It’s Possible to Support a Partner With ADHD Without Ignoring Your Needs

Photo: Stocksy/Lauren Naefe
Every relationship comes with a unique set of challenges. (What, you thought romance was easy?) Add a mental health condition into the mix, and things can feel a lot more complicated. If you're married to or dating someone with ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, which can present in different ways and is the clinical term for what's often called ADD) you may find that you feel ignored, neglected, and frustrated, Erin Nicole McGinnis, LMFT, says. (In addition to being a psychotherapist, McGinnis has ADD and has been in relationships with people with ADD—which is all to say, she is uniquely qualified to speak on this topic.)

"People with [ADHD] can be very attentive one minute, and then not follow through the next. The partner can often feel like they aren't cared about, filling in the blanks and making assumptions that aren't true," McGinnis says.

ADHD—which, according to Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD), affects an estimated 10 million adults—can manifest as hyperactivity or inattentiveness, McGinnis says. If the person with ADHD is hyperactive, it often shows as fidgeting, impulsiveness, and talkativeness. If they're inattentive, it looks like daydreaming and spacing out, McGinnis says. "Both [presentations] have an inability to stay on task. They have a problem starting a task and finishing it. They also have a problem staying focused...[and] lose things frequently, which can make it very frustrating for their partners." She explains that to have a functional relationship, you need to be able to complete tasks with your partner, and this is difficult when one person is very disorganized or not able to stay focused.

Here, McGinnis along with Stephanie Sarkis, PhD., a therapist specializing in ADHD, share nine ways to be a supportive partner to someone with ADHD, without sacrificing your own needs.

1. Learn everything you can about your S.O. (significant other)'s condition

"It's important to understand what ADD is and what your partner's limitations are," McGinnis says. Talking to your partner is a great place to start—they can fill you in on how they're experiencing the relationship—but it can help to do your own research beyond the conversations you have with them. "Read up on it. Get outside opinions on it," McGinnis says. By doing so, you may find it easier to grasp what your partner experiences, and you'll be better able to put yourself in their shoes, McGinnis explains.

2. Delegate tasks and ask for help

If your partner has ADHD, you may find that you end up doing the lion's share of tasks like cleaning and organizing, because, as mentioned, people with ADHD often have trouble completing tasks. That's why McGinnis says it can be beneficial to outsource chores and household duties. That could look like hiring a housekeeper so that you don't feel like you're the one always cleaning, or utilizing a grocery delivery service so it doesn't always fall to you to make sure your fridge is stocked. "You don't want things to feel unbalanced," McGinnis says. That's when frustration and resentment sets in.

3. Set boundaries and stick to them

Communication is key in any relationship, and it’s especially important if you’re in a relationship with someone who has ADHD. “You need to communicate your needs effectively and create boundaries, and then stick to those boundaries,” McGinnis says. For example, if your partner is always late, your boundary may be that you’re only going to wait for them for a certain amount of time before leaving.

When setting boundaries, you want to make sure you approach it rationally and “stroke before stand,” she explains. For the example above, that may mean beginning the conversation by telling them that you understand and you don’t take it personally. Then you can explain that it makes you feel bad when they don’t show up on time, so from now on, you’re only going to wait for 10 minutes. “You want to have actions and show cause and effect,” McGinnis says. “That’s really important. You have to continue to follow through.”

She also notes that you don’t want to go into the boundary-setting thinking that you will change your partner. “However, they will understand consequences,” McGinnis says.

4. Take time to recharge

Compassion fatigue is real. "It's really important to take that time for yourself to build up your compassion. It's a resource that can run out," McGinnis says. "Do what you need to do for yourself." This could mean taking a bath or spending time in nature—whatever it is, be sure to give yourself the time to do it.

5. Know the difference between “can’t” and “won’t”

Sometimes, your partner may want to do something you've asked him or her to do, but literally can't. "A vast majority of the time when your partner with ADHD is having difficulties completing a task or paying attention, it’s because their brain works differently," Dr. Sarkis says. "It’s not a personal choice."

6. Don’t bring up medication as a criticism

"It may be tempting to ask, 'Did you take your medication today?' after your partner says something you find upsetting, but instead, just let them know the behavior that bothered you," Dr. Sarkis says. Like any relationship, communication is truly key.

7. Learn more about the “executive function” part of the brain

This, Dr. Sarkis explains, is the part of the brain in charge of planning-oriented tasks and someone with ADHD may have impairment in this area. By understanding how their brain is impacted, it can help provide more insight into how your partner's mind works.

8. Use “I feel” statements

"When expressing a concern, use 'I' instead of 'you,'" Dr. Sarkis says. "For example, 'I feel upset when my birthday isn’t acknowledged' is a better starting point for conversation than 'You forgot my birthday again.''" This sounds like a tip every relationship could use!

9. Praise and encouragement go a long way

Like with any relationship, it's important you show your partner that you love them and are proud of them; everyone wants to feel valued. "Make sure to thank your partner for what is going well," Dr. Sarkis says. "Positive reinforcement works for everyone, and particularly for people with ADHD. Remember that the things that made you fall in love with someone are also the things that may drive you up a wall sometimes—and that applies whether someone has ADHD or not."

Originally published March 20, 2019. Updated September 19, 2019.

Looking for ways to refill your compassion cup, so to speak? Here's how to create a self-care checklist that you'll actually stick to. Plus, five ways to feel more empowered through self care.

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