ADHD Relationships: Misunderstood Symptoms

By Jeff Copper, MBA, PCC, PCAC, CPCC, ACG – February 5, 2024

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder is confusing and key ADHD symptoms are often misunderstood in relationships. One of the patterns that couples fall into that is damaging for them is that they don’t understand the symptoms as they’re expressed in the relationship.

For ADHD relationships, this is especially significant because the partner with ADHD often is distracted, which is a chronic symptom of ADHD. Also, the ADHD partner may fail to follow through on things. To the non-ADHD partner, this may be misinterpreted as unloving or uncaring.

An intimate relationship is very different from other types of relationships, and that’s why it’s important to interpret these symptoms accurately. A misinterpretation of symptoms may quickly become personalized so that things spiral out of control.

If you can relate to this type of relationship conflict, please check out my video interview with Melissa Orlov, “Misunderstood Symptoms in ADHD Relationships,” as we identify the symptoms, help you interpret them, and share tips to manage around them.


Jeff Copper:  Welcome everybody to this edition of Attention Talk Video. I’m your host, attention and ADHD coach Jeff Copper and we’re here today with ADHD marriage consultant, Melissa Orlov. Melissa, welcome to the show.

Melissa Orlov:   Thank you very much.

Jeff Copper:  Melissa’s one of my favorites to interview on Attention Talk Video. She’s got a lot of really good stuff for couples and today we want to talk about misinterpreted symptoms in ADHD in the relationship. Can you talk to us about that?

Melissa Orlov:   You’re giving me a funny face when you say that. So yes. So one of the patterns that couples will fall into that it was very hurtful for them is that they don’t understand the symptoms as they’re expressed in the relationship. They get into these what I call symptom response response, which is a negative downward spiral once you get into it.

But two of the symptoms that are really very… It’s very important that you interpret properly are distractibility, which is usually chronic for people who have ADHD, and also having difficulty following through on things. Because both of these things translate very directly to partners who aren’t thinking about them as symptoms into I don’t love you. I don’t care about you. I don’t want to be with you.

Jeff Copper:  I’m really having a little bit of aha right here because it really makes a lot of sense. The relationship is really different, like a personal, intimate relationship, very different from many other relationships. I can see how those particular symptoms could be misinterpreted as the connection side of some things and really can be misinterpreted and spiral out of control thinking that this person’s distracted. Maybe they don’t care, they’re whatever and it’s personalized.

Melissa Orlov:   Well, and there’s also this just sort of, huh, what are you talking about? I used to have this with my husband. In fact, one of the reasons I started writing about this was he was chronically distracted from me. My interpretation of that was well, he had lost interest in me. He didn’t love me anymore.

Of course that felt very hurtful, and I would say to him, “Don’t you love me anymore?” He’d say, “What are you talking about? Of course, I love you.” I couldn’t figure out how to fit those two things together, what I was experiencing and what he was saying. So it was very confusing and eventually I got very angry and that’s the kind of spiral people get into.

Well, once we learned about the ADHD, then things changed. I said, oh wait, that’s a symptom of ADHD and I should believe him when he says he loves me, even though he is distracted. So then I could go to him and say, “Gee, you seem particularly distracted. I’m feeling kind of lonely. How about if we go out for a date?” That fixes that up. But the issue then is, so do I then put up with his being chronically distracted all the time? Because that’s still a dissatisfying relationship for me.

Jeff Copper:  So I’ve said this before, I’ll say it again. I’ve done a lot of interviews with Dr. Russell Barkley talking about ADHD as a self-regulation issue and impulsivity is about self-regulation. So in this, I can see how this case, your husband has got to self-regulate his distractibility to pay attention. But at the same time, now I can begin seeing how the partner’s got to actually self-regulate and pause and go, wait a second, this is… They really do love me even though the behavior might look distracting. Want to speak to that for a second?

Melissa Orlov:   Yes, absolutely. So in using myself as an example, I had to learn to say that to myself, this little voice on my shoulder saying, it’s not that he doesn’t love you. It’s that he does love you, but he’s distracted. Then figure out what am I going to do about that? Because what I ended up doing was saying, okay I understand this is a symptom, but we still need time together. I still need to feel how much you love me, and there’s just a certain bare minimum and above that I’d like to get in the relationship. So how do we make that happen?

We did all sorts of things then to make that happen and I talk about attend time to my clients where you just have to have a certain amount of time together where you’re focused on each other and that can happen. But usually with ADHD, you have to schedule it. You have to think about it and you have to be okay with the fact that it isn’t as spontaneous necessarily as you’d like.

So that’s a mindful thing that the non ADD partner has to accommodate the fact that this symptom is here, yet also still gets to have the attention that he or she wants and that’s the important part. People think of accommodating ADHD as giving things up and in fact, that’s not the case. It’s doing things differently so that you still get what you need, but you accommodate the ADHD.

Jeff Copper:  Absolutely. This is spectacular to me and I find it fascinating. I’ve said this before with Melissa on some interviews is this is a process that you need to work through because you have to kind of pause and override kind of that automatic behavior, and you’ve got a lot of tips and you’re great at helping couples work through there.

Melissa Orlov:   Oh, thank you. I appreciate that.

Jeff Copper:  She learned it, she knows it. So I hope you’ve enjoyed this edition of Attention Talk Video. Please subscribe to our channel. We have a tip coming out every week and yes you can subscribe to our playlist because we have a lot of great stuff with Melissa. So take care.

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