Playing with fire? ADHD in a relationship

Second-year Psychology students participating in the University Honours College follow a workshop on Blogging Science, in which they learn to communicate science to the general public, by means of informing, giving an opinion, and relating issues in science to issues in society. This year a selection of these written blog posts is published on Mindwise. Today’s post is by Carlotta Stahl.

If you take a look at forums aimed at adults with ADHD and their spouses, one thing will catch your eye: Many, many spousal complaints. From inattention to cheating to being unreliable, it seems like dating someone diagnosed with ADHD is like playing with fire: You get burned if you are not very careful. Interestingly, if one now turns to see what the research has to say about this topic, one will quickly notice that scientific literature is scarce. However, in the few studies focusing on marital and family functioning of ADHD adults, those with ADHD reported poorer marital adjustment and family functioning than control groups of Non-ADHD couples [1]. Moreover, ADHD adults are more likely to have multiple marriages [2]. So, what problems might ADHD bring to a marriage?

Careful, the fire can burn you!

Clinical interviews provided some insight into the difficulties faced by the spouses of ADHD adults [1]. Spouses of ADHD partners reported struggles in, for instance, managing household duties (mostly due to the disorganization of the partner), struggles concerning child rearing, and problems with communication. However, the literature suggests that the spouses themselves also add to the existing problems: Communication problems are often caused by harmful dynamics to which each of the partners contributed. To give an example, a Non-ADHD spouse started to compensate for perceived unreliability of their partner, by taking over responsibilities and starting to manage and dictate the marital and family life ([3], p. 42). This resulted in the ADHD partner feeling inadequate, unloved and unappreciated and getting tired of the constant nagging. Eventually the whole marital life, including intimacy and respect, suffered.

These are only a few complaints and struggles that repeatedly come up. But more important than the struggles faced by those couples might be finding a proper way to deal with this.

How to tame the fire

Advice on how to deal with those marriage problems is most easily found on website like as well as books written by marriage counsellors (such as [4] The ADHD Effect on Marriage: Understand and Rebuild Your Relationship in Six Steps by Melissa Orlov). So, what might be steps one can take to improve one’s relationship? In her book, Melissa Orlov mentions aspects like empathy for the ADHD spouse, acknowledging emotions like fear, anger or denial, getting treatment (medication, learning coping skills, etc.) and improving communication. The books provide good advice for couples, but a question remains: If counsellors write books about how to deal with ADHD in a marriage, where are the scientific studies testing those methods? I find the seemingly small amount of research aimed at improving marriage and relationship functioning of ADHD adults very surprising. Of course, some might simply say: Why should we care? Don’t play with fire, simple as that. In my opinion, they would be very wrong.

Fire is awesome

I myself have been in a relationship with someone diagnosed with ADD, and additionally have close family members diagnosed with ADHD. And yes, it can be tough. But: It can also be incredibly rewarding and fun. What do I love about those people, and what do others, according to a survey done by the website love about their ADHD partners? Well, like fire, it will always be exciting. People diagnosed with ADHD can be very creative, energetic and spontaneous. Moreover, they can be very loving and kind towards their partner. Their way of thinking may surprise you. From my experience, when you let them be the way they are you might learn from their unconventional ways of dealing with things. So again: Being in a relationship with someone who is diagnosed with ADHD is like playing with fire: You can get severely burned if you do not pay attention, however, once you learn how to handle the fire, it may warm your heart.

Relevant links and publications

[1] Eakin, L., Minde, K., Hechtman, L., Ochs, E., Krane, E., Bouffard, R., . . . Looper, K. (2004). The marital and family functioning of adults with adhd and their spouses. Journal of Attention Disorders, 8(1), 1-10

[2] Murphy, K., & Barkley, R. A. (1996). Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder adults: Comorbidities and adaptive impairments. Comprehensive Psychiatry, 37(6), 393–401. doi:10.1016/S0010-440X(96)90022-X

[3] Orlov, M. (2013). What ADHD Looks Like in Your Practice. In Maucieri, L., & Carlson (Eds.) The distracted couple: The impact of adhd on adult relationships (p. 42) New York: Crown House Publishing.

[4] Orlov, M. (2010). The adhd effect on marriage: Understand and rebuild your relationship in six steps. (pp 80-217) Plantation, Fla.: Specialty Press. (2010).


Image by Mohamed Nohassi from Unsplash.

Carlotta is a second-year student in Psychology. Earlier clinical and personal experiences have sparked an interest in clinical psychology and clinical neuropsychology, with special focus on topics like ADHD in adults as well as disorders typically found in older people like Alzheimer’s (yes, old people – working with them is super fun, trust me!). In the future she would like to combine clinical practice with research.

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  • P.Tamana December 18, 2019'

    I think your post is stigmatizing for people with the diagnosis. You make an us versus them difference withouth taking into account that people with a diagnosis are not their diagnosis, they are worlds appart from each other and cannot be summarized as “fire”. You make them sound like aliens that are difficult to deal with but can be fun, and you put their relationship problems solely on their shoulders – on the shoulders of so many people without even knowing them! I know you mention that partners contribite to the dynamics, but your focus is on how people with an ADHD diagnosis have some “fire” that makes things difficult and must be dealt with properly. This is is simplictic and pre-judgemental. It can create a lot of wrong opinions and harm; and it is plalinly unfair.

    I suppose this is not what you meant to do when you wrote it, but the whole article has this tint for me. I encourage you to be more mindful of your words when writing general statements about people with a diagnosis, especially if you are trying to communicate psychology to the public.

  • Carlotta Stahl December 18, 2019  

    Thank you for your feedback. I am sorry that you find the article stigmatizing, that was certainly not my intention!

    When I researched for this article, I was very surprised to find a lot of negativity coming from spouses of people diagnosed with ADHD as posted on various websites. And while certainly not everybody will have problems, certain symptoms associated with ADHD can have an impact on the marriage because it can lead to miscommunications and misunderstandings and like I wrote, harmful dynamics. One example that I read quite often is the complaint that the partner fails to listen or pay attention to what is being said. If the spouse understands that this may not be a sign of disinterest but might be part of a symptom of the disorder, the spouse has the option to react differently and thus not create a judgmental and negative communication. I agree that I could have pointed out more how both partners contribute to misunderstandings.

    I certainly do not mean that people diagnosed with ADHD need to be “handled properly”. What I mean is rather that knowing how to deal with symptoms that may affect a relationship helps to reduce misunderstandings and negativity, and allows for a focus on good things.
    Of course they are not “aliens”, but people who are unfamiliar with the diagnosis often misunderstand diagnosed individual’s behaviour and way of thinking. This can cause interpersonal problems. I wanted to point out that, in my experience, those individuals have many great characteristics such as having high creativity and being incredibly loving and kind. Something that one might forget when reading about the struggles some spouses report or the research that does not necessarily paint the picture of a happy and functional marital life.

    I think it should not be sugar-coated how a misunderstanding of the diagnosis can put a strain on a relationship and can make both (!) partners unhappy. However, developing effective ways for communication and understanding the other person’s perception and point of view, while focusing on the positive sites and enjoying them together can create a beautiful relationship.

    I hope my point became more clear now.

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