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Love and ADHD: Navigating the Unique Challenges of an ADHD Relationship

ADHD can have a huge impact on a romantic relationship, so it’s important to know all we can to handle it in a healthy fashion.

As a Certified Relationship Coach, I’ve worked with many couples where one or both partners have ADHD. I know too how fascinating and dismaying ADHD can be to a relationship because my own sweetheart has ADHD.

ADHD can have a huge impact on a romantic relationship, and it’s important to know all we can to handle it in a healthy fashion.

What is ADHD?

ADHD, or Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects an individual’s ability to control their attention and behavior. ADHD is characterized by:

  • Difficulty paying attention or staying focused on a task

  • Inability to follow through on instructions or complete tasks

  • Forgetfulness and disorganization

  • Difficulty sitting still or staying in one place

  • Excessive talking or interrupting

  • Attraction to dopamine/adrenaline-inducing activities

  • Ephemeral hyperfixation on certain hobbies, interests, etc.

  • Acting impulsively

  • Difficulty waiting for one’s turn

  • Interrupting or intruding on others

  • Difficulty engaging in quiet activities

  • Difficulty controlling emotions or behaving appropriately in social situations

  • Tendency to lose things

  • Difficulty with time management and meeting deadlines

These symptoms can impact a person’s ability to function in various settings, including school, work, and relationships. ADHD is a chronic condition.

ADHD is not a lack of discipline or laziness. It’s a medical condition. It’s also important to note that ADHD can manifest differently in each individual.

The Cycle of an Unhealthy ADHD Relationship

ADHD relationships tend to go through very specific phases, and the couple can get stuck in what feels like an endless cycle.

1. Love bombing-ish “Love bombing” is defined by someone showering their partner with excessive affection, attention, gifts, and flattery in order to gain their trust and dependence. It’s a common manipulative and emotionally abusive tactic of narcissists, sociopaths, psychopaths, etc.

But with the ADHD partner, they may be overwhelming their new partner with grandiose gestures and excessive flattery, not because they intend to manipulate them, but because they’ve become hyperfixated on them.

What may seem to be “love bombing” is actually a manifestation of the ADHD partner’s “hyperfixation.”

Instead of being hyperfixated on a hobby, interest, etc., the ADHD partner will be hyperfixated on their new partner.

While every couple goes through a honeymoon phase, the “love bombing-ish” phase of the

ADHD couple is a lot more intense. Usually, neither person is setting or enforcing any boundaries and may not be aware that this level of intensity is a red flag of its own. During this phase, the couple also may move to commitment very quickly, way before they might know each other well enough to decide if this is a good or safe person to do this with.

While this phase may feel wonderful, it then ends, and the “new hyperfixation” phase begins:

2. New Hyperfixation Those with ADHD struggle with sustained attention, and the same is true of their hyperfixations.

The relationship begins with the ADHD partner hyperfixated on their new partner, but then they become hyperfixated on something else: a new hobby, their job, some activity. In response, the ADHD partner’s desire and drive to maintain their romantic relationship drops because this new whatever is so exciting and new and has taken over their attention.

This is intensely difficult to the non-ADHD partner because they may perceive it as a loss.

They might think, “They used to love spending time with me, but now all they want to do is ____!” Even worse, they might internalize the issue: “Did I do something wrong? Why don’t I have all of their attention anymore?”

They watch their partner be intensely focused on something outside the relationship and feel neglected and abandoned, which is made worse by how close they felt to them during the “love bombing-ish” phase.

This phase is often marked by the non-ADHD partner continually trying to re-engage their ADHD partner. When it fails again and again, the couple then moves onto the next phase:

3. Fighting The non-ADHD partner has attempted multiple times to re-engage their ADHD partner. They want their partner’s undivided attention back. They want the extreme closeness back. As their attempts continually fail, they’re likely to become critical, snippy, and angry. Then the fighting begins.

These fights are likely to get progressively worse. The ADHD partner is very likely to struggle with impulsivity and emotional regulation, and the non-ADHD partner might get fed up with the ADHD’s failed promises to follow through on maintaining the relationship in the way they would like.

After every fight, the couple might return to the “love bombing-ish” phase, but as is the nature of the ADHD partner, it doesn’t last.

If the fights escalate to including abuse, the couple can also become trauma-bonded.

What You Can Do

If you find out that you or your partner has ADHD, there are things you can do to help improve your relationship and make sure it doesn’t get stuck in an endless cycle.

1. Learn everything you can about how your or your partner’s ADHD impacts your romantic relationship.

Education is always the place to start, especially because it helps us identify what’s happening and have a name for it. The non-ADHD partner can also get a better understanding of how their partner’s brain works.

Helpful books:

  • The Couple’s Guide to Thriving with ADHD by Melissa Orlov and Nancie Kohlenberger

  • Driven to Distraction by Edward M. Hallowell and John J. Ratey

  • You Mean I’m Not Lazy, Stupid or Crazy?!: The Classic Self-Help Book for Adults with Attention Deficit Disorderby Kate Kelly and Peggy Ramundo

Websites like ADDitude and CHADD are also good resources.

2. Ensure your relationship is healthy and get professional help if it’s not. A major sign that a relationship has become or is unhealthy is if there’s any type of abuse. You can learn more about the signs of an abusive relationship here.

It’s important for everyone to learn healthy communication and conflict-resolution skills, and this is very apparent in ADHD relationships. An individual or couple can do this with a therapist, counselor, or coach.

3. Be aware of hyperfixations and potentially have a word that you use to describe them. Hyperfixations are going to happen for the ADHD partner, and that’s okay! What’s important though is that both the ADHD and the non-ADHD have a way of talking about them in a way that’s constructive.

For example, you could call them something silly like, “Ted.”

“I think you’re in another Ted, honey” would be an easy and gentle way to make your ADHD partner aware of what’s happening and that maybe they should try to scale back a little.

“So sorry I’ve been out of touch. Got another Ted.” is a way that the ADHD partner could talk about it as well.

4. Explore ways to make your relationship more secure, stable, and organized. Routines and structure work best for those who have ADHD. Certain things that can help a ADHD relationship are things like keeping a shared calendar of important events, appointments, and tasks.

A weekly relationship check-in is also a great practice to have to help prioritize and maintain the romantic relationship.

5. Communicate regularly. Having open and honest communication can help both partners understand each other’s needs and concerns. It’s important to express feelings, frustrations and needs in a respectful way. This can also be a good place to set clear expectations: “I may forget to do that and it doesn’t mean I don’t love you. I’d love ideas though on how I can do that."

This can also be a place for the ADHD partner to assure the non-ADHD partner that the symptoms of their ADHD aren’t a reflection of how they feel about them.

6. Make sure your ADHD is manageable and get professional help if that’s feasible. For most people with ADHD, professional help is required to help manage their symptoms. If your ADHD isn’t manageable or is proving to be detrimental to your work, relationships, etc., it may be time to talk with a qualified healthcare professional, such as a psychiatrist or psychologist, who can accurately treat ADHD.

Treatment for ADHD typically includes a combination of medication and therapy. Medications, such as stimulants, can help to improve attention and reduce impulsivity and hyperactivity. Therapy, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, can help individuals learn strategies for managing their symptoms, improving their organization and time management, and building better relationships.

7. Try to live a healthy lifestyle. A healthy lifestyle can help to reduce symptoms of ADHD and improve overall well-being. ADHD symptoms can be exacerbated by sleep deprivation, so it’s important to make sure you’re getting enough sleep each night. Additionally, regular exercise can help to improve attention and reduce impulsivity and hyperactivity.

Eating a diet that is high in sugar and processed foods can worsen ADHD symptoms, so it’s important to focus on eating a diet that is rich in fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains. Stress can also exacerbate symptoms, so it’s important to find healthy ways to manage stress, such as through exercise, meditation, or yoga.

8. Do different physical activities together. Physical activities can be a helpful way to reduce symptoms of ADHD. Exercise can help to improve attention and reduce impulsivity and hyperactivity. Engaging in physical activities together can be a fun way to get moving and improve symptoms at the same time. You could also pair it with your weekly relationship check-in.

9. Balance having togetherness and apartness, aka having boundaries. Having time together is important for building and maintaining connections and intimacy.

However, people with ADHD may struggle with feeling overwhelmed or overstimulated in social situations, and may need more alone time to recharge. It’s important to understand and respect your partner’s need for alone time and to find a balance that works for both of you.

Having alone time can also be important for maintaining individuality and personal growth. People with ADHD may struggle with impulsivity, which can make it difficult to focus on their own goals and interests. Being apart can be a great time for the both of you to pursue your own passions and interests.

ADHD can have a significant impact on a romantic relationship, but it doesn’t have to ruin it. As long as both of you educate yourselves about how ADHD can affect your relationship and set boundaries and communicate effectively, you can prevent an unhealthy cycle from developing or continuing. With understanding and communication, you can improve your relationship and make it a healthy and fulfilling one.

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