ADHD, Attachment Styles, and Relationships

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I’d never considered the complicated nature of ADHD, attachment styles, and relationships until 2016.

I’m not a hugger Everyone who knows me is aware of this. I don’t hug anyone except my husband, and he makes me do it as a joke.

Two years ago my brother and his wife had the heartbreaking experience of losing a child.

I was in a strange place when this happened. My brother needed me, but we weren’t ever taught about holding space for other people’s emotions. If anything our, “big feelings” were stifled as kids so we didn’t know how to identify or express emotion. I really needed to be able to hug my brother.

So I set out to understand why I am so uncomfortable with my own emotions and the emotions of others.

Reading psychology books and journal articles is one of my nerdy habits.

I read about how ADHD adults often have insecure attachment styles, which led me to really think about how many of us struggle to communicate and have our needs met in relationships.

You’re thinking, “I’m not difficult! People just don’t understand me because of my ADHD.”

That may be true. People aren’t very accepting of ADHD, or most other mental health conditions.

But the fact remains, ADHDers often have problems maintaining relationships. From romantic, to friendships, to even parental relationships with our children.

Understanding your attachment style can help you to better manage your relationships.

 

ADHD, attachment styles, and relationships

 

Your attachment style IS your relationship style

Research indicates that our interactions early in life contribute to our attachment styles later. Source

As a child with ADHD you potentially experienced up to 50% more negative feedback than a child without ADHD. (I read that somewhere but cannot find the source.) And as we know, ADHD runs in families, so it’s entirely possible that your parental figures were undiagnosed.

Please don’t look at this as something your parents did to you. And don’t worry that you are forming an insecure attachment to your children.

I’ve written about the struggle to be the kind of parent I want to be, even with ADHD.

With that said, those of us with ADHD are much more likely to display anxious and/or avoidant attachment styles that we carry over into our adult relationships.

Relationships are important in all areas of life, which is why I say your attachment style IS your relationship style.

There are several types of attachment, but I’ll only mention the big three.

Secure attachment style

In her book, The Healthy Mind Toolkit, Dr. Alice Boyes describes secure attachment as one where, “We see other people and ourselves in a positive light…we feel safe expressing our emotions and do not have trouble reading the emotional cues of others.”

Having a secure attachment style allows us to respond to the needs of others in an appropriate way. A securely attached person is not burdened when their child or partner needs support.

Everyone wants to be securely attached. We all want to be able to express our needs without fear of rejection.

But not many of us are 100% there.

Anxious attachment style

Anxiously attached individuals may have gotten the message that their emotions were unwelcome, or overwhelming for others. Sometimes caregivers are inconsistent, or emotionally unavailable and children don’t learn how to self-soothe.

We already know with ADHD our emotions are on a rollercoaster, so the message that you are too much for people can start very young. I know it did for me. I was basically taught that by having emotions I was a burden.

Compartmentalizing relationships is also common with this attachment style.

Do you keep your family separate from your friends, who you keep separate from your work life?

If so you might be anxious.

Avoidant attachment style

Avoidant individuals fear rejection even more than anxious individuals because their behavior is a product of emotional isolation.

Parents don’t even realize they’re being dismissive, but often avoidant types have been left alone to deal with their emotions without parental assistance. Or they’ve been outright rejected and have learned it’s best to not engage at all with others.

Avoidant attachments styles are not open to hearing about the emotions of others, and generally have little desire to share their own. They tend to focus on logic and look toward the future if the present is too intense.

Many of us aren’t just one type or another, but a combination of attachment styles. This fluidity is totally normal.

 

ADHD and attachment styles

The unique challenges of the ADHD brain can add to the confusion in a relationship.

For example, if my husband asks me to tidy up my clutter I feel a momentary sting. I’ll try to accommodate his request in-the-moment, but I get resentful because it FEELS like I’m being judged for my inability to organize my stuff.

I tend to be pretty anxious, so what I’m really afraid of is the idea that he will get tired of my clutter and leave me. The Hubs just thinks this is how I am – it never occurs to him that his request could make me anxious and resentful.

We don’t often have big blowout fights over these things – but the potential is there.

Here is a link to more info on making a marriage work with ADHD.

Moving toward more secure relationships

Edited from a presentation in the Enclave by Anna Lopez, Psychiatric Physician Assistant.

Everyone needs to be seen and heard. When we are safe to explore the emotion behind our actions it fosters a more empathy and connection with our partners.

If there’s a cycle of conflict between partners, most likely nobody is being heard. In those moments, it’s less about the person in front of you and more about your past attachments that weren’t optimal.

The key is to stay present, and acknowledge to yourself that your partner is not** your caregiver. This will allow you to pause before you respond and hopefully move you toward a more secure relationship.

You can and will have corrective experiences throughout your life with friends, partners, therapists, and in any relationship that is adding to your life. Peer support opportunities like the Enclave work to support your mental health as well.

Anything you do to learn and grow is additive.

The connection between ADHD, attachment styles, and relationships is just one more way to understand yourself. (and your ADHD) Think of this as information.

Relationships are complex and what works for one couple will not work for everyone. As with everything I write, take what helps and ignore the rest.

If you’d like to learn more and work on attunment and attachment, this piece from the Gottman Institute is a good start.

Further Reading:

https://annals-general-psychiatry.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12991-015-0082-y

https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1087054713501079

 

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