More and more people are getting diagnosed with ADHD as adults1. Lots of us are suddenly finding out that our loving but disorganized and forgetful partner is actually neurodivergent. What does this mean for our relationships? What do we need to know about dating someone with ADHD?
In this article, we’re going to look at some of the challenges (for both of you) involved in dating someone with ADHD. We’re also going to look at ways that you can work with your partner to build a great relationship that incorporates both of your strengths and allows you to support each other’s weaknesses.
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For lots of people, most of their understanding of ADHD comes from the impact it has on children. ADHD in adults can be quite different and dating someone with ADHD has some specific challenges. Here are some of the problems that you might face in a relationship with someone with ADHD.
Someone who has ADHD has a lot going on inside their head. Their thoughts are busy and often chaotic. It’s easy for things to get missed, overlooked, and forgotten inside this maelstrom.
Some of the things that get missed and forgotten are going to be things that are important to you, such as your anniversary or that they’ve promised to buy you dinner. It feels as though they’ve forgotten because they don’t feel as though those things are important but that’s not the case.
Someone with ADHD will also forget things that are important to them2. If they don’t follow an effective coping strategy, they might miss an important job interview or forget to pick their child up from daycare.
As their partner, you might find yourself having to do a lot more diary management and making reminders than you might like.
Another symptom of ADHD that can come across as a lack of care is that they might zone out during conversations3. You’ll probably notice when this happens. They stop responding properly to you. Their eyes will unfocus. They’ll clearly be mentally somewhere else.
They might say things like “uhuh” or “Sure. That sounds good” but they’re not actually aware of the conversation, or what they’re agreeing to. If you do force their attention back to the conversation, they’ll probably be slightly disoriented and potentially even irritable.
This is hard on you. When you’re talking to someone who just zones out, you feel unimportant and uninteresting. You start to question whether you’re boring or what you’re doing wrong.
It can also leave you feeling really lonely. You’re trying to talk about your thoughts, experiences, and feelings but they’re not taking part in that conversation. You might feel as though you have to face all of your problems alone, because your partner can’t pay enough attention to support you.
Even when you know that they don’t want you to feel that way and that zoning out is one of their symptoms, you can still feel pretty distant and isolated.
People with ADHD aren’t lazy. They’re often really keen to do their fair share of the housework, admin, or any other tasks you might have to do as a couple. Unfortunately, they find starting tasks much easier than finishing them4.
They might decide to do the laundry so they take the laundry basket to the machine, put a couple of items in, and then get distracted by something they found in a pocket and go to deal with that as well. When you come by a few hours later expecting the laundry to be done, most of it is still in the basket waiting to be sorted and put on.
This can be deeply frustrating for both of you. They genuinely meant to put the laundry on. They made a start at the task. They’re often as frustrated as you that this just isn’t enough to achieve results.
This will often mean that responsibility for keeping track of progress towards the completion of tasks will fall to you. You might find yourself doing your share of the household tasks and being a project manager at the same time.
People with ADHD are known to be impulsive, especially if they have the impulsive subtype5. They make decisions and do things on the spur of the moment, without thinking through all of the costs and benefits or any knock-on effects of that decision.
Sometimes, this is a wonderful thing. They might surprise you with tickets to Paris for your birthday. That’s lovely. It’s less lovely if you realize that they hadn’t considered that you’re away at a work conference over those dates and you can’t go. Or if you’ve been trying to save money for a deposit on a house and they’ve just spent a chunk of it on flights and hotels.
This impulsivity isn’t just about spending money. They might say intentionally hurtful things because they haven’t thought through the implications of what they’re saying. They might quit their job because they’re mad at their boss without thinking about where they’ll find another one.
When you’re dating someone with ADHD, you may need to be prepared to deal with a lot of strong emotions. ADHD can make it more difficult to moderate emotions, which means that feelings like frustration and anger can suddenly become intense and overwhelming6.
ADHD makes it harder for someone to control their emotions, but that doesn’t mean that it’s impossible. Dating someone with ADHD absolutely doesn’t mean that you have to accept being yelled at or having someone throw things whenever they get angry or frustrated.
It just means that your partner might find it more difficult to control their emotions and need a bit more support in doing so. For example, they might have to say things like “I can feel myself getting frustrated. Can we stop for a bit and talk again later when I’ve calmed down please?” or “I’m feeling really angry right now so I’m going to take a quick walk.”
One of the symptoms of ADHD is a tendency to hyperfocus on something. They might get really engrossed in a book and genuinely not hear people calling their name.
At the start of a relationship, someone with ADHD will probably be hyperfocused on you. That can be pretty intense. Wonderful, but intense.
It’s actually a lot like the experience of being love-bombed by an abusive partner. You’re the focus of their attention in a way that’s unsustainable in the long term. They’ll be incredibly attentive, noticing little details about you and remembering throwaway comments you’ve made and turning them into beautiful romantic gestures.
This can make it even more difficult to transition into a more “normal” type of relationship with someone with ADHD, where they’re going to struggle to pay attention to you and they forget things that you’ve said.
The transition from having them hyperfocused on you to the rest of your relationship can be the most difficult point in your relationship with someone with ADHD. Once you get through that, things will often feel a little bit easier.
Sex is an important part of many relationships, but it can pose challenges for people with ADHD7. They are easily distracted, struggle to take their time with things, don’t “live in the moment,” and quickly become bored. Those aren’t often qualities associated with a great sexual partner.
Someone with ADHD will often find long foreplay to be a particular challenge, which can be very distressing for their partners. Having someone “zone out” during sex can also have a devastating effect on your self-esteem.
People with ADHD will often resent efforts that make them behave more like everyone else. They will see requests for them to improve their punctuality or tidiness, for example, as efforts to control them and make them fit into a mold.
That’s understandable. They’re approaching the world differently to the rest of us, and things that we see as a normal part of life, such as mental lists of outstanding tasks or paying attention to the time, simply don’t resonate with them.
They will also often have been criticized and expected to change for most of their lives, especially while they were at school. Asking them to change something can tap into a deeply-felt resentment around not feeling accepted or not being seen as good enough8.
As the partner of someone with ADHD, you can sometimes feel as though you’re doing the lion’s share of the work in your relationship, especially if you’re married or live together. You will often find that you’re taking on most or all of the mental load associated with complex tasks or goals. This mental load is also known as invisible labor9.
There is hidden labor involved in trying to help your partner manage their ADHD. You might have to break tasks up into individual steps. Rather than asking them to take the bins out, you might need to ask them to take the bin out. Then ask them to take the recycling out. Then ask them to put fresh bags in.
Many women find themselves taking on the majority of the mental load anyway, especially if you have children. Having a partner with ADHD can make this considerably worse.
So, it’s pretty clear that dating someone who has ADHD is going to include a few challenges. Many of these will be normal issues between partners that are amplified by the ADHD symptoms.
Luckily, there are definitely steps that you can take to make dating someone with ADHD much easier. Here are some of the most important ones.
The first thing that you can do to help you have an easier and healthier relationship with someone with ADHD is to learn as much as you can about the disorder. Try to focus specifically on the various symptoms.
Understanding the ways that ADHD affects how someone processes information and interacts with the world can help you to recognize when some of the things that you find difficult about your partner’s behavior are actually symptoms.
When you realize that something is an ADHD symptom, it’s much easier not to take it personally.
For example, you might be annoyed that they’re always late and feel as though it shows that they don’t respect you. For someone without ADHD, always being late might actually be a sign that they see their time as more important than yours. For someone with ADHD, however, it’s just a sign that they have ADHD.
Realizing that people with ADHD consistently underestimate how long a task will take to complete and that they struggle to notice the passage of time makes it easier to accept that their lateness isn’t anything to do with how much they value you.
It’s helpful to remember that your partner probably won’t have all of the symptoms. There are a few different types of ADHD, but each person has a specific combination of symptoms all of their own.
Try to learn about how your partner experiences their ADHD, as well as learning the general theory around ADHD. This gives you the best possibility of helping the person you love.
Dating someone with ADHD is a little bit of a balancing act. You don’t want to ignore their condition and the barriers it places in their way, but you also don’t want to simply carry all of the burdens of the relationship.
Try to remember that the symptoms of ADHD offer an explanation of the challenges that you and your partner are facing. They’re not there to be used as an excuse.
This is important, not least because constant excuses are irritating. If you find yourself “making excuses” for your partner all of the time, you’ll probably feel frustrated. Working with your partner to understand them as explanations gives you a lot more flexibility in the solutions you have open to you.
For example, when you see your partner’s difficulty staying focused on a single task as an excuse, you feel as though your only option is to accept it. When you approach it as an explanation, you can explore other ways to deal with it.
You and your partner can trial different possibilities to see which works best for you. Can you divide up the tasks so you take the longer tasks and they have more smaller tasks? Can you create a list of steps to make sure the task gets completed all the way through? Does it help to set reminders on their phone to refocus?
Frustration and feeling hard-done-by both thrive when you don’t talk about your feelings. If your partner has ADHD, they’re likely to feel attacked and be sensitive to criticism. You’re likely to feel ignored and overwhelmed. Finding ways to communicate and talk through your feelings can help you feel like more of a team.
Remember that you can’t fix problems in your relationship unless you talk about them. You both need to be able to feel heard and understood. Try scheduling regular “how are we doing” conversations where you can both bring up difficult feelings. Remember that neither of you will be the only one struggling in this relationship.
Sometimes dating someone with ADHD can leave you feeling like you have no choice but to take on a parental-type role. You’re the one making sure that everything gets done and being the real “grown-up” in the relationship. It’s really important to break this cycle, for both of you.
Allowing your relationship to remain imbalanced will often lead to a codependent relationship forming, or an unhealthy power imbalance. If you feel like you have to always play the role of “parent,” it can become difficult to give your partner the respect and dignity they deserve10.
Similarly, if they always act in the role of “child,” they’re not giving you the support and back-up that you deserve. Finding a therapist who works with Transactional Analysis can be especially helpful if you’re facing a parent-child dynamic in your relationship.
One of the reasons we get annoyed when a partner with ADHD doesn’t do something we’ve asked them to or struggles with responsibilities or plans is because of whatwe think it means about how they see us and how important we are in their lives. This is the “if I was really important to you, you’d manage” type of thoughts.
While this is totally understandable, it’s both inaccurate and unhelpful when you’re dealing with someone with ADHD. When someone with ADHD forgets to pick up milk from the store, it doesn’t mean that they don’t care about you. It means that they have ADHD.
This is largely about not taking their behavior personally. If you struggle with this, try asking yourself “what else could lead to this kind of behavior?”
If your ADHD partner has difficulty dealing with their emotions, they might make big outbursts when they’re upset, angry, or frustrated. These are uncomfortable and scary to be on the receiving end of, so you might be tempted to try to appease them and stop them from feeling this way.
Rather than walking on eggshells around them, it’s almost always better to try to help them manage their own emotions. The first step for this is helping them to understand and recognize when they’re having strong emotions and to understand what they’re actually feeling11.
Try telling them what you see and asking them what they’re actually experiencing. For example, you might say “You seem really frustrated right now, and a little bit angry. Is that what you’re feeling?”
If their attention wanders during a conversation, have an affectionate way for them to ask for a repeat. This shows that you recognize that it’s a part of their ADHD, rather than thinking of it as a personal failure. I like “Ooops. Sorry. I was distracted by squirrels. Could you say that again please?”
You might also find that it’s helpful to let them speak first in a conversation. Someone with ADHD will often interrupt because they’re worried that they’ll forget what they wanted to say if they don’t blurt it out straight away. Letting them talk first can help to ease that challenge.
You might also have a “discussion notebook” where they can write down thoughts that they’re having while you’re talking to make sure that they don’t forget them. Often a paper and pen is better for this than making notes on their phone as they might get distracted and start doing other activities on the device.
When you’re dating someone with ADHD, it’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day irritations and struggles. Make sure that you also take the time to notice and appreciate your partner’s strengths as well.
This can be important in helping to build up their self-confidence and self-esteem as well as encouraging you to notice many of the positives in your relationship. For example, dating someone with ADHD is almost never boring. They’ll be full of novel ideas and exciting adventures.
Talk about these as positives of dating them as a person and as awesome symptoms of their ADHD. You might say “I love your crazy ideas and plans. You’re just so imaginative and exciting to be around. I know your ADHD can sometimes make life difficult, but I wouldn’t change you for the world.”
People with ADHD, especially if they received their first diagnosis as an adult, will probably have dealt with a lot of criticism, shaming, and blame for not behaving the way that society expects them to. Try to be a place where they feel accepted and loved for who they are.
Of course, being patient isn’t always easy. You’re going to get frustrated, even if you really do understand that your partner can’t help their ADHD. Make sure you have someone you can trust to allow you to vent now and again. A great relationship coach can be really helpful here as they'll help you see when to be patient and when to start enforcing some boundaries.
ADHD can lead to a variety of problems in a relationship, including problems feeling deeply connected to each and low levels of satisfaction with your sex life. These will be challenges you will need to work on in your relationship, but they can be overcome.
People with ADHD can, and do, fall in love. Their ability to love others is exactly the same as other people’s. The main problem is that they might struggle to pay enough attention to the person they love, leaving their partner feeling lonely.
Someone with ADHD is completely capable of being faithful in their relationship, and anyone who uses their condition as an excuse for cheating isn’t being honest or taking responsibility for their actions.
ADHD can mean that someone texts differently from other people. If they can’t reply straight away, they might forget later. This leads them to reply at inconvenient times, such as late at night, because they won’t remember in the morning. They might also just fail to reply at all.
Dating someone with ADHD can be a challenge but it can also be full of joy, excitement, and adventure. If you both focus on communication and trying to adapt to meet each other’s needs, you can have a great relationship.
What are your experiences of dating someone with ADHD? Please feel free to share your experiences with me in the comments and to share this article with someone who might find it interesting.