Family members and therapists who work with those with ADHD have long noticed a tendency for those with ADHD to over-react to what’s going on around them – both in the positive and in the negative.  In addition, responding more quickly or impulsively than those without ADHD is likely, as well.

This over-reaction catches partners by surprise (‘Wow, what was THAT?!’) and can make living with a partner with ADHD difficult – a non-ADHD or ‘other ADHD’ partner can feel unprepared for emotional responses that seem out of proportion to what is happening at the moment.  Over time, the emotionality of ADHD partners can lead to wariness, or even loss of respect, in primary relationships.  Consistency of over-reaction to events makes partners wonder why their ADHD partner can’t just ‘grow up and settled down.’

Research done in 2013 by Merwood and colleagues (link is external) with a large sample of twins, suggests that these strong and fast emotional responses (called ‘emotional lability’) are actually a genetically linked core characteristic of ADHD.  Further, the intensity of the emotional lability increases with age.  The implications of this for couples are:
  • Emotional lability (and particularly quick moves to hurtful anger) should be considered ADHD symptomatic behavior, and set as a target symptom for treatment and attention with your physician
  • Non-ADHD and other-ADHD partners who are surprised by the emotionality of their ADHD partner are not alone.  Understanding that it’s the ADHD, and not just that your partner is a ‘mean’ or uncontrollable person, can help partners implement appropriate and supportive responses to emotional outbursts.  Knowing that many with this issue can calm their emotional lability can help provide hope for an easier future together.
ADHD partners should look carefully at their own behaviors as a symptom, rather than response to outside environmental issues (for example, it’s not just a response to a partner’s nagging or critique.)  Symptomatic behaviors can often be managed when you have ADHD and, in fact, there is ample clinical experience to suggest there are multiple methods for managing emotional outbursts.  Some of the best include:
  • Mindfulness training – becoming more aware of what is happening in the moment can also help adults with ADHD ‘self-monitor’ and self-soothe before the emotions take over
  • Management through medication – some medications can specifically be used to target quick tempers.  The anti-depressant Wellbutrin, for example, may be one option.  Medications that provide a few moments of thought before impulsive action fit into this category.
  • Exercise and stress management – emotional explosions are more likely when those with ADHD are under significant stress, which has the effect of increasing the expression of ADHD symptoms, including emotional lability.  Regular exercise is an anti-stress ‘prescription’ for all.
  • The use of verbal cues with your partner – there are times when a person with ADHD can feel that they are getting ‘triggered’ by something emotional.  Setting up verbal cues with your partner to allow you to walk away from a conversation before you blow up can be an effective strategy for managing emotional lability at least some of the time.
So, when you have ADHD, do you sometimes or often overreact?  Chances are good that the answer to that question is ‘yes.’  But if this is causing problems for you at home or at work, there are ways you can effectively manage your emotions that can improve your situation.