Are ADHD relationships doomed? Stop denial and build the coping skills you need to thrive
Updated: Apr 17, 2022
The statistics regarding ADHD relationships are dire. ADHD relationships may appear doomed.
ADHD traits such as impulsivity, inattention, emotional dysregulation, and rejection sensitivity may be further exacerbated by insecure attachment styles. That people with ADHD tend to pair up with other ADHDers complicates things even further. Often, "commonplace cruelty" can wear a relationship thin until it ruptures.
Many with ADHD stick their head in the sand or give up trying. The first step is to stop the denial. The next step is to understand ADHD and build the solid coping skills you need to thrive. For partners without ADHD, knowledge of ADHD can also be a relief, as can the acknowledgment that life with someone with ADHD can be really challenging.
Let's work on our relationship skills so that we with ADHD also have the chance to build happy, healthy, and reciprocal relationships, live full lives, and thrive.
Knowledge is power - even if it hurts
This post may be a tough read, but I strongly believe that knowledge is power. Once we understand our ADHD relationship dynamics, we can build the skills we need to thrive.
Brace yourself for some painful facts and then read on to learn why there is every reason to believe that we can beat the odds and live happy, full lives that include fulfilling relationships, even with ADHD. Because our relationships aren't just doomed - we can build the necessary coping and relationship skills.
But first, a few tough facts about ADHD relationships.
Divorce, loneliness, intimate partner violence - don't let the statistics scare you
Research shows that adults with ADHD are significantly more likely to be single (1), divorced (2), and have multiple marriages (3) than people without ADHD.
Adults with ADHD are also at an increased risk of feeling lonely - with the severity of ADHD symptoms correlated with the intensity of loneliness (4).
It gets even worse: a history of ADHD and current elevated symptoms of ADHD appear to be risk factors both for being a perpetrator and for being a victim of intimate partner violence (5).
"Commonplace cruelty" poisons relationships - recognizing it is the first step
While most people with ADHD are obviously not involved in intimate partner violence, ADHD traits such as impulsivity, inattention, emotional dysregulation, and rejection sensitivity predispose us to both perpetrating and suffering from what therapist and author Resmaa Menakem calls "commonplace cruelty" (6).
With commonplace cruelty, we either become verbally abusive or accusatory or we physically or emotionally run away from the conflict. Both types of behavior make us temporarily feel better (and if we're the one running away feel superior to our partner).
Commonplace cruelties often enable us to force compliance from our partner, or to slyly punish them for something they did (or if they have ADHD as well often for something they forgot to do).
This behavior keeps us comfortably focused on our partner's "misdeeds" while conveniently preventing us from looking at our own issues.
Impulsivity, inattention, emotional dysregulation, and rejection sensitivity - the perfect storm for any relationship
Relationship researcher Dr. John Gottman (7) has identified four behaviors that predict the demise of a relationship: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling (emotionally running away and shutting your partner out). How impulsivity, emotional dysregulation, and rejection sensitivity fuel these behaviors is painfully apparent.
Perhaps less obvious, but no less detrimental is the impact of inattention. Psychology professor Dr. Barbara Fredrickson has intensively studied how we experience the feeling of love: what happens in our bodies and specifically our brains and what conditions are needed to produce the feeling of love.
According to Fredrickson's research, shared positive emotions, an attunement to each other (with resulting changes in our biochemistry and behavior), and a mutual, reflected motive to attend to each others' wellbeing result in "positivity resonance", or love (8).
ADHD inattention can impair each of these three preconditions and love can slowly wither and die.
ADHD and insecure attachment styles go together - again, recognition Is key to breaking that toxic approach-avoidance pattern
As if this wasn't enough already, research has found that adults with ADHD have a much higher rate of insecure attachment styles than the general population (9). Insecure attachment is of course linked to less stable and less satisfying relationships (10) and often leads to massive problems in relationships in general, not only with significant others.
Insecure attachment styles can lead to an ongoing struggle for closeness and distance - a toxic approach-avoidance dynamic. What complicates the matter is that the person with the more avoidant attachment style, who is, therefore, more likely to run for the hills, often feels superior to the person with the more anxious attachment style, who is more likely to seek closeness (or "chase" the avoidant person). This leads to a toxic dynamic that can often only be broken if the avoidant person recognizes their part in the problematic relationship dynamic and works on their part, usually with the help of an experienced professional.
Current research shows: birds of a feather flock together
Those of us who've been working with people with ADHD for a longer period of time have been suspected this based on observation, but now it's also been shown in a study: people with ADHD are more likely to choose partners with ADHD (with or without hyperactivity), with sometimes devastating consequences (more violence in the partnership, more financial problems) (11).
The solution: understanding our ADHD and gaining and building self-knowledge - facing our issues instead of burying our head in the sand
But now to the good news: awareness of our attachment style can work wonders to understand our past and current mishaps. And attachment styles can be changed - there is the term "earned secure attachment" for having been able to move from insecure to secure attachment (12).
Understanding our ADHD is paramount as well - not to use it as an excuse to justify commonplace cruelty like verbally exploding or hiding in one's head and emotionally shutting our partner out, but to take responsibility for our behavior and to work with a coach or therapist or both.
Tips for partners without ADHD
As mentioned above, people with ADHD often seem to choose partners with ADHD (11). As a side note: as ADHD is still underdiagnosed in adults, you may be paired with an ADHDer without knowing it. For all those truly neurotypical, knowledge about ADHD is enormously helpful to better understand the behavior of your affected partner.
It's also important to acknowledge that life with an ADHD partner is exhausting, especially if there are children involved who also have ADHD. The burden placed on those not affected is often great (13). Support from an experienced coach or therapist can be invaluable, so you can build your own coping skills and make sure to prioritize your own self-care.
Building solid coping skills benefits all relationships
We can - and I believe we must - build solid coping skills for each of our traits of impulsivity, inattention, emotional dysregulation, and rejection sensitivity. I will go into each of these points in more detail in future blog posts.
I would also like to raise a potentially controversial point based on a recent publication, namely that it may well be worthwhile for the partner with ADHD to take medication to save or take pressure off of the relationship (13). I'm not a medical doctor and cannot give medical advice and of course, it's always the decision of the individual with ADHD and the treating medical professional whether medication is the right path to take. However, as the publication states somewhat cumbersomely: "treatment of ADHD with medications, particularly stimulants, has been shown to be successful in reducing ADHD symptoms in adults" (13). Sometimes we find it easier to accept help (e.g., from medications) when the help is not only for our own benefit but for that of others as well.
Let's work together to change the abysmal relationship statistics of our community of creative, wonderful, quirky people - let's beat the odds and build the coping skills for fulfilling reciprocal ADHD relationships.
Please share what worked for you in the comments below. Or if you don't want to "out" yourself, please message me and I'll add your relationship hack without revealing your identity.
Further posts that may be useful:
This post will help you if you have meltdowns and problems with your ADHD impulsivity - for example because you feel overwhelmed, overstimulated, or feel rejected, i.e. emotionally dysregulated. This post is about emotional regulation in general and how to best cope with complex emotions.
Lensing MB, Zeiner P, Sandvik L, Opjordsmoen S. Quality of life in adults aged 50+ with ADHD. J Atten Disord. May 2015 doi: 10.1177/1087054713480035. Link
Biederman J, Faraone SV, Spencer TJ, Mick E, Monuteaux MC, Aleardi M. Functional impairments in adults with self-reports of diagnosed ADHD: A controlled study of 1001 adults in the community. J Clin Psychiatry. Apr 2006 doi: 10.4088/jcp.v67n0403. Link
Murphy K, Barkley RA. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder adults: comorbidities and adaptive impairments. Compr Psychiatry. Nov-Dec 1996 doi: 10.1016/s0010-440x(96)90022-x. Link
Stickley A, Koyanagi A, Takahashi H, Ruchkin V, Kamio Y. Attention deficit /hyperactivity disorder symptoms and loneliness among adults in the general population. Res Dev Disabil. Mar 2017 doi: 10.1016/j.ridd.2017.01.007. Link
Wymbs BT, Dawson AE, Egan TE, Sacchetti GM. Rates of Intimate Partner Violence Perpetration and Victimization Among Adults With ADHD. J Atten Disord. Jul 2019 doi: 10.1177/1087054716653215. Link
Resmaa Menakem, Rock the Boat: How to Use Conflict to Heal and Deepen Your Relationship, 2020 Link
Article from the Gottman Institute Link
Barbara Fredrickson, Love 2.0: How Our Supreme Emotion Affects Everything We Feel, Think, Do, and Become; Link to an excellent blog post by Maria Popova about the book.
Storebø OJ, Rasmussen PD, Simonsen E. Association Between Insecure Attachment and ADHD: Environmental Mediating Factors. J Atten Disord. Feb 2016 Feb doi: 10.1177/1087054713501079. Link
Mohammadi K, Samavi A, Ghazavi Z. The Relationship Between Attachment Styles and Lifestyle With Marital Satisfaction. Iran Red Crescent Med J. Jan 2016 doi: 10.5812/ircmj.23839 Link
Steele CM, Wymbs BT, Capps RE. Birds of a Feather: An Examination of ADHD Symptoms and Associated Concerns in Partners of Adults with ADHD. J Atten Disord. Jan 2022 doi: 10.1177/1087054720978553 Link
Excellent and practical explanation in this post by Hal Shorey, Finding a Secure Base and Rewiring Your Personality, Psychology Today, 2015 Link
Wymbs BT, Canu WH, Sacchetti GM, Ranson LM. Adult ADHD and romantic relationships: What we know and what we can do to help. J Marital Fam Ther. Jul 2021 doi: 10.1111/jmft.12475. Link