You tell yourself, Listen, listen, just listen, when talking with loved ones.
You try to be patient with a partner who seems to move in slow motion compared to your own faster tempo. You think, “Why do I always have to slow down? Why doesn’t anyone try, just for one day, to keep up with me?”
Your need for action and stimulation isn’t a character defect, it’s just a difference. ADHD is not a disorder that has to be hidden. If you can help your partner see the world from your point of view, you’re on your way to a fulfilling relationship.
The Gifts of ADHD
Impatience, inattention, and fidgeting — all symptoms of ADHD — are not crimes.
With these “deficits” come a lively mind and a life of fun and excitement. You have a lot to offer your spouse and children using your own personal style. If you can articulate — to yourself and others — how your ADHD is a gift, it won’t rob you of your vitality and life. To build a strong relationship, advocate for your gifts.
You won’t last in a relationship in which your ADHD traits are summed up as bad behavior. When someone tells you there’s something wrong with you, it hurts. Your partner calling you a “spazz,” or saying you need to “chill” at every turn, can take a serious toll. Let your partner know that such negativity is harmful. Tell him that it hurts to be told there’s something wrong with who you are. Such an admission can build intimacy between the two of you. If you try to cover up the hurt, it will lead to resentment that will prevent you from connecting with your spouse.
If you believe that you shouldn’t feel hurt — or, worse, that you deserve your partner’s criticisms — it is likely you’ll eventually want to end the relationship. Being stuck in reform school is a recipe for resentment.
Because adults with ADHD constantly crave new experiences, maintaining a long-term relationship can be a struggle, even without the burden of criticism. If resentment builds, an their need for stimulation is likely to create the impulse to find another partner. But if you educate your partner about your condition — and its gifts — he won’t be so critical. Try using these statements to advocate for yourself and to show your loved one what you are doing right:
“It’s true I was having trouble listening, but I was keying in to your emotions.” “You’re right: I can’t sit still with the kids, but I can be lots of fun.” “I can’t be as patient as I would like, but I keep our social life hopping.”
Once your spouse understands ADHD and appreciates your strengths, it doesn’t mean that you won’t have problems to solve. Working through them, using the strategies below, will dramatically increase your odds of having a loving relationship.
Find Common Interests
Doing things together as a couple sounds easy, but adults with ADHD often lack patience for activities that a spouse enjoys. Anything that is slow or requires attention to detail can feel like torture to some adults with ADHD: For instance, your partner asks you to play backgammon, but you’d rather pluck out your eyelashes than concentrate on its rules. Or your partner asks you to join him to watch a foreign-language film, and you would rather see an action flick. Although such differences seem tough to resolve, there are solutions (see “Bond with Your Spouse,” below).
Instead of letting backgammon or movies separate you and your spouse, show respect for his passion, while honoring your own interests. How? Give your partner a backgammon set, a book on backgammon strategy, or a night off from family duties to play the game with others.
While you may never share your lover’s enjoyment of board games, you can find activities that make you both happy. If you and he enjoy Italian food, say, come up with activities planned around that interest. Try different Italian restaurants, take a trip to Italy, read cookbooks, or collect Italian wines.
If you compromise yourself, chances are, your relationship will fail. This doesn’t mean that your partner should always be ready to meet your needs. It means that you shouldn’t consistently defer to the other person.
Exercise 1: Bond with Your Spouse
Don’t fight with your partner over competing interests. Focus your attention, instead, on interests that you share. Here’s how:
- Each of you should compile a list of 100 interests — intellectual topics, sports events, foods, anything that piques your interest. Nothing is too lowbrow or highbrow to go on your lists.
- Review the lists to identify overlapping interests. Create a new list from these and rank them in order of how much each of you likes them.
- For each of your top five shared interests, come up with activities that the two of you would enjoy. If you both like classical music, you could visit music stores together, attend concerts, go on drives while listening to CDs, share downloads with each other, take singing classes, start a classical music blog, or read books on favorite artists.
- Now slot some of these activities into your weekly schedule.
Listen to Your Spouse
Not being listened to is the major complaint of those in intimate relationships with adults who have ADHD. For many, listening to others is hard. In some cases, you may actually be listening, but you look so spaced-out that others think you are not.
Although those with ADHD can’t stand it when others repeat themselves, you may unwittingly be causing them to do so. If you’re impatient and tend to interrupt, your partner may feel he’s not being heard. So he repeats himself, which causes you to tune out even more. Remember: When others feel they have been heard, they will stop repeating themselves. For people in long-term relationships, good listening can break a dysfunctional pattern that has gone on for years — perhaps for decades.
Exercise 2: Listen and Learn
Sometimes your conversations seem to go on forever. That’s because your sense of time is distorted by feelings of restlessness. So you interrupt your spouse or change the topic. This listening exercise will make your partner feel that he has been heard.
- Figure out the time of day when you typically clash with your spouse over not listening. It may be just after he gets home from work and wants to talk about his stressful day.
- Sit down with him and let him talk. Do not interrupt for five minutes. If you find yourself getting distracted or looking at the clock, put your attention back on the conversation.
- At the end of five minutes, summarize what you heard. You might say, “Wow, it sounds like you had a really hectic day. The lousy commute, the awful meeting, and then your boss wanted the proposal done by the end of the day. At least you got to stop at the gym on the way home.” Of course, you can listen for more than five minutes. I have coached people to look like they’re listening-make eye contact and lean toward the person, even if you’re not absorbing every word. If you can’t listen much beyond five minutes, then give yourself permission to do something you want to do. You may say, “Now that you’re home, would you mind hanging out with Robbie for a bit while I go for a run?”
If you’re like most adults with ADHD, your partner will be shocked and pleased that you have listened to him for a full five minutes.
The main symptoms of ADHD-impulsiveness and the need for constant stimulation and excitement-can enhance or threaten relationships. Because adults with ADHD are impatient and easily bored, adventurous sexual activities are highly stimulating to them. Attraction to the new and different can cause you to find it difficult to stay monogamous. Adults with ADHD are also usually emotionally uninhibited, which can be attractive to others. This can lead to infidelity (see “Tame Temptation,” below).
The upside is that, once an adult with ADHD makes a commitment, life won’t be boring for his or her spouse. Their creativity will keep things lively, both in the bedroom and in social and recreational activities. I talked with an adult with ADHD who had found the woman whom he wanted to spend the rest of his life with. While he loved her, he couldn’t make a commitment. She was afraid that he was interested in other women. This hurt their relationship and put him on edge. He realized that committing to his lover would lead to a happy marriage.
Exercise 3: Tame Temptation
Impatience and impulsivity cause many relationship problems for adults with ADHD. Indeed, temptation sometimes overrides longer-term needs and desires. The following activity will you help weigh your choices.
- Imagine you are at a party celebrating your 25th wedding anniversary. Where would it be held? Who would be there? What gift would you give your spouse?
- Is the person you are now with the one you want to be with at your anniversary? Or do you want to be there with someone else? How will you feel, on your 25th wedding anniversary, about the person who may now be causing you to consider cheating on your partner? How would indulging your temptations make you feel on that day in the future? Would it be worth it?
- If you feel that cheating might be worth it, make a list of 10 people you have been attracted to in the last 10 years. Write down your feelings about each of them, and whether or not you acted on your feelings. Review the list. What does it tell you about your feelings of sexual attraction? Can you see a difference between the person you want in your life for the long haul and those you don’t? If cheating on your partner still seems like a good idea, you may want to consult a marriage counselor to help you figure out how to move forward.