By the time this is published, Valentine’s Day will have come and gone with its symbolic flowers, cards, gifts, or couple’s night out celebrations. But we all know and hope our love continues on even beyond the symbolic holiday. A favorite book, likely familiar, is Gary Chapman’s The Five Love Languages. One of the main ideas in Chapman’s book is to know and speak the native and secondary love languages of your partner to fill up their emotional love tank. By doing so, you build on the connection and resilience of a lasting relationship. Partners who invest their attention and efforts to give and receive love in the way the other needs to experience it are likely to find it much easier to weather the natural ebb and flow in a long-term relationship.
Then, one of the partners might be thinking, yeah but…“What about this thing called ADHD?”
Remember the good ole saying…It takes two. It’s never just one thing. The truth is, both partners have their own areas of strength and opportunities to grow in a relationship. Too often, adults with ADHD begin to feel as though the strains in their marriage are just because of their ADHD when that is not always the case. Chapman identifies three critical factors that both partners can embrace to address the differences and imperfections that get in the way of their happiness together:
- Making a conscious choice and act of will
- Investing the effort to understand and speak their partner’s love language, and
- Keeping the focus on their own growth and development
Still, there is this thing called ADHD.
Our work with couples focuses on the areas of challenge that surface where one or both have ADHD. One of the big ones is communication. So let’s start there by integrating the ideas around Gary Chapman’s The Five Love Languages through the lens of having ADHD. First, do you know each other’s primary love language? If not, Chapman offers a free quiz here. You could do this together.
#1 – Words of Affirmation
Being generous with sincere spontaneous compliments, appreciation, and acknowledgment can build us up. The ADHD partner may receive more negative versus positive feedback and adopt a “just can’t win” perspective. The non-ADHD partner may sense their efforts are taken for granted, overlooked, or unappreciated. Resentment and frustration can set in.
If this is your partner’s love language, reflect on if there is an opportunity to up your game. What does your partner love and need to hear? Look for random opportunities to share kind and loving words about what you love about them and why. Acknowledge their efforts and your appreciation for what they do versus what’s perfect, encourage them with words of confidence like “I believe in you,” and call out their strengths when you see them or they need them. Words of affirmation can be spoken, written, a shared text, GIF, or meme, directly or indirectly, by sharing with others. What ideas can you think of?
#2 – Quality Time
Here the emphasis is on good times together, whether in great conversations or activities. The ADHD partner may find it difficult to stay tuned in and tracking conversations amidst distractions. Or interrupt too soon, so they don’t forget a thought about what you are saying. They may find it difficult to plan special future-focused occasions. The non-ADHD partner may perceive the ‘tune-outs’ as not caring or interested or be frustrated with the interruptions. Or they may feel like if anything happens with quality time together and special occasions, it’s up to them to do all the planning and preparation and the perception the couple’s time together is not a priority of their partners.
Here are a few things that can help when this gets in the way. Pause for a moment before starting conversations and consider what distractions need to be managed. Put on your curiosity hat to help you listen deeply and tune in to what is being said from a place of interest and non-judgment. Be mindful of the timing and a partner’s ability to attend. Have a scratch pad handy to note your thoughts to avoid interrupting. Develop a skill to pause and check in after expressing a key point to help your partner have a turn to clarify or respond. As far as quality time together, find a balance. Brainstorm together a short list of spontaneous “anytime” activities as well as those that are future-focused, requiring some preparation. You can divvy up special occasions for who takes the lead or surprise the other by setting the intention and initiating the invitation before they have a chance. “I have an idea for Saturday…What do you think?” Or, “Next month is our anniversary; I would love to plan something special if that is okay with you.”
#3 – Receiving Gifts
Gifts can be a tangible token or a gift of our presence and support. The main idea is the significance of the gift and the thoughtfulness and caring it represents. The ADHD partner might get stuck at the last minute and wait too long to take action or forget altogether. They may miss an important cue to provide support. The non-ADHD partner may have conflicts with spending or feel depleted with always having to remind about gifts.
If this is your partner’s love language, initiate a conversation on gifts and what is meaningful for each of you. Identify parameters as a couple to manage expectations and avoid spending too much. Do the same with identifying the top two to three things that convey you are loved with the presence and support of the other. Don’t turn your partner into a mind-reader. It’s okay to ask when you need it.
#4 – Acts of Service
This is where doing something for the other conveys I love you. A big watch out here is maintaining a balance with what you do. An ADHD-impacted relationship often struggles when the balance in the relationship is off-kilter in an unhealthy parent-child dynamic around responsibilities, expectations, and follow-through.
Whether or not this is your partner’s love language, reflect on the balance and if there is an opportunity to up your game. For the ADHD adult, do you know what your responsibilities are? Are you good with the follow-through? For the non-ADHD adult, have you made your needs for support clear? Take the time to look at the bigger picture of what is yours, mine, and ours. Do what you can to come up with reasonable parameters of what good looks like and is not necessarily perfect. Be open to sharing why it is important to you. Identify some skills to help you build on the ability to initiate, persist, and follow through so the other can count on one another and keep the relationship in balance. If it is a partner’s love language, try out the surprise factor by doing something for them even though you were not asked to.
#5 – Physical Touch
The power of connection in conversations and your time together through thoughtful touches, pats on the back, holding hands, comforting hugs, physical gestures of affection, and intimacy.
If this is your partner’s love language, the big idea is don’t hold back or use physical touch as a bargaining chip or in ways that can cause physical or emotional harm. When you sense indifference, consider the why. Is it about having the energy to attend? Is it a distracted environment? Is there communication that needs to be had about what sends the message of being loved or what they find pleasurable? Try a few things differently and see how it goes. Consider working with a counselor to address difficult emotions that have built up and blocked your ability to convey “I love you” to the other.
So now what?
We have explored Gary Chapman’s five love languages with some thoughts about each. Did any sound familiar? Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to get to know your partner’s love language and consider some ways to up the game as needed. Could you use some support putting some of these ideas into action? Is addressing ADHD becoming too much of a drain on the joy and lasting love in your relationship? Relationship Reboot For ADHD-Impacted Couples dives deeper into helping couples address communication and the other big challenges that arise when one or both have ADHD.
You can learn more about Gary Chapman’s five love languages in his book or on his website. Lastly, speaking the love languages of others is not just for couples. It’s a great approach to build on relationships with our children, other family members, and friends.
Robin Nordmeyer, PCAC, CLC
ADHD Coach and Life Coach, Executive Skills Coach, Owner/Founder