How To Talk About ADHD With A Partner

couple having coffee talking

People often ask me how to talk about ADHD with a partner.

Presumably, this partner does NOT have ADHD.

The only way I know how to start this article is with a story.

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In 2007 I was packing up to move into my now-husband’s house. After two years of dating I hadn’t allowed him into my living space more than a half-dozen times because I wasn’t sure how I was going to explain my chronic disorganization to him.

While throwing my clothing into boxes he casually asked..

Why do you have so many piles of clothing?

Some are dirty and some are clean.

But you have a walk-in closet?  The way he said it had a question mark at the end.

With everything in the closet I can’t see what I have. I need everything where I can see it. 

I saw my opening so I launched right into my speech about how I was diagnosed with ADHD in the 90’s and I struggle with time management, and organization, and planning…and lots of other things. And I was sorry I hadn’t told him sooner.

He listened quietly, didn’t seem phased.

I already knew all of those things about you, I just didn’t know it had a name.  

That was the entire conversation. Apparently, my disorganization wasn’t much of a secret after all. The wedding went forward. He married me and my ADHD.

Twelve years later, we’ve added a bigger house, a child, and a couple dogs to our collective plate.

Our marriage has had seasons – the newlyweds, the expectant parents, the ADHD housewife from hell stage, and now I’m not sure what stage we are in. Certainly not the stage where I feel I’m qualified to give advice.

So think of what follows as information, not advice.

Uncomfortable Honesty

Far too many people hide their ADHD struggles from their romantic partners. Or they change their opinions, political affiliations, and taste in music in an attempt to become an ideal partner for their love interest.

Usually if you are hiding something as important as a diagnosis, you are hiding other important parts of yourself.

If you want any relationship to work, you have to show all of you. Dust bunnies under the bed, unfinished college degrees, credit card debt…all of it.

Talk about ADHD early and often in your primary relationship. Better yet, talk about everything your instincts tell you not to talk about. It’s worth it in the end.

Teach your partner about ADHD

I’ll admit many partners are not as receptive as mine was to learning about what ADHD is, and what it isn’t. You might need the help of a therapist who is well-versed in ADHD to help you start the conversation.

ADHD affects almost every major domain of our lives – from executive functioning, to emotional regulation, to communication.  ADHD is a complicated diagnosis that doesn’t look the same in everyone.

There are many books available for reference, as well as websites like CHADD and ADDA.  

There are now support groups exclusively for non-ADHD partners.

Describe how ADHD manifests in YOU. 

Talk about how you experience the world. The frustrations and good bits. Give concrete examples if you can.

At the beginning I’d recommend describing symptoms before you try to prove ADHD is real. You don’t need to prove anything.

Before you start sweating at the thought of, “explaining,” take a breath. You might be surprised, not everyone is going to expect medical evidence of the validity of the diagnosis.

If someone decides they no longer want to be with you because of ADHD, that person probably shouldn’t be in your life anyway.

Household management

Household management is often a source of conflict in long-term relationships.

Day-to-day chores are not a preferred activity for the ADHD brain and at this point many of us have been cooped up at home for nearly a year.

When we moved in together we came up with a plan, based on our strengths.

My husband is good at organization and systems. He stores and sorts important paperwork like bills, mortgage, life insurance, and passports. When I have an important piece of paper in my hand I hand it over.

The hubs is NOT good at laundry. He dries everything.

So I gather and do loads of laundry in the house. I’m not great at putting it away but we have clean clothes and it’s not something we choose to argue about.

I still create piles on every horizontal surface. He doesn’t love my piles, so he got me hooks, and we put a cedar chest at the end of the bed so I have a designated surface for piling.

After our son was born things got more complicated, but we still have the same basic systems in place.

talk about ADHD over and over

There are times when I feel like I’m not pulling my weight in our marriage and at home.  I feel like I have to explain why I’m even here.

ADHDers are prone to negative rumination and emotional overload, and sometimes we aren’t even able to describe what we are thinking and feeling to the people closest to us.

Other people are not mind readers. Even the ones that share your bed.

In fact, all other people can see is our behavior, which can be interpreted in a myriad of ways.

This is why having an adult temper tantrum is unlikely to get you the support you need. It’s much easier and more productive to practice starting a dialogue.

Here are some examples of starting a conversation:

  • I have 117 things to do, but I’m not sure what’s actually important, can you help me narrow the field?
  • I can’t make a decision here…
  • I need help with the calendar.
  • What time is? Where is?
  • Can you repeat the details of that?
  • I’m sorry I’m not contributing more financially..

My husband prefers I ask for help before I have a meltdown. So I do.

Maintain a sense of humor

In twelve years I’d guess we have had five real** arguments. We are verbal processors, but we aren’t screamers.

I once used the gas stove and left it on, fifty feet from our child, and then left the room to take a shower. He did yell at me that time.

It was something like, “I know you have ADHD, but you could have KILLED all of us!”

But most days it’s just me leaving cabinet doors open for him to walk into, or piling up laundry at the foot of our bed. Or me backing out of the driveway and running over the trash cans because I forgot they were there.

You have to laugh. It’s good for the sex life.

The success of any partnership comes down to doing the work.

Talk about ADHD early and often. Choose your words carefully. Label behaviors, not people. And then laugh about it if possible.

I read a quote from Belinda Luscombe that sums it up nicely. “We don’t find soulmates, like some fantastic shell on the beach. We become them.”

Not by changing ourselves, but by growing into ourselves together.

You can learn how to talk about ADHD with a partner. The more you do it, the easier it gets for BOTH of you.