Do these relationships patterns sound familiar to you?

  • You and your partner perceive and remember conflicts and events very differently.
  • There is a very uneven distribution of home and child care responsibilities between you and your partner leading to a lot of frustration and resentment.
  • You and your partner consistently misinterpret each other’s motivations.
  • Anger is not managed well between you.
  • Communication between you and your partner is strained, leaving you feeling estranged, lonely, and misunderstood.
  • You and your partner frequently engage in The Blame Game.

Research suggests that nearly two-thirds of all marriages touched by ADHD suffer from “maladjustment”, which is not synonymous with divorce but also not great – Editors of ADDitude

This quote might make you think having a child and/or a spouse with ADHD causes divorce.  This is untrue.  But having a child with ADHD can be stressful and having a partner with these symptoms can w­eaken the bonds between partners.  I’ve been treating couples and families who have been touched by ADHD for over 25 years.  More often than not, parents first seek help because their child with ADHD and, as a consequence, the family is struggling.  Most commonly, parents come to In Step because they are concerned their child is having difficulty navigating the academic and social demands at school.  In Step’s Stepping Stones Social IQ program for children and their parents is highly effective in helping kids develop the social skills they need to make and keep friends.  A parent’s growing awareness of their own ADHD symptoms is an unanticipated result of the work they do in the parent coaching groups.

John complains about his ADHD son,  “Marcus overfocuses on what he wants to do and completely ignores everything he has to do.”  John pauses before adding, “Come to think of it. I do the same thing.  I can literally stay up all night researching the most efficient way to replace a door hinge, but I won’t remember to take the garbage out for weeks.”  His wife, Sheri, who is sitting right next to him in the group, rolls her eyes and adds, “Yah. And it drives me nuts.” John has never been formally diagnosed with ADHD, but he certainly relates to the experiences of his ten-year-old son.  Like Marcus, John vividly recalls feeling out-of-sync with his peers.  And, like his son, he did performed well academically because he scored well on tests, but John reports, “I never did the homework.  It was so pointless and boring.” Now, a technically proficient computer programmer, John struggles with continuous conflicts at work with his colleagues who he views as incompetent and worthless. In part because he refuses to work as a team with his colleagues, John finds himself, after the boys are in bed, working late into the evening. Sheri works as a teacher at the boys’ elementary school.  John and Sheri try to split the responsibilities at home, but Sheri complains that John doesn’t follow through on chores (unless they are ones he enjoys). He starts projects and doesn’t finish them and forgets important appointments for the boys. John insists on helping the boys with their homework.  But, “Inevitably,” Sheri reports, “every time John tries to help them with their homework, they get in a huge fight.”  Sheri has to run interference.  “Sometimes I feel like I have three kids at home, not two.  It’s pretty exhausting”.  John fires back at his wife, “I feel like you only focus on the stuff I do wrong, and never on what I do right.  The minute I finish one thing, you are nagging me about something else.”

John and Sheri are describing a common dynamic. ADHD-related behavior comes in various forms.  As the saying goes, “if you have met one ADHD person, you have …well…..met …. one ADHD person.”  No two people with ADHD are alike.  Depending upon the number, the severity, and how the symptoms manifest in everyday life, a couple may be impacted very little or greatly.  The important thing is for both partners to be aware of how ADHD may be contributing to relationship difficulties and to be motivated to understand and change unproductive patterns of behavior. 

Here are some common dynamics that couples impacted by ADHD struggle with:

  1. Tiptoeing
    Anger, temper outbursts, and rude behavior frequently accompany untreated ADHD.  In the example above, Sheri doesn’t want to be the sole disciplinarian or the only parent who helps the boys with their homework, but she is also aware that it is very challenging for John to put the skills he is learning in the parent group into action.  He intellectually understands what he needs to do, but when he is frustrated and upset, his feelings overwhelm him, and he is unable to implement the strategies he has learned.
  2. Misinterpreting motivations and behavior
    A non-ADHD partner’s request for change may feel to the ADHD partner like veiled criticism and rejection, and then responded to defensively.  At the same time, the non-ADHD partner may interpret the lack of awareness and change in certain areas as purposefully hurtful rather than as a result of a brain-based disorder.  The non-ADHD partner may feel much more compassion for their ADHD child than they do for their ADHD partner.
  3. Denial about ADHD
    Many ADHD adults grow up not knowing they have ADHD and, if they do, they aren’t sure what it really means and how the disorder impacts others. Because of this, they view their behaviors as part of who they are and thus not amenable to change.  ADHD parents may be very able to see and address the challenges their ADHD child faces through treatment, both medical and social/behavioral, but they are unable (or unwilling) to see how their symptoms affect their partners.  Both children and adults with ADHD who have poor insight into how their behavior impacts others have unique challenges.  As we work with ADHD kids in helping them make connections between their behavior and consequences such as nagging from adults, getting in trouble at school, and losing friendships, the adult with ADHD needs to look in the mirror.  The first step is accepting the diagnosis, the next is actively managing the symptoms that result.
  4. Communication Issues
    Couples therapy for a non-ADHD couple typically begins with work on practicing healthy communication skills.  The couple with an ADHD partner has unique challenges in this department.   For example, stonewalling, a common, and not very healthy way one adult withdraws from another may spring from a very different place in the adult with ADHD.  Rather than an unwillingness to engage in a conversation the way stonewalling implies, the ADHD partner may withdraw for any number of reasons including shutting down, tuning out, or controlling upset feelings.
  5. Household Wars
    Sheri and John are not alone.  Having a partner with untreated ADHD often results in a non-ADHD partner taking on more housework. When housework and childcare imbalances are not addressed, the non-ADHD partner feels resentful. This may lead to withdrawal or reacting with hurtful angry accusations and alienating behaviors.  One of the most destructive patterns in an ADHD relationship is when one partner becomes the responsible ‘parent’ figure and the other the irresponsible ‘child.’
  6. The Blame Game
    There is a saying, “Perception is reality”; only in the ADHD relationship the realities of the partners are often very different.  The result is a “he said. she said” argument than can go on indefinitely, leaving both parties feeling helpless, stressed, and overwhelmed. 

ADHD symptoms and behaviors may be a critical starting point for many negative patterns between partners, but it is the interaction between these behaviors and the non-ADHD partner’s responses that keep the unhealthy dynamics going.   The good news is with focus and effort the unhealthy dynamics of the ADHD couple can change.