ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) isn't funny or cute or quirky like it's often portrayed. It's not just a case of being distracted or antsy. It's a serious condition that can make life extremely difficult. Being in a relationship with someone with ADHD is both wonderful and challenging, but if you want to have any chance of making it work past the honeymoon stage, you need some serious education. Otherwise you'll make life much more difficult than it has to be, and for someone who's life is already more difficult than it has to be, that's akin to setting their hair on fire and asking them why they're so hot. Don't set our hair on fire.
I feel like I'm uniquely qualified to talk about this. Not only have I had years of training and on-the-job experience with healthy relationships as both a Domestic Violence Victim Advocate and Planned Parenthood Certified Responsible Sexuality Educator, but I've also got a raging case of Adult ADHD. And it's been a whirlwind learning experience for my spouse. Luckily, though, I have distilled the best of that education here, so you can avoid (or better deal with) some of the hurdles many couples with ADHD face.
1. Get Educated
Know their type of ADHD. This is ADHD 101. Some ADHD doesn't have hyperactivity at all. Some people have trouble focusing and paying attention, and are impulsive. Some are super emotional. Some are super distant. Some don't like a lot of lights and sounds. Some are all of the above. ADHD people are like snowflakes. There are no two who are alike (but I don't recommend trying to catch ADHD people on your tongue). If you don't know what you're dealing with, you're just asking to have a bad time. Ask questions and then do some research. Not only is it helpful, but it's a totally romantic move. You'll get tons of points.
2. Support Routines
Routines are life to many people with ADHD. For me, and many people wit ADHD, if we really want to accomplish anything, we need some structure, and some routine. Funny, considering that seems like the very thing we're incapable of. But we need it. If I don't wake up, pee, eat breakfast, take my pills, walk the dogs, then check my email, then I will never start the day. I will just lay in bed and read the Internet on my phone until dinner. And if I do manage to get it together, I'll feel lost. And the dogs will have peed on the floor. And I will start to get sick from forgetting my pills. Mess. Help us make routines and help us stick to them. Don't get impatient when we can't be more flexible about our routines. We really, really need them.
3. Impose The Three-Day Waiting Period
If your partner's ADHD comes with an exciting, but potentially detrimental case of impulsivity, there's a sure-fire way to deal. It's a three-day waiting period. Like the kind they use for people who want to buy handguns. But less paperwork. Say your partner sees a puppy for $2000 and thinks it's a great use of your savings and wants to get it right now. The three-day waiting period states that if you still want it in three days, you can revisit it.
More times than not, in three days, the reality of the situation will sink in, and you'll both be glad you didn't get that puppy. Because it took you forever to get that two grand into your savings, and training a puppy from a third-story walk-up is a nightmare for someone who can't even wake up in the morning without a serious miracle. It sounds mean and controlling, but it's really not if you both agree to it. It's saved my butt a million times. Except that one time I spent $500 on nail polish in one afternoon. But we can't win all the time.
4. Embrace Technology & Learn Pinterest
That sounds super random, am I right? But trust me when I say that it will change the game. First of all... Pinterest. A person with ADHD often has a million great ideas, passions, wants, needs, and feels. And a huge fear that they will all be in one ear and out the other. Pinterest can help keep them organized. So people like me won't panic that we will forget about those unicorn earrings we really wanted before we got a chance to order them.
Personally speaking, it adds an impressive amount of control and calm to my life. And it helps my partner keep track what's going on in my brain. Other lifesavers: We have a family calendar on our phones. When either of us adds an even with a reminder, it updates on both of our phones. I even use an app that reminds me to drink water every hour. And one that buzzes every 15 minutes so I can make sure I'm not lost in space and can refocus myself (a god-send if you've ever gone to check your email and five minutes later, you realize you've been on the Internet for four hours). Technology is your friend.
5. Learn To Make Things Fun Or Urgent
A common trait among ADHD folk is an inability to start a task unless it's fun, interesting, or urgent. It looks like part laziness, part epic-level procrastinator, and part childish baby. It's actually none of the above. It's a difference in our brains that makes these kinds of tasks seemingly impossible. Many of us often have a ridiculously hard time doing things we don't want to do. Like, sometimes it feels like a literal inability to move or think. Like a total body shut-down. No exaggeration. But there is a way to trick the brain that sometimes works.
Many people with ADHD are more likely to do something we don't want to do if it's fun, interesting, or urgent. Offering rewards, making a game of things, or even just laughing and being silly while you help with tasks can all work. Deadlines can work, too, even though they're very stressful for some. But don't be surprised if your ADHDer doesn't really get going until crunch time, like doing research and making outlines for three hours, then actually writing the term paper in 15 minutes. It's how a lot of us work best.
6. Don't Keep Your Feels Inside
Your feels are yours, and you don't have to repress them. There's just a right way and a wrong way to go about getting those feels out when you have a partner with ADHD. For example, in my case, yelling at me when I forget to do something is the best way to get me to never do that thing. Telling me how it makes you feel when I forget to do something makes me want to try harder when I can. Makes me want to write Post-It notes. Makes me want to do everything in my power to be the best me I can be. Express yourself, for sure, but be thoughtful about how you do it.
7. Don't Try To Change Your Partner
Yeah, people with ADHD might ask for your help to establish healthy routines, and to practice better self-care. But most of us like who we are. Many people see the good parts of ADHD as gifts. Many of us are often funny, creative, smart, quirky, and happy. If you want to reign us in a little, that's one thing (if that's what we want, too), but if you want us to be people who don't have ADHD, you'll have better luck putting a tiger in a shoe box. Love us for who we are.
8. Get In Their Heads
Empathy is a powerful tool to talk you down from a ledge of frustration. When you're about to lose your sh*t because you asked your partner to do the dishes like 3,000 times and there they still are, remember what it must feel like to live in a brain that will literally make you forget those dishes exist, no matter how badly you want to be the kind of person who wants to wash them. Understand how a brain that betrays you can be terrifying. Feel the panic of constantly wondering if you've forgotten something important. It's hard out there, and getting mad at people with ADHD, though natural, is hard on us, too.
9. Engage Multiple Senses
There's a 4-step approach in making a request that doesn't get lost in the jungle of your ADHD partner's brain, according to ADHD expert Lynn Weiss, Ph.D. in an article for ADDitude magazine. For example, if you're asking your partner to take out the trash, touch them as you say it to engage multiple senses. Make eye contact and express how appreciative you'll be to help them understand the info on multiple levels, including realizing they have an opportunity to please you. Gently impose a deadline, like, "If you could take the trash out by lunch time, that would be great." If all that fails to get results, then go to loving reminders. Nagging just makes the task even less appealing.
10. Don't Take It Personally
When you ask your partner to do something, and it never gets done, don't jump to the conclusion that they're being defiant, lazy, or irresponsible. It has nothing to do with you. It's just that your request is jumping around in a head filled with thoughts, like one fish in the ocean. It's harder than you think to remember individual fish when there are millions in the ocean. They're not trying to make you mad or be a bad partner. They probably just lost your request, literally.
11. Give Them Their Own Space
People with ADHD often have have trained themselves into rigid routines, and messing with their stuff will throw them off for hours or days. That's why many ADHD people need their own space where they can be as messy or regimented as they need to be, with no interference. Having their own room for their stuff is idea, but even designated areas can help.
It's a lot to take in, and a lot to do, but the privilege of loving a person with ADHD makes it all worth it.
Images: Pexels (13); Isla Murray/Bustle