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ADHD and Relationships: Tips for Adults

Parenting Children Living with ADHD: Tips for Parents

Forging and maintaining relationships can be extremely difficult across the lifespan if you’re living with ADHD. While social issues can be problematic in childhood, they can become even more acute in adulthood when you try to balance relationships with work and raising kids. Because ADHD is a complex disorder that can impact attentiveness, self-control and your ability to read social cues, you may find yourself struggling in your marriage, isolated at work and having difficulty maintaining fledgling friendships. Because having a strong support system is crucial to self-esteem and your ability to succeed in other areas of life, taking advantage of strategies to overcome social obstacles is of paramount importance if you’re living with ADHD.

Barbara FrenchBarbara French:
My Story

I am 72 years old, but at age 7, no one could get me to sit down. Because I couldn’t focus, I was flying all over the place; I would fidget and school was very difficult. I did not get good grades in elementary school or high school. School was a disaster; so I educated myself. I loved to read—I still do—and I read a lot of books. That’s where I got my knowledge.

Many people think that ADHD stops after a certain age, but it doesn’t. All my life, I have been forgetful. I will be sewing a dress and think about a word that I don’t know the definition of, then go look that word up in a dictionary, and that leads me to something else. I always have three or four things going on at once. Read more.

Thanks to an increase in awareness about the disorder over the last decade, a great deal of information has been produced about ADHD in adult relationships. Many therapists and other treatment professionals are now better prepared to deal with the issue and there are proven methods you can employ to help build strong and lasting relationships with others.

Understanding ADHD’s Impact on Relationships

ADHD is a neurobiological disorder, a mental illness that can affect your ability to concentrate, regulate behavior, pick up on subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) social cues, focus on work in a timely manner, organize materials and complete tasks. If you have challenges with any of these executive functions, relationships and many other areas of your life can suffer. What follows are some common problems people living with ADHD can experience in social situations.

  • Friends, siblings, children and other loved ones repeatedly express frustration that they are not being listened to or that they cannot complete a thought before being interrupted.

  • Significant others must deal with ADHD-related impulsive decisions that are costly and ill-conceived, such as procrastination over starting or finishing important tasks and haphazard attention to bills that results in late fees and lower credit scores.

  • Supervisors, direct-reports and co-workers express passively or directly that their important nonverbal feedback is not being understood.

Some common problems that arise from poor relationships include failed marriages and absentee parenting, lost friendships and even lost employment. Obviously, you need to take quick action to quell any possible fallout from the problems that can arise in relationships, as neglecting to address any problems can have severe consequences.

Dealing with ADHD in Relationships: A Step-by-step Process

Receiving negative feedback from others about your behavior can be hurtful, but the good news is that there are ways you can effectively deal with the symptoms that cause problems in relationships. What follows are steps you can take to ensure that you are dealing with your social challenges proactively, rather than reactively.

  1. Seek treatment and work with professionals. It is important that you seek treatment from a medical professional who is knowledgeable about ADHD. You should strongly consider medication, which can be an important form of treatment in controlling some, if not all, of the symptoms that cause problems in relationships and other areas of your life. In addition to medication, you will want to develop some behavioral management strategies with your treatment professional. It is important to note that you will most likely work with a number of treatment professionals. For prescription medication, for example, you will most likely need to talk with a medical doctor, while psychologists and clinical social workers can work with you on behavioral therapies. In some cases, it may help to participate in couples counseling, though it is important to choose a therapist who has experience working with ADHD. Additionally, you may want to discuss complimentary treatments with your homeopath doctor, acupuncturist or other alternative practice specialist as some people find complimentary interventions of supplementary benefit.

  2. Establish goals. Once you have met with your treatment professional and identified some behavioral management strategies, you will want to sit down with a significant other or a close friend and outline specific ways in which the behavioral management strategies will be implemented. You will want to include specific plans that include strategies you will use for each relationship. Treat your list of goals like a strategic plan and include ways in which you plan to measure success.

  3. Substance Abuse

    Because some adults use alcohol and illegal drugs in place of medication, it may be necessary to seek help for substance abuse. You should notify your treatment professionals of any problems you have with alcohol or drugs.

    Read about Co-occurring Mental Health and Substance Use Disorders in Young Adults.

  4. Educate yourself and others. Knowledge is power when it comes to dealing with ADHD. The more knowledge you, your friends and significant other have about ADHD, the better off you will be. It is particularly crucial in romantic relationships that your significant other knows as much about ADHD as possible. You should read as much about your condition as you can, being sure to choose from reliable sources. See the resources section for further reading and information about ADHD.

  5. Find a support group. You can learn from the experiences of others. There are support groups around the country that deal specifically with adult ADHD. Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD) has local chapters around the country. NAMI Connection support groups are available through many NAMI affiliates in communities across the country. Learn more about what support groups are available and choose one that best fits your situation and needs.

  6. Ask for information from others. Ask the people who are closest to you to provide you with specific examples of ways in which you have created distance or unintentionally hurt their feelings. You can brainstorm with them on ways you can avoid that behavior in the future. The information from these conversations should be shared with your treatment professionals.

Addressing ADHD in Romantic Relationships: 10 Tips for Adults Living with ADHD

Because what happens in romantic relationships can spill over into other areas of life, you will want to focus particular attention on how your ADHD symptoms affect the dynamic between you and your partner. The following list includes tips that will help you navigate the sometimes rough terrain of a romantic relationship.

  1. Make a decision about the family finances. Consider letting your significant other take over the family finances or hiring a personal bookkeeper. Whatever you decide, don't let yourself become too removed from the budget. You should have a clear idea of what is coming in and how it is going out, so you can develop a concrete sense of personal financial management.

  2. Identify major problems in the relationship. Talk with your partner and ask him or her how your symptoms cause problems in your relationship. Make a list of the complaints and develop practical ways you will deal with those problem areas. For example, if he or she is annoyed by impulsive purchases and you agree they are problematic, then you could try freezing your credit card in a bowl of water. You would then have to allow the water to melt before you can use it. If you are interrupting your significant other on a regular basis, then you could develop a code word that he or she could use that will let you to know that you are making a social misstep.

  3. Plan the week ahead. Strategize with your significant other to plan your week. For example, work together to prepare meals on Sunday to have as much as you can ready for the week ahead. People living with ADHD can become overwhelmed when they are tackling tasks at the last minute. The chaos can spill over and affect other people at home and work. Be sure to stay on task as you go along.  

  4. Reflect before engaging in conflict. Take time out if you are feeling frustrated, upset or angry. This will prevent you from acting or saying something in the heat of the moment. If you cannot remember to take time out, ask others to suggest it when they are in disagreements with you.

  5. Make life interesting. Play an active role in shaping the conversations and activities you take part in with your partner. People living with ADHD have a hard time sustaining attention when they are addressing issues or activities that are not immediately interesting or stimulating. While you have to be careful not to be selfish in the process, it is important to try to engage in activities and conversations that you find interesting.  

  6. Enlist the help of your significant other. Invite your partner to participate in meetings with your treatment professionals. This will foster a sense of inclusiveness. It will also allow your significant other to contribute to the information that you provide your treatment professional.

  7. Remember your strengths. It is important that you understand the areas in which you excel socially. Perhaps you’re good at organizing fun activities, or you like asking questions and drawing the other person out. You and your significant other should talk about ways in which you both contribute to the relationship. This will allow you both to use your strengths to offset the weaknesses.  

  8. Discuss intimacy issues. Because ADHD symptoms can be present in the bedroom, it is important that you discuss this with your spouse. If there are problems during your intimate time together, you will want to consider ways you can block out distractions and become more engaged.

  9. Plan vacations together. It is important that you consult with your significant other before planning vacations. Impulsive decisions about trips can lead to a great deal of conflict, so hold off on booking any trips until you and your spouse have both had time to think about it. You both should be in on the decision about the destination and all of the accommodations. Otherwise, the trip may turn into a very unpleasant experience for both of you.  

  10. Recognize that sometimes you need time apart. In any relationship, people need time alone. This is particularly true when ADHD is present. Figure out some activities you can do on your own. Exercise is one activity that you can do alone, and it is a very helpful activity for people living with ADHD. Most importantly, find an activity that will keep you engaged.

It is important to keep the line of communication open and make changes as the need arises. You and your significant other should feel like addressing your symptoms is a team effort.

Recognizing Common Strategies and Behavioral Management Techniques for Adults Living with ADHD

Some ideas and strategies that will help you in your relationships with others include:

  • using checklists at work and home to complete tasks;

  • meeting regularly with a significant other or roommate to talk about expectations and to compare notes on projects;

  • eliminating distractions such as the TV, radio and computer when performing household chores;

  • avoiding (if necessary) overwhelming social situations such as an office holiday party;

  • turning to social mentors who can spot social vulnerabilities and help you develop ways to deal with ADHD symptoms;

  • engaging in role play with friends and family to identify challenges and hone your social skills; and

  • seeking feedback from friends about any awkward or inappropriate social interactions they might notice.

You should stay in constant contact with your treatment professionals and seek their feedback on all strategies and behavioral management techniques you use. If you find a particular strategy ineffective, your treatment professionals should be able to help you modify it or develop a new strategy.

Overcoming Social Obstacles in the Workplace

While you are on your own in many social situations, the law does provide you protection and the right to certain accommodations in the workplace. Under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504) and the Americans with Disabilities Act, you can ask your employer for accommodations that will help you with problems related to social skills. Some of the accommodations that could be available to you include forgoing office social events and the ability to work from home. To receive accommodations at work, you have to meet certain criteria and you have to have an official report from your treatment professional that addresses specifically why your symptoms qualify you for the accommodations. Disclosing your disorder at work requires a great deal of consideration because of the stigma attached to mental illness. For more information about workplace issues and available accommodations, read NAMI’s fact sheet on ADHD in the workplace.

Visit the Resources section for additional information and references.