHD partner is locked in and emotionally dysregulated, they need help regulating. And, there’s no faster way to get them on task than by helping them climb out of an emotional spiral.
If we’re honest, the biggest disruptive symptom that will instantly help your relationship is to develop strategies to avoid heated, emotional outbursts. If you can help your partner regulate, you’ll help your relationship. In fact, your success as a couple hinges on your combined ability to hold the space and allow your partner to talk it out until they feel more regulated.
Ask for what you want instead of telling.
Many partners forget that they can actually make requests of each other. In order to ‘be nice,’ we are often not understood, or unclear. And, we sometimes expect our partner to somehow ‘just know’ our expectations and needs. If you encounter resistance from your partner, understand that it may be you. You may be pushing, judging, or bossing, and may not really be listening openly.
Unfortunately, your ADHD partner can be notoriously bad at reading the hints. ADHD often messes with your partner’s awareness of him/herself and may miss those subtle social cues.
Use Nonviolent Communication to facilitate shared agreement.
To establish trust and resolve ambivalence try the communication formula touted by the Center for Nonviolent Communication. (NVC) – The Nonviolent Communication Model recognizes the 4 steps outlined below as a healthy rubric to follow when communicating through conflict.
- Observations – First share your observations –
Use statements that are objective about what you see, hear and notice, and avoid evaluative comments.
ex. When I see the dirty dishes piling up out of the sink and on the counter…
- Feelings – Use statements that express your feelings, and avoid using statements where you express what you ‘think’ or ‘make meaning’
ex. It makes me feel upset because you said you’d clean the dishes earlier.
- Needs – Expressing your needs helps you own your statements and avoid trying to tell your partner how to solve the problems
ex. I need the kitchen to be cleaned to make me feel less stressed.
- Requests – Avoid demands and instead make a request and ask for behavior in place of what you experience with your partner
ex. Would you please clean the dirty dishes before you move onto that next project?
This communication model takes practice but is really helpful to practice using it together. It avoids the blame and shame game and keeps the communication on target.
Agree to task share and write lists down instead of reminding him or her all day.
This may drive you crazy at first, but you may find the practice supremely helpful in the long run. A list helps do several things for you and your partner. ADHD is a neurological condition. So, look at the science.
A list actually offloads your memory and creates permanence outside of your heads. Writing it down will help your partner remember and avoid dropping out on his/her responsibilities. A list provides something objective and allows both of you a chance to prioritize and discuss tasks. This practice can also work to help you work together on projects rather than taking everything on yourself.
Provide deadlines, put them in writing, and be specific.
Time can be elusive to your partner with ADHD. The best way to stop nagging is to help your partner understand what he/she needs to follow through with the things they say they’ll do. An easy way to do this is by instituting a list. Lists help with memory problems and can lay out an order of operations (sequence) to follow. This makes it easier to start a task. Instead of just the ingredients, this provides the recipe to bring it all together. In other words, a written list externalizes thoughts and puts them out on paper and into the environment.
Too often list writing is offloaded to tech tools. With the tech age has come a tsunami of task management apps. Many times techy stuff appeals to ADHDer’s. Many people LOVE the novelty of a new app. And while apps can be pretty and fun, they may prove less effective than a good old piece of paper and pen.
Encourage your ADHD partner to write things down on paper. You see, when you write, your brain is forced into a focus state. Writing wakes up the attention parts of your brain and it requires your partner to push thoughts through their pre-frontal cortex to put words onto paper. Although many people have let go of this ‘age-old’ practice of writing it down. If they’re struggling to remember and follow-through, try writing lists for a week or two and see if it helps.
Finally, estimating time can be elusive to your ADHD partner. So help your partner estimate how long tasks may take. Then double that estimate and add a half. In the early days of our relationship, if my husband estimated 15 minutes, we’d use the formula to have a more realistic guess of 40 minutes. If he thought it might take one hour we’d plan for 2 and a half hours… The formula made estimating easier and set more realistic expectations.
In an ADHD Relationship, remember ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ help, but don’t beg or plead.
As a mom, I learned early on that one of my sons was absolutely devastated when he heard negative words.
Gutted… Devastated. I mean falling on the ground in puddles of tears, and inconsolable at the whiff of negative comments.
As a result, I learned that the only way to motivate him was through positive words of affirmation. In fact, shifting from critical feedback to positive requests felt like a magic formula (for a while…). Consequently, I tried it with my spouse, and guess what? It works.
Many people with ADHD struggle with emotional dysregulation and rejection sensitivity. When you continue to use negative words to provide feedback, you stand to sabotage your efforts and shut down paths to improvement. Moreover, you may reverse the loving effects of otherwise healthy and successful relationship communication strategies.
If s/he does not follow through, be assertive.
Your non-ADHD partner may struggle with working memory. This means holding things in his/her mind and remembering to do them at a later point in time. He/She needs help remembering to remember. This is a common neurological challenge. The ADHD partner may have the best intentions yet lousy follow-through. NOT because he/she doesn’t want to, or is lazy. But because he/she forgets. Unless there are external ways to remember, alarms or cues out in their environment, they lost them.
When this happens and the non-ADHD partner tries to avoid conflict by ignoring or avoiding when things aren’t done, it doesn’t help. This glossing over can be a critical mistake and a really bad habit when you’re in a long-term partnership. Partnership requires each of you to be honest and open – warts and all. This includes calling out times when things go wrong. Remember Brene’ Brown’s advice: Clear is kind, and unclear, is unkind. So, don’t ignore when tasks get dropped but don’t send in an angry mob either. Instead, devise a safe word of sorts to allow your partner the opportunity for a do-over, and drop the ‘story’ about why he/she didn’t follow up. The reason is… ADHD means working memory glitches.
Allow your partner to focus on one request at a time.
If your partner doesn’t follow through, give him time. Instead of fire-hosing a ton of directives, back off and allow your partner to focus on one request at a time. Asking for one thing at a time helps your ADHD Partner focus their locus of control and get things done. It’s important to understand long lists can be difficult for your ADHD partner. For instance, if you’d like your partner to help out by doing more chores, preparing dinner, and sharing some errands that need to be done, choose to focus on one at a time.
So, success with your partner has a lot to do with helping your partner focus on what is important. When you ask your ADHD partner to improve your relationship by focusing on one thing at a time, they’re more likely to remember, experience success, and get more done. ADHD causes a breakdown between thoughts and actions. Sometimes it helps when you talk about the steps in a process, or ask your partner to walk through those steps with you to be sure your expectations are met.
Seek professional help before things get too bad – it might save your relationship.
One of the biggest misses for people in relationships is failing to recognize the insipid effects that ADHD can have on every area of life. For you to truly heal your relationship, and get real about what’s going on, an adequate diagnosis for the ADHD partner is essential. If you’re not sure where to start, there are online, free screening tools to track and recognize symptoms. If ADHD is a monster hiding under your bed, an accurate diagnosis will be like turning on the lights.
Going it alone, especially if your relationship is hanging by a thread, may actually be the worst thing you can do. You can find help through a therapist, yet not all therapists are equal. With ADHD as a third wheel in any relationship, be sure you seek the support of a mental health professional who understands ADHD. Many people with ADHD do incredibly well with a multi-pronged approach of a medical diagnosis, a mental health professional (therapist or counselor), and a group or coach to manage lifestyle changes to thrive.
Support For Your ADHD Relationship
Chances are, if you’re neurotypical, tasks that seem simple for you may be tough or at least tricky for your ADHD partner to complete. You may invisiblize or diminish their struggles with juggling what you’d otherwise consider ‘normal’ tasks. Additionally, your ADHD partner may not recognize things as issues until you bring draw their attention. Therefore, it’s important to work on trust and openness in your relationship and give your ADHD partner the benefit of the doubt.
What if they really are doing their best?
To secure support for your relationship, these links can be helpful to explore
- ADHD diagnosis and symptom/treatment plan
- Healthy lifestyle management strategies
- Relationship or marriage group therapy
- Group support
- Working with an ADHD coach can be a key factor to your success
This approach to ADHD can help you learn about and accept your partner’s ADHD. Together deliberate actions will help you, and your partner to support each other. Working on staying IN a relationship is much different than working on ending one. When you shine light into the dark parts of your relationship, you’ll see what you need to fix. This is an essential path to thrive and create a life (and relationship) that fits you both.
If you’d like to explore coaching support start here.
Your ADHD partnership can be exciting, rewarding, and loving. It’s important to remember that your relationship belongs to both of you. Although it’s easy to blame your ADHD partner for many of your relationship breakdowns, it takes 2 to engage and find agreement through discord. There are many successful strategies that work for millions of couples. The key to finding your winning conditions is honesty and being open to the ways your behavior can help or hurt your relationship too.
I work with high-performing adults with and without ADHD. I’ve seen many people deepen awareness and find fulfillment in their relationships through subtle changes that make a difference. If you’d like to learn more, contact me.