Love & Mental Health
When Your Partner Has ADHD (And You Don’t)
Every couple makes compromises; these are some of ours.
When my wife, Kaitlyn, and I cook dinner together, I am in charge of mise en place. I wash and dry all the produce, chop the vegetables, unwrap the protein, and gather all the spices and sauces we’ll need. Then Kaitlyn takes over sauteing the veggies and seasoning the meat, cooking everything the way we like, and combining the ingredients into a delicious dish.
Our division of labor is about more than preference: Kaitlyn was diagnosed with ADHD more than a decade ago. The small but time-consuming tasks that lead to cooking a meal — washing, chopping, assorted prep — feel overwhelming to her but manageable to me. So I assemble the components of the meal, and she puts it all together, a system that works great for us.
“I used to think it was because I was lazy, but it’s not,” Kaitlyn told me recently. “I love to cook, and having everything prepped has allowed us to have a better partnership in the kitchen.”
There are other ways Kaitlyn’s ADHD takes shape that I’ve become used to. When one of us asks a harmless question — what kind of tree is that? What do we know this actor from? — she has to figure out the answer right then and there. When she’s working, she relies on background noise to stay on task, or she gets distracted easily. She uses timers and reminders to stay organized. It’s just how her brain works.
ADHD, or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, is characterized by inattention, hyperactivity, and/or impulsivity, particularly in children. But it’s not just kids who are affected; an estimated 4.4% of adults have ADHD, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, and it manifests differently for everyone.
ADHD symptoms like forgetfulness or inattentiveness can be burdensome in a relationship, especially when it comes to shared responsibilities like chores or keeping appointments. Sometimes, ADHD symptoms can come across as disrespect, says Sabrina Romanoff, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist with five years of specialized training in couples therapy. “It is very common for partners of people with ADHD to infer symptoms to mean their partner does not care about them, isn’t invested in the relationship, or is purposely trying to hurt them,” she tells Bustle.
I never thought Kaitlyn was trying to hurt me, but I did wonder why certain chores always fell to me or where her sudden fixation on organizing a closet would come from. So I did what a good partner does: I asked. Over time, we had deep, important conversations about how her brain operates, what she has a hard time with, and the preferences that have nothing to do with ADHD. (We do not blame ADHD for her disdain for washing dishes, and that’s fine by me.)
Kaitlyn and I have been together for a little more than nine years, and I don’t presume to know everything about how ADHD affects her, but I still make it a point to ask questions and keep learning. Once in a while, I still get frustrated with the differences in how we get things done. Sometimes I want to do a chore together at a specific time, or I want her input on some far-off plans, but her executive dysfunction kicks in and she can’t help me right then.
For instance: We’re planning a vacation to Europe this summer. I’ve taken the lead in setting our itinerary — I genuinely enjoy it — but I want to know Kaitlyn’s preferences for what we do, too. Kaitlyn has to be in a very specific headspace in order to plan that far in the future; otherwise, she gets easily overwhelmed and doesn’t want to think about it at all. So I’ve adjusted by letting her know well in advance that I’ll need her input, and then I can ask again later if she’s ready to talk about it.
Every couple makes compromises; this is one of ours. We also both have other mental health challenges, so we’re used to adjusting our routines based on what each of us can handle on any given day. Even so, Kaitlyn’s ADHD has never impacted how well we fit together; instead, it’s allowed us to get to know each other on a deeper level and find routines that work best for us.
We’re far from the only couple navigating this. Attie Harris, who’s 28 and lives in San Diego, was diagnosed with ADHD in college. She says she cycles between being extremely particular and more haphazard with keeping things in her life organized, and that she loses things “constantly.”
“[I leave behind] a trail of stuff,” she tells Bustle. “I would be really bad at committing crimes because you can tell where I've been.”
Harris and her partner, Patrick Hallahan, 30, have been together for about a year. Hallahan says when he learned Harris had ADHD, a few months into their relationship, it didn’t faze him.
“I'm glad I learned about it so I can help her with the way she sees things,” he tells Bustle. “I expect us to leave the house two or three times and go back to get whatever it is, and that’s fine with me. I feel like I do my best to be patient with those sorts of things.”
Aria Heller, 36 and living in Brooklyn, who was diagnosed with ADHD about a year ago, says it’s important her fiancée knows that her symptoms aren’t indicative of a lack of care.
“Sometimes I feel the need to check in with her to confirm that she doesn't take the symptoms of my ADHD as personal neglect,” she told Bustle. “‘You know I don't keep forgetting the dates of your business trip because I don't care, right?’ ‘You know I don't not make the bed because I'm trying to passive-aggressively make you do it, right?’”
Her fiancée, Emily Smith, 31, says she gets it.
“People with ADHD have spent years being told they're lazy or not trying hard enough or being inconvenient buzzkills, depending on how their condition manifests,” she tells Bustle. “I think Aria is confident that I don't feel that way, but I do make sure she knows that I'm on her side in navigating it.”
For couples who need practical strategies to cope, Romanoff recommends finding simple tools to improve communication and organization.
“Create systems to get more organized,” she says. “For example: Use reminder notes in your phone, calendar, and Post-it notes throughout the house to help with accountability and as a reminder of what needs to be done.”
Heller says she and Smith have systems for chores and household tasks. For example, it’s her job to empty the dishwasher.
“When the dishwasher needs to be emptied, Emily opens the dishwasher halfway,” she said. “If the dishwasher is halfway open, I can't get to the refrigerator. So now my brain is forced to engage with why the dishwasher is open, which will trigger the realization that I have to engage with the dishes.”
Our ways of getting things done are different, but one isn’t better than the other.
Likewise, Kaitlyn and I stay organized by using a shared list app for groceries and household needs; we also use a shared calendar to keep track of appointments. I have learned to be as specific as possible when I need her help with something; if it needs to be done now, I ask now, and if it can wait, I give her notice that it’s coming up. Our ways of getting things done are different, but one isn’t better than the other.
Still, even when there are systems in place to help, it can be exhausting to manage an overly active brain, Harris added.
“Sometimes it can be really tiring at the end of the day when I’m finished with all the things I have to do. Sometimes I feel stupid about that, or guilty or ashamed,” Harris says. “I wish I could explain the kind of exhaustion, the way that that tiredness feels. It’s like a brain-tired.”
Hallahan says he focuses on being patient and kind with Harris however he can, but he’s also honest when he doesn’t know how best to support her.
“I want to be there 100%, and she understands when it’s too much for today,” Hallahan says. “If it’s something I’m not familiar with or ready for, however big or small that might be, I know she has the patience with me so I can say, ‘I don’t know how I can best help you. I don’t know what to do.’ I’ll always be learning that, and that’s a good thing.”
Kaitlyn and I use this system, too.
“Something we’ve both had to learn to be better about is saying we don’t understand,” Kaitlyn told me. “Learning more about your mental health issues and your traumas and the things you need has helped me ask myself what I’d like, too. Applying the same loving lens I'd apply to you, to myself, has helped me realize there are things that would help me feel more safe.”
I’ll always be learning, too, and I’m grateful for it. After all, Kaitlyn’s ADHD makes her endlessly curious, fascinated by the world around her, and hungry to learn — all qualities that drew me to her in the first place. Her ADHD pushes me to think more creatively about little things, like how we keep our home clean, but also bigger questions, like how we take care of each other when we’re both feeling off. ADHD is not a hindrance to our relationship; it’s part of what makes her who she is.
“I think my ADHD makes me at times a more stressful partner, but I think it also makes me a good partner,” Kaitlyn told me. “I am so fascinated by you. You are one of my hyperfixations. I want to know what your favorite candy was in the first grade. Why? I don’t know. But I do.”