I know a little bit about ADHD and relationships. My husband and I have been managing my ADHD for years.
“Do not talk to me!” I lovingly yell at my husband, as I am about to get out of the door of our home.
If he does, I will invariably forget something. Ten minutes before leaving, whether it is to run a simple errand, go on an overseas trip, or meet some friends, my mind is racing.
In it the voice is shouting some version of: what should I take? What not to forget? Where am I going? How long am I staying? Do I have everything I need? Usually, I am going down a huge list of things in my head.
The list might not even be that long, five items on in, yet my mind keeps repeating the same items over and over. It feels endless and overwhelming.
The Challenge of ADHD and relationships
According to Edward Hallowell (author of several ADHD books), the ADD brain is like a race car with bicycle brakes.
That is exactly how it feels for me, I am on a roll and if I have to stop abruptly, the bicycle brakes are not enough, the car (my mind) will veer off the road, down an embankment, topple over, and I will not know what happened.
On the other hand, once my Bugatti has a clear destination, and I am working on a project that interests me, it is very gratifying to have all that power at my disposal. It is beyond the flow described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
It is like lava coming out of a volcano and immediately being directed into predetermined shapes and molds, fulfilling amazing long-lasting goals: PhD Dissertation, books, classes, etc.
I am lucky to have a very understanding husband, that is able to be loving and non-judgmental of how my ADHD shows up in our relationship.
While I am the race car, he is more like an 18-wheeler.
It takes a while for him to get started but once on the road, he is calm, steady and has incredible endurance.
At times the truck blocks the road, in such a way that forces me to slow down. I have learned to respect and appreciate his rhythm. It slows me down and helps me to restore instead of burning all my pistons.
Another great analogy that explains the ADHD brain well, comes from Jessica McCabe.
In her TED talk: “This is what it’s really like to live with ADHD”, she describes the ADHD mind as feeling like you are flipping through 30 different channels and someone else has the remote. This explanation resonates for me as well.
Psychiatrists, physicians, and some mental health professionals are the ones that can provide an official diagnosis and treatment, based on tests and a set of criteria. But how is it to navigate ADHD and relationships?
Why ADHD and relationships can be challenging
Partners with ADHD are characterized by lack of attention paid to details, and conversations that do not interest them.
They also can get easily distracted and have difficulty following instructions. They can be disorganized and lose things, sometimes from one minute to the next.
They can also be fidgety and squirmy and feel restless. They can be quite talkative, blurting out answers, and comments, interrupting others mid-sentence.
They don’t like waiting in lines or for their turn. That last one, can really get to me, those are the moments that my husband would love to walk away pretending he doesn’t know me!
On a more positive note, folks with ADHD love challenges and are constantly striving to get better. They love the new and the novel, hanging around them can be exciting and enticing. That’s why ADHD and relationships were a volatile mix during the recent pandemic lockdown.
In addition, they tend to be risk takers, pioneering in areas where others do not dare to take the first step. They are able to hyper focus, on topics that appeal to them, and churn out results in a remarkably short period of time.
ADHD and relationships; 5 challenging issues
Where do ADHD and relationships collide? There are 5 main areas that present particular challenges. Here is how my husband and I have learned to manage them together.
- 1Trouble paying attention - unless it is a topic that interests me. Which can appear arrogant and dismissive for the other party. This one is hard to control; my brain literally moves on. The race car is gone, on a completely different route.
One of the ways this happened is when my husband is telling and uses the word “again.” My brain immediately says “oooo….he is going to repeat himself, I already heard everything he said, off we go!” and even though I would stay there physically, mentally I was gone.
He learned to stop saying “again”, I learned to gently ask him questions related to the topic to broaden or deepen my understanding. Or to simply say: “got it.”
- 2Forgetfulness - since ADHD minds are so fast, it happens that we forget things, and/or thoughts mid-sentence. For lost objects, the kindergarten principle in Julie Morgensterns’ book (Organizing from the inside out) has worked wonders for me. Everything has its place and it does not get moved unless mutually agreed upon. It created consistency and diminished the scatteredness.
My husband is very organized as well. For mental forgetfulness, I practice mindfulness and meditation. The two tools have taught me to run my brain instead of having it run me.
Successfully managing ADHD and relationships requires a high degree of brain management.
- 3Punctuality - thankfully in our marriage we are both very punctual. Perhaps on my end, I have my German ancestry to thank. But for many couples, problems with punctuality can be quite disruptive over time. ADHD in relationships often shows up with conflicting relationships to time.
This is a conversation that needs to happen, and the couple should strive to find a solution that works for both. The non-ADHD partner can give the ADHD partner a 15 min, a 10, and a 5 min warning. The ADHD partner can set alarms on their phone.
- 4Impulsivity - I have more of the mental impulsivity, not so much the physical one. I can plan a trip to the other side of the world in a matter of minutes, which creates some anxiety for my husband.
He would immediately believe that we are leaving in the next 10 min, not enough time for him.
We had a conversation about planning, and he now asks; “is this a goal or a dream?” If it is a dream, he can relax a bit, even though he knows that most of my dreams eventually do become goals, but he also knows that when I say dream, there is still time and more planning to be done.
Managing ADHD and relationships sometimes requires couples to make distinctions that help bridge the gap between two very different brains. This requires above average communication skills.
If I say “goal,” he becomes part of the planning and his 18-wheeler style brings some calmness to my speediness. His favorite saying to me during those times is; “hold on speedy!”
- 5Emotional outbursts - I am a bit older and simply do not have the energy and time anymore for those, but every once in a while, they show up. Especially when “someone” (usually me) moved something from its place.
It can drive me nuts, or if I feel that my car is being blocked for too long. I will start honking people out of the way.
We learned that for me it is better if he either comforts me or leaves me alone to calm down. For my part, I need to be sure not to leave him hanging for too long and come back to resolve the issue.
Couples who skillfully manage ADHD in their relationship build upon what they notice, discuss, and understand.
The power of paper
In closing I would like to mention one overall strategy that has helped me a lot. It comes from George Cicci, who calls himself an ADHD life hacker. His strategy is to put pen to paper.
When your ADHD brain is on fire, simply start writing, put all the agony on paper, no specific order, rhyme or reason. Simply download all that intense brain activity onto the page. This will help you think clearer and modulate the intensity of the focus you need.
I have achieved quite a lot in my life by learning to harness the superpowers of my ADHD brain. I don’t view it as an obstacle, I just needed to learn how to manage my mind.
Likewise, navigating ADHD and relationships is a teachable skill. My husband and I have found a balance and rhythm over the years. If ADHD symptoms are causing strife in your relationship, please know that there are strategies to make it work for both of you.