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Love and other drugs

Updated: May 26, 2023

All healthy relationships require paying attention to each other’s thoughts and feelings and maintaining empathy and consideration for one another. However, when in one or both people in a partnership have ADHD, this often presents unique challenges to maintaining these fundamental qualities and can cause significant distress if left unacknowledged.

What is ADHD?

ADHD is a spectrum disorder, meaning there are varying degrees of the symptoms, and these symptoms can manifest differently depending on the personality of a person.

Symptoms of ADHD include:

  • Short attention span- Does your partner seem to struggle to remain focused on what you are saying? Forget important things you told them just a few days prior?

  • Difficulty completing tasks and keeping organised - Maybe you feel like the ‘manager’ of the household, and things would ‘fall apart’ if you weren’t there to pick up the pieces.

  • Impulsiveness - Do your arguments often centres around your partners’ impulse-buying eating into your mutual plans for your next holiday?

  • Chronic forgetfulness - Do you hear the words “have you seen my phone/wallet/keys” seemingly a hundred times a week?

  • Easily distractible - Forgetting what they are saying in the middle of a conversation is one example of this… think, ”Ooh! Shiny object!”

  • Restlessness, inability to sit or stand still for long - Ever feel like you can’t watch a movie without feeling your partner fidgeting constantly next to you?

  • Talking excessively or in a fast manner, blurting out answers in conversation - Maybe you feel you are hyper-aware of your partner missing social cues when you are out with friends.

  • Sarcasm, hurt feelings, and unspoken messages don’t seem to ‘get through’ to them in the same way as other people.

How does ADHD impact on relationships?

When we meet someone and fall in love, our ‘love chemicals’ such as dopamine, oxytocin, and norepinephrine are rapidly released, giving us that giddy euphoric feeling we associate with attraction. Whilst we all experience this phenomenon to a degree, people with ADHD have additional neurological factors that amp up this experience tenfold.

Adults with ADHD experience higher thresholds for stimulation and novelty-seeking, resulting in an intense hyper-fixation that we call love bombing. At the start of the relationship, Love bombing can be a very flattering experience for the keen recipient, especially when it comes in the form of spontaneous gifts, deep and meaningful conversations until the early hours of the morning, and grand gestures of affection.

However, this intense level of stimulation eventually becomes overwhelming and impossible to maintain. Once the novelty of your relationships’ shiny ‘newness’ wears off, the person with ADHD will return to their comfortable baseline, ready to obsess over their next object of fascination.

This is not to say that the person with ADHD does not still love their partner post-fixation, rather, the contrast between the love bombing and the post-honeymoon return to normality can feel like baffling whiplash for the non-ADHD partner. Coupled with the attention deficit aspect of ADHD, many mistake this abrupt shift in dynamic as their partner no longer desiring them or finding them interesting, which feels hurtful and confusing.

ADHD in adults is very different to that in children and adolescents. Getting a diagnosis even late in life can life altering. For adults you need to be assessed by a psychologist and/or diagnosed by a psychiatrist if medication is determined as appropriate treatment.

Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) is also considered the standard therapeutic approach for ADHD and works either as an adjunct to medication or as a stand alone therapy for managing ADHD symptoms.

Last but not lease self care is also essential, as our cognitive functioning and mood are all improved with good self-care, getting enough sleep, maintaining a healthy diet and exercise will make the world of difference.

Getting your relationship back on track

One of the most simple and effective ways to re-route your relationship back on track is to develop and maintain your attending skills. Attending means actively and consciously choosing to engage with your partner in a positive manner, leaving no room for doubt that you care for them.

Book weekly blocks of time together. It doesn’t matter if you don’t have a plan, you can figure out the details later. Keep it spontaneous and decide what you will do with your day together as a pair. Explore the city, stroll by the waterfront, or go see the latest movie.

The important part is you schedule (and stick to) this time and treat it as totally non-negotiable.

Create ‘I love us’ routines. Pick something small that you enjoy doing together and create a ritual around it. Maybe it’s taking a late night walk with the dogs together while you catch up on the latest gossip of the day, or always sharing a cup of coffee before you head off to work in the morning. These little cherished moments go a long way in showing you care.

Set up “attend time” at bedtime. Many of us have mismatched sleeping schedules with our partners. Create a night time routine where, irrespective of these differences, you spend time in bed together at night time. Chat, hold each other, or cuddle.

When it’s time for lights out, the late-to-bed partner can decide to come to bed or get up and do something else. Don’t let mismatched bedtimes stop you from taking advantage of this lovely way to end the day.

Setting the tone. When coming home after a long day, set a 5-minute ‘no complaints’ rule where neither of you say anything negative – only positive moments of the day. Always say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ wherever possible. Gratitude and respect are critical for happy partnerships.

Surprise your partner. If you ever hear your partner mention something they’d like to have or do, make a note of popping it into the notes section of your phone.

Create a specific document of things you can do for your partner. Pay attention to when she says things like “I wish we could….” This will show your partner how attentive and thoughtful you are.

Reset your relationship batteries. We know how hard it can be to get away with the responsibilities adult life bestows upon us. But trust us; if you can get away from your normal life for 48 hours and re-immerse yourselves in each other, you’ll come back better versions of yourself.

So organize yourself a babysitter or a dog sitter, and go on that hiking trip you always dreamed about together. Resetting can really help you remember how much you actually enjoy each other’s company.

Tips for the Non-ADHD partner

Your job is to let go of the parent role and try to be more flexible. Only respond to larger patterns, and let the small stuff go. We all have moments where our partner annoys the heck out of us. Do your best to let it pass without comment unless it is becoming a pattern over a long period of time.

None of us can be at our best happiest self all the time, and your time to be the big old grump will be sure to come along. If you’re struggling with doing this, perhaps look at why you can understand the impact of ADHD, anxiety, perhaps high standards of fear of judgement.

Give your partner room to step up -Both of you get clear on the differences between preferences and limits, While we all have personal preferences we can choose to be more flexible with these. Limits are our preferences that we can’t flex on without selling out our integrity. There should only be a few of these.You need to get clearer about these.

Make a time weekly to talk planning- Lack of planning adds a lot of stress and bad feelings. Set up a weekly meeting to discuss to- dos and calendars. Agree on what will get done or won’t. Then show respect (do the task) and appreciation for your partner doing it.

Repairing after an argument - After an especially big argument, it can be hard to see where to begin mending. Gottman suggests that both partners can make a ‘bid’ for repairing the relationship after a fight. Some bids will work on certain relationship dynamics and won’t work for others – it’s all about the unique relationship you each hold with one another.

De escalation - recognising when the conversation is escalating and taking responsibility to stop that conversation. Even if you do so with anger, working to cease a damaging conversation can show you care. Tell your partner you are feeling out of control and need time to calm yourself. Return later once you have cooled down to discuss things more constructively.

Admission of wrong or partial wrongdoing - “I see your point that the way I phrased that was disrespectful you, and I’m sorry. There’s no excuse for that, no matter how frustrated I am.”

Acknowledging an alternate perspective - “I hadn’t considered your perspective… let me think about that for a moment.”

Choosing statements that progress towards negotiation – “let’s consider both of our perspectives and work out something that works for both of us.”

Choosing statements that prioritise you as a team – “I know we’re both upset right now, but let’s try and remember we both want what’s best for our daughter. Maybe we can work something out that benefits both of us as members of the same team…”

Showing appreciation – “I know how hard you find speaking about your feelings, and though I don’t agree with some of the things you said, I appreciate the time you’re taking to discuss these things with me, because it shows you care.”

Using action or 'I' statements to agree to disagree – Given most issues are approximately 70% unresolvable in the long-term, using an action statement in a way that isn’t dismissive of your partner can be useful: “We’ve been trying to figure out a solution for this for a while now and we haven’t gotten anywhere. How do you feel about agreeing to disagree and seeing if we can create a compromise?”

Staying neutral – carefully choosing your tone to be neutral rather than defensive or negative can avoid things digressing further.

Rephrasing – especially if your partner is shutting down or can’t see the bigger picture, try rephrasing what you’re saying. Start with a summary of what you understand your partners’ position to be, and respectful and constructive with your language.

Listening to your partner – extensive research by the Gottman’s has shown that couple who use actively listening skills are open to being influenced by their partners in arguments are more likely to have a strong relationship.

This is particularly the case with the male partner in the relationship, where men are unwilling to listen to their female partners may just end up in divorce. Interestingly, this research is one-directional: women’s willingness to be influenced by their male partners makes no difference to divorce rates!

It’s not always easy attempting to do this on your own, particularly when you have developed resentment and avoidance over many years. By taking the time to reflect and adopt these simple changes in your relationship can help you successfully manage your relationship and bring it back to happy and secure functioning.

If either you and your partner has an ADHD diagnosis would like to explore ways to rebuild and strengthen your relationship, please feel free to get in touch. I offer a free 15-minute phone consultation, or if you would like to make an appointment for either a face to face or online counselling session whichever is convenient.

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