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Why Do I Struggle To See Positive Changes In My ADHD Partner?

Updated: Jul 3


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As non-ADHD partners, we all try to make concerted efforts to adapt and support our ADHD partners, hoping to see positive changes in our relationships. However, despite our best intentions, we often feel like our efforts aren't making a difference. Understanding the underlying reasons why our ADHD partners might not be responding as expected can provide valuable insights and help us approach our relationships with greater empathy and patience.


Let's delve into three key reasons why non-ADHD partners may struggle to see changes in their ADHD partners:


1. The Large Amount of Criticism


From a young age, individuals with ADHD are bombarded with criticism. One article in Clinical Psychiatry News estimated that by the age of 10, children with ADHD could receive 20,000 more corrective or negative comments than their non-ADHD peers (1). This constant barrage of criticism can profoundly impact how they perceive the world and their relationships.


The relentless criticism affects their self-esteem and makes them wary of trusting others. When someone is constantly criticized, they start to anticipate negative feedback in every interaction. This anticipation leads to a defensive approach to the world, where they struggle to trust both themselves and others. The persistent negative reinforcement shapes their view of themselves as inadequate or perpetually flawed, making it difficult for them to believe in positive reinforcement or trust in supportive relationships.


If your ADHD partner has ever reacted badly as you start a conversation, it is highly likely they feel criticism is coming and want to avoid it. This is why I love doing structured weekly check-ins with my ADHD partner. The exercises we do in the check-ins create both a positive and open environment where we can discuss both happy and challenging topics. This allows the ADHD partner to lower their defensive wall and engage in the conversation. Now, in our weekly check-ins, we often have up to 90 minutes of meaningful discussions and both walk away feeling positive, understood, and closer together.


2. Inconsistency in Non-ADHD Partners' Behavior


As neurotypical individuals, we often have the flexibility to try different approaches and adapt when we see something doesn’t work. For example, when I make a request to my partner and don't see an immediate response, I might change the way I make the request (Please vs Do it NOW), hoping my ADHD partner would spring into action. However, for our ADHD partners, switching approaches can cause confusion.


The default mode network (DMN) plays a crucial role in cognitive switching. Neurotypical individuals can switch between tasks and behaviors more fluidly due to a well-regulated DMN. In contrast, people with ADHD struggle with this switching, making it harder for them to adapt to changing circumstances. Because they find it challenging to anticipate changes, inconsistency from their non-ADHD partner can be unsettling. They may choose inaction over action to avoid potential negative outcomes, leading to a cycle of mistrust and frustration.


Additionally, some ADHD partners might have auditory processing challenges, which can cause delays in their responses. According to an article from the ADDitude Magazine (2), individuals with ADHD often experience difficulties in processing auditory information, which can make it hard for them to respond immediately. This delay can be mistaken for inattention or reluctance to engage, further complicating communication.


This inability to predict their non-ADHD partner's behavior because their non-ADHD partner is switching their approaches creates a situation where they feel constantly off-balance. The uncertainty makes them hesitant to engage, as they fear that any action might lead to disappointment or criticism. This perceived unpredictability further erodes their trust, not only in their partner but also in their ability to navigate the relationship successfully.


3. Perceived Insincerity in Encouragement and Praise


One of the biggest adjustments in communicating with an ADHD partner is ensuring that our encouragement is genuine. ADHD individuals often pick up on subtle cues that we might overlook, and insincere praise can undermine trust.


ADHD individuals are particularly sensitive to non-verbal cues and can detect when our words lack sincerity. They value genuine, specific praise over generic compliments. Insincere encouragement can feel patronizing and damage trust. When our body language or tone doesn’t match our words, it sends mixed signals, making it hard for them to believe in our support.


This heightened sensitivity means that even well-intentioned comments can be misinterpreted if they don’t come across as sincere. The mismatch between words and underlying feelings can lead to a sense of betrayal, as if they are being placated rather than genuinely supported. Over time, this perceived insincerity can make them doubt the authenticity of any positive feedback, further damaging their trust.


In the past, my partner perceived my insincerity in encouragement or praise because I was multitasking and not paying attention to him when I gave the encouragement or praise. To him, I was just brushing him off so I could focus on other things. What added to the insincerity was the fact I didn't realize the amount of effort it takes him because it took very little effort on my end to complete the same task. When I stopped multitasking and realized how much effort it took him to get tasks done right, he started seeing sincere encouragement and praise from me. Slowly, my encouragement provided him more dopamine and led to him wanting to do more and trying his best to perform the tasks to my standard because he craved my encouragement and praise.


Conclusion


As non-ADHD partners, it's natural to feel disheartened when our efforts to support and adapt seem to go unnoticed or unreciprocated. However, understanding the challenges that our ADHD partner must overcome—lack of self-esteem and trust caused by a lifetime of criticism from everyone, including their closest loved ones—naturally requires a longer period of time for them to trust and respond to your new approach. If you stay the course with your new approach, like being consistent with your behavior, providing sincere and positive praise and encouragement, you can start to see positive changes just like I did.



Sources

(1) Jellinek, Michael S. "Don't Let ADHD Crush Children's Self-Esteem", Clinical Psychiatry News, May 1, 2010. MDedge, https://www.mdedge.com/psychiatry/article/23971/pediatrics/dont-let-adhd-crush-childrens-self-esteem . Accessed May 20, 2024.


(2) Rodden, Janice. "What does Auditory Processing Disorder Look Like in Adults?", ADDitude Magzaine, April 8, 2024. https://www.additudemag.com/auditory-processing-disorder-in-adults/

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