How Adult ADHD Affects Relationships

How Adult ADHD Affects Relationships: Strategies for Coping

An adult with ADD walks into a relationship carrying a great deal of emotional baggage. This is especially true if he or she was not diagnosed until adulthood. Growing up knowing something isn’t quite right but not knowing what it is, can lead one to make many erroneous conclusions. This can lead to the development of a negative and usually distorted self-image.

The messages an adult with attention deficits often carries with her, as well as her ADHD traits greatly affect her relationships. Looking at both the positive and negative traits that come with ADD can help shed some light on how strongly relationships are affected. There are as many differences in adults with attention deficits as there are similarities, however. Each person I’ve seen in my private practice as an MFCC is quite unique. Some of the traits I’ll describe in this article, therefore, fit for some people but not for others. There are differences between men and women and between those who exhibit traits of hyperactivity and impulsivity compared to the more inattentive, disorganized type of person.

In this article, I’ll discuss messages ADD adults bring with them into relationships, ADD traits, and strategies for coping with relationships when one partner has ADD.

An adult with ADD or ADHD (I’ll be using the two terms interchangeably) grows up hearing many negative messages from others. Parents, teachers, coaches, and peers notice the ADD individual’s difficulty sitting still, following through, attending to what they are supposed to and they often comment on it. After being criticized over and over for traits he has no control over, this often undiagnosed child starts to feel bad about not measuring up to other’s standards. He begins to internalize the messages he hears from others. Over time a sense of shame develops. This child isn’t trying to break all the rules. For the most part, he’d like to please the adults around him but he can’t figure out how. He has no idea when his brain will kick in and allow him to finish his math sheet or play quietly with a sibling.

As an adult, these feelings of shame often continue. Most of my adult clients tell me they’ve spent their lives feeling ashamed because they were unable to complete the tasks asked of them, couldn’t concentrate even when they wanted to, or just stood out as being the class space cadet.

This has led them to make erroneous conclusions about themselves. I’ve been amazed at how many times an obviously bright, articulate, and interesting ADD adult has sat in my office and told me that he thinks of himself as stupid. Frequently, a woman who I clearly believe is bright has spent years telling herself she is stupid because she can’t figure out why she can’t perform as well as others around her.

Other messages adults with ADD internalize include, “He (she) always blames me. If he (she) wouldn’t be so picky, things would be fine. It’s really his (her) fault for making such a fuss about those little things.” Still other individuals have made numerous attempts to be organized, on time, and to follow through on tasks with little success. Many of these people say to themselves, “I can’t do it no matter how hard I try.” Another prevalent message I’ve heard in my office is more common with the higher achieving adult with attention deficits. He or she carries the belief, “I am a fraud and it’s only a matter of time before “they” find out.” This person manages to get his job done but may do so by putting in many extra hours to keep up with his non- ADD co-workers or the individual may get overwhelmed by lots of verbal directions and be petrified that her boss will discover incomplete tasks that she missed because of overload. These adults describe the feeling of always waiting to be found out.

Growing up with attention deficit disorder also means repeatedly receiving certain messages from others. Some of these messages are confusing at best while others are clearly damaging to one’s self-concept. Such messages include: “If only you’d try harder.” This can be an especially destructive thing to say because trying harder doesn’t allow someone with ADHD to sit still any longer, to concentrate, or to complete tasks. Telling someone who is trying and still can’t do it to try harder can only lead her to think poorly of herself for her lack of success.

“Don’t do it that way.” “Your way is wrong.” Many children and adults with ADHD can see novel or unique ways to approach a task. Unfortunately, these creative ideas are often squelched by traditional thinkers who insist things be done “the right way”.

Other ideas imparted to those with ADD include, “Why can’t you just…do it ?” The “it” might be concentrate, get started on the assignment, clean up your room, or sit quietly. A child with ADHD doesn’t know why she can’t do it and often begins to see herself as inadequate when continuously confronted with her shortcomings. She is told time and again, “Sit still”, “Wait your turn”, “Don’t call out”, “Look at your mess!”, “You’d forget your head if it wasn’t attached to you!”, “Pay attention”, “You’re just lazy!” These messages which usually come from well-meaning but frustrated adults can be very harmful to the child’s sense of self.

Despite carrying this emotional baggage with him, an adult with ADD can be quite attractive to people he meets. He brings excitement and energy to life. He knows how to have fun and may show a wonderful sense of humor. This can be stimulating to others he encounters. An adult with ADD is often creative and sees new perspectives. Many of the adults I have met have a fresh or innocent way of perceiving the world. They have multi-faceted viewpoints and varied interests. I’ve met men and women who have a breadth of knowledge due to their varied interests and others who have a depth of knowledge in specific areas because they focus better on one thing at a time. Clients I’ve seen have usually been caring and empathic people. Despite their numerous setbacks, they manage to pick themselves up and try again. They have been both persistent and determined.

Being in an ongoing relationship with an adult who has attention deficit disorder brings one face to face with the problematic traits also associated with ADHD. It is often difficult for an adult with ADD to stay tuned in to conversations. She may become easily bored or just distracted by other stimuli. Due to the many obstacles encountered daily, he may believe he can’t do “it” and may not bother trying. He may be unrealistic about time commitments, truly believing it will only take five minutes to make a stop and then comes home two hours late, infuriating his partner. An adult with ADD may have problems saying no to demands placed on her. After years of being criticized by parents, teachers, and partners, she may say yes to get others off her back. She often does this automatically without thinking through whether she can or wants to do what is asked. A related trait is difficulty setting clear limits. If one is easily distracted, underestimates how long it takes to do things, and feels external pressure to do his share, he probably has trouble setting a clear limit for himself. He, therefore, takes on more than he can do and as a result leaves many tasks unfinished or forgets important appointments in his harried state.

An adult who has ADHD may begin to resent the criticism she receives from significant others. This resentment makes her less likely to even try to find ways to be more responsible about the areas her partner is constantly complaining about.

Another recurrent theme I hear from adults I work with is that they have trouble trusting themselves. When a woman with ADHD repeatedly can’t complete tasks within the time she expects, wastes entire days trying to get started on seemingly easy projects, and misses important details in conversations, she has trouble believing her intuition is right. She may, therefore, go along with what someone else tells her, even when she doesn’t agree. These same people are then prone to let others determine their self worth. A man whose boss is always pushing him to do more, despite his record sales figures, may see himself as a failure at work.

In addition to the issues I’ve elaborated on above, adults with ADHD often have problems noticing social cues. If one is not attending to the nuances of facial expressions, voice tone, and body language, he is likely to miss the meaning of his spouse’s words. This can lead the partner of a person with ADD to feel her spouse may not care about what she is saying.

Given all the difficulties, is a person with ADD, therefore doomed in his relationships? I do not believe this to be the case at all. An adult with ADD will, however, have to work harder at her relationships than her non-ADD peers. Relatives, friends, and significant others will need to be patient, flexible and understanding. The following strategies will help adults with ADD cope with important interpersonal relationships:

  1. Be self-accepting. Your brain is wired differently. That does not mean you are inadequate. It means you will need to learn and practice techniques that will allow you to function up to your capacity. You and your physician may decide that medication is advisable.
  2. Have realistic expectations of yourself. Figure out what you can realistically do. Begin by leaving extra time for tasks. You can also time yourself on your daily responsibilities to get an actual picture of how long things really take.
  3. Give yourself credit for what you have accomplished. Allow yourself recognition even for the small steps you take. If partners, friends, and parents, comment on the positive steps that the adult with ADHD makes, it is likely to increase her efforts.
  4. Understand your own limitations and plan for them. Determine what your most alert time is and have important interpersonal conversations then. Take breaks as needed to help compensate for your distractibility and to prevent getting overloaded, but agree to a follow-up discussion time.
  5. Anticipate your needs in advance and make plans to deal with them. If, for example, you know a four hour Sunday dinner at your in-laws will leave you antsy, irritable, and impulsive, let your spouse know in advance that you will need to take a walk midway through the evening.
  6. If you tend to forget appointments or responsibilities you’ve agreed to, or are constantly running late, use datebooks, a family calendar, Post-it notes, or other reminders.
  7. Allow for burn-out time. Learn to recognize what activities leave you feeling spent and schedule time to recharge your batteries.
  8. When making agreements with your significant other about chores, obligations, or even social events, plan a follow-up meeting. Decide in advance how to deal with it if the adult with ADD forgets to do what he agreed to. What is the best way for his partner to notify him? How can the partner be reminded to break her unhelpful patterns? If each member of the couple lets the other know what would feel like a kind and helpful reminder, success is more likely.
  9. Significant others need to strike a balance. Recognize the limitations of your partner, but don’t overcompensate for them as that may leave you feeling resentful. Rather than just doing the job for the forgetful adult with ADD, try job swapping so each person is taking on tasks that are more in line with their liking and abilities. Parents of ADD adults need to give their adult children room to try it their way and flounder if necessary. The adult can only learn to do it himself if parents don’t take over for him.
  10. Be honest with yourself and others as to commitments. Think through whether you have the time, energy, and desire to do what’s being asked of you. If you feel “on the spot” and need time to determine this, tell your significant other you need to think about it and you’ll get back to her about it. Admit when you’ve messed up. Others are more forgiving if you are not defensive about your mistakes. Make a plan to improve your performance and tell your partner how you will attempt to avoid that particular problem again.
  11. Set limits for yourself. This ties back to accepting yourself and ADD’s effect on you and to being honest with important people in your life. Say, “No” when it’s appropriate. Recognize you can’t do it all and don’t even try. Kindly let others know when you feel overloaded or need space to recharge your battery.
  12. Set up your environment to match your abilities and limitations. If, for example, you hate doing yardwork and can’t afford to hire someone to do it, get a low maintenance yard. If sitting still for hours is difficult for you, pass on the invitation to see a three hour movie with a friend. If you concentrate best in a quiet setting with no distractions, create that area to use for bill paying or paperwork.
  13. Do things your way if it works for you and doesn’t hurt anyone. Your way may seem strange to others, but it’s important to honor your uniqueness and creativity.

It is important for the spouse or partner of an adult with ADHD to understand the myriad of emotional issues that ADD adds to significant relationships. When a partner can understand these issues and accept them, the relationship has the best chance of success. Furthermore, the partner needs to recognize that an adult with an attention deficit cannot choose to turn her symptoms on or off.

The adult with ADHD can improve his relationships by getting appropriate treatment both to deal with the effects ADD has had on his life and to develop strategies for coping with current issues. Appropriate treatment should include working with a professional who has experience with adult ADD. Educating oneself about attention deficit disorder through reading and attending workshops is an important step. Medication is another component to consider. Couples counseling, group therapy, or behaviorally oriented individual therapy may also be be indicated, depending on each adult’s needs.


This article was published with kind permission from Melinda White, MFT, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist of Berkeley, California (MFC28729)
Individual, family, couples, group counseling and psychotherapy for Attention Deficit Disorder.
1635 Solano Avenue Berkeley, CA 94707
(510) 526-8208