Couples living with ADHD: Healthy practices that focus less on fairness and more on companionship

Couple with ADHD sitting outside on a sunny day laughing and drinking cranberry juiceWhether you have ADHD, your partner does or you both do, there’s one thing for certain: the tasks of living–whether fun or tedious–can often seem overwhelming and unmanageable. Executive functioning skill challenges, learning disabilities, ASD, anxiety or depression can add to the complexity of any relationship. Sometimes these challenges are met with humor, empathy and compassion. Other times, couples living with ADHD produce resentment, frustration and blame. How can you and your partner live with ADHD more successfully while nurturing a healthy companionship?

Exchange fairness for collaboration

Begin by forgetting about fairness. Focusing on equality leads a couple down a rocky path. It may seem that one person does more of the heavy lifting. Whether or not this is true, we all have roles to play in our partnerships and in our families.

Older male couple sitting at the table and working on tasks together

You need to learn how to negotiate what these are so that there’s flexibility and compromise instead of rigidity and contempt. Healthy relationships are all about give and take, effective communication and acceptance of the other person’s strengths and limitations.

In partnerships, people have different skill sets. One person may be the organizer and the motivator. The other might be better at following lists, coming up with fun ideas or recalling specific memories from five years ago. Instead of concentrating on fairness, shift your attention to what will help nurture your relationship, foster closeness and be useful in getting things done.

Make collaborative agreements with plans for accountability and lean into each other’s strengths. This way, you can break down tasks into manageable parts or delegate chores based on interest and capability. Instead of fairness being your goal, aim for effectiveness and equanimity.

Neurodivergent couple working together as a team to get laundry done and having a good time

I’m better at social planning, cooking, dealing with medical issues, reserving places to stay on vacations and making sure we celebrate holidays, birthdays and our anniversary. My husband takes care of the garden, goes to the dump, manages structural house problems and deals with airlines. Together we take turns with the laundry, grocery shopping and walking the dog.

How do you and your partner divide tasks? What skills do you and your partner each have? If the division of labor seems imbalanced, how are you addressing that? Do you make joint lists and assign the tasks so one person isn’t doing it all? Zoom out and think about the big picture.

Rinse, wash, repeat: Stop having the same argument

Most couples have the same arguments over and over again. Whether it’s about money, who’s doing (or not doing) what or how to parent the kids, people get caught up in (and sweat) the small stuff. As adults living with ADHD, you are more likely to struggle with impulsivity, emotional control, prioritizing and time management (among other executive functioning skills) compared to other couples. Here are 5 strategies to reduce frustration and foster positive connections and companionship with your partner:

1. Communicate clearly and cleanly:

Black couple sitting on a couch and having an important, effective discussion

What is the music between you and your partner? How you talk to each other and negotiate issues is critical for creating a harmonious soundtrack between you. Practice reflective listening when you aren’t upset so you can use it when you are. When the temperature is hot between you, there’s usually no listening.

        • Set aside 10-15 minutes at least three times per week and mark your timer.
        • The first person speaks and the second one listens, periodically repeating back what is being said using this formula: “I heard you say X, did I get that right? Is there anything else?”
        • At the midpoint, you switch roles.
        • Then when you are getting agitated and heading down the slippery slope towards a blowout, call up this exercise. This way, you will each feel heard.

The goal isn’t for a solution but just to improve listening and acknowledge your partner. Afterwards, refrain from going back into the content and decide when you can return to the topic for a solution. You are working together, not against one another.

2. Make requests, not demands:

Instead of wagging your finger or raising your voice in self-righteousness or holding onto your need to be right, keep the playing field level. Asking your partner invites their participation. If they struggle to follow through on things, find a calm moment and brainstorm together what would assist them with persistence and completion.

It’s natural for ADHD brains to wander, even if a person has a list to aid them. When you work as a team, the probability of reaching a goal is much stronger. Acknowledge and appreciate when your partner does something you’ve asked, or at least made a solid effort. This will encourage them to keep going. 

3. Give your partner the benefit of the doubt:

ADHD couple having a close, calm and quiet moment outdoors togetherWe all know that it’s more satisfying to accomplish what we set out to do than to leave things unfinished. Most people with ADHD would rather be successful in what they attempt but may fall short, despite their best efforts. They frequently carry around a deep-seated sense of shame about their limitations, which spills over into their relationships.

Perhaps your ADHD partner resents you because you don’t have ADHD and things seem easier for you, or they don’t like how you tell them what to do. Maybe they name you as the problem in the relationship because you have ADHD and think everything is your fault. Relationships work best when you give your partner the benefit of the doubt rather than assuming they do things on purpose.

4. Be accountable for your actions and inactions:

Relationships succeed when both parties are accountable for what they bring to the table–the good, the bad and the ugly. Brainstorm tools that will help your relationship, such as writing things down, using alerts and alarms, sending neutral reminders via text message, creating family bulletin boards and/or online calendars.

Start with one change at a time–that’s what people can handle. When there are several things on the list, “I wish you wouldn’t do,” or, “I wish you would start doing,” becomes overwhelming and, at times, humiliating. 

5. Foster closeness and fun:

Many couples living with ADHD are so busy dealing with the pressures and responsibilities of daily life, that they’ve lost track of what drew them together in the first place. Nurturing your positive connection is essential for growing your love.

ADHD couple riding a bike together and laughingFind some time to remember what you like about one another. Take turns choosing an activity and mix things up by trying something new. Instead of going out to dinner again, try a whitewater rafting trip for the day, get food from a new restaurant and have a romantic picnic, be a tourist in your own town, or visit a new museum. Develop a shared interest such as playing tennis, learning salsa or baking bread. Make time for intimacy.

If you are not connecting positively, you will negatively. Anger and hostility also reflect a deep connection, just not a productive or pleasant one. If these activities are tough for you because there’s too much blame or resentment, I encourage you to seek counseling.

 


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