3 Ways ADHD Makes Romantic Relationships More Challenging

by Katie Brown
August 8, 2023 at 12:05 PM UTC

Balancing relationships when a partner has ADHD involves unique obstacles that require understanding and empathy to overcome.

Modern relationships, even the good ones, often face challenges. But pair up a neurotypical (NT) partner and one with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and you’ve got a unique set of circumstances to navigate, therapist Jamie Blume told Psychiatrist.com.

Blume, who specializes in treating adults with ADHD, said there are several themes she sees come up consistently when one romantic partner has ADHD. 

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Distractibility and Disorganization

One such theme is focus — or lack thereof. 

“People with ADHD get easily distracted,” said Jamie Blume, MPH, PCC, who specializes in ADHD adults. 

That can become a problem in relationships for a variety of reasons. For example, if the neurotypical partner asks the ADHD partner to help with the dishes, “an additional three other things along the way catch their attention because they’re easily distractible and so they never get to the dishes,” Blume said, adding that this may leave the other partner feeling unheard or unsupported. 

Such difficulties can also become a problem during intimate conversations. “It appears that they’re not paying attention to or not interested in their partner, but that’s not the case,” Blume said. 

Blume said that the ADHD brain has a harder time concentrating than the neurotypical brain. It tends to either hypofocus (a daydream-like state) or hyperfocus (a state of intense focus on a single subject, and only that subject.) Over time, these tendencies can lead to resentment in the NT partner.

These attention-related difficulties also affect the time management and organizational skills of ADHD adults. Blume explained, “People with ADHD tend to be late. They might also leave drawers and cabinets open or constantly misplace important items like their glasses or cellphones. These behaviors can understandably create frustration in the neurotypical partner,” Blume said. 

Financial Fiascos

It’s important for any couple sharing finances to have regular conversations about money, but this may be especially true when ADHD is in the mix. People with ADHD can be prone to making hasty decisions in various aspects of their lives, many of which involve money which, according to Blume, can be a  general area of weakness for the ADHD brain. 

“They tend to struggle with finances because they have a lot of time blindness, or temporal discounting,” said Blume. 

In other words, ADHDers typically make decisions based on immediate results but have a hard time thinking about the future. “If you’re in a relationship with somebody and you’re sharing finances and they have a huge impulsivity with spending, this can be a problem,” Blume said. 

One fairly common scenario among people with ADHD, is that they jump from job to job or hobby to hobby, investing valuable time and money into their pet interest of the day. “That’s expensive, and then you’re also creating mess in the house because you’re accumulating all this stuff,” she added.

Rejection Rollercoaster

It’s not unusual for neurodiverse couples to develop a dynamic resembling the parent-child relationship. In an attempt to help the ADHD partner better organize their lives or remind them to complete tasks around the house, the neurotypical partner may unwittingly leave the ADHD partner feeling like a scolded child. 

This may lead to avoidance or dishonesty from the ADHD partner and can trigger a lesser-known symptom of ADHD known as “rejection sensitivity.” That is, an emotional responsiveness and anxiety in anticipation of, or in response to, perceived rejection or criticism from others. People with ADHD tend to have a harder time than NTs in handling criticism or even perceived criticism, especially when it comes from their romantic partners. 

“People with ADHD tend to be more sensitive in general,” Blume explained. “If someone says something that they perceive to be negative or rejecting, they take it really personally and it leads to them feeling all sorts of negative things about themselves.” 

Blume said that she’s seen rejection sensitivity come up often for someone with ADHD in a romantic relationship. Even if their partner calmly expresses a concern, the lens of ADHD can color their statements as criticizing or micromanaging.  “That will really shut down the ADHDer and it’ll either turn into anger or sadness,” Blume said.  “It’s not going to improve the behavior, it’s gonna put them in a shame cycle.”

Dos and Don’ts

Neurotypical partners can help their partners with ADHD by practicing empathy and compassion for their unique sensitivities. For starters, try avoiding intense nagging and criticism. Try to maintain realistic expectations. Keep in mind that your partner is likely doing their best. 

“Typically, they’re not doing this intentionally to sabotage the relationship,” noted Blume.

Most importantly, Blume recommended educating yourself about your partner’s unique “brand” of ADHD and how the disorder works in the brain more generally.  “The more understanding and knowledge they have, the better they can be in relationships,” Blume said. She also suggested developing new structures and methods of communication that work for both partners. 

Blume also suggested approaching conversations with “I” statements, and without blame. “Say what you want done versus what’s not getting done,” she advised. 

One common mistake to avoid: blowing up a single instance into a more global concern. For example, if the ADHD partner shows up late to an event, the neurotypical partner might say, “You never show up on time.” Instead, try to be more specific and solution-oriented during these conversations. 

“If they don’t show up on time, you say, ‘We made a plan that you were going to show up on time, and I’m feeling hurt about that. I’m wondering how I can help you work on time management,’” Blume advised. 

Divisions of Responsibility

The bottom line, Blume stressed, is that both partners, regardless of neuro status, are equally responsible for the success of a relationship. Often, neurodivergent adults rely heavily on their partners, who may think they are underappreciated. 

“It feels like you’re taking care of everything on your own,” Blume said. “You’re the one responsible for the chores, the finances, the organization, the kids, whatever it is.”

For this reason, it’s vital for the NT partner to encourage the partner with ADHD to seek support from a professional. Adults with ADHD should also read up on the disorder to better understand their unique challenges. Becoming an expert on their own brain takes some of the burden off of their significant other, Blume said.

“Get support on your own so that your partner isn’t your coach or therapist,” Blume advised. “If the ADHD partner can get the help working on some issues like time management and so forth, it will automatically help the couple.”

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