Nearly 60% of couples in which one or more partners have ADHD experience marital issues. Research has also found that relationships are twice as likely to fail when one partner has ADHD than when neither partner has it. These are scary numbers for the person in the relationship that has ADHD, and although there are many reasons why ADHD marriages fail, thankfully, many of those issues can be mitigated when both partners are armed with knowledge and the ADHD partner is being treated by medication, therapy, and/or lifestyle changes.
Reasons why ADHD Marriages Fail
1. Communication Difficulties
People with ADHD can find it incredibly difficult to pay attention or focus on conversations, and may impulsively interrupt their partner or have difficulty staying on topic and maintaining a line of thought.
For the partner with ADHD, these tendencies can be lessened with practice. Being direct, trying to maintain eye contact, using a quiet fidget, and asking related questions can help you stay focused. If you lose focus, it’s okay to be upfront. Saying something like, “I know this conversation is important and I want to be a team while we solve this problem, but I need a little help focusing so we can get there,” is a totally valid solution.
Couples counseling can also help. Talking together in a new environment may provide the ADHD partner enough stimulation that focusing becomes a little easier.
2. Emotional Dysregulation
Emotional dysregulation is a common symptom of ADHD, characterized by intense mood swings and difficulties controlling emotions. The ADHD partner may feel intensely angry, sad, anxious, or sad, and the partner without ADHD may feel that these emotions came out of nowhere.
Those with ADHD tend to hyperfocus on things, and that can include our emotions. Something small your partner did that annoyed you can easily become an all-day irritation if you are unable to stop focusing on it. The impulsivity that comes with ADHD can cause these emotions to explode in the form of lashing out or saying something hurtful in the heat of the moment.
Therapy and mindfulness can be a huge help for those who struggle with emotional regulation because you learn to recognize your feelings and practice letting them go in various ways. The more you practice this skill, the better you get, and the easier regulation becomes.
3. Unfinished Tasks and Responsibilities
One notable symptom of ADHD is impaired executive functioning in the brain. In fact, studies have shown that ADHD is associated with a weaker structure of the prefrontal cortex, which plays a crucial role in managing executive function, attention, behavior, and emotion.
Executive function is exactly what it sounds like– the ability to execute tasks. For those with ADHD, executive dysfunction looks like not completing household chores, starting big projects and never finishing them, and struggling with time management. It’s easy to see how this can negatively impact a marriage.
Unfortunately, the solution for this is a little more complicated. Those who are medicated may find that their executive function is restored almost completely, while others find that medication only keeps them on task once they “make” themselves start. Many people with ADHD set alarms, use timers, make their homes more ADHD-friendly, and reward themselves in order to complete tasks. A therapist can also help to come up with more creative solutions to getting tasks checked off.
Another notable symptom of ADHD is poor working memory. This, combined with difficulty sustaining attention, can make it extremely easy to forget important dates, appointments, and commitments. The ADHD partner often also forgets what they were just doing, or what they were planning to do, which can lead to disorientation on the part of the ADHD partner and disappointment on the part of the non-ADHD partner.
While medication and therapy can help, many people with ADHD often find setting reminders, keeping a log of important dates, using a calendar or planner, and, surprisingly, pointing and saying things out loud.
Acting impulsively is a core symptom of ADHD, and refers to the tendency to act on a whim without considering consequences. The ADHD partner can struggle with controlling their immediate reactions or impulses, leading to things like excessive spending, interrupting their non-ADHD partner, or saying something hurtful in the heat of the moment. They may also struggle to think through consequences and may not consider long-term outcomes, which can make life feel incredibly chaotic for the non-ADHD partner.
While medication and therapy will definitely improve symptoms, mindfulness, reducing access to things that breed impulsivity (like browsing Amazon or scrolling social media,) and exercise can all help the ADHD partner find a little more control over their impulses.
6. Lack of Empathy
Some may find it surprising that people with ADHD struggle with empathy because it seems like we’re very good at discerning emotions and reacting appropriately. This is actually our superhuman ability to recognize patterns and often has almost nothing to do with our ability to empathize. Non-ADHD partners may feel disoriented in emotional conversations because their ADHD partner seems empathetic one moment, and then insensitive the next. Because of the inability to regulate their own emotions, the ADHD partner maintains their normal pattern-recognizing communication style until they can no longer control their emotions, which can cause lashing out or other emotional, impulsive behaviors.
This lack of empathy stems from a combination of emotional dysregulation, inability to focus, and impulsivity, so a combination of methods is necessary to help manage it. Many people find exercise, mindfulness, and therapy to be the most effective in managing symptoms.
7. Poor Time Management
As mentioned above, ADHD affects the prefrontal cortex of the brain. Another thing this area regulates is time management. Those with ADHD experience a myriad of time-management issues, from time dilation to a general lack of structure. The ADHD partner may often be late to things, spend far too long on certain tasks, or put off doing chores because they believe it will take much longer than it actually will.
Some solutions that are helpful to others include regularly timing yourself when doing tasks to get an idea of how long those things will actually take, setting alarms that help dictate what time to get ready and what time to leave in order to arrive on time, and time blocking.
Many people with ADHD find hyperfocus to be their biggest struggle when it comes to managing their marriage and this might be the single biggest reason why ADHD marriages fail. It is a phenomenon where they become very deeply absorbed in a task or activity that they find interesting, and they may become so engrossed that they lose track of time and their surroundings. The non-ADHD partner may feel neglected or alone during this time, and may also feel like household and childcare responsibilities have been pushed onto them while the ADHD partner hyperfocuses, especially if this is in combination with executive dysfunction and/or forgetfulness.
The most helpful solution for hyperfocus is simply setting alarms and blocking out time to do things you enjoy. There is no shame in doing something interesting for hours at a time, but it is important to recognize when your actions have consequences for your partner and do your best to mitigate those consequences. Hyperfocus is one of the harder things to let go of when it comes to switching tasks, so individual or couples therapy may also be helpful.
There is Hope
Although there are a lot of reasons why ADHD marriages fail, there are also a lot of solutions. If you and your partner are able to recognize a problem and work together to find solutions, you are already much more likely to stay together or save a failing marriage. Communication, above all else, is key, and if you or your partner has ADHD and communicating is a struggle, consider reaching out to us for couples counseling to learn how to work together as a team to overcome your obstacles.