Thanks to Amelia Kelley, PhD for this guest blog post for the Work/Life February Relationship Series.
Trying to date and find a meaningful relationship can pose challenges to most any person who has ever tried. But when these challenges are coupled with a diagnosis of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, otherwise known as ADHD, there can be a new set of hurdles to overcome in order to effectively date and maintain healthy relationships. The upside however is that if the person who has ADHD or their partner knows about these challenges they can be worked through and in some cases the benefits of ADHD on relationships can be discovered.
What Is ADHD?
Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder is a mental health disorder that is evidenced by a difference in brain activity that can result in poor focus, restlessness, impulsivity and issues with executive functioning skills. What this means for relationships is that the qualities most people desire in a partner, such as being a good listener, remembering important dates or being able to remember and help with responsibilities, may prove to become problematic. That is why it is helpful to identify and use skills for both the partner and the person with ADHD.
How Can ADHD Effect Relationships?
It is not uncommon for people with ADHD to have a great deal of luck while dating, as the novelty and intensity of feelings during the dating phase is where they really shine. A trait of ADHD called hyperfocus turns the brain of someone with ADHD into an efficient task master, which often is seen when a person with ADHD says they are able to focus if they are interested in something. The brain of a person with ADHD sends off an influx of positive hormones when attending to something novel, making them excellent at courtship. A person with ADHD can make the person they are pursuing their main focus, putting all their energy and devotion into the early stages of dating.
Problems most often arise after the initial courtship phase and into the commitment phase when novelty has faded away and other areas of the brain takes over. The area of the brain that is responsible for problem solving skills and moderation of social behavior, fires differently in those with ADHD and so knowing how to handle these differences without taking it personal and rather working together as a couple can literally save a relationship.
How to Support Someone with ADHD in a Romantic Relationship
- Empathy One of the most important tools for coping with ADHD in a relationship is empathy. Simply being aware that the person with ADHD is not trying to hurt you can help to reduce fights and increase problem solving behaviors in the relationship. For instance, if the person in the relationship with ADHD has a hard time remembering important dates or remembering every aspect of a detailed conversation that happened in the past, it does not mean that they do not care for you, rather it may be attributed to focus problems when struggling with ADHD.
- Physical Touch or Eye Contact Grounding skills are useful for helping your partner recall important dates or details and reduce frustration in relationships. An easy way to do this is if you have something that is important to express, reach out and gently touch the arm of your partner in order to alert them that what you are about to say is important and you are looking for their full attention. To make this even more effective you can use eye contact to help bring you both in the moment. In addition to helping ground and bring the person with ADHD in the room, touch and eye contact are essential for healthy intimacy in relationships so it can be helpful for all couples.
- Changing Expectations and Playing on Strengths When things do become difficult due to the symptoms of the disorder, it is important to recognize that there may be some things that the person without ADHD in the relationship may be better at and can bring as a strength to the relationship. So instead of creating a power struggle over who pays the bills on time, choose the person in the relationship who is most effective at this and make a plan of carrying that out so that no one takes these struggles personal, leading to hostility in the long run.
As previously mentioned, there are strengths found in those with ADHD in romantic relationships. These individuals can be more fun, engaging, creative, interesting and passionate. Focusing on what first drew you together can help to increase empathy and bring you back in the moment as a couple, which were both components mention that foster a successful and healthy relationship.
Amelia Kelley, PhD, MS, LPC, ATR-P, CYT 550 counsels teens, adults, couples and families at Kelley Counseling in Cary, NC. She has conducted research on the effects of exercise on adult ADHD symptoms, she is a trained hypno-therapist, art therapist, EMDR therapist, as well as a Certified Yoga teacher integrating therapeutic yoga and psychotherapy, to help people heal the issues in their tissues. She is a presenter and writer in the "science-help" field focusing on adult ADHD, and the integration of Art Therapy in counseling and assessment. She is also currently part of the Traumatic Stress Research Consortium at the Kinsey Institute.