ADHD & Romantic Relationships

Two well-circulated research studies came out relatively recently (2020, 2021) on ADHD & Romance.

First, 2020: Researchers looked at attachment styles & ADHD except, here, they looked at the non-ADHD partners of individuals with ADHD (74.2% with an official diagnosis). They wanted to know how the partner’s a) attachment style and b) ratings of their partner’s ADHD symptoms, together, influenced c) relationship quality.

What they found suggested that a partner’s high level of anxious attachment may make “the negative effect of ADHD symptoms on romantic relationship quality” worse. And, “Though insecure attachment styles are generally thought to have a negative impact on romantic relationships, avoidant attachment was generally associated with more positive outcomes….” Avoidant attachment refers to being an “Island” as couple therapist Stan Tatkin, Ph.D., describes it. Think of someone who likes you around sometimes but often at a distance. Dr. Tatkin describes anxious attachment as being a “Wave.” Think anxious about losing you but also doing things that might push you away.

As the researchers put it, “Individuals with an anxious attachment style experience heightened emotion during perceptions of abandonment (Dutton et al., 2014), frequently questioning the commitment of their partner (Bowlby, 1988).” On the other hand, “Individuals with an avoidant attachment style often seek to avoid conflict with their partner by withdrawing and becoming quiet and task-focused (Butzer & Campbell, 2008).” Why would avoidant partners possibly be a better match for individuals with ADHD than anxious ones? Consider that individuals with ADHD more often have such insecure attachment styles themselves. Good question. If you want to read how the researchers interpreted the results, you can get the study for free here https://scholarcommons.sc.edu/etd/4839/ (go to the conclusion section). Also remember this study looked at the ADHD partner’s perception of the relationship vs the perception of the person with ADHD. It’d be interesting to know much they line up.

Second, a 2021 study looked at the state of the literature on ADHD & romantic relationships to show what’s known and what remains unknown. The abstract is available here: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33421168/. At this time, however, unless you have special access (as a student, for example), the article costs. A workaround is to look it up through the public library and see whether you can get a copy through ILL, for example. I will give you an overview of its content.

First, the researchers start with dating. There’s a gender difference that you may find interesting: “…young adult heterosexual men with ADHD appear to have more lifetime romantic partners than men without ADHD (Canu & Carlson, 2007), whereas young adult heterosexual women with ADHD reported having fewer lifetime romantic relationships than women without ADHD (Babinski, Pelham, Molina, Gnagy, et al., 2011).” They then delve into why this may be the case given other research findings.

Several studies suggest that as well as gender, one’s primary symptoms matter (inattentive, hyperactive/impulsive, or both). How they matter, though, depends on what you are looking at. So far, clinically significant inattentive symptoms, generally, stand out as the ones associated with lower levels of relationship satisfaction. So good news for those with other primary symptoms?

Well, it depends. Research coding how people actually behave within relationships overall suggests more conflict showing up for those with a combined presentation of ADHD (clinically significant levels of both inattentiveness and hyperactivity/impulsivity).

Next, the researchers turn to violence and sex. The research on violence is a bit complicated to describe briefly, and the researchers cite very few studies. So I’ll leave it out. Here’s what the researchers say about sexual activity after going through various studies: “Altogether, ADHD is a marker for adults prone to risky sexual behavior and unexpected consequences, but those with persistent symptoms and comorbid disruptive behavior problems are at greatest risk of both.”

What about marriage and divorce? It sounds bleak. I wish more researchers asked about some of the positives that may be present, so let me say this: research looks at groups, averages, frequencies, and the like. Often these frequencies are low but higher than they are for the comparison group (here, those without ADHD). So usually what you are getting with “more likely” and similar research language is a higher chance of something; however, you may still have a higher chance of the other possibility (e.g., it may be that one group has a 30% chance of something and another a 40% chance so overall even the group with a 40% chance has a 60% chance of the desired result). This said, here’s the researchers’ summary on marriage and divorce: “In sum, marriages including adults with ADHD are more likely to be unsatisfying, a burden for partners, and to end in divorce.” You see “more likely” and this can be scary but the next question is HOW much more likely? Five percent? Ten?

Finally, the researchers delve into the complexities of ADHD and how so much is still unknown. They discuss the focus on heterosexual relationships, for example. They, nonetheless, develop recommendations for therapists doing couple therapy where at least one partner has ADHD.

I hope this is of use to you.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: