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Oct 4, 2017

Here’s What You Should Know About Dating Someone With ADHD

All relationships take work — but some require shared calendars and extra sets of car keys.

Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a neurobehavioral disorder characterized by ongoing inattentiveness and/or hyperactivity-impulsivity. It affects nearly ten million adults in the United States.

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"ADHD is a disorder of self-regulation and self-control," Russell A. Barkley, PhD, clinical professor of psychiatry at the Medical University of South Carolina and ADHD expert, tells BuzzFeed Health. There are actually three types, and each one is characterized by the symptoms a person presents with: inattentive type, hyperactive-impulsive type, and combined type.

The disorder is classified in medical literature as attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), but many people still refer to it as ADD (especially those with inattentive-type). For the purpose of clarity and conciseness, we’ll use ADHD in this article.

Because ADHD impacts interpersonal skills, it can also affect your intimate relationships — and could be the cause of relationship problems without you even knowing it.

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Since adult ADHD is often undiagnosed or unmanaged — 4.4% of adults have it, but only 10% of those people have been diagnosed and treated — couples may not even be aware that the disorder is causing problems in their relationship. “In some instances, the problems in a relationship or marriage can actually uncover a case of adult ADHD,” Barkley says.

So if you have four or more of the DSM symptoms or notice all of these patterns and issues below in an otherwise healthy relationship, Ramsay says, you may want to consider contacting a psychologist, psychiatrist, or neurologist who can provide an ADHD screening.

ADHD manifests differently for different people, and, of course, no two relationships are the same, so not everything here will apply to every relationship where ADHD plays a role. See the end of this article for resources on how to get help or to help your partner get help.

1. ADHD can make things difficult for all people in the relationship, but understanding how symptoms affect the relationship can help.

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The person with ADHD often feels demoralized, ashamed, anxious, inadequate, and misunderstood. Their partner can feel burdened, ignored, disrespected, unheard, and misunderstood. This is why it's so important for the couple to have a shared understanding of the disorder and the problems and patterns it can create in a relationship.

"ADHD isn't an excuse, it's an explanation," J. Russell Ramsay, PhD, co-director of the Adult ADHD Treatment and Research Program at the University of Pennsylvania, tells BuzzFeed Health. It's easy to misinterpret symptoms for carelessness, lack of interest, unreliability, or just being a bad partner. Better understanding the ways that ADHD can affect a relationship is the first step to fixing those issues.

2. And proper treatment for the person with ADHD, along with their partner's support, can help control symptoms before they cause issues.

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There's no magic cure for ADHD, but the right treatment can help reduce core symptoms and the issues they cause in a relationship so they're easier to work through. "If you have ADHD, you need to find the right treatment (whether that's medication or another therapy), be willing to stick with it, and find accommodations so your environment is more conducive to your productivity," Barkley says. ADHD is a chronic condition, Ramsay says. It's about managing the disorder effectively both inside and outside of the relationship for life.

If you're the partner of someone with ADHD, it's crucial that you also support their treatment program and educate yourself about the disorder. "If you refuse to believe ADHD is real or view it as lifestyle choice or laziness, you are being very condescending — and if the person with ADHD starts to buy it too, they can become demoralized," Barkley says. This attitude could discourage someone with ADHD from getting treatment that could change their life and turn a relationship around.

3. It might not be obvious that someone has ADHD when you first start dating them. In fact, you might not be able to tell at all.

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The start of relationships are always more fun. And because people with ADHD tend to thrive with novelty and spontaneity, this part of the relationship can seem effortless. "What you'll often see in the beginning is an engaging, dynamic, carefree, risk-taking individual. The first few weeks or months of dating someone with ADHD can be very fun," Barkley says.

On the flipside, some symptoms of ADHD, such as forgetfulness and inattention, could be mistaken as a lack of interest in the beginning — which could put off potential partners. Not to mention, even if the person with ADHD is diagnosed and treated, they still might hesitate to tell a new partner because of the stigma around the disorder. "As you get to know someone, you might need to have a conversation and open up about your ADHD — just like any other mental illness — to help your partner understand and prepare for symptoms," Ramsay says.

4. In the early stages of a relationship, the person with ADHD might hyperfocus on their partner, so that it seems like they're the ~center of their world~.

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"Hyperfocus" basically happens when people with ADHD can become so deeply focused or enamored with something that they can't let go or stop when they're supposed to switch to something else. (Often known as "being in your own little world.")

In the context of relationships, it can mean the person with ADHD initially puts all of their focus and energy into their new partner — dropping everything to see them, showering them with attention, listening to every little story. "This can be true of anybody, but even more so of people with ADHD. And then suddenly, everything changes," Ramsay says.

5. Once the honeymoon phase is over, the hyperfocus might fade and be replaced with lack of attention or forgetfulness.

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"When you move to the commitment phase and you start to develop a routine of interdependence, that’s when you notice the 'consistent inconsistencies' in the partner with ADHD," says Ramsay. It might start small: They don’t follow through with a favor or they get distracted while you’re talking by an incoming text. Then suddenly, they might forget about a date or show up late to for an important event.

Even if it's not intentional, this shift can seem dramatic and hurtful, and partners might assume it’s because that person doesn’t care about them anymore, says Ramsay. Because of this, people with ADHD might find themselves consistently losing partners at this phase or only dating people for several months or a year at a time. Relationships are an endurance sport, and sometimes people with ADHD sprint too hard in the beginning and burn out.

6. Difficulty sustaining attention can make it seem like the partner with ADHD never listens or doesn't care.

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Maybe you were telling your partner about a new project at work when their eyes drifted to the floor, or maybe they couldn't repeat a basic detail you told them minutes earlier. "It's often not that the person with ADHD doesn’t care, but it's just very difficult for them to sustain attention — it's like pulling a muscle to keep listening," Ramsay says.

Because of this, the partner with ADHD may have to ask you repeatedly about details to make up for those gaps in their attention, which can cause tension. In order to help this problem, Ramsay suggests having conversations face-to-face and checking in with your partner every few minutes to make sure they're with you — and also being willing to repeat some information if they did wander off.

7. On the other hand, they can talk excessively and go on endless tangents, which might make their partner feel like they can never get a word in.

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"Because individuals with ADHD have a problem with self-control and self-awareness, they tend to interrupt people, dominate conversations, and ignore social cues, so conversations often feel one-sided," Barkley says. Part of dating someone with ADHD is accepting that they can be excessively chatty at times, he says, but sometimes the nonstop narrative can really wear you out.

"One strategy for the person with ADHD is to use the three sentence rule — so limit yourself to three sentences, then pause and see if the other person wants to talk," Ramsay says. Another tip is scheduling more important conversations ahead of time, so both partners have time to prepare what they’ll say, which leaves less room for tangents.

8. Impaired working memory means the partner with ADHD doesn't always follow through with favors or keep promises.

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"Your working memory doesn't involve facts — it's about remembering what you’re supposed to be doing and how you'll get it done," Barkley says. It's like your brain's notepad or to-do list for recent information. When this is impaired, you can get easily distracted from the task at hand. "These little commitments you make to each other — like saying you'll pick up a grocery item on the way home or agreeing to meet you after work — can be forgotten," Barkey says.

All these broken promises can have real consequences. "The one without ADHD might have panic episodes because they're worried their partner didn't pick up the kids or pay rent on time like they said they would — they feel like they can't trust them," Barkley says. At the same time, their partner may feel horrible guilt and shame. "It's important for the person with ADHD to get in the habit of writing everything down, or using reminder systems and shared calendars to keep themselves on track," Ramsay says.

Your phone might work for this, but the experts agree that phones can also be very distracting. So another option is to carry a notebook with you and write everything you need to do or remember in there.

9. Problems with time management can mean that the partner with ADHD is often late and keeps others waiting.

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"No other disorder causes worse problems with time management than ADHD. They are always late, can't stick to a schedule, fail to meet deadlines, and may not even show up," Barkley says. This is because ADHD makes it very difficult for people to predict how long it takes to do something, which can be frustrating for their partner. Time management is a skill that people with ADHD will probably have to work on their whole lives. But the experts agree that it helps to use alarms, reminders, and ... a good app for directions that accounts for traffic.

10. Forgetfulness can cause the partner with ADHD to lose things, miss texts and calls, or just seem very disorganized in general.

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If you date someone with ADHD, it may feel like every time you leave the house your partner will forget their phone, keys, or wallet. Maybe they always misplace important bills, lose jewelry, or leave their credit card at the bar. Forgetfulness is a major problem in individuals with ADHD, says Barkley, and it can make them seem quite disorganized and careless.

Part of solving this problem is the partner with ADHD learning the right coping strategies — like using a planner or journal, sticky notes, and phone alerts to remember things. It's also important for their partner to try not to interpret the forgetfulness as intentional, Ramsay says. And if you share a car, just have more than one set of keys.

11. If you live together, the person with ADHD might seem messy and all over the place, but it might have more to do with memory than neatness.

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In any shared living situation, there will always be one person who is neater than the other — it's usually not the one who has ADHD. They tend to kind of take over a space with their stuff, Ramsay says, and this is an easy point of contention in the relationship. Their desk may have piles of papers or the garage might be full of half-finished art projects. However, it's not always because the partner with ADHD is a messy person.

"The memory difficulties can play out with possessions — so people with ADHD might leave things out and to act as visual reminders," Ramsay says. This is why people with ADHD often say “it looks messy but I know exactly where everything is,” Ramsay explains. So no matter how tempting it might be for the person without ADHD to clean up the clutter, they should always consult their partner first — otherwise this could be stressful and disorienting. "It's important to figure out how to collaborate; it may mean storing objects in clear bins with labels or keeping things out but in an organized way," Ramsay says.

12. Inattentiveness caused by ADHD can also impact a couple's sex lives.

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Yes, the symptoms of ADHD have a sexual aspect, too. "There can be a disconnect with libidos; sometimes the partner with ADHD could be hypersexual, or they're easily distracted during sex and don't pay enough attention to their partner's desires," Ramsay says. This lack of reciprocity can come off as disinterest or selfishness, and that can be a big problem, since having sex is often a moment of intimacy and vulnerability in relationships. "It's important to make sure both partners are on the same page and communicating about issues during sex," Ramsay says. Teamwork makes the dream work.

13. The partner with ADHD might have emotional outbursts, which can make their partner feel like they're walking on eggshells.

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ADHD causes problems with inhibition and emotional regulation, which can make it easy for the partner with ADHD to be emotionally aroused and quick to get frustrated or aggressive — and this can even increase risk of intimate partner violence, Barkley says. For their partner, this can make things pretty unpredictable or scary. Although this is often reactive, unplanned aggression, Barkley says, it can still do a lot of damage.

"Even if the partner with ADHD didn't mean it and they apologize — they still might have said or done something downright abusive," Ramsay says. Proper treatment and couples therapy can help control the emotional outbursts. "It's important for both partners to recognize triggers or warning signs and then practice mindfulness strategies, like giving each other a five or ten minute cool down period," Ramsay says. And obviously, this could be a breaking point for some partners, and that's okay. Every couple is different.

14. Impulsivity can cause the partner with ADHD to say things without thinking, which can come off as being harsh or careless.

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"For example, if you walk out wearing a new outfit, they might have this knee-jerk honest response that most people wouldn't say out loud," Barkley says. These impulsive comments can come across as harsh and insensitive, and even if the partner with ADHD catches themselves and apologizes, sometimes it’s too late and feelings are hurt, Barkley says.

"It's important for people to understand that ADHD individuals have a problem with planning or editing what they'll say and just blurt out their stream of consciousness," Barkley says. Communication is essential, too. So if your partner has ADHD and does this, try letting them know how and why they offended you instead of holding your feelings in — this can help them think about how to modify their behavior.

15. If a couple has shared finances, this same impulsivity can also lead to overspending and poor financial tracking.

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Sometimes, the partner with ADHD just gets so excited and distracted by something that they act immediately — so a new guitar or vacation might take precedent over a car payment or rent. It's not that they don't care about saving or that they're selfish, experts say, but rather, that they lack self-control and forethought. But if finances are shared in a relationship or marriage, this can lead to serious trust issues and even a breakup or divorce down the road, says Ramsay. The solution to this problem varies, and it may require couples counseling or help from a financial planner to get things in check.

16. Sometimes partners might develop a parent-child dynamic to cope with symptoms, which can be problematic.

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"What happens is over time, the parter without ADHD can feel more like a parent or a caretaker because they're constantly picking up the slack, reminding their partner to do things, or planning things for them," Barkley says. It can feel very burdensome to "parent" a partner, and the person with ADHD can end up feeling controlled or nagged. This dynamic can also lead to an unhealthy codependency situation. "It's not empowering for the partner with ADHD at all," says Barkley. It can also cause them to feel ashamed or reinforce feelings of inadequacy.

It's important that the person with ADHD take responsibility for the symptoms that they can change, and that their partner is supportive without being too involved. "Every committed relationship should have an equal division of labor where each person is taking over the tasks they do best — for the partner with ADHD, that may mean the non time-sensitive things," Ramsay says. However a couple decides to split up tasks or chores, each partner should still be pulling their equal share so one person doesn’t assume a parenting role.

All relationships have problems, but working as a team to fix things can actually make a bond even stronger. Just know when it’s time to seek professional help.

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Communication and mutual understanding are key, and finding out how to work through the issues mentioned above can be a testament to your strength and resilience as a couple. But of course, it's also important to know when you can fix your own problems and when you need professional help. "The person with ADHD may need to hire a professional to help solve the issues that their partner was trying to fix before — and for both partners, sometimes it's better to offload your problems on a third party than it is to offload on each other," Barkley says.

ADHD doesn't have to cause problems in your life forever — and it's completely possible for a couple where only one person has ADHD to have a happy, lasting relationship together. "These relationships can be successful, you just have to figure out how to work together and support each other — and in the end, that can actually strengthen the relationship," Ramsay says.

Follow along at BuzzFeed.com/MentalHealthWeek from Oct. 2 to Oct. 8, 2017.

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