Today, I reached the first time-based milestone in my relationship with Phil. It was a journey to get here, but I am so grateful we did. Relationships are hard. Relationships when one person has ADHD is even harder.
I didn’t realize how detrimental ADHD could be to a relationship until I experienced it firsthand with a prior partner. Like everything else in my life, I am an open book about my experiences, in the hopes that someone else can avoid what I went through. In this post, I am going to touch on what I experienced and learned in past relationships.
Love is difficult. Often, when it fails, people seek to blame the other person for their suffering, as if it comes from intentional malice. However, in the case of ADHD, autism, and other mental illnesses and conditions, the blame often lies in a lack of tools and understanding.
There is the famous example I keep hearing time and again involving potatoes. Imagine you are peeling a potato, but all you have to peel it with is another potato. You’re trying really hard and it’s not working so great, but you keep at it anyway. Eventually someone comes along and says, “Why are you doing that? That isn’t going to work. Here, use this,” and they hand you another potato!
That person is trying to help. They are giving you the tools that worked for them.
I can already hear you saying, But why would they think a potato is going to help you peel another potato? That’s just crazy!
Remember, our brains work differently. Therefore, just because we cannot see the value in the tools they are offering doesn’t mean they aren’t trying to help. I’m sure we do some things that work for us but “normal” people find absolutely crazy.
My point is, it’s very easy to attribute someone’s actions as intentionally harmful when they were just trying to help. This is actually a philosophical concept called Hanlon’s razor – “Never attribute to malice what can be better explained with incompetence.”
When you look back on the pains of the past, remember this. More often than not, it wasn’t intentional. If we lacked the tools to address and rectify the situation, it would snowball. That is where a lot of relationships broke down.
Now that I have more insight into all the various ways ADHD can affect relationships, I have spent a lot of time ruminating on how to keep them from breaking. Regular maintenance is a lot easier than fixing a massive breakdown due to degradation. So, therefore, I present to you all I have learned in the hopes you don’t have to suffer how I did.
I interviewed Phil for this article, in an attempt to get the perspective of someone “normal”. His responses were sometimes incredibly touching, and I am very grateful to have such a patient, willing boyfriend along on this journey.
Before we delve in, I must put my little disclaimer up front: I am not a professional clinician nor do I have any psychological training. I am just a woman with ADHD and this post (and this whole site) is an elaboration on my experiences in the hopes someone else can benefit. Much of the information here is anecdotal and may or may not reflect verifiable, documented studies (i.e. I understand anecdotes are not evidence and correlation is not causation). If I use an actual source, I will cite it. If I have not, I probably actually forgot and I would really appreciate being told that.
A great way (especially for the non-dysfunctional) to imagine ADHD is by pretending the executive functions are actually executives. By extension, the entire body is a company.
The investor, the guy with the money, aka you, your consciousness, says, “Hey, I really like that other company over there. I think we’re a great fit. We should do a merger!”
Meanwhile, the other company (ahem, person) is over there drafting the paperwork to officially make this thing happen. They send it your way and you eagerly hand it off to your board of directors (your executive functions) so they can sign off on them.
It sits there, gathering dust, in the boardroom of your brain indefinitely.
The other company gets mad and sends over a representative, who gets assured that the paperwork will be signed. The rep actually speaks to the investor, who is extremely distressed at the idea this didn’t happen.
The investor goes and yells at the board of directors, but nothing ends up happening.
The paperwork never gets signed.
ADHD and executive dysfunction are, at their worst, like trying to run a company with executives that are totally MIA. Just like you cannot will a company to perform well without good leadership and planning, you cannot brute-force your own complex systems to perform well without executive functioning.
Now, think about what it must be like to be that poor investor. You are the sole investor in this company. You cannot take your money out and put it elsewhere, nor can you fire the board of directors and get them replaced. You essentially are throwing money at the problem and there’s nothing you can do about it.
You might develop anxiety and depression in addition to your ADHD. Like me, if your ADHD is undiagnosed or improperly treated, you might develop suicidal ideations.
Meanwhile, the other person doesn’t understand why you are acting the way you are and they feel it means you just don’t care. And so you start fighting and building resentments and slowly but surely your relationship unravels.
I’ve seen it happen. I’ve experienced it for myself.
I told Phil about all my issues from the beginning. I expected him to either run screaming or take the approach of a previous partner and try to “fix” me (which ultimately turned into parenting me). I needed to stamp out both before they became serious issues.
Someday, I am going to write about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and how it pertains to being all you can be. Previously, my experiences included being followed around the house getting yelled at because I forgot to put the sour cream away. That was never going to get me to dynamo status, and I wanted to quash that before it was even a possibility.
So, I sent Phil articles, commentaries, and all kinds of things related to ADHD. I needed him to know what he was getting into. If he was going to jump ship over my broken brain, I needed to know before I got emotionally invested.
“Reconsidering because of the ADHD didn’t even come across my mind!” said Phil. “Prior to Kate, I hadn’t had any personal experience with someone who was diagnosed with ADHD, so I didn’t really think much of it.”
When I reminded him about the plethora of content I sent, he bemoaned it: “Oh, I hate reading articles! But it did change my perceptions of ADHD; before Kate, I thought ADHD was all about hyperactivity and impulsiveness. I didn’t know there was a forgetful, disorganized component.”
After I realized he was going to stick around, I took stock of the kind of man he was and tried to figure out of he was what I needed. I’d already formed a theory about the qualities required to be a good partner to someone with ADHD and now was the time to put it into action.
With a few minor tweaks, I present to you A Treatise on the Five Required Attributes for Surviving Your Partner’s ADHD:
- Accepting: I am never going to function like someone without executive dysfunction. If you try to make someone with ADHD behave like a “normal” person, it’s just going to cause pain. You need to know going into a relationship with ADHD that some days they’re going to forget to do the dishes or defrost the chicken. “I thought dealing with and helping her manage the symptoms would be a challenge, but definitely doable,” Phil said.
- Compromising: Possibly a sub-element of acceptance, good compromise goes along with the idea that your ADHD partner is different and needs specific help to do specific things. It’s a nonjudgmental response whereby both parties get something they need done. For example, you get home from work and you realize that your partner who has ADHD didn’t clean the kitchen. You have more work to do and you don’t want to deal with having to clean the kitchen too (and you shouldn’t have to). If your partner benefits from a body double (a person passively present as an anchor to a task), you can sit at the kitchen table and do your work while your partner cleans up around you. This is more effective than yelling, I guarantee it.
- Patient: Someone described ADHD as sitting and trying to write but every twenty seconds or so someone comes and throws your pencil across the room. Imagine sitting next to someone and every twenty seconds or so you have to pull their attention back to the task at hand. This is what you might have to do regularly. Get used to it. Yelling at us for being distracted is painful for us, because we know, and we would do anything to not be like this.
- Unfailingly Kind: There’s been several occasions when I mentioned to Phil that I was hungry and then I got too distracted in other things to remember that I was, in fact, hungry. A few minutes later, I ended up with a sandwich in my hand, allowing me to eat and keep working. Noticing your partner needs something and then executing on that not only makes life easier but makes them feel loved, which means they’re more likely to reciprocate.
- Teachable: Chronic illness in general means that you have certain symptoms that require certain responses. If someone is teachable, they will learn to recognize and respond to patterns in your behavior. For example, Phil has learned if I am having anxiety from sensory overload, I need the dark with some white noise. Phil will turn off the lights, turn up the air conditioner, and put a comforter on me. Someone who is not teachable needs you to tell them what you need every single time, and you might not be in a state to articulate that.
I remember one of the first times I really recognized the kind of man Phil was. He was driving me home, discussing what time he’d pick me up the next day. He said something like “between noon and 2 pm”, but then he trailed off at my uncomfortable expression.
“Oh, I forgot,” he said, after he realized why I had responded that way. “Your brain doesn’t work like that. Let’s plan for noon. I’ll be there at noon. If you want me to come later, that’s fine too.”
When you are willing to work in the terms your partner can understand, it goes a long, long way to fostering love and appreciation.
I’m only going to touch on this briefly, as these are things that I feel ADHD individuals need to strengthen in all areas of their lives, not just relationships. We are a work in progress, and we often require more work to make that progress, especially since we have issues with structure and routine.
- Self-Aware: You need to become extremely well aware of your strengths and weaknesses and be able to articulate your emotions. If you know you suck at task initiation, you need to voice this to avoid disappointments.
- Accountable: It is unacceptable for an adult with ADHD (or anything else really) to say, “I suck at task initiation. Therefore, you can’t expect me to do this project.” You can say, “I suck at task initiation, but I am trying to improve. I don’t think this project will be perfect, but I am going to try my best.”
- Growth Mindset: Your brain will never be functional like a normal person’s, but it can be more functional. Productivity specialists and professional squirrels the world over are always coming up with awesome new ways to be all you can be. Learn to seek these out and incorporate what you can benefit from.
It’s an unfortunate, but all-too-common anecdote from the annals of ADHD relationships. I find it most frequently occurring in literature when the person with the ADHD is male, but I experienced it as well.
Executive function has been described to me as the thing in our brain that, when well developed, separates us from many species of animals. Good executive function is seen as a sign of maturity because it is one of those things that dictates, or at least contributes to, survivability.
When you are the only person holding someone else’s life together because they are too distracted to do it themselves, it can cause a lot of problems, including resentment.
Even Phil has some issues. “I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have some kind of resentment,” he said, likely as he remembered all the times he needed to remind me to eat or physically hand me food.
But, like anything else, he tackles it with acceptance and kindness: “In some aspects, it can seem that [I have to parent her]. Specifically, I have to make sure important things get done, but that isn’t isn’t too much of a problem.”
I am not a professional, but where I see a lot of this parent-child dynamic is in either a lack of acceptance on the “normal” party’s side and/or a lack of self-awareness and/or accountability on the dysfunctional one’s side.
Making it work takes effort from both sides or it is doomed to fail. You can refuse to believe ADHD is an actual condition, but your ADHD partner is extremely aware of his or her deficits and constantly trying to improve anyways. Or you can be very accepting and accommodating and try really hard, but your ADHD partner can refuse to be held accountable. Both these scenarios will start deteriorating.
A good tactic, in my experience, is let the ADHD partner handle the areas they excel in, for both of them, and then gradually improve their skills in other areas. For example, if the ADHD partner is really good at money management, let them handle all the bills. This will take some of the pressure off the “normal” one and build confidence and self-worth in the ADHD partner. It also helps resolve the lack of mutual appreciation; since it’s usually probably the ADHD partner who needs help, resentment can grow in the “normal” partner because he or she feels like their needs are never attended to.
The unchecked extreme of the parent-child relationship is the death of sexual attraction. A few specific fetishes aside, nobody wants to be nagged and beaten down all the time and nobody wants to see their spouse or partner as an immature child.
In addition to reinforcing that nasty parent-child dynamic, poor communication degrades a relationship in its own ways, destroying emotional and sexual intimacy. That is one I will go into more detail with next time.
It’s hard to be the “normal” one, trying to slow down your ADHD partner’s brain so you can have a complex conversation with them. It’s also hard to have ADHD and try to focus in on whatever your partner wants to tell you.
Here’s a few issues I’ve dealt with myself and ways to help.
- Repeating requests and questions: “Repeating things is something that I definitely notice,” Phil said. “A lot of the times, ‘I already asked that, didn’t I?’ is followed soon after I answer, which tends to lighten the mood, so it’s not too bad.” For me, it comes from having shit auditory memory. There isn’t really a good way to deal with this, except to have a sense of humor. Yelling or getting frustrated with the person is only going to make them feel bad, which is going to ultimately lead to them resenting you.
- Getting distracted by the scenery: I can’t tell you how many times I’ll be in the car with Phil in the middle of a conversation and I look over and see a bunch of fuzzy goats. “Awww look at the little baby goats!” I squeal happily — and then immediately forget whatever we were talking about. It strengthens the brain if you drop context clues and let the person follow the breadcrumbs back rather than just tell them, but don’t let them struggle too much.
- Terrible auditory memory: “I know if it’s not written down, there’s a good chance Kate won’t remember before said things are overdue,” Phil pointed out. If your verbal requests are consistently forgotten about or half-done, then you might need to try to write them down. Remember also that different people have different learning styles, so this one is not exclusive to ADHD; Phil doesn’t have executive dysfunction and he asserts, “It’s the same for me — unless it’s written down I’ll probably forget if I don’t do it right then.”
- Tuning people out: Hyperfocus can be a bitch. Before I was diagnosed, I could be in the middle of a conversation, see something in the distance, and actually no longer hear the voice of the person I was talking to. This, coupled with poor auditory memory, means that you can in effect either totally just tune someone out without meaning to, forget what they are saying right after they say it, making conversations hard, or a combination of both. If either of you need to say something important, say it in writing. You can have the person read it in front of you so if they are misunderstanding the tone or anything you can intervene. In general, this has saved me a lot of agony. If it needs to be said, try to say it during periods of peak focus. Learn to identify That Look when your ADHD partner is tuning out and develop a touch system to bring them back, such as squeezing their hand or rubbing their shoulder.
- The ten o’clock ramble: I am going to address ADHD and sexuality in another (hopefully shorter) article, but I do want to briefly mention this one. Oftentimes, if someone with ADHD is very stimulated or can’t unwind due to either positive or negative reasons, then any sexual relations the “normal” partner attempts to initiate can be foiled. How this gets foiled can take many forms, but here I refer to rambling. Yes, ADHD rambling can be so boring, confusing, and neurotic, it can make a partner lose a boner. This rambling can occur even if the person with ADHD is open to or actively wanting sex, so it’s not necessarily a sign they aren’t into it. What has worked for me is either engaging in mindfulness, quietly pulling my brain back to the here and now, or just rambling for ten or fifteen minutes until it’s all out of my system. Of course, by that point, it’s debatable if the “normal” partner still even wants sex…
But I digress.
Now, at over three and a half times the original length this article was supposed to be, I propose we stop here. If anyone has any specific questions about ADHD relationships and sex that they think I can answer, please feel free to tweet them @thekatekirk or drop them in the comments. I currently only have one more installment of ADHDventures in Relationships in the works, but I am not going to just lock it down after that; as things come up I will address them.
Ultimately, I do want to express that, for all I complain about ADHD and the destructive force it can have, people with ADHD are not lepers. We have strengths and weaknesses just like everyone else and, beyond the ADHD symptoms, we have personalities and passions that can make us good and loving partners.
When asked why he pursued a relationship with me, knowing all my medical issues, Phil said, “Kate has a very big heart and loves taking care of people, which are both extremely important things to me. She may have medical issues, but no one is perfect and that’s not a reason to pass up on something really great!”
I also asked Phil if he regretted anything about his relationship with me.
His response was touching and loving, the epitome of who he is as a person and as my boyfriend: “I regret we didn’t find each other sooner. We both need each other and our lives would have been so much easier if we had been together years before, but it’s not worth dwelling on the past and regretting things.”
So, to my dear, wonderful Phil — thank you. You make this blog possible every day with your support and encouragement. You chose me as your neurotic girlfriend and meet me each day with acceptance and understanding, for which I couldn’t be more grateful.