In self-help resources on adult ADHD (including this blog), we usually focus on the people who have ADHD, and their struggles and experiences. How, for instance, does ADHD impact their work? Home life? Relationships? What we don’t talk much about are the others in the intimate relationships. The partners, spouses, and significant others who are also impacted by adult ADHD but who don’t happen to have it themselves. When it comes it ADHD in their lives, what are their thoughts? Experiences? Concerns?
These partners don’t actually have ADHD, but they’re still surely impacted by it. Because of the way we conceptualize and address mental and behavioral health concerns in this country though, we don’t often think for long about the other people in these relationships. And yet they play an integral role in the relationships that are so impacted by ADHD.
Understanding and addressing the needs of non-ADHD partners in ADHD-impacted relationships have thus far received little attention. In 2008 journalist Gina Pera drew on her own experiences as the non-ADHD partner in a marital relationship with the publication of her book, Is it You, Me, or Adult ADD? California therapist and author Susan Tschudi published Loving Someone with Attention Deficit Disorder in 2012, which also provides a great deal of information for the non-ADHD partner in the relationship. Ms. Tschudi is similarly the partner of someone with ADHD, and so she draws on both her personal and professional experiences in her book.
Even with these helpful and informative resources though, the non-ADHD partner has been a neglected part of the adult ADHD equation. This may be due to the fact that only recently has adult ADHD been given much attention at all. For much of its history, ADHD was seen as a condition of childhood and adolescence. As we recognized that ADHD persists into adulthood, our focus has naturally been on those who have the disorder, rather than close others who are impacted by it.
But ADHD does significantly affect the other partner in the relationship, often in predictable ways. In time the spontaneous and free spirit of the person with ADHD becomes a bit less exhilarating. A sense of being charmed is replaced with irritation and dread — about what hasn’t been done today, what overdue bill wasn’t paid, what form was lost.
Steps initially meant to be adaptive — like nagging and shaming — occur more frequently. And the non-ADHD partner, just to get needed household tasks and chores done at all, often takes over the duties of his/her partner. Along with these behavioral changes come anger, resentment, disappointment, and disgust. More conflicts may develop, arguments become a part of day to day life, and the promise of a fulfilling, deepening love becomes uncertain, if not unlikely.
In time the non-ADHD partner learns to compensate by doing the undone tasks him/herself, since it’s just easier that way. Or he/she may nag, hound, and push to get things done. But it’s the impact on the relationship itself that is so detrimental.
As the situation persists, non-ADHD partners often relate to the others not as equals in a committed relationship but more as their adolescent dependents. Eventually, divorce or separation may be considered, if not explicitly threatened or discussed. Given the situation, non-ADHD partners may be prone to feeling lonely, unappreciated, or burned out. The sense of being in a mutually supportive relationship is undermined, and resentments build over time. One factor often contributing to these feelings is a misunderstanding about adult ADHD. The behaviors of the partner with ADHD are often (reasonably) attributed to laziness, reduced motivation, or character flaws, rather than seen as signs of adult ADHD.
The way out is to learn more about adult ADHD and to use this information to strengthen the relationship and modify some of the problematic interpersonal patterns that have developed over time. Reading books like those mentioned above is very useful, but may not be enough to dislodge the deeply entrenched relationship patterns. Therefore, couples therapy with a professional who is knowledgeable about adult ADHD is highly recommended. For the specific needs of the non-ADHD partner, individual therapy and attending support groups through CHADD with others who have similar situations are also quite powerful and affirmative experiences for addressing these challenges.