How Can You Live Like That?! Couples with ADHD

ADHD in adults is real and can drive partners crazy! It can also be treated, and marriages can be saved. Find out how.

There was a moment during my first year of marriage that I will always remember.

I had moved in to my husband’s house that he bought four years before we got married. In one of the spare bedrooms, I had some of our wedding gifts strewn about, an ironing board out and God knows what else in disarray. It was “the room” that we just normally kept the door closed to.

However, one day my husband’s best buddy came over for a visit and I forgot to close the door to “that room”. As my husband’s friend walked past it, I overheard him say,

“How can you live like this?!”

As I felt the embarrassment cause my cheeks to flush, I heard my husband respond,

“I don’t let it bother me.”

My husband’s compassionate response and ability to genuinely not be bothered (in general) by my struggle with clutter (that’s one way my ADHD shows) has been a saving grace in our marriage.

I too practice the philosophy of “I don’t let it bother me” with parts of my husband because I CHOOSE to focus on his wonderful qualities since this makes me happier.

Everyone has limits though- so there have been times when my husband has said, “Please clean up the clutter in (this part of our house)!” I also, at times, have had to either set limits with my husband or request that he follow through with other agreements. Both my husband and I (like ALL couples) have strengths and areas of needed growth.

My Personal ADHD Relationship Struggle & Success

While ADHD looks differently for each couple (see the list below), for me clutter was my biggest downfall. It was stressful for both my husband and I to live in a disorganized space and for me to not be able to find what I needed. Fortunately, I have made significant improvements by regularly allotting time to “declutter” and organize my belongings, my son’s worldly possessions and general household items.

A big area of growth for me was learning new systems to climb out from the piles of overwhelming clutter and disorganization and practice new habits to keep chaos at bay. Admittedly, this required assistance from two different organizational coaches.

Before I received the coaching help, decluttering once seemed harder than training for a marathon or even obtaining a doctorate degree.

As the book, You mean I’m not lazy, stupid or crazy? The classic self-help book for adults with ADD, explains, individuals with ADD are not intentionally being difficult, we’re just wired differently and legitimately need help with certain areas of life that seem like common sense to others. We also have unique gifts too.

Since my breakthrough from receiving organizational coaching, I have also learned a lot more about ADHD and implement a variety of other research-based interventions that have helped improve the quality of my personal and professional life. Check out my other blog, “Top 5 Techniques for Adults Thriving with ADHD”.

Couples with ADHD~ have a liability & a superpower

In ALL relationships, it’s essential to remember and appreciate our partner’s strengths.

Some of the gifts of adults with ADHD are: intuition, originality, drive to succeed, generosity, creativity, and high energy. I have a longer list of strengths in my other ADHD blog. Dr. Ed Hallowell (a psychiatrist who has ADHD) believes that ADHD is both a liability and a super power.

ADHD individuals are also a HIGHLY diverse group of people from all different personal and professional backgrounds.

  • For example, one person with ADHD might have earned an advanced degree and be the breadwinner in their relationship. However, this same person might profoundly struggle with BASIC life skills (household tasks, paying bills, taking care of their children, etc.).
  • Another partner with ADHD might do an incredible job as a stay at home parent if they’re tapping into their exceptional creativity, but find that they struggle to stay employed outside their home due to not being able to stay organized, remember to attend meetings, and meet deadlines.

In the famous book, Driven to distraction; Recognizing and coping with attention deficit disorder from childhood through adulthood by Dr. Ed Hallowell, MD and John Ratey, MD, there is a wonderful chapter entitled, “Living and Loving with ADD; ADD in Couples”.

It describes how exasperating this condition can be for partners and hopeful news for couples who get professional help and decide to work together on managing this condition.

This chapter even covers how ADHD can affect sex! See more about this topic below.

*Please note that this blog primarily draws from information from Hallowell and Ratey’s chapter, “Living and Loving with ADD; ADD in Couples”, Sue & Ed Hallowell’s book, Married to distraction and my professional experience working with couples, families and individuals with ADHD.

How does ADHD negatively affect couple relationships?

  • The couples’ house may have piles and clutter everywhere or just limited to certain rooms that look like a tornado struck. The ADHD partner might frequently be losing things and trying to find them at inopportune times, like car keys!
  •  The non-ADHD partner might feel like they don’t exist or don’t matter because their loved one forgets dates, consistently arrives late, doesn’t focus on their partner during “quality time” and instead multi-tasks or looks bored during “couple time” on the couch.
  • The ADHD partner may impulsively spend money without first consulting with their partner, which can cause conflict and an erosion of trust.
  • The couple’s dynamic can feel like a parent-child one, which is not sexy and hurtful to both. The ADHD partner might inconsistently fulfill responsibilities at home, in parenting, and/or at work. This “dropping the ball” pattern can create a lot of frustration and anxiety for their partner, especially if the non-ADHD partner feels compelled to always pick up the pieces.
  • The ADHD partner might frequently change hobbies, their career or even the show the couple is watching on TV- even if the ADHD person is enjoying the show.

The above examples are just a brief list of how ADHD presents itself in intimate relationships. For a more comprehensive list of 23 salient characteristics, see pgs. 92-96 in Married to distraction

Ratey and Hallowell often see the following cycle in couples where one member has ADHD:

  1. ADHD symptoms of forgetfulness, disorganization, distractibility annoy spouse
  2. Spouse devalues partner with ADHD
  3. Partner with ADHD withdraws
  4. Spouse angrily reiterates expectations of more attentive behavior
  5. Rinse & repeat!

In order to interrupt the cycle, one needs not only to treat the ADHD but also to address the feelings of anger the non-ADHD spouse harbors.

Here’s one example from the chapter~ “Just as Sam needed Mary to understand what ADHD was and how it affected his behavior, Mary also needed for Sam to understand what living with a spouse with untreated ADHD was like, and how that had affected Mary’s behavior. Both partners need to be heard.”

When Your Spouse Feels Like Your Child

Authors and couple, Sue (couples therapist- non-ADHD partner) and Ed Hallowell (medical doctor who has ADHD) explain this dynamic and effective solutions in their book, Married to distraction:

This common problem grows out of the division of labor and responsibility, as well as other hidden problems. When one member of a couple is much more the O (organizer), he or she easily becomes like the parent of the D (distractor)….

The longer the pattern continues, the more insidious it becomes. [The non-ADHD partner] feels increasingly resentful…. [The ADHD partner] becomes more sensitive because they feel nagged and put-upon. Those feelings drive them to pull away from their spouse and ignore their urgings, which in turn makes [the non-ADHD partner] feel more isolated and annoyed, less connected to [their partner], and more burdened by their role as O.

A vicious cycle ensues… If one partner feels like a parent and the other partner feels like a child who’s always done something wrong for which punishment awaits, this is not a recipe for romance. Quite the opposite. Romantic, erotic feelings dissipate. Lovemaking disappears. Anger and resentment crust the relationship and make the free flow of warmth all but impossible.

There is hope and a way out! See below under “Step 3: Both partners engage in couples therapy” for the SOLUTION. 

If you’re still wondering… “Just how serious of an impact can ADHD have on intimate relationships?”

Hallowell and Ratey have found that often the ADHD symptoms of one partner can bring a couple to the brink of divorce.

If you’re now thinking, “Yikes! How can I get help with this?!”

Step 1: Get an accurate diagnosis from a professional

Of course, before you begin to diagnose your partner or yourself with ADHD and begin treating it, it’s CRUCIAL that you or your partner first have a thorough evaluation by a psychiatrist or other professional who understands adult ADHD and uses an evidenced-based tool like Dr. William Dodson’s evaluation. Dodson, a retired psychiatrist now, was one of the pioneers in specializing in adult ADHD.

Also, if you believe that ADHD is impacting your relationship, you also might consider seeking a couples therapist who has some knowledge of ADHD as well. The challenge with diagnosing ADHD in couples, according to Hallowell and Ratey is that:

When ADD is at the root of a marriage in stress, the diagnosis is often overlooked because the couple’s problems can look like those of any couple.

Two examples in this chapter are…

A husband comes home [from work] and immediately starts reading a newspaper or watches TV [today he would more likely get on his phone or computer], has trouble paying attention especially when talking about feelings, drinks too much, and [covertly] struggles with self-esteem while ignoring his wife’s repeated attempts to get close to him.

A wife daydreams chronically, feels depressed [and/or anxious], complains of never having reached her potential, and feels trapped at home.

Hallowell and Ratey affirm that “these symptoms [of both spouses] are consistent with ADD, but few people would think of ADD because the complaints are so commonplace”.

ADHD also has a high dual diagnosis rate, in addition, another mental health or substance use disorder might appear to be ADHD. Therefore, it is critical that an accurate diagnosis is determined before any treatment begins.

Step 2: The ADHD partner works with a psychiatrist, an ADHD coach, & if needed individual therapist

One successful couple example in Hallowell and Ratey’s book reflected the benefits of the ADHD partner first receiving effective treatment:

Ritalin allowed him [Sam] to sustain focus in a way he never had been able to before. The medication took him out of the self-centered, fast-paced, stimulation-seeking, always-distracted cloud he’d come to live in and deposited him in the ordinary here and now. It allowed him to get to know his own feelings, to get to know his wife [Mary], and to be present wherever he actually was.

Step 3: Both partners engage in couples therapy (with a therapist who understands ADHD)

Hallowell and Ratey also strongly advocate for ADHD couples to receive the benefits of couples therapy. Continuing with their successful couple example…

The struggle didn’t end with the diagnosis, however. Sam and Mary had to work hard to make their marriage last. It took persistence and a daily, habitual tending to each other. Sam had to unlearn a number of habits, and Mary had to get past a backlog of anger and resentment. They loved each other and wanted to be together, and they worked to stay together. But it was by no means easy.

According to Hallowell and Ratey, “ADD does not occur in a vacuum. The partner of an individual with ADD can benefit from a receptive forum as much as the person with ADD can. The stresses on the partner can mount as he or she tries to hold things together, keep the family from sinking, either financially or emotionally, and generally try to bring order out of the chaos.”

Empathy & Teamwork can end the vicious cycle of a “parent-child” dynamic

In the Hallowell couple’s book, Married to distraction, they share two important interventions to change a couple’s parent/child alienating struggle into a respectful and caring adult dialogue and a collaborative partnership where both partners feel their loved one has their back.

1. Empathic inquiry- a powerful intervention that shifts anger and self-justification (defensiveness) to understanding and connection. 

Here’s an example of both self-justification (which fuels a couple’s vicious cycle) and empathic inquiry (from Married to distraction):


Ellen: I nag you because you never get anything done unless I do.

Tom: I don’t get things done because you are always nagging me and I feel so resentful.

Empathic inquiry: 

Ellen: What makes it so difficult for you to organize the taxes on time? I’d really like to understand so I can help. 

Tom: What is it that worries you so much about the taxes? I always get it done one way or the other. What upsets you so much about my putting it off? I’d really like to understand. 

When partners choose to GENUINELY seek to understand their loved one’s mind and heart and are willing to do the work of introspection so they can also clearly express what is happening for them on the inside, from a more authentic place, couples can exit their vicious cycle and reconnect as equals.

2. Create a sense of fairness and teamwork- by making a list of all of the couple’s responsibilities to determine and balance more fairly who does what (household, childcare, car care, finances, health, communication, entertainment, and other responsibilities – outside of each partner’s paid job, which includes the unpaid, but extremely cost savings job of childcare)

For an example this type of list, see the chapter “Coping with Typical Solvable Problems” in Gottman’s book, The seven principles for making marriage work. 

If you find that you can’t do this exercise without fighting, then it is worth hiring a therapist to get you through your list. 

*Remember that EMPATHY is the first and MOST IMPORTANT step

This exercise can be transformational for some couples to break free from a never ending BLAMING cycle about “Who does MORE (housework, childcare, etc.)?” It can also be informative and increase greater appreciation for both partners (the O- organizer and the D- distractor) because oftentimes partners are doing tasks behind the scenes.

The Hallowell’s conclude this chapter with these encouraging words:

Once you have developed a division of labor that works, you’ll be amazed at how much love you rediscover, how much energy you regain, and how much easier and more fun life becomes.

Lastly, what if the ADHD partner knows the tasks they need to do (because they co-created “the list”), but they struggle to get tasks started or completed because of their condition?

Some non-ADHD partners become their ADHD partner’s organizational coach and this works. Other couples find that hiring a professional coach, to work with the ADHD partner, can help save their marriage because they can preserve their relationship with their spouse as a purely intimate one .

ADHD & Sex

According to Hallowell & Ratey:

The impact of ADD upon sexuality is poorly understood. However, we have seen many people in our practice, both men and women, who complain of either an inability to pay attention during sex well enough to enjoy it, or the opposite: a hyperfocused hypersexuality.

Hallowell and Ratey further explain~

“Those who appear to be hypersexual may turn to sex as a form of intense stimulation to help them focus. Many adults with ADD are drawn to high-stimulus situations as means of alleviating boredom or clearing their mind of distraction. Some get involved in physically dangerous activities, such as racecar driving or vertical skiing or bungee-jumping or they get involved in risky activities like gambling or dangerous romances… For some adults with ADD, sex acts as a kind of stimulant medication and they use it to find not only the pleasure of orgasm, but the pleasure of being focused.

On the other hand, those who cannot pay attention often accuse themselves or are accused by lovers of being frigid or undersexed or involved with someone else. In fact, they may enjoy sex a great deal but simply have problems staying focused while making love just as they have problems staying focused during any other activity.”

Step 4: Partners develop a plan to resolve their unique ADHD relationship struggles

Hallowell and Ratey end the chapter with a list of:

25 Guidelines or “tips” that might be helpful in dealing with issues of concern to couples in which one partner has ADD

Here are my top 5:

  1. Make sure you have an accurate diagnosis. There are many conditions that look like ADD, from too much coffee to anxiety states to dissociative disorders to hyperthyroidism. Before embarking on a treatment for ADD, consult with your physician to make sure what you have is really ADD and not something else. Once you are sure of this diagnosis, learn as much as you can about ADD. There is an increasing body of literature on the topic. The more you and your mate know, the better you will be able to help each other. The first step in the treatment of ADD- whether it be your partner’s or someone else’s- is education.
  2. Keep a sense of humor! If you let it be, ADD can be really funny at times. Don’t miss out on the chance to laugh when the laugh is there. At that psychological branch point we all know so well, when the split second options are to get mad, cry or laugh, go for the laughter. Humor is the key to a happy life with ADD.
  3. Set up a time for talking. You will need some time to talk to each other about ADD- what it is, how it affects your relationship, what each of you wants to do about it, what feelings you have about it. Don’t multi-task during this conversation. Must carve out time you both can solely focus on each other.
  4. Let the one who is the better organizer take on the job of organization. There’s no point in flogging yourself with a job you can’t do. If you can’t do the checkbook, don’t do the checkbook. If you can’t do the kids’ clothes shopping, don’t do it. That’s one of the advantages of being a couple. You have another person to help out. However, the job the other person does instead of you must then be adequately appreciated, noticed and reciprocated.
  5. Don’t use ADD as an excuse. Each member of the couple has to take responsibility for their actions. On the other hand, while one must not use ADD as an excuse, knowledge of the syndrome can add immeasurably to the understanding one brings to the relationship.

How long will treatment take?

For some people the treatment lasts just a few sessions. For most people, however, it takes longer that that…The average duration of treatment for adult ADD is about three to six months.

In closing~

Partners with untreated ADHD can unintentionally be incredibly difficult and with the right kind of treatment and support for both partners, your relationship can be saved! Effective treatment can also help the ADHD partner finally reach their potential in life.

The greatest challenge might be persuading your partner to take the first step- getting an accurate diagnosis. If your partner wasn’t diagnosed with ADHD as a child, they might never have considered that their challenges in life might be attributed to ADHD. Or, they may be reticent to seek an evaluation due to their opposition or fear of taking stimulant medication.

I hope you can support your partner to seek an evaluation- if you suspect they have ADHD- so they can know the true source of their difficulties and a plethora of options (beyond medication) in resolving or mitigating their challenges.

In ALL relationships, it’s essential to remember and appreciate our partner’s strengths. Dr. Hallowell believes that ADHD is both a liability and a super power. Both partners will be happier when they can view ADHD in a more balanced way.

If this blog resonated with you, and you are interested in learning more about the impact of ADHD on intimate relationships as well as solutions to help your relationship thrive, below are a few resources:

  • Married to distraction; How to restore intimacy and strengthen your partnership in an age of interruption (book by Dr. Hallowell, his wife, Sue Hallowell who is a couples therapist and Melissa Orlov, another expert on ADHD and couples)
  • The couple’s guide to thriving with ADHD (book by Melissa Orlov and Nancie Kohlenberger, LMFT)
  • Driven to distraction; Recognizing and coping with attention deficit disorder from childhood through adulthood by Dr. Ed Hallowell, MD and John Ratey, MD (audio version is on Hoopla)
  • And if you prefer videos, podcasts, etc. or listening to information, go to Google, Youtube, or TikTok and type in one of the authors’ names above. I especially like Dr. Hallowell’s videos.

If you are an ADHD couple looking for help with your relationship, I am here for you.

Contact Lana Isaacson, LCSW, CAS today at 720.432.5262, [email protected] or schedule your session or free consultation at this link.