When I first recognized that my former partner had ADHD, I figured that my graduate school training had probably taught me all I needed to know. But an actual long-term relationship soon revealed that I knew next to nothing about what to expect day to day or how to be a good partner to someone with ADHD.
I also started to see countless patients and couples in distress because the neurodivergence between them was causing painful conflicts. I watched as the symptoms and characteristics of ADHD threatened to pull apart these relationships, and I saw that couples were locked in patterns of misunderstanding.
There were things that partners with ADHD weren’t often able to say that their non-ADHD partners desperately needed to hear. Here are some of them.
Their interests might change a lot, but their commitment does not.
Anyone who’s had a partner with ADHD likely has a storage room full of barely used items intended for all of their new endeavors. People with ADHD are notorious for getting very excited about getting started and then losing interest as a hobby or task gets more difficult, tedious, and routine. This could make some of the more challenging aspects of long-term partnership harder to manage for someone with ADHD, but it doesn’t mean that they are worse partners. In fact, they can be incredibly loyal, attentive, and attuned, particularly if they are addressing the differences presented by ADHD head-on.
They need non-traditional ways of approaching household tasks.
Being partnered with someone with ADHD can feel like you are always picking up the pieces – or the dirty laundry. This is because the traditional expectations and systems for getting stuff done around the house tend to be pretty lousy for the neurodivergent among us. Given the planning, attention, and organizational challenges of ADHD, these partners need tools that work with their brain. Things like having visual timers to stay on track, plentiful baskets for storing piles, and contingency systems for rewarding tasks can be incredibly helpful. This doesn’t meant that the non-ADHD partner needs to implement these tools themselves, but it can be much appreciated to be involved.
They really don’t want to make you late.
Time blindness is the phenomenon experienced by many folks with ADHD in which the ticking clock almost ceases to be real. Whether due to getting lost in something they are doing or because they tend to freeze up with transitions between tasks, partners with ADHD can frustrate others with their apparent ignoring of time. This isn’t intentional, nor a moral failing. It means that they need to use strategies like multiple alarms, using analog clocks, or breaking tasks into small units of time to be successful.
They might hide it, but they’re very afraid of rejection.
Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria, or RSD, has gotten more attention in recent years as we’ve come to understand just how this phenomenon plays out. It particularly afflicts people with ADHD, and makes them prone to perceiving rejection both more often and more intensely. Even in a secure relationship, ADHD partners will often be acutely attuned to signs of rejection from both others and you. They might have strong emotions around this, which could cause them to lash out or shut down.
Learning as much as you can about neurodivergence means a lot to them.
Information about ADHD is more plentiful than ever, and it’s helping individuals and couples understand themselves in profound new ways. Taking a course, reading a book, or meeting with a therapist can be life-changing. It can help non-ADHD partners go from feeling resentful and hurt to empowered and supportive.
They aren’t ignoring you when their brain is hijacked.
Where non-ADHD partners can often experience the most frustration and pain is in feeling that their ADHD partner is ignoring them. This can be when the ADHD partner literally isn’t hearing you speak to them because their attention is elsewhere, or when they haven’t checked in in a while because… their attention is elsewhere. Once we understand that this isn’t a function of uncaring or rejection, non-ADHD partners can use better strategies like touching their partner to get their attention instead of just verbally calling them.
They appreciate when you can help them regulate.
One of the less often discussed aspects of ADHD is emotion dysregulation. People with ADHD often feel emotions more intensely than others and they can come on more suddenly. In the ADHD brain, a strong emotional reaction can cannibalize attention, and soon their whole mind is overtaken by feeling. Given that one of the most powerful ways humans can regulate emotions is through connection with others, non-ADHD partners have an amazing potential to help their partner soothe. This could be through touch, mirroring emotions, talking out an issue, or doing something soothing in parallel (like taking a walk).
They need you to not be another person disappointed in them.
People with ADHD have often experienced a lifetime of feeling different from their peers. They’ve been told countless times to change the way they operate and the way their brain works is deficient and problematic. Understandably, they can be extraordinarily sensitive to upsetting or disappointing other people. The last thing they want is for that to happen with their partner.
Here’s the thing: ADHD does have the potential to tear relationships down. But that happens not because of the ADHD itself, but because the partners don’t have the tools to navigate it effectively. With the right attachment, commitment, and strategies, couples can have truly enriching partnerships.