Reshaping relationships: How ADHD can affect couples

For anyone balancing home, work – and a myriad other commitments – relationships require constant attention and nurturing. Add a partner with untreated ADHD to the equation and it could put severe strain on any relationship. With the correct management and understanding, however, ADHD won’t put a damper on your relationship.

ADHD is a neurodevelopment disorder with three key indicators: impulsivity, hyperactivity and inattention. Though there’s a common misperception that ADHD is purely a ‘focus’ issue that exists in work or school environments, the disorder can have a profound impact on the social and emotional wellbeing of the patient. In fact, research shows adults with ADHD have higher rates of divorce.

Tell-tale signs
Psychiatrist and convenor of the South African ADHD Special Interest Group, Dr Rykie Liebenberg, says adults with ADHD should carefully manage the condition to avoid putting unnecessary pressure on a relationship.

“One of the common causes of relationship breakdown in a couple where one person has ADHD is inattention, which is interpreted as lack of interest by the partner,” explains Liebenberg. “People with ADHD often don’t reflect back their partner’s feelings, so they’re seen to be uncaring and uninterested.”

Liebenberg says people with untreated ADHD struggle to maintain relationships both at home and work, with impulsivity and disorganisation being the main causes of frustration.

“Someone with ADHD might spend money on unnecessary items, instead of paying household bills, which causes major distress for the other partner,” says Liebenberg. “They’re also more prone to compulsive behaviours like gambling and internet addiction.”

According to Liebenberg, people with untreated ADHD often forget to do household chores, don’t pick up after themselves and have emotional outbursts, which can make for an intense and chaotic home environment. This is further intensified if both parent and child have ADHD.

With the correct knowledge and understanding, however, patients with ADHD – and their partners – can manage the condition accordingly and enjoy fruitful, stable relationships.

Holistic approach
“Once someone is diagnosed with ADHD and is on a holistic treatment plan, the couple needs to structure the home to avoid frustration,” says Liebenberg. “Simple adjustments like a strict family budget, daily schedules and deadline reminders can make a real difference. Couples therapy and counselling can also go a long way to increase empathy and facilitating communication between the couple.”

Everyday adjustments
Better organisation and understanding can contribute to a well-managed and balanced relationship, even if one – or both partners – has ADHD. These simple tips can be implemented by one or both partners and encouraged in the home, for a more stable, orderly environment:

  • Keep a diary and check it regularly throughout the day.
  • Make a daily to-do list and assign each task a time.
  • Declutter your home and work space – give every item a designated place, and keep them there.
  • Place a bowl, tray or set of hooks at the front door. Place your keys, sunglasses, wallet and other important items here.
  • Keep track of finances with a strict budget and spend monitoring – write down what you spend on different items, and assign a budget to every portion of household spend.
  • Manage boredom when completing tedious tasks (like chores at home) by breaking them up into small increments, e.g. 15 minute sessions.
  • Try not to start on a new activity until you have finished the one at hand.
  • Organise paperwork – whether at home or at work – with colourful files, pens, folders and highlighters.