A clinical perspective: Navigating romantic relationships with ADHD

May 13, 2024| ADHD News, Guest Blogs

1-minute read: What makes for a successful relationship? Honest communication, understanding, patience, and attention are a few things that come to one’s mind. But what happens when you add ADHD into the mix?

For many adults diagnosed with ADHD, symptoms complicate romance. Dr. Aaron Dodini, Founder of Calibrate ADHD Services, takes a deeper look into the role of ADHD in romantic relationships and the importance of education, early intervention, and accuracy in diagnosis.

Disclaimer: The information contained on this website does not constitute medical advice. If you have concerns about your own health or the health of someone else, you should speak to your doctor.

About the author

Aaron Dodini, MS, MA, PhD, is a licensed marriage and family therapist, clinical psychologist, and ADHD specialist. Calibrate ADHD Services works with individuals, couples, and in a group therapy format to help people better understand themselves. They specialize in adult ADHD testing and coaching, anxiety, and relationship issues.

ADHD and romantic relationships

Communication is at the core of all relationships. When one person in a relationship has ADHD, communication styles can be a little different. However, both partners can learn different communication methods and responses to help minimize misunderstandings and reassure one another. These communication tools can be learned and it’s one of the common areas I help couples with after an ADHD diagnosis.

Taking a ‘couples approach’ to treatment can help avoid the negative outcomes associated with undiagnosed or untreated ADHD, including divorce, higher rates of depression or anxiety, lower wages, significant financial debt, substance abuse, and lower life expectancy. Finally, understanding how to make ADHD a catalyst for growth in connection and intimacy goes a long way in making any relationship a success.

How past experiences shape future behaviors

How we act in a relationship is the product of all our experiences to date. Our past informs our values, beliefs, and emotional reactions. For people with ADHD, particularly those who lived undiagnosed for some time, past experiences have likely been shaped by their ADHD. They may have more experience of rejection (academically, professionally, and socially) and may have developed strong defense mechanisms and belief systems. The more deep-rooted one’s beliefs are, the harder they are to change or adjust.

In a relationship, this may mean that people with ADHD perceive more criticism from their partner and feel hurt or upset by them more often. Relationships can come under strain if the response to disagreements is argumentative or retaliatory.

When I work with couples during my therapy sessions, it’s about changing that very response. It may not be possible initially to prevent that feeling of hurt, but the response can be changed.

Roles of the ADHD and neurotypical partner

For the person with ADHD, the most important step is to learn to be vulnerable and open with their partner. This means communicating honestly how they feel – even when that means saying they’ve been upset or hurt by their partner’s words or actions. This creates the opportunity for discussion and reassurance.

For the neurotypical partner (the one without ADHD), empathy and listening are key. It can be hard to understand what their partner may have experienced going through life with ADHD, and how this may have affected their feelings and reactions. I like to say to my clients that it’s hard to put ourselves in somebody else’s shoes… particularly when those shoes feel so unfamiliar. However, discovering this empathy and listening to what their partner is telling them is a necessary step.

When both partners have ADHD

Just because two people have ADHD, that doesn’t automatically mean they’re not an ideal match. A couple with ADHD can have a happy and successful relationship. You can develop even closer connections if you have the appropriate resources and strategies.

It’s essential to understand that each person with ADHD is unique, so even if you both have the same diagnosis, your experiences and symptoms might not be the same. Remember, nobody understands ADHD better than someone who is also on the same journey. Spend some time getting to know your partner’s unique ADHD-related strengths and challenges. And at the same time, make the effort to explain your feelings and emotions as well.

How ADHD symptoms impact romantic relationships

Sometimes the core ADHD symptoms of impulsivity, inattention, and hyperactivity can impact how we communicate. One factor of impulsivity is being very responsive to external stimuli (noises, visual distractions, etc.) and internal stimuli (thoughts, feelings, etc.). So, during a conversation with a partner, external or internal stimuli may distract the person with ADHD, causing them to look away or to lose the conversation thread. This can often trigger a response of a sense of hurt, rejection, or abandonment. This is called Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria (RSD) and it’s one of the more pervasive symptoms of ADHD.  Part of my treatment for couples is helping them understand what these intense reactions are and how to work together to create greater intimacy precisely because of the vulnerability associated with RSD.

I often say to patients that part of ADHD is always being drawn to the biggest stimulus in that moment. Sometimes it’s an urgent problem, other times it might be a really cute kitten on the internet. At the time, it feels like the number one focus. However, in times of difficulty, if the neurotypical person takes a moment to explain a worry or crisis point, then that’s often enough of a flag to bring the focus of the ADHD partner right back to where it needs to be.

How objective ADHD testing helps

At my clinic, we believe in utilizing objective testing as a first step toward treatment and growth. We use QbCheck and it’s such a valuable tool in helping couples to understand how ADHD affects behaviors. The report outputs clearly demonstrate how often a symptom like impulsivity can appear. Understanding this helps both partners see that some of those behaviors are actually the symptoms of the condition at work. Once this is understood, coaching and therapy can help.

The significance of education and coaching

Education about ADHD is important not just for the person with ADHD, but also for their loved ones. One of the core elements of my work is that we think about education and communication for both partners in a relationship. It’s just as important that the person without ADHD understands the condition. Both partners need to learn to communicate openly, be empathetic, pay attention to body language, seek clarification, and listen carefully. This, in conjunction with a personalized treatment plan, helps us manage the condition pharmaceutically and behaviorally.

Navigating ADHD in adult romantic relationships involves recognizing signs, understanding the role of the non-ADHD partner, considering attachment styles, and utilizing objective assessment tools and implementing comprehensive treatment plans. A good ADHD coaching program can offer a valuable resource in this journey toward greater intimacy, emphasizing the significance of education, open communication, and effective risk taking in cultivating intimate, stable, and thriving relationships. The goal is not just symptom management but fostering greater intimacy and connection.

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