When her boyfriend of three years finally got diagnosed with ADHD, Grace*, 24, cried with relief. Not just because she felt empathetic for her partner's significant discovery and what it would mean for him to have this vital information (and treatment), but for what it would mean for her and their relationship. Having spent the previous couple of months thinking that her relationship might have to end, his ADHD diagnosis answered so many of her questions.
"I'd been confused and upset for so long, thinking that he was losing interest in me and feeling like my needs were being ignored," Grace tells Refinery29 Australia. "He would go through periods of barely speaking to me, scrolling on his phone or playing video games for hours without saying a word. He would forget date nights, never do the chores I'd ask him to help me with, and sometimes get frustrated when I wanted to discuss our relationship. I really thought it was over for us."
But finding out her boyfriend's diagnosis meant that Grace could finally understand that he wasn't doing any of these things because he didn't love her or want to be with her — he quite literally couldn't focus on any one thing at a time, her included. And his concurrent frustrations and anger were finally accounted for by this diagnosis, too.
"When we look at some of the symptoms of ADHD — like trouble remembering things, time blindness, stopping tasks midway, being quick to boredom or difficulty focusing in conversations — it's not a stretch to guess how these impact relationships like date nights being forgotten, texts going unanswered, house chores left halfway through," Selina Nguyen, relationship therapist at the Good Vibes Clinic, tells Refinery29 Australia.
"When communication is not at the forefront, it's incredibly common for the non-ADHD partner to misinterpret these experiences and take it on as their partner not caring for them or not putting enough effort into the relationship," she says. "For the ADHD partner, they can feel really guilty and ashamed about how their brain works and the unintended impacts it has on their partner. So it can lead to frustration and disappointment on both ends, and on top of that, it leaves both people feeling isolated and disconnected from each other."
As more people start to get diagnosed with ADHD later in life and we as a society come to understand more about it, the more important it becomes than ever to understand how to care for someone with ADHD. And similarly, understanding how to make sure you as a partner can have your needs met, too. Because neurodivergent and neurotypical relationship styles and behaviours often contrast, it becomes a matter of navigating ADHD to find new ways of having a meaningful relationship that suits all parties.
So how can we navigate this emotional turmoil? First things first, as partners of people with ADHD, we need to be better educated on the condition our significant other has. As Nguyen explains, it will not only show your partner that you care, but it can also give you perspective on what's happening for your partner and in your relationship.
"Remember that you're a team, not a coach," Nguyen says. "Get rid of any and all assumptions that you need to train your partner to do things the neurotypical way or that you need to fix their problems for them. It's each partner's responsibility to figure out their own needs, expectations and wants and then together, you figure out how to connect the dots in ways that are flexible and work for you both."
Nguyen describes a common dynamic where a non-ADHD partner takes on a parental-like role, repeatedly asking their partner to do certain tasks or reminding them about something. Because of this, there's often resentment from the non-ADHD partner who might take on more responsibility, and from the ADHD partner who feels like they're being micro-managed. This, in turn, creates a vicious cycle of miscommunication. This was certainly something Grace and her partner experienced.
"I often took the lead in a lot of practical tasks, which just built up resentment over time," Grace says. "As my psychologist explained it to me, we had to break this parent-child dynamic, where I would just do things for him because he took too long or didn't finish completely. I relinquished my control, and he had to step up." It was on both Grace and her partner to adapt, but Grace acknowledges the need for her to be a little more understanding and compliant when it came to her notions of a successful relationship. We can't underestimate the struggle for neurodivergent people to fit into a world and a set of societal expectations that aren't built for them.
As for feeling like your needs aren't being met by your neurodivergent partner, Nguyen recommends we differentiate between what is the unmet need and what is the request, as often we can conflate the two. "One example [is], 'you need to reply quickly to my messages otherwise I don't feel seen in the relationship'," she says. "It can become a black-or-white approach and we fixate on the request. [The] reality is, there are many ways to meet that need beyond quick texts, so it's not asking you to squash your needs, but to be flexible about how those needs are met and what you're focusing on." This is where it's important to remember that flexibility and perspective are skills that are probably going to come much easier to us than to our neurodivergent partners, and they're things we have to exercise to maintain a healthy balance of give and take.
In terms of communication on a practical level, Nguyen reminds us that people with ADHD take on more information when we speak with them face to face. Using eye contact and physical touch can really help in that way but it can also slow down the conversation and make sure things don't get lost in translation. "Set ground rules together for these bigger conversations that you're going to prioritise not interrupting and avoiding blame, and also have each person write down important takeaways from the conversation," Nguyen says.
The next step might be to establish an action plan where each person takes ownership of their role in the relationship. During this process, it's important to accept that it's going to take some troubleshooting to figure out a structure or routine that works for everyone, whether it's creating reminders, a shared calendar or no-screen date nights. "The important thing [to remember] is that you're doing this together and it's not one person taking all the responsibility — it's how can they better meet your needs and how can you support them in doing it and vice versa," Nguyen explains.
Ultimately, being in a healthy, happy relationship with someone with ADHD is far from impossible. With a few practical skills and an open mindset, you can make it work, and work well. It'll just require a little more communication, flexibility and compassion. And aren't those the things that make for a great relationship anyway?