Can I distill everything you need to know about ADHD relationships into five pieces of advice? That’s tough! After all, ADHD is a complex syndrome affecting individuals, not clones. Yet, I can definitely share five crucial points that just might be your game-changers. Yes, we can even call them radical.
First, if you find the word radical alarming, relax. Consider the definition:
As relating to or affecting the fundamental nature of something; far-reaching or thorough.
Fundamental. Far-reaching. Thorough.
Warning: You are unlikely to encounter this advice from most therapists, including those claiming ADHD expertise, or medical experts. It’s fair to say, these professions lag woefully behind in ADHD expertise and clinical skills. Depending on them to guide us in core essentials means we continue to struggle in mostly unnecessary ways.
Let’s Start with ADHD Relationships 101
To navigate ADHD relationships effectively, we begin with a strong, broad foundation of ADHD knowledge. A solid education.
Sure, reading and watching online has its place. But if we don’t already have a clear understanding, we’re vulnerable to the simple-minded nonsense and even disinformation about ADHD. That can cost us.
That’s why there is no substitute for reading/listening to several solid books on the topic, by respected authors with true expertise.
To Get Traction, Get Specific
From there, you can more readily identify your specific ADHD-related challenges. Standard, one-size-fits-all solutions typically fall flat. And when they do, how long will you be able to summon more optimism to try again?
If learning how to set a happier course were so straightforward and easily summarized, I wouldn’t have spent 10 solid years writing two groundbreaking books—and years more creating over 300 blog posts and leading groups! And then online training. All focusing on clarifying the complexity, not “dumbing it down.”
Get Tactical, Too
Finally, the running theme through most success strategies is structure, structure, structure. Creating routines. Tackling time-management. Get clear about the root cause of a behavior, not superficial appearances.
By root cause, I don’t mean “psychological motives” and “trauma”. I mean predictable ADHD challenges that have predictable solutions. Begin there, and other factors will become more clear over time.
Talk Less, Troubleshoot More
The bottom line: Spend less time discussing or beating yourself up over problems. Spend more effort sleuthing and crafting practical solutions. (As I work to finalize Course 3: Practical Supports, I see the importance now more than ever!)
In This Post: 5 Radical Tips for ADHD Relationships
Along with all that, I’ve discovered that these five radical perspectives can significantly accelerate your progress:
[advertising; not endorsement] [advertising; not endorsement]
- Approach ADHD As a Team Sport
- Be a Detective In Your Own Life
- Spot “Chicken or Egg” Situations
- Recognize ADHD-Related Physical Issues
- Flip the Script on Predictable ADHD Sleep Challenges
Now we’ll quickly go through them one by one. At the end of this post, you’ll find links to related topics here at ADHD Roller Coaster.
1. Approach ADHD As A Team Sport
Living with ADHD—in yourself or someone else—is a marathon, not a sprint. Going the distance without becoming road kill requires working as a team. This message surprises some people, including couple therapists and yes, even some claiming ADHD expertise.
Standard Therapy Rules Don’t Apply
On one side, conventional wisdom and prevailing “therapy culture” dictate a clear message: “Adults are responsible for themselves.”
As a result, many partners of adults with ADHD believe they must—or are advised to—keep their distance when it comes to ADHD evaluation and treatment. Otherwise, they risk being accused of “Codependence” and violating personal boundaries.
What “healthy” options are left to them? In a nutshell: Learn to coexist or leave. What if children are involved and a shared-custody situation problematic? What if there is no money to leave? Too bad.
[One popular book purporting to be a guide to ADHD relationships even tells the other partner: Your ADHD partner’s medication is none of your business. This perfectly illustrates the dangers of attempting to shoe-horn ADHD into standard therapy.]
Walking on Eggshells Helps No One
On the other side, we see a contrasting perspective. It’s increasingly adamant online. That is: “Partners of adults with ADHD must fully understand, accommodate, and provide unwavering support.”
Translated: Be an endless well of support. Ask for nothing. Never try talking with your ADHD partner about how their poorly regulated behaviors negatively affect you, your children, and your ADHD Partner as well. In ways they might not even see. You might “trigger Rejection Sensitivity Dysphoria (RSD).”
Be prepared to walk on eggshells—a lot—and make yourself so tiny you eventually disappear.
Now, does either perspective make sense in the rational world? No, not in a world well-informed about ADHD. No, not in a world that understands how to alleviate these struggles and enhance both partners’ quality of life.
Side Note: Rejection Sensitivity Dysphoria
Look for more soon about RSD. I’ve held out as long as I can, not wanting to risk a social-media firestorm.
For now, please know this term is being horribly misappropriated to keep folks locked into extremely dysfunctional patterns—and sell one type of medication.
To be clear: The description resonates for many. Let’s just say commercial interests have hijacked the conversation in a way that precludes healing. In a way that risk making things worse.
Respected ADHD experts have been writing about the described phenomenon for years — long before RSD became a website-traffic boosting keyword. I’ve described it in my presentations for 15 years. In fact, it is a cornerstone of Solving Your Adult ADHD Puzzle: Foundations. No one should have to live with so-called RSD. There are ways to heal, and you deserve better.]
No Adult with ADHD Is An Island
It’s crucial to remember this: Everything that negatively affects the adult with ADHD tends to send shock waves through the entire household.
Putting the burden of compensation and excessive assistance on the “partners of” tends to backfire. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow. But a bit down the line? Expect mental and physical exhaustion, not to mention resentment from the ADHD partner. It just postpones the inevitable and wears down any goodwill and optimism.
What You Risk with “Hands Off” Extremes
With either extreme described above, expecting the ADHD partner to “go it alone” in treatment risks never:
- Maximizing benefits from medication (feedback from a loved one can be crucial)
- Using collaborative strategies to “get things done” in an equitable way
- Enhancing autonomy and functioning in all areas of life for both partners
- Ending the Nagger-Nagee, Parent-Child phenomenon once and for all
- Managing the unexpected, such as COVID
- Co-parenting on the same page
- Enjoying more harmonious relationships and a calmer, happier home
- Realizing long-term goals and truly functioning as a team in life
- The list goes on.
2. Be a Detective in Your Own Life
To avoid falling prey to one-size-fits-all memes, dive deeper into the variable realm of Adult ADHD. That’s where you’ll find the makings of effective troubleshooting.
In other words, instead of seeking first to blame, seek to troubleshoot. Pretend you are Sherlock Holmes hot on the trail of cause and effect. Step back from emotions and interpretations (they could be ridiculously wrong!)—and analyze.
The more you grasp how ADHD symptoms sneak around in your life, the better you become at avoiding misunderstandings and unproductive attempts to cope. As an individual and a couple.
Your next destination: Learning how to calmly tackle situations using a problem-solving mindset.
Let’s illustrate this with a simple scenario: “You never take out the garbage!” commonly followed by “I will if you stop nagging!” Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
Short-Circuit The Dysfunctional Cycle
Why not pause for one hot second and pretend you are cracking a case:
- Start by neutrally stating the problem (e.g., the trash needs to go out regularly but isn’t).
- Jointly brainstorm the reasons why trash needs to go out, the consequences of it not going out, be as graphic as you can!
- Jointly identify likely obstacles (e.g., no calendar, no reminders, no routines, unbridled procrastination, self-talk that “this will take forever”, etc.).
- Engage in a brainstorming session to devise solutions and formulate a plan.
- If the initial plan falls short, go to the next one; keep troubleshooting until the garbage isn’t a contentious issue anymore (yes, it’s entirely possible!).
This kind of strategy is what separates our Adult ADHD-Focused Couple Therapy model from standard couple therapy. It’s based on what works for Adult ADHD and for couple therapy.
Trash Talk—Or Troubleshooting?
Remember: Years of misinterpreting ADHD symptoms can distort perceptions of your or your ADHD partner’s capabilities. You might take this as “proof” of inability. Why try to change it? It’s futile!
The reason to try is this: If you let the past dictate the future, you stay stuck in old counter-productive patterns. You risk never learning what you truly can do. That is, once you know what you are up against (ADHD) and the proven strategies to manage it.
Case in point: My mother-in-law reports that my husband, as a boy, used to call her the “Queen of Garbage.” Why? Because taking out the trash was one of his few tasks, and it needed to be done on a weekly basis! Now, after years of our own trash troubles, he is the reliable “King of Garbage”! She is amazed.
Reframe Your Approach
In other words, stop trash talking! Instead, reframe your approach through the lens of your new understanding of ADHD. Then devise a targeted plan. Prepare to trouble-shoot any obstacles head-on.
To be sure, reaching this point can require effort—and foundation building. Quick-fix tips and tricks, however, rarely withstand the test of time, usually fizzling out after just a week or two.
3. Be Alert To ADHD’s “Chicken or Egg” Situations
Beyond focus. Beyond Executive Functions. Physical signs of ADHD often go unrecognized. In fact, they cleverly disguise themselves as “Chicken or Egg” situations—the kind that lock you in destructive cycles.
To put it simply: ADHD-related challenges can exacerbate many physical health conditions. In turn, these conditions can intensify dysfunctional behaviors. If we’re not alert, it can all turn into a big ol’ blame-y ball of wax.
- An ADHD adult cannot sleep until 2-3 hours past desired bedtime—a known ADHD sleep disorder
- To counter sleep deprivation the next day, the adult consumes excess caffeine
- Neither partner understands the core sleep issues.
- The other partner’s well-meaning suggestions only frustrate and alienate the ADHD Partner, who judged the situation hopeless years ago. e.g.:
- If you would just drink less caffeine, you’ll sleep better!”
- “If you went to bed earlier and turned off [electronic device], you wouldn’t be so tired and need caffeine.”
- “You’re not coming to bed because you’re avoiding sex with me.”
The ADHD Partner repeats the counter-productive cycle. Day in. Day out. This risks compounding sleep problems. But if you’re thinking that simple “sleep hygiene” tips will turn things around, think again!
Avoid the Blame and Shame Game
When we miss connections like this, we open the door to “blaming and shaming”. We might heap fault on ourselves or others. Either way, we miss the true targets for problem-solving. In this case, the target is identifying how common ADHD-related sleep challenges are playing out in your life — and learning how to troubleshoot your patterns around those specific challenges.
Another “Chicken or Egg” situation: ADHD symptoms can mean brain-based difficulty in:
- “Putting the brakes” on unhealthy habits, such as with eating or consuming alcohol, and
- Complying with treatment for chronic conditions often caused by unhealthy habits (e.g. hypertension, diabetes)
When we see only the tip of the iceberg — that is, the bad habit — we miss the complex causes underneath.
Which brings us to Tip #4.
4. Recognize ADHD Physical Issues
ADHD-related physical issues can manifest in surprising forms:
- Hearing issues (“auditory processing disorder”)
- Poor coordination (being “awkward” or “clumsy”)
- Not feeling sleepy at night
- Refusing to awaken in the morning
- Being lazy
- Forgetting about eating (not feeling hungry) or, at the other extreme, forgetting about everything but eating
In particular, the extremes can really throw us off the scent. How can both behaviors—forgetting about eating and always thinking about eating—spring from poorly managed ADHD? You might protest, “That makes no sense, Gina!”
Ah, but it makes a lot of sense, if you understand the myriad complexity around self-regulation. Remember, too: ADHD is a highly variable syndrome. There are few universal statements.
Does the adult with ADHD always know the causes of their challenges? Again, no. Instead, they might latch onto more superficially “obvious” answers. (Obvious, but wrong.)
- Attribute hearing issues to their partners not speaking clearly or loudly enough
- “My father was clumsy, too; it’s genetic” (not realizing the genetic connection might be ADHD, with clumsiness as a side effect)
- “I’m a night owl” or “I’m just not interested in food” or “I eat my feelings”
Newsflash: Effective medication often improves these physical health conditions —and boosts your ability ability to manage them. First, though, you need to recognize the physical connections to ADHD.
On A Personal Note: ADHD & Exercise
Consider how hard it is for so many adults to get regular exercise, especially once they reach their 50s. (For the moment, let’s forget the opposite category: adults with ADHD who have “self-medicated” with exercise their entire lives, often to the point of injury.)
I remember being dumb-founded by my husband’s behavior, pre-diagnosis, that can best be described as inert. We’re talking decades ago now.
Say a friend invited him for a long bike ride. He’d come home and say, “Boy, that felt great. I need to do that more often.” Yet, weeks if not months would pass before he thought about biking again.
When I’d suggest that he might enjoy a ride on such a beautiful day, he’d irritably dismiss my “obsession” with exercise. (Trust me, I could use a little more obsession.). “But don’t you remember?” I’d ask, puzzled. “Last time you said you felt great and looked forward to the next ride?” Scowl. Back to the comfort of mining databases at his desk.
Optimizing medication treatment made all the difference. All. Why is that? Because it stimulated him into physical hyperactivity? Absolutely not. It’s because medication helped him to:
- Boost brain-based motivation, time-management, and follow through
- Manage the huge transition from highly focused mental work to physical activity
- Improve motor coordination and balance—so exercise is easier, more enjoyable
- Remember how great he felt and slept after exercising—and want to keep doing it
As I mentioned earlier, structure was critical, too. He realized he couldn’t leave exercise up to chance—when he “felt like it.” Instead, he enrolled in two weekly group training classes locally. Bonus: New friends who’d hold each other accountable. In warm weather, we walk 30 minutes at the end of every weekday. Each Sunday we go for a hike. Routines. Structure. It works. On some level, it’s the only thing, besides medication, that works consistently.
5. Notice Predictable ADHD Sleep Challenges
It’s hard to over-emphasize: Sleep is a particular challenge for most adults with ADHD— and that can spill over to their bed partners. But it’s not all Melatonin and CPAPs!
Believe it or not, misperceptions of sleep patterns can be a major source of conflict.
First, ADHD-related sleep challenges commonly fall with four categories—though they can co-mingle:
- Sleep Apnea
- Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS) and Periodic Limb Movements of Sleep (PLMS)
- Delayed Sleep Phase (not feeling sleepy at bedtime; going to sleep hours later than necessary to get 7-9 hours sleep)
- Difficulty awakening from “Sleep of the Dead” – Asking the partners to awaken them carries risks, including being unable to (but still being blamed) or blamed for trying
Let’s call those internal ADHD-related sleep challenges. But we can also see external challenges, such as:
- Daytime inefficiencies that lead to burning the midnight oil
- Relying on electronics or alcohol to transition from wake to sleep (actually worsening sleep quality and risking a secondary addiction)
- Carving out quiet “me time” at the expense of sleep
- Having little sense of routine or structure
Of course we can’t easily separate internal from external factors. There tends to be a murky mix of both.
Fact-Check Assumptions About Adult ADHD Behaviors
All this points to sleep as yet another instance where relying on misinterpretations of behavior and “how things superficially appear” risks keep us stuck—and even making things worse.
What if the ADHD Partner is not “refusing” to go to bed or “refusing” to get up in the morning? In fact, what if it’s one or more of these sleep challenges?
What if the ADHD Partner is also not “refusing” to see a doctor or stubbornly “denying” these sleep issues? It could be something else entirely, if we know what we’re looking at.
Alternate Explanations— Through the ADHD Lens:
For example, let’s dig just a bit below the sleep iceberg’s tip:
- Being asleep typically means being unaware of sleep apnea or RLS
- ADHD is associated with various degrees of poor self-observation and recall
- Whatever might be clear in wee hours gets “back-burnered” during the workday scramble
- No tangible, obvious connection is made between the sleep disorder and feeling lousy
- There is no objective data, thus creating a clear sense of cause
- “What kind of sleep expert? How do I find one? What if they just give me the blasted Sleep Hygiene tips again?
5. Be Pro-Active: Self-Educate and Self-Advocate
Instead of lingering on the surface, dive into the “why”. That’s the crucial first step towards mastering the “how.” At first, it feels like a never-ending game of “chicken or egg” or even “cat and mouse.” Over time, though, the puzzle pieces start falling into place.
Sadly, many individuals halt their journey at the “why” junction. They simply resign themselves. Sure, tackling complex challenges can feel daunting. But remember: Most of these predictable difficulties have predictable solutions. You needn’t reinvent the wheel!
The hard truth is this: Even the most seasoned clinicians can’t unearth all the insights you need. That’s true in the fields of medicine, therapy, and coaching. Instead, it’s largely up to us to piece our own Adult ADHD puzzle.
The realm of ADHD science is cutting-edge. But it barely registers as a blip on the radar of most medical specialists. This list includes endocrinologists, cardiologists, bariatric surgeons, audiologists, sleep specialists, psychiatrists, physical therapists. Truthfully, this includes many self-described ADHD specialists, too.
Recognizing trustworthy sources of information is crucial. Navigating the vast sea of internet content can be tricky. Popular “sounds reasonable” notions don’t always align with sound expertise. Scrutinize the qualifications of those offering guidance and cross-reference their perspectives with independent sources.
Drawing from my extensive experience, I’ve observed that when individuals with ADHD and their loved ones embark on a journey of solid education and validation, remarkable transformations occur. Sometimes, it doesn’t even take that long to address problems previously viewed as intractable. When you step away from the fog of confusion, you can more clearly see the path of improved health and harmony. Sometimes it’s simpler than you think.