How a Partner's Untreated Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity (ADHD) Affects Relationships

Many non-ADHD partners are completely stressed out living with an adult with undiagnosed or untreated ADHD. Why and what can be done?

It's easy to understand why folks were initially attracted to their partners who have ADHD. Humor. Creativity. They find those qualities in spades. Originality. Innovation. Those crop up a lot, too. Thinking outside the box? As long as it doesn't mean living in a box, they're there.

Yet, for the past three years, my online exchanges with hundreds of partners to people with undiagnosed or untreated ADHD also tell me this: They desperately love their partners, and yet they're desperately hurting and confused. They need help. Many of them have only recently learned that adult ADHD exists or can pose problems other than the occasional forgetting. They didn't know it had anything to do with rage, compulsive spending, job loss, quickly losing interest in a partner, and difficulty being a parent. Many live with partners in complete denial, refusing to even hear of ADHD. It's not that the non-ADHD partners consider themselves paragons of mental-health virtue. They represent a spectrum of personalities, behaviors, intelligences, and neuroses -- as their ADHD partners do, too. Most of them want to grow, change, expand, and meet their ADHD mates halfway or more.

Yet, when their partner's untreated ADHD creates chaos at every turn and their understanding of ADHD is nil, they often sink into a confused and stressed-out state I call "ADD by Osmosis." They're left unable to act, only react -- sometimes until they reach "meltdown." Even the most formerly confident among them start to believe their partner's line that their partnership woes are entirely their fault. After all, their partner were so in love with them and so charming and attentive in the beginning, it must be their fault that things have changed so drastically. On top of that, they are often dealing with financial difficulties, helping their children with ADHD, performing most of the household chores, and often working a full-time job.

For the most part, it's not the little ADHD'ish things that wear them down. They can live with those (mostly) once they understand their underpinnings, and they can work together on solutions. Rather, it's the big, teeth-rattling things that send them seeking a support group. Female and male members alike commiserate on the same issues, with a few variations. This following list of most-problematic "hot spots" - again, primarily found among those refusing diagnosis and treatment -- is not for the faint of heart. Perhaps only the most motivated and frustrated make it to a support group -- or maybe just those most certain that there's got to be a better way.

Financial: They wrestle with their partners' secret (and not so secret) debts, impulsive spending, chronic job losses or underemployment. They're called "anal" for insisting on filing with the IRS. They planned for a carefree retirement but instead face mountains of debt. Mention E-bay to them at your own risk; their closets are filled with their partner's impulsive and expensive online purchases.

Health: They manifest the effects of ADHD-induced stress and tumult in such disorders as fibromyalgia, migraines, chronic fatigue, and irritable-bowel disorder. Suddenly, it can seem that they are the burden to their partners instead of the other way around - an especially tricky scenario that many therapists don't understand. They grow more isolated and restricted in their daily activities.

Careers: Their careers often suffer, perhaps meaning they stay in jobs they hate because they can never afford to take a risk. Theirs is the sole, steady income. They often under-perform at work because they're constantly putting out fires created by their partners.

Children: An often-heard phrase is "We feel like single parents." They make all the decisions. They act as referee between their children and partner - doubly so if both have ADHD. Too often, they must deal with the authorities when their partner loses their temper. They often stay in toxic marriages because they know that "shared custody" would be disastrous. If their partner "loses track" of their toddler now, what will happen later? If their partner flies off the handle and smacks their adolescent now, what will happen when they're not around to intervene?

Support: Not much. Their families often see the charming "social" side of their partners and think they're exaggerating. Their closest friends commiserate but can't help them, other than to say "get out!" Their in-laws often are wrapped up in their own undiagnosed sagas, decades in the making. Much of the public, including the family doctor or their therapist, relegate adult AD/HD to tooth-fairy status: They don't believe in it.

Sex: They've experienced their partners turning off the sex spigot the day after marriage -- and then they find a way to blame it on them. If they would just do this, that, or the other, they're told, they would be sexually attractive again. They try, but none of it works. Or, they find they're expected to be their partners' sexual stimulant 24-7, with nothing in the way of romance or even foreplay. Some of them have enjoyed a good sex life prior to their partner's treatment, only to have that curtailed by medication side effects. Others feel little enthusiasm - and maybe even a tad incestuous - about having sex with someone who acts like their child.

Driving: They fear for their safety and that of their children. They pray for no more costly traffic-violations, or worse. Their insurance rates are already through the roof.

Self-Esteem: When they are consistently not valued or "seen," they slowly become invisible. Even to themselves. They're blamed for the sky being blue. They identify with Ingrid Bergman in the movie "Gaslight." They get beaten down.

Provocation to anger: They are eternally grateful for Dr. Amen for this subtitle in "Healing A.D.D.": "I bet I can get you to yell at me or hit me." They hate themselves when their anger overwhelms them - it's a new behavior for most of them -- and they hate that their partner keeps provoking them. They are bone-tired of fighting.

Getting Help: Many place trust in doctors and psychologists only to find their problems worsen due to their ignorance about ADHD. While their ADHD partners can conveniently forget the trauma that's transpired or place the blame at their feet - and therefore sit in a session looking so happy-go-lucky -- they are so traumatized, confused and depressed that, to the untrained eye, they often look like the cause of the relationship woes.

It often takes from 5 to 30 years before they gain a clue their partner's behavior comes with a name - and hope for change. By that time, much damage has been done.

Before they can move past the anger and hurt - helping everybody concerned -- they must understand the disorder. The mounds of books about ADHD, however, can't supplant real-life experience - though many partners read volumes of books seeking understanding. They can name all the sub-types and behaviors, but not until they hear exactly how those behaviors play out with others in their shoes does the fog start lifting.

New members often limp into the online support groups, utterly beleaguered and bedraggled or, at best, befuddled. Seldom bemused. Some dart back out again, citing no time for a group because they live with so many crises, not to mention high-needs children. Others need time to rant or grapple with the shocking fact that they've squandered years or maybe even decades to needless frustration. All for lack of information. Some come post-divorce, asking, "What was that train wreck that just happened?" Others conclude they're dealing with "ADD lite," count their blessings and exit.

Gradually, many who remain find clarity. They challenge each other to re-examine long-held expectations about gender roles, relationships, and their own core issues. They remind each other to detach a bit from the behavior and focus on themselves for a while. They encourage each other to help the partner find help. (You can't expect someone whose very disorder inhibits initiation to suddenly spring into action and find a qualified care-provider.)

Change happens. With each other's support,

--They find workable communication techniques and chore-sharing arrangements

--They learn to set better boundaries with partners whose life goal seems to be trampling on their boundaries.

--They learn to focus more on what makes them happy. They develop their own interests and activities to "charge their batteries."

--They gain confidence to insist on finding doctors and therapists who will work with them and accept their input not as "controlling" but as filling in the sizeable gaps usually left out by their partners.

--They develop and hold a vision for what can be because their partners often have lived so many years with what cannot be. If they're lucky, the partners to these people with ADHD learn valuable lessons about damaged egos - their own and their partner's -- and how to reach beyond them. And, they find the partner they always knew was there, underneath the noise. Their partner's ADHD has pushed them both to become better people, and their lives are richer for it.

About the author: San Francisco-based writer Gina Pera moderates an online support group for partners of people with ADHD, and she is writing a book based on members' collective experiences and wisdom, "Rollercoaster: Loving an Adult with ADHD." She recently started a support group in Palo Alto and assumed leadership of Silicon Valley CHADD (Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactvity Disorder). For more information:

Her work producing special issues for USA Weekend magazine garnered the "Best Magazine Edition" award from The Association for Women in Communications and a Unity Award in Media, which recognizes accurate exposure of issues affecting minorities and disabled persons.



APA Reference
Staff, H. (2008, November 29). How a Partner's Untreated Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity (ADHD) Affects Relationships, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 15 from

Last Updated: May 6, 2019

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

More Info