How to Navigate 'Over-Functioning' in Relationships When One Partner Has ADHD

Welcome to Better Sex With Dr. Lexx, a monthly column where sex therapist, educator and consultant Dr. Lexx Brown-James shares expertise, advice and wisdom about sex, relationships and more. Approaching education about sex as a life-long endeavor — “from womb to tomb” — Dr. Lexx (AKA The #CouplesClinician) is your guide to the shame-free, medically accurate, inclusive and comprehensive conversations for you, your partner and your whole family. 

It’s year three of the pandemic, Monkey Pox is upon us, and Polio has just resurfaced. If that wasn’t enough, it’s August so the new school year is starting, and fall is approaching. Over the last two years mental health has seen an increase in the diagnosis of ADHD in adults. We, as a society, are struggling to focus and function. This means two things. One: A lot of adults are struggling to focus, complete tasks, identify emotional needs, and stay present with people that they care about. And two: Partners to all of those adults with ADHD (newly diagnosed or previously-known) are probably over-functioning.

Signs of over-functioning include: taking responsibility for someone else’s life responsibilities (making their doctor appointments, waking them up, buying gifts for them to give), giving unsolicited advice because you think it’ll help, and feeling a sense of overwhelm and even resentment. Over-functioners tend to need tasks completed in a certain way and in a specific timeframe. This fulfills a sense of accomplishment, helps to organize life and relationship practices, and comes with a hefty side of anxiety. Over-functioners often have a motto “I’ll do it myself” and they often do complete the tasks themselves. The gag is for every over-functioner in a relationship there is usually an under-functioner. And the over-functioner’s tendencies typically allow for the other person in the relationship to under function. This separation can also be a point of conflict between lovers. The over-/under-functioner relationship can be difficult — and when one partner has ADHD, the relationship can almost feel insurmountable because it is riddled with conflict.

ADHD or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder is marked by fidgeting, impulsivity, irritability, absent mindedness, difficulty focusing, problems paying attention, anxiety, mood swings and even aggression. Now, a person with ADHD is not automatically the under-functioner in a relationship. Sometimes under-functioning is a manifestation of the symptoms of ADHD. It’s not purposeful or done out of laziness, it is a mental health illness acting out in real life. It can still be frustrating and take its toll on relationship intimacy. In a relationship these symptoms might show up in chores, ability to take care of oneself, ability to take care of children, and frustration in trying to show up in a specific way to appease the over-functioner or feeling like a failure when unable to live up to the expectations either of you have in the relationship. Both under-functioning and ADHD can go hand in hand. A successful relationship with an over-functioner and someone with ADHD takes some practice on both people’s parts.

For over-functioners must manage their anxiety in order to stop over functioning. This means an over-functioner needs to learn how to delegate a task, set it, and forget it. For example, cleaning the toilet. Let’s say cleaning the toilet is your least favorite chore and your partner doesn’t mind doing it. So now that chore is theirs which means you as the over-functioner have to set it down and forget about it. Sometimes it is hard for an over-functioner to relinquish responsibility and task mastering over a delegated responsibility help them manage their anxiety. What I mean by sitting it down and letting it go, is that this task is no longer managed by the over-functioner; so, the over-functioner is not responsible for clocking when that task is done, how that task is done, and if that task is done “correctly”. Now, I know y’all like to tussle, so I am not saying that you have to sit in pee because your partner didn’t clean the toilet. What I am saying is that you do not get to dictate when or how the toilet gets cleaned outside of a long-term boundary.

This looks like: “By the end of the week can you make sure to clean the toilet?”

If the toilet doesn’t get cleaned by the end of the week, then it’s time to revisit that conversation but if it gets cleaned in any way, shape, and manner then it does not need to be revisited or redone.

It is helpful, as an over-functioner, to only relinquish low stakes tasks. Tasks that are immediate, literally life or death (read giving an elder insulin), or dependent specifically on how the over-functioner completes them are not to be delegated, at least not initially. This is an exercise in patience that will be hard for an over-functioner to complete. It is also necessary for the over-functioner to relinquish aspects of control so that they can minimize their anxiety and potential resentment of their lover.

For those who have ADHD and feel they are in relationship with an over-functioner, it is prudent for you to find your work arounds. As a person with symptoms of ADHD you might find it hard to complete household tasks or even self-care management. As a lover in a lovership, you also see the toll it takes on your lover and your relationship (or maybe you don’t and reading this article is helping you see what your lover goes through). As a person with ADHD finding your workaround for a delegated task or for wanting to show up differently, is going to be clutch. Let’s take the cleaning the toilet example, it might be hard to get started, so start by gathering the supplies in one place.

By separating out the task — gathering the material, cleaning the toilet, and putting the items back — you can work to accomplish goals in a staggered and less overwhelming (and less likely to forget) type of way. Other workarounds for your ADHD may mean cleaning to a song, talking to your partner about their labor and figuring out what you can take on, setting timers, keeping conversations short and focused (even taking notes!), or using your strengths as an asset to take on responsibility. Whatever workarounds you put into place, know that they help to support the relationship and ultimately increase intimacy in your relationship as your lover can relinquish some anxiety and labor while you feel accomplished and appreciated.

Loverships where one person is an over-functioner and the other has ADHD can be successful and thrive. And with the current state of the world, increases in ADHD diagnoses, and anxiety it is more important than ever to learn how to work together for relationship harmony. 

Before you go, check out the apps we love to help you prioritize your mental health: 

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