ADHD and Relationships: When Helping Hurts

Can help sometimes actually foster learned helplessness? There are times when one partner helping the other can diminish the partner being helped. Partners in an ADHD relationship especially need to be aware that helping may hurt the relationship.

This type of connection between the partners sometimes reflects a parent-child relationship. For example, when the non-ADHD partner wants something done but the ADHD partner isn’t doing it or isn’t doing it “correctly,” the non-ADHD partner takes on the job to get it done, thinking that it’s just their way of helping. But both partners need to recognize that this is destructive, demoralizing, and demeaning and to learn to let go of “helping.”

Particularly In relationships with addictive behaviors, when one partner suffers consequences from a bad habit, the non-ADHD partner becomes an enabler by cleaning up the mess or by hiding or denying the problem around others.

In a relationship, it’s important to have limits that the partners should never cross. These boundaries allow the partners to rely on the structures in place and feel equal in the relationship.

This area of conflict causes a lot of failures in marriages and relationships in general, and my interview with relationship expert Melissa Orlov on Attention Talk Video dives into these issues and discusses things that can serve to correct the “helping” attitude so each partner can thrive.

If this scenario speaks to you, check out the video here:


Jeff Copper: Welcome everybody, to this edition of Attention Talk Video. I’m your host, ADHD and Attention Coach Jeff Copper and I’m here with ADHD Marriage Consultant Melissa Orlov. Melissa, welcome to the show.

Melissa Orlov: Thank you so much.

Jeff Copper: I know I like to try to help people in a relationship, but I’m hearing from you sometimes that’s not a good thing.

Melissa Orlov: Right. Under certain circumstances, you think, “Well, of course, I should be helping my partner.” But there are times when it doesn’t work. And specifically, those are the times when your help actually sort of diminishes the other partner. So it takes something away. You start to take responsibility for something that your partner should be doing.

Jeff Copper: Can you give me an example of that?

Melissa Orlov: Sure. So there’s a lot of it. It turns into sort of this parent-child thing that I’m talking about where you say, “If I want to get this done, I’m going to do it. I’ll just help my partner and I’ll do it.” And whatever the thing is, the household responsibility, or whatever, when you first start doing it, it’s great.

But when you have kids and you move further into your life and the ADHD symptoms have been playing around in your relationship for a while, it can be really difficult because what ends up happening is the more organized partner, usually a non-ADHD partner, is in a situation where they are taking on all the responsibility. And it ends up as a source of resentment, hard feelings, disrespect because it’s easy.

If somebody’s offering to help you, what are you going to say? “No, no, don’t help me,” particularly if it’s hard, which for ADHD partners, if it’s an organizational thing or something like that, it can be very hard.

So they end up saying, “Sure, of course, you can help me. That’s great. Thanks.” Or you just don’t even ask after a while. You just do it if you’re the non-ADHD partner. Definitely not helpful.

Jeff Copper: This is interesting. This is just a metaphor, but I had a very good friend of mine, I mean, very, very close friend of mine who had a bit of a drinking problem. And his wife started going to AA. And they were telling him, it was like, “When he passes out on the ground, don’t help him by putting him to bed. Just put a blanket on top of them where they are.” I mean, you can have compassion but you don’t want to help him because you’re just kind of hiding it.

And we’re not talking about quite the same thing, but the metaphor is sometimes you have to be aware that you can’t solve all the problems. And you’ve got to let them figure it out. Is that-

Melissa Orlov: Right. Well, so what you’re talking about is enabling and codependency, right?

Jeff Copper: Oh, good distinction.

Melissa Orlov: Yeah. So there, by putting him in bed or taking him home and sort of fixing his problem for him so that he had the minimal number of repercussions, she was enabling his drinking and keeping him from moving to a place of better recovery.

Jeff Copper: I like that. That’s why I do this, because I learn so much, a bit like a aha moment on this kind of thing. So two very important things to do would be, be very mindful of it, because I mean for a relationship to thrive, really you’ve got to be careful, mindful about these things.

Melissa Orlov: Exactly. So it happens much more frequently. That’s a more extreme example that you were giving, though a very real one. So there are couples that have drinking issues with ADHD, many of them. And it’s appropriate to be able to say to your partner, “I don’t really like being with you when you’re drinking. And so, not as a punishment for you, but as a way for me to stay healthy and to continue to feel positive feelings about you, I’m actually not going to,” for example, “sleep in this bedroom tonight. I don’t want to be with you when you’re drunk. So I’m going elsewhere. It’s not about punishment. It’s about me.”

So, you can draw those kinds of boundaries. And that’s one way of not helping. If you just sit there and you go, “I really hate this, but…” you’re sort of helping your partner do something, that’s enabling.

So, I’m talking about tasks. And I’m talking about jumping in. “Well, you’re doing this fast enough, so I’ll do it for you,” or whatever. There, what you do is you shut down the ADHD partner’s ability to learn how to put into place those structures that you work with all the time when you’re teaching people and when you coach. And they really need to learn those structures. You want them to be an equal partner.

And if they never learn the structures, eventually, they will become an unequal partner in that relationship. They’ll become a less-than partner who’s deemed not capable, not trustworthy, et cetera.

Jeff Copper: And that leads into the whole parent-child relationship that we’ve talked about before. All you have to do is search Attention Talk Video, Melissa Orlov, and we’ve got a whole bunch of stuff that kind of speaks to that. So I really appreciate it. This is really sage advice. Encourage you guys to actually listen to this again. I know I will be, because I’m learning a lot here. And so, with that, thanks for coming on the show.

Melissa Orlov: You are welcome.

Jeff Copper: Everybody, Melissa’s website is on the bottom of the screen here. Go check it out. There’s a lot of great resources. So hope you’ve enjoyed this edition. Take care.

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