Even the healthiest relationships have their challenges. But when one of you has ADHD, such challenges can seem insurmountable. We asked individuals with ADHD to describe how they’re making it work with neurotypical partners.
Here are their stories:
Living life as an interabled couple
Describing themselves on their website as “successfully married since 2014,” Tierra and Leon Harris use social media to help other “interabled” couples like them to succeed in life. On their website, HarrisHopeandHumor.com, the Harrises explain that the term “interabled” can be used to describe a few relationship scenarios.
- Couple A: One partner has a physical, visual or mental disability, and the other person does not.
- Couple B: Both partners share the same disability.
- Couple C: Each partner has a different disability.
The Harrises started out as a Couple A, meeting after Leon suffered a spinal cord injury in an accident. Later, when Tierra received an ADHD diagnosis, the pair transitioned to a Couple C. And they’re making it work.
“I think for us in particular,” Tierra tells ADHD Online, “accepting Leon’s physical disability has made it easier for him to accept my ADHD and what that would mean for our relationship as a couple.”
For the Harrises, success begins with love. “Each individual within the relationship is loved and cared for,” Tierra says.
Love is a good start, but HarrisHopeandHumor.com describes other important elements in making an interabled relationship work. Communication is also key, making sure “both parties are heard and honored.” Creativity helps, too — Tierra’s and Leon’s differences require innovative solutions. “We continue to dig deep and make it work!” they say on their website.
Success the second time around
Neurotypical describes the expected way someone’s brain develops and functions. In contrast, the brain of a neurodivergent individual processes and behaves differently from what is considered typical, and that includes ADHD.
On his psychological coaching website, Hidden ADHD, Aron Croft shares details of struggling with his own ADHD. “I failed out of my first marriage to a neurotypical (person) because of ADHD-related issues,” Croft says. He cited chore wars, his difficulty following through on commitments and his stalled career as major issues.
Croft is now happily remarried to another neurotypical person — someone whose brain works in a way that’s considered typical and who does not have ADHD — and is doing things differently this time. “I have a new self-knowledge about what works for my ADHD brain and what doesn’t,” he explains. “Like I need to leave my deodorant on the bathroom counter or I forget to put it on.”
Croft and his wife strategically leverage her neurotypical strengths to help things run more smoothly. “She handles planning and logistics for almost everything in our lives,” he says. “She helps me organize rooms so I can keep them less messy. We jointly devised a responsibility chart of who does what.”
These and other tactics have helped Croft and his wife achieve a healthy relationship balance.
Intense feelings, ADHD-style
Shelby Woods is a multimedia storyteller living with ADHD and has a unique understanding of how and why ADHD influences people to behave in certain ways.
“The first thing is the speed at which the relationship is progressing,” Woods says. “Relationships feel so good, and our ADHD brain craves that stimulation — and dopamine!”
For the individual with ADHD, the relationship can become a hyper-fixation, and the intensity of that can frighten the neurotypical partner. “While being excited about a relationship is normal, people with ADHD have to do a little extra work to ensure a slow and steady progression to maintain a healthy romance,” she says.
Woods believes mindfulness is another important part of the relationship. In other words, people should communicate early on how ADHD manifests in relationships.
“ADHD can make it difficult to regulate emotions, leading to intense feelings that your partner may not understand,” she explains. “With my last partner, I was so excited about our relationship that I accidentally burned her out socially by quickly trying to introduce her to all of my loved ones.” What felt normal to Woods was too much stimulation for her partner.
Other people with ADHD may struggle with something called “rejection sensitive dysphoria” when their partner wants space to be alone or with other friends. Many people with ADHD experience rejection sensitive dysphoria, which is extreme emotional sensitivity and pain caused by someone they care about seeming to reject or criticize them.
“Do not invalidate your feelings just because they stem from your ADHD,” cautions Woods. “They are still real and valid.” Instead, she says, be patient with your partner and with yourself. “Allow yourself to hurt, and then proceed with either letting it go or telling your partner how you feel.”
ADHD is so much more than a label. Woods encourages everyone to do some research on the disorder to better understand how ADHD affects people.
The importance of empathy
Photographer Don Orkoskey was diagnosed with ADHD after noticing a lot of memes from friends who were neurodivergent. The memes “hit a bit close to home,” Orkoskey says.
Knowing what he knows now, Don admits that ADHD impacted his current and previous romantic relationships, as well as work relationships and friendships.
Orkoskey, who believes “being diagnosed has been helpful and is a privilege,” says the challenges are many. Attention is a big one. Getting the attention one wants from a partner with ADHD can feel impossible.
“There’s only so much to go around,” Orkoskey says, “and once I’m drained I need sleep to get it back.” His wife, who does not have ADHD, frequently asks why he seems distracted. “I’m always distracted,” he responds. “That’s a given.”
Orkoskey takes medication, lives a healthy lifestyle and tries to not overdo things. He continues to learn more about ADHD from his therapist as well as from podcasts and other resources.
“Having an amazing wife who is empathetic and caring is huge,” he says. “She doesn’t always understand — her brain doesn’t work like mine — but we love each other, we listen to each other and we work on our marriage.”
Orkoskey really wishes people understood that ADHD is real. “That’s still a challenge for some reason,” he says. “Not understanding the way the ADHD brain links things together, in what seems to us to be very logical ways, has to be tough for neurotypicals. I find when I’m with friends who have ADHD, we are all more understanding.”