As featured in the Hornsby Kur-ing-gai Post November 2021.
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is currently reported to be as prevalent as 1 in 20 Australians so there will be many couples who experience relationship challenges due to the neurological differences between a neurotypical and a neurodiverse partner.
ADHD is defined as a difference in executive functioning, which is our brain’s capacity to organise, plan and regulate emotions, thoughts and behaviours. Like many individuals with ADHD, it’s likely (if you're the ADHD partner) that you have a history littered with experiences of being misunderstood or excluded due to your differences. Childhood may have been a constant struggle to fit into ‘systems’ - school, family and community – as it was for many of my clients. This can have a devastating impact on self-esteem which makes it difficult to feel confident navigating relationships. This can also sometimes create a parent/child dynamic, where the non-ADHD partner assumes responsibility for many of the 'life tasks' and the ADHD partner feels hopeless, or like the 'child' in the relationship.
That said, it’s not too difficult to understand how it might feel dismissive to your partner if they're talking to you and you’re distracted by your phone. It’s not hard to understand why they may feel frustrated if you said you’d pay the car registration (and forgot) and they're pulled over by the police. These are some of the situations my couples have faced that create conflict and trust issues in their relationship. Let’s not forget couples also exist within the prevailing culture which is ladened with expectations and pressures about what ‘normal’ should be. For the ADHD or neurodiverse partner, this external comparison can further promote feelings that they are somehow ‘wrong’.
While ADHD comes with challenges, it also comes with strengths which we all value in those around us such as: creativity; outside-the-box thinking; courage; intuition; sensitivity; empathy; resourcefulness; emotional intelligence; passion; wit; big-picture thinking; a deep connection to nature and animals; and more.
When you embark on a joint mission in your relationship to understand the strengths and quirks of both individuals – rather than viewing the ADHD behaviours as the ‘problem’ - you nurture personal growth and self-esteem for both individuals. Here are some helpful areas to focus on:
Mutual acceptance and patience - you may not understand each other’s experiences, but hold your perceptions lightly, choose to believe in the good intentions of the other and be willing to remain curious. Ask questions to seek to understand – differences make life interesting
ADHD strategies – learn strategies for day-to-day tasks you find challenging to ensure you feel confident to carry equal responsibility in the relationship and be a cheerleader for your strengths
Conflict style – learn strategies to regulate heightened emotions in conflict so you create healthier patterns of communication and negotiation
Unique contributions - celebrate the value you each bring to the relationship. When you can work to your strengths you both feel supported to fulfil your potential
Change - respond to the longing for change underneath both of your feelings and commit to a more mindful and intentioned relationship. These strategies are a wonderful place to start.
While ADHD and other neurodiversities represent differences in brain wiring and processing; strengths; and challenges, we are all deserving of understanding and acceptance for being who we are. In relationships, when you shift out of assumptions - into curiosity – into seeking to know the experience of the other person – you both become better able to imagine what it’s like to be in your partner’s shoes. This builds a bridge to openness, mutual understanding, respect and equality, paving the way for neurodiverse partners, and romantic love, to thrive.