Every relationship has its problems. In the most functional relationship, you’re able to talk about the issues and work through them—in the less functional ones, you ignore the problems completely. But what if you’re having trouble pinpointing what the problem actually is? You know something’s not right—and yet you can’t seem to connect the dots and get to the source.
“It’s a common pattern among the heterosexual couples I see," Stephen Snyder, relationships therapist and author of Love Worth Making: How to Have Ridiculously Great Sex in a Long-Lasting Relationship told The Cut. "Men who tend to be terribly afraid of disappointing the women they love, who will often withdraw when they feel they’ve made their partners upset—which, of course, will typically make her even more upset. From there, I’ve heard enough of the same story to know, it can turn into a vicious cycle: Eventually he’ll withdraw to where he stops initiating sex. Which will make her feel undesirable. Which of course will make her even more upset. Which he’ll see as a sign that it’s no longer safe to approach her. Which of course is absurd, since the main reason she’s upset is because he hasn’t touched her in a month—but that’s the way these things tend to go.”
Now, at first glance, this probably reads to you as an intimacy issue or a sexual issue—but Snyder saw another problem: ADHD. ADHD, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, can do a lot of damage to a relationship—but it can manifest in a lot of different ways. Here’s what you need to know about how ADHD can affect your relationship.
The Physical Connection
ADHD itself can create many rifts in a relationship, and one of the problems can be sexual. “ADHD can have a profound impact on a couple’s emotional and sexual relationship, and it’s very common for couples in treatment to have at least one partner with this condition, which can contribute to sexual problems in a whole host of ways,” Snyder explained. “Some people with ADHD have unusually high sex drives. Others hardly seem interested in sex at all. Individuals with ADHD are at increased risk for depression, which in turn can dull desire and cause sexual dysfunction.” Because ADHD can lead to a very low or very high sex drive, it is often difficult to pinpoint the disorder as the underlying issue.
But the problems of ADHD can also be emotional. If your partner is distracted, preoccupied, or seems absent, that can create a lot of emotional distance—you don’t feel seen or heard, and that can be hurtful.
When The Problem Goes Deeper
Sometimes the ADHD itself isn’t the problem—it’s the trauma that comes from a lifetime of living with ADHD. Often, especially before ADHD was better understood, children with the condition would be ridiculed, insulted, and made to feel stupid. “Many of these kids are naturally resilient,” Snyder explained. “They cope with the criticism they receive by just shutting it out. But this can create problems years later in adult relationships.” Because of this learned behavior, someone with ADHD will often shut other people out. So if you approach your partner with concerns that you're not being listened to or valued—which is a totally valid thing to do—a person with ADHD may revert to their childhood coping mechanism of just shutting down and locking you out emotionally. And, of course, that makes the whole problem worse.
Recognizing The Issue
One crucial aspect of ADHD that Snyder emphasized is that it’s variable. The term is misleading, he says, because actually, it’s not a case of “attention deficit"—it’s an issue focusing on some things that are not exciting in the moment or things that feel difficult. So maybe your partner is great at focusing on what someone’s saying at a party or at their job or with your kids—naturally, this would make you assume that they don't have ADHD. But if they’re already feeling avoidant about issues in your relationship, ADHD can kick in and take those communication problems to another level. Just because it’s not consistent, doesn’t mean it isn’t there.
ADHD can cause a huge range of relationship problems, but it’s by no means a death sentence for your partnership. The great news is that, as more and more is understood about the condition, there’s a wide range of materials out there and lots of help available. If something is off in your sex life or in your relationship communication, don’t be afraid to contact a professional—and if they say it might be ADHD, be open to the idea, even if you’ve never thought of it before. The right diagnosis is the first step towards help.