Exploring how adult ADHD affects romantic relationships

While romantic relationships can bring contentment and stability to adults with psychological disorders, conflict in such relationships adds incremental risk for developing depressive, anxiety, and substance use disorders. Moreover, persons with ADHD are more prone to such conflict than those without ADHD.

ADHD symptoms are negatively associated with satisfaction in dating relationships. One study found that female college students, blind to ADHD status, were less interested in male students with ADHD-Inattentive presentation than peers without ADHD. Another study found that college students who self-reported significant inattentive and hyperactive-impulsive symptoms also reported lower romantic relationship satisfaction than students not reporting such symptoms. A third study likewise found an inverse association between college student-reported inattentive symptoms and romantic relationship satisfaction, although it found no such association for self-reported hyperactive/impulsive symptoms.

This in turn has behavioral implications. One study found that college students with clinically elevated symptoms of inattention, hyperactivity/impulsivity, or both, reported higher levels of hostile conflict behavior with their partners than students without clinically elevated symptoms. Another study placed young couples through conflict resolutions. Couples in which one partner had ADHD demonstrated more negative and less positive conflict resolution behavior, and reported lower relational satisfaction, than couples in which neither partner had an ADHD diagnosis.

Worse yet, ADHD is a risk factor for dating violence. Two studies found that young adult males diagnosed with ADHD as children self-reported engaging in more frequent verbal and physical intimate partner violence than did their normally developing peers. Two more studies reported that men and women diagnosed with ADHD as children were at greater risk of becoming victims of such violence.

Adults with ADHD are also more likely to engage in risky sexual behavior. On average, they initiate sexual intercourse between one and two years earlier. They tend to have more partners and to make less frequent use of contraception than non-ADHD peers. As a result, adults with ADHD are also more likely to have unplanned pregnancies and to acquire sexually transmitted diseases.

Given these findings, it is hardly surprising that adults with ADHD report lower marital satisfaction than their normally developing peers. One study reported that 24 out of every 25 spouses of adults with ADHD felt their partner’s symptoms interfered with their functioning in one or more domains, including general household organization/time management, child-rearing, and communication. Most studies have found that extramarital affairs, separation, and divorce are more frequent among couples in which one partner has ADHD.

ADHD is known to be highly heritable. That introduces further challenges. One study found that parents of children with ADHD are twice as likely to divorce by the time their child is eight years older than parents of children without ADHD. Another study found that disruptive child behavior is linked to parents arguing among themselves. This pattern was especially pronounced with parents who themselves had elevated ADHD symptoms. However, another study found that when both parents had ADHD symptoms, they were less likely to argue than when only one parent had such symptoms, or when neither did.

The authors note that there have been few longitudinal studies of the relationship to the behavior of adults with ADHD and that these are badly needed. This would help to understand how alcohol consumption relates to the development of relationship problems, for example.

Second, they point out that little is known about which subpopulations in the large population of adults with ADHD may be especially at risk for romantic relationship problems. Gender and history of maltreatment do not appear to be significant influences, but there is some evidence that alcohol and drug abuse may be a factor, as well as underachievement in adolescence. Moreover, the literature to date has focused on heterosexual Caucasian couples. There is a need for research with larger, more heterogeneous, population samples, and in particular with racial/ethnic minorities and LGBTQ+ adults.

Third, they suggest a need for further research on mediators between ADHD and romantic relationship problems. There are reasons to suspect a key role for emotion dysregulation and deficits in inhibitory controls. But studies to date have relied on self-reporting, which introduces respondent bias. Future studies should obtain ratings of ADHD and relationship functioning from other informants. There is also a need for studies focusing not just on younger adults, but also on older ones. Another critical need is for clinical trials testing the effectiveness of different interventions aiming to improve romantic relationship functioning.

The authors conclude, “Given that success in romantic relationships is considered by many to be a major developmental task and that ADHD persists for many affected individuals into adulthood, research on romantic adjustment of affected adults is surprisingly limited. The majority of existent published research points, however, to a robust association between ADHD and negative outcomes such as lower satisfaction in relationships, maladaptive conflict resolution styles, higher rates of relational dissolution, and behavioral issues such as unsafe sex and IPV.”

Brian T. Wymbs, WillH. Canu, Gina M. Sacchetti, Loren M. Ranson, “Adult ADHD and romantic relationships: What we know and what we can do to help,” Journal of Maritaland FamilyTherapy(2021),https://doi.org/10.1111/jmft.12475.