What's one of the keys to a successful relationship? Communication.
But I know that prioritizing communication is often much easier said than done. This is especially true for people with ADHD in a relationship with neurotypical or non-ADHD people. Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder complicates communication skills, so issues are more likely to arise in relationships.
Since nobody wants relationship problems, let's examine how ADHD can affect your friendships and partnerships and what you can do about it.
❤️⚧️🌈 Disclaimer: For the sake of brevity, this article mixes terms referring to couples and polyamorous relationships. Inflow recognizes and celebrates all relationships and wants our readers to know that they are all included here.
Too long; didn't read
- Communication difficulties in ADHD relationships can present significant challenges.
- Relationships and friendships can be affected by several ADHD traits, such as forgetfulness, commitment issues, and rejection-sensitive dysphoria.
- Having ADHD does not mean all of your relationships are doomed to fail!
- You can strengthen your relationships by learning more about ADHD (whether or not you have ADHD), addressing and working through ADHD-related shame, and communicating your struggles and frustrations.
How does ADHD affect relationships?
Studies show that people with ADHD have different emotional responses from people without ADHD and that they hit at different times as well. This is referred to as emotional dysregulation and can manifest in a relationship in many different ways.1
Our brains have several different electrical rhythms running through them, called waves. One type of wave, the alpha wave, works to 'cut out the noise' so you can focus on one thing at a time—or just simply relax and not focus on anything at all.2
However, studies have also found that those with ADHD have issues with alpha waves doing their job correctly, making it difficult for an ADHDer's focus and memory to work well.3
In a relationship, this can show up as:
- Forgetting to respond to a text
- Forgetting about date night
- Not participating in household chores
- Overlooking important dates
- Forgetting to clean up a mess left behind
These behaviors can be frustrating for non-ADHD partners and ADHDers alike when they realize what's happened... again.
2. Commitment issues
Commitment issues don't always mean that someone is unfaithful! Because ADHD causes one to have difficulty focusing, that can leave the other person(s) involved feeling like the ADHDer isn't fully committed to their relationship.
Inattention can cause ADHDers to get lost in their own world and tune out what their partners are saying or entirely miss non-verbal cues when something is wrong.
As you can imagine, non-ADHD people may perceive this as disinterest in them, but this is not necessarily the case.
3. Rejection sensitive dysphoria
A strong sensitivity to being rejected or criticized by their partner (or anyone, for that matter) is a common experience for those with ADHD. These intense emotional reactions and anticipations are collectively referred to as rejection-sensitive dysphoria (RSD), which affects at least 70% of children and adults with ADHD.
When it comes to romantic relationships, RSD can cause some substantial problems if it's not addressed early on. For example, an ADHDer with RSD might be less open to resolving relationship problems because they'll likely perceive their partner's feedback as a direct personal attack.5
Conversely, RSD could also make it difficult for ADHDers to express their challenges to others. Again, this is because of the fear of rejection associated with rejection sensitive dysphoria. Ironically—and unfortunately—the inability to communicate our concerns can push non-ADHD partners to believe they are being rejected.6
Though many people feel like they understand the basics of ADHD due to its recent rise in popularity on social media, it's hard to know just from watching a few TikToks and reels. To truly understand how an ADHDer thinks and functions, the non-ADHD partner should try to educate themselves on the condition. Then, apply it to their observations of how their partner functions.
By learning about different triggers and symptoms that the neurotypical partner may label as just 'irritating', they'll gain a greater understanding and empathy for their partner's struggles.
How to communicate better with your ADHD partner
If ADHD has caused any of the above issues in your relationship, don't panic! There are ways in which you can practice stronger communication to strengthen your relationship.
Learn about your partner's brain
Understanding this condition from different angles helps build a stronger partnership to provide support when needed. This also allows non-ADHD partners to understand the best way to communicate with someone with ADHD and not make the situation worse or trigger RSD.
Help them work through any shame they might have (and address your own)
Unfortunately, many ADHDers experience shame. They've likely spent much of their childhood hearing criticism from others about their ADHD-related shortcomings, such as inability to focus, hyperactivity, etc.
This kind of shame can stick with people and make relationships challenging. So, make it a goal for everyone in the relationship to face their shame head-on and process it on your own, with the help of a professional, or together.
The outcome? You'll be kinder to yourselves and let go of shame from the past.
Create a safe space for honesty
To fully understand your partner's experiences with ADHD, it's important to create a space where they feel welcome to talk about their struggles as they arise.
They're not trying to spoil date night; they're trying to save the date! By allowing them to be honest about which situations make them uneasy, you'll be able to plan an alternative date night—together.
For ADHD partners in this situation:
Your sensory processing concerns are valid. But, instead of just saying "no", which could leave your partner feeling rejected, explain why you don't want to go. If they're unaware of your challenges with overstimulation, explain that going to a concert isn't something you enjoy. Discuss alternatives or potential solutions (wearing earplugs, taking a friend instead, etc).
ADHD can affect relationships in various ways, including forgetfulness, commitment issues, and rejection sensitivity. So, everyone involved should learn as much as possible about ADHD and work through unresolved shame in order to build a stronger relationship.
By understanding the unique challenges of ADHD and working together, any marriage, friendship, or relationship can thrive and stand the test of time and ADHD.
1 ADHD Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorders | Emotional dysregulation in children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder
2 Frontiers in Psychology, 05 July 2011 | The role of alpha-band brain oscillations as a sensory suppression mechanism during selective attention
3 Journal of child psychology and psychiatry, and allied disciplines | Alpha modulation during working memory encoding predicts neurocognitive impairment in ADHD
4 BMC Psychiatry | Emotion dysregulation in adults with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder: a meta-analysis
5 Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology | Sensitivity to Peer Feedback in Young Adolescents with Symptoms of ADHD: Examination of Neurophysiological and Self-Report Measures
6 Child Psychiatry and Human Development | The Stress Response in Adolescents with Inattentive Type ADHD Symptoms