The Wild Garden: How To Grow A Strong Relationship When You’ve Got ADHD
If you’ve ever been to the tropics, you know how beautiful a jungle can be. They are abundant landscapes of flowers and waterfalls, of soft ferns and majestic palm trees heavy with fruit…
They can also contain hordes of loud, hungry mosquitoes, various large reptiles with sharp teeth, and the very real potential of getting lost and becoming some crazy guy with a volleyball named Wilson.
I find that the metaphor of the verdant jungle is a great representation of what it’s like to be in a long-term relationship when you have ADHD. Is it gorgeous? Is it profound? Absolutely.
It also comes with some unique hurdles and challenges that can prevent you and your partner from having a future together if you don’t address them properly.
My current partner and I have had our fair share of machete-swinging safaris into the wilds of my Attention Deficit Disorder, and his own struggles have made it a volatile experience at times. We’ve learned a great deal about love, patience, and resilience as a couple, and ultimately the differences between us have only deepened our feelings and made us stronger.
Still, it’s hard sometimes — all relationships are — and if I hadn’t made the effort to navigate my ADHD as an integrated part of the relationship, it would have been profoundly difficult for us to understand one another.
I want to share some of what I’ve learned from both experience and research with you. Whether you have ADHD, are with someone who has it, or both, I hope this article will help you find your way to more wonderful, navigable, and joyful relationships!
Forget ‘Picking Your Battles,’ First You Need To Recognize When You’re In One
One struggle that’s frustrated me throughout my life with ADHD is my frequent failure to recognize conflict even when it’s actually happening.
Apparently, you can be in an argument without realizing it. Who knew? Really, it does make sense when you think about it.
One of the main symptoms of ADHD is — surprise, surprise — inattentiveness. And if you aren’t naturally observant, it’s easy to miss many things that might be obvious to someone without the disorder. Things like social cues. Tricky, those.
Learning to do something that most people find intuitive is frustrating, and when those of us with ADHD are frustrated, we tend to seek an easy “out” from the situation. It ties into the way our brains regulate impulse control and emotional reactivity, and it’s a big challenge for our partners to deal with.
When conflicts arise (and they will), people with ADHD sometimes need to be “signaled” so that they can double down on trying to focus. It’s the person with the disorder’s responsibility to communicate this need clearly to their partner(s).
It can be as simple as just blurting it out — anyone who is dating someone with ADHD will get accustomed to random, often-wordy outbursts. They have their uses! You can go all CBT and use a code word to signal tension to one another, or just learn to slow down and make the issue known in very certain terms.
However you do it, my fellow chaos agent, just realize that you’re likely to need some help when it comes to spotting an argument as it unfolds. Otherwise, you may only “get it” once things have escalated to truly obvious levels, and that’s never a good scene.
Learn To Accept Your ADHD Limitations With Grace (Before You Ask Your Partner To Do The Same)
Plenty of self-positive literature extols the supposed virtues of ADHD adults, calling us quirky, creative, unique, and many other wonderful things.
While I appreciate the flattery, and can sometimes agree with it, I also know that there’s a different reality for many of us who have the disorder. ADHD can suck. Royally.
When you grow up with a brain wired for a different reality than the one you inhabit (like an institutionalized school environment), things can get rather messy. Self-esteem is often a casualty of war.
In a general sense, I’ve always had ironclad self-esteem…to a point.
How many awkward, alienating experiences lurked under that confidence? How many incidents of bullying or ostracization clouded the way I felt about my own inherent value?
Like most adults with ADHD, I had plenty of trigger points born of my childhood and young(er)-adult experiences. They showed up frequently in my relationships, but it wasn’t until I committed to my current partner that I became truly conscious of how they reveal themselves.
Symptoms like Rejection-Sensitive Dysphoria are common in ADHD adults. Even subtle self-esteem issues can become huge problems in our relationships if we don’t address them early and frequently.
If you’ve got ADHD, make sure you find ways to talk through your experiences and reflect on them — sometimes with your partner, but also outside of the relationship. I have a wonderful therapist and incredible friends to help me with this, for example.
Find your sounding boards and rely on them. Journaling, reading through ADHD-targeted material, and using a workbook can also prove very helpful.
How To Effectively Communicate When ADHD Wires You To Suck At It
Communication difficulties are one of the worst symptoms of ADHD if you ask me. Trust me, I would know — my entire livelihood depends on my ability to communicate things to an audience. It’s been quite a learning curve, let me tell you…
My partner has also had a learning curve. He had to find out through experience that sometimes I shut down during conflict, or get distracted even when a conversation is really important to me, or forget things he’s told me despite caring deeply about him and wanting to remember what he said.
People with ADHD don't process information in the same way others do. Things often need to be repeated to us — so ask your partner to repeat them. We find it hard not to “drift” in and out of conversations — so tell your partner that this happens, and find ways to drift right back into focus when they need you to.
We have a tendency to babble. Make sure your partner accepts this and, hopefully, finds it endearing or at the very least doesn’t think it insufferable. Mostly, you need to accept that communication will always be more challenging for you than it is for someone without ADHD.
And that’s okay! There are certain kinds of communicating you’re likely to excel at, such as the imparting of weird “fun facts” relating to a hobby or passion. You’ll thrive in a relationship where you’re allowed to “topic-hop” without being made to feel bad about it.
Communication has always been touted as the most important part of a healthy relationship, and so it’s natural that it’s also the most challenging one for many couples. You just have to work twice as hard, sometimes, but you’re also likely to get twice the reward (in the form of a more meaningful partnership) when you do so.
I know I have!
Don’t Take Yourself Too Seriously…But Don’t Discount Yourself, Either
When we hear the term “impulsivity,” we often think of blatant, physical actions with poor consequences. The reality is that ADHD causes more impulsivity in our thoughts than it ever could in our actions.
The ADHD brain is a runaway train. It’s magnificent, powerful, and it personifies absolute chaos a large percent of the time. If we took every immediate thought or feeling seriously when it comes to our partners, we’d self-destruct the relationship before it could even get off the ground.
Adults with ADHD must learn to balance between allowing impulsive thoughts to run their course without any outward reaction, and choosing to react to our thoughts and feelings once we’ve paused and considered them.
If you feel rejected or insulted by your partner— possibly because one of those tricky trigger points was set off — you’re likely to have a bevy of upset thoughts like “this is never going to work” or “how can I ever be with him/her/them when we’re like this?”
These ideas are almost always the result of intense frustration rather than any underlying truths about your relationship. Sometimes they aren’t. The balance lies in learning to tell the difference so that you can make healthy decisions.
Once the “heat of the moment” has passed and you’ve given your brain time to run its circles for a while, you should revisit your feelings. If things still feel serious, you need to give that some weight.
Oftentimes it will seem silly that you got so worked up about whatever the issue was — that’s fine, too. You should still talk about it, anyway, in case there’s a sneaky emotion hiding behind the ADHD. Find that balance, my friend!
It’s the only way your partnership will survive.
It’s Not About Compatibility, It’s About Resilience
I’ll finish this off with one of the more profound realizations I’ve had when it comes to my relationship. From the outside, my partner and I aren’t very alike. We aren’t what the layman would call compatible as lovers — but it turns out that this is a pretty meaningless term, anyway.
There’s no such thing as compatibility in the way people usually mean it. Even if you have the same interests as another person, you’re still two different people. The way you respond to those interests will differ, right along with thousands of other personality traits and behaviors.
My partner and I aren’t compatible — what we are is more profound than that. We are resilient. When my ADHD gets between him and me, he finds a way through or around it. When his own challenges rear up and impact me, I wait them out or I learn how to meet him halfway and work through them.
We do this because we love each other deeply, and we are committed. One-hundred-percent. All of my characteristic high-energy passion is a strength when directed in this context, and all of his focus and dependability becomes a perfect counterpoint to my flaws.
We work because we work, hard and with determination. ADHD is challenging, doubly so in a relationship. This doesn’t matter if you’re resilient. You fall down, you get up again. So long as the relationship is important to you and benefits you both in a deeper sense, you can find the strength to do that.
As many wise people have said, love is a choice you make every single day. ADHD just adds a little bit of, um, spice to that garden of possibilities. Why not learn to enjoy it?
And, hey, the mosquitoes are pretty annoying when you’re on a safari, but that’s why they invented bugspray, right? Right! The effort you make to pack and use it is a small price for the heavenly scenery and whirlwind adventures.
Prepare for your challenges with grace, and make sure you accept the things that make you — and your relationship — unique. That’s the beginning and end of a love that lasts.
I’m sure Wilson the volleyball would agree.