Love, parenting and ADHD
Maintaining a romantic relationship in a high-pace ADHD family
Maintaining a romantic relationship in a high-pace ADHD family
I think almost every parent would agree that maintaining romantic relationships while being a parent is a major challenge. Parenting is a privilege and a joy - it’s also an all-consuming, life-long commitment that, for many people, doesn't come with nearly enough built-in support or a handbook. The isolation, stress, grief and general complications that come with parenting through the pandemic have only compounded pre-existing challenges (e.g. this article was written on pandemic parent fatigue one year ago - and it just keeps coming). Throw in the added dynamics that can arise when inattention, executive functioning differences, emotional reactivity, and forgetfulness are a part of your normal, and you can begin to picture the challenges posed to parenting and partnership in our busy ADHD family.
I have three incredible children: a high energy, empathic six year old ADHDer, a curious and loving (likely ADHD) three and a half year old, and a gentle giant seven month old baby, who I get to parent alongside a fantastic partner. In general, I find many of my ADHD traits actually support the most important parts of parenting quite well. The constant problem solving, the importance of close relationships, and the fun of it all plays quite well to my ADHD brain. Pre-kids, I think it also was part of what made me a fiercely loving, spontaneous and adventure-loving partner - traits that my partner obviously liked enough in me to start having kids! Managing all of these relationships with only 24 hours in the day alongside each of our different personalities and unique needs, however, is the most challenging aspect of life right now.
While there is certainly no one-size-fits-all approach to either relationships or parenting, I’ve examined what has worked for us (some of which is informed by research as problems have inevitably come up), alongside brilliant advice from other ADHDers on the internet for balancing love and parenting in an ADHD home. I was hoping to provide more ideas from external resources, but outside of academic literature suggesting that ADHD has a negative impact on relationships (which while it may hold truth in some cases, is not very uplifting or particularly helpful), there wasn’t much out there. If you’re looking for ideas and inspiration, read on!
If there isn’t love, support, and a desire to understand one another, then I don’t know how there can be a partnership that works. When it comes to our ADHD, it is vital that a partner validates our diagnosis and/or pursuit for diagnosis, takes initiative to learn about it, and demonstrates understanding. Otherwise, as ADHD Sex Educator Cate Osborn makes so clear in this brilliant TikTok ‘a partner who doesn’t support you isn’t a partner.’
Self-understanding is equally key. I’m a bit hesitant to admit it (as I wish I would have been motivated enough to do it for myself) but one of the reasons I eventually sought diagnosis and support for ADHD was due to my kids’ ADHD. I wanted to be able to understand myself better in order to be able to implement routines, supports and show up as a parent in ways that I could not do when my own executive functioning was so variable. Research affirms this - that ADHDers with ADHD parents are less likely to receive external supports for their ADHD. As an ADHD child of an ADHDer myself, I believe this is partly because when your parents understand these parts of you, they often become normalized and accommodated. This is of course tremendously positive. The flip side to this is that you may receive less external support and, as in my case, things may start breaking down after moving out of an accepting home.
The other big reason I pursued diagnosis was my relationship with my partner. As much as he accepts me for who I am, I also know my behavior can be hurtful, but because of his deep love and understanding for me, he also can end up being the person I take for granted. This is where me knowing him and his needs, as well as taking accountability for my actions comes in. In that sense, seeking external supports for myself - like ADHD coaching & therapy - is beneficial to our relationship.
For us and many other ADHD couples, time management is our biggest challenge. For parents - neurodivergent or not - this tends to be the case as well (there is so much gold written about how many parents today lack a village, but that is for another blog post). Two ways that we deal with the ever-consuming challenge of time are asking for and hiring support, and delegating across our strengths.
A few weeks ago I headed back to work after maternity leave. After a particularly chaotic day, I could just see how the stress was affecting our seven month old, three year old and myself significantly. That day we decided we needed more support and, with me back working, our financial equation was also different. My partner and I then worked together to make a list of the things that get were getting left behind those weeks (laundry, floors, healthy food) and the things we want to offer more of (one on one time with each kid, especially our oldest), and made a plan for how to hire support and ask for help from our community so we can make some of those things happen. Any way you’re able to lighten the load (by outsourcing something, asking for support from family or friends, by systematizing something like groceries) can support your relationship by freeing up time and mental energy. At the moment, consistent childcare is not an option for us (pandemic + finances + childcare shortage...), but if it is for you, then free up time for you and your partner to just be by prioritising it!
Something else we have done in the past is delegate across our strengths. There is no reason for me to take care of the laundry (which is a painful, hours to days long process that generally ends up in a pile of stinking, wet laundry) when my partner can do it so happily while listening to a podcast while I cook (which I can do without huge challenges because of my tremendous interest in food). Leaning into what comes more easily for each of you in the realm of practical things will free up energy for the other stuff that really matters.
While I do feel relief after asking for help or delegating things to my partner that I know cause me intense challenges, I also feel some guilt. I think this is something I have to work hardest through and I know it’s the same for many ADHDers - the shame of not being able to do it all the way I perceive someone else being able to. Letting go of those expectations and feelings of failure - however you can - will be a win for your relationship with yourself and your partner.
In a survey of 700 ADHD couples, ADDitude magazine found that in many couples where one partner had ADHD and the other did not, the biggest challenge was communication breakdowns (2021). Communication may be the antidote to emotional reactivity and the inevitable miscommunication that leads from inattention (so perfectly exemplified in this piece by Terena Bell, where Bell tells the story of checking her email as her partner was telling a ‘worst day ever’ story). Once you identify the root of communication troubles, make a plan for communicating in a way that means everyone will be heard and is actually doable. In the case of Terena Bell and her partner, this meant not talking about important things between 4 and 5pm which fell right between doses of medication kicking in.
For my partner and I, it means we have a rule to focus on communicating about the present moment as much as possible. In our communication, avoiding over-generalizing is key to prevent the rejection sensitivity spiral that is so common for ADHDers like myself. "I" statements, as opposed to blame, are also an important part for our agreements about how we speak to each other during conflict. These rules for communicating - particularly around addressing conflict or hurt feelings - have been life-changing for our relationship.
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In an interview about making and maintaining friendships with ADHD, Dr. Sasha Hamdani - a psychiatrist who’s also an ADHDer - recommends building time for friendships into your schedule and engaging in activities you find exciting with friends. I think both apply for strengthening romantic relationships for ADHDers as well. While actually scheduling time together might sound unromantic, scheduling time actually helps make space for connection. A visual calendar like Tiimo can be helpful for this, particularly for those of us who are intensely visual thinkers 🙋.
Right now my partner and I have an intentional half hour after the older kids go to bed (at the moment it features our seven month old, but I’m hoping that will change one day) where we do something together. These days we’re taking part in an incredible parenting challenge hosted by Yolanda Williams of Parenting Decolonized. I was initially hesitant to sign up for the challenge, not because I didn’t want to (I really wanted to!), but because I could not imagine having the time for it. However, structuring our time together, particularly when it’s based around something I care about a lot and find important (and therefore gets my focus and interest-based nervous system going!), helps me avoid scrolling this precious time - where we’re relatively able to connect - away.
Something I’ve noticed is that as a family full of ADHDers - majority of whom are sensory seekers - is that it’s SO important to get out of the house. Understanding where your family feels best and doing it is supportive for all of your relationships. For us, this means lots of time at the pool (I won’t go into how challenging not having that opportunity through the pandemic has been - but to parents who have lost sensory opportunities for you and your families and had to get creative to keep you and your community safe, I see you). The pool fills all of our sensory cups, makes us laugh, and helps us let go of rules that don’t really matter, so we prioritize it. Scheduling or building routines to make sure this happens and happens often is so helpful and is a way of strengthening our relationships and making sure we have loads of positive shared experiences.
ADHDers are often spontaneous, fun-loving and characterized by an interest-based nervous system. I try to lean into the ADHD traits that make me who I am and are part of why my partner and I fell for each other in the first place! They’re also conveniently some traits that the kids love about me. I am always up for an adventure and like temporary suspension of the rules - whether that means a surprise home-from-school-day or an unexpected cake before dinner. While these kinds of escapades involve a certain amount of energy and flexibility, I find that leaning into what I know are my strengths helps in all of my relationships - they’re a natural place for me to show my love in a way that is energizing and feels authentic.
I had hoped that this piece would be more referenced - I intended to research strategies other people have used and catalog what has worked (particularly since I so often snort-laugh at the suggestions I read couples therapists and coaches on social give… to me they seem only feasible for neurotypicals and/or people without kids!!) - but there wasn’t much out there. So let’s start a conversation about it. Let us know on Instagram how you and your partner(s) support and strengthen your relationship in the midst of managing the demands of parenting.
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