The ADHD Effect on Marriage
By Melissa Orlov
(An excerpt from The ADHD Effect on Marriage provided by the author)
Marriages affected by ADHD, like all marriages, range from highly successful to completely disastrous. It is safe to say, though, that those distorted by ADHD symptoms sit squarely in “the worst of times.” Pain and anger abound. During the worst times, you can barely talk to each other. When you do, you rarely agree or see things the same way. You’re frustrated that you’ve gotten to this point, and you’re incredulous that you haven’t been able to make things better. Both of you have begun to suspect that your spouse doesn’t really want to improve things. If he or she did, wouldn’t things have gotten better by now?
If you are married to a person who has (or might have) ADHD, you might feel ignored and lonely in your relationship. Your spouse never seems to follow up on what he agrees to do—so much so that you may feel as if you really have another child in your home instead of an adult. You feel you’re forced to remind him all the time to do things. You nag, and you’ve started to dislike the person you’ve become. The two of you either fight often or have virtually nothing to say to each other that you find meaningful. You are frustrated that your spouse seems to be able to focus intently on things that interest him, but never on you. Perhaps worst of all, you feel intense stress from not knowing whether you can rely on him and feeling saddled with almost all of the responsibilities of the household, while your spouse gets to “have all the fun.”
If you have ADHD, (or think you do), you may feel as if the person you married is buried deep within a nagging monster that lives in your home. The person you had cherished has been transformed into a control freak, trying to manage every single detail of your life together. No matter how hard you try, you can never do well enough for your spouse, even if you are successful elsewhere, such as in your work. The easiest way to deal with her is simply to leave her alone.
If either of these descriptions sounds familiar, you are suffering from what I call the ADHD effect. Your courtship was happy and exciting (and often fast), but your marriage has been completely different. You may feel desperately unhappy and lonely, and your partner isn’t even aware of it—even if you’ve tried to talk about it. You fight and nag much more than you expected, and life often seems depressingly up and down and out of control. The underlying reason could be that ADHD symptoms–and the responses both of you have to those symptoms—have been destroying your partnership.
The good news is that understanding the role that ADHD plays can turn your marriage around. You can learn how to identify ADHD and the issues it brings to marriages, as well as specific steps you can take to begin to rebuild your lives.
You will be surprised by the consistency and predictability of the patterns in marriages affected by ADHD. These patterns start with an ADHD symptom that triggers a series of predictable responses in both spouses, creating a downward spiral in your marriage. In this case, knowledge is power. You both contribute to these patterns. If you know what they are, you can also change them or avoid them altogether.
The stakes are high. Research suggests that rates of marital dysfunction and divorce are about twice as high for people with ADHD as they are for people without it. However, these statistics do not mean that people with ADHD can’t make good spouses. In these marriages, both partners fall victim to a combination of ADHD symptoms and their mutual responses (and lack of responses) to those symptoms. Know the patterns that ADHD symptoms create, and you can repair your marriage.
The ADHD Effect on Marriage is the guide my husband and I wish we had from the beginning. It will take you through the steps needed to regain your footing in your relationship, repair the emotional damage, and create a path into a brighter and more satisfying future. You’ll find out that your problems aren’t because of character flaws or failings, but are the result of the ADHD effect—and that the two of you together can overcome it. You’ll learn how to put ADHD back where it belongs: as just one of many aspects of your lives, not as the overwhelming determinant of your days.
A brief overview of my own story will demonstrate that even the most dysfunctional marriages can improve and thrive with the right knowledge, understanding, compassion, emotional strength, and a determination to move past marital history.
Like many couples, my husband and I had no idea that one of us had ADHD. I had fallen in love with my husband’s brilliance, sharp wit, and penchant for adventure. He is a lover of music, food, and wine, and he breathed unexpected excitement into my life with love, attention, gifts, and surprise trips. He focused on me with a ferocity that both surprised and flattered me. He was accomplished and professionally successful, yet warm; when I got sick on our first date, I was touched that he tucked me under a blanket on the sofa and made me hot tea.
But in its early years, our marriage began to fall apart, despite the fact that we loved each other. I couldn’t understand how someone who had started out so attentive could now ignore me and my needs so completely, or be so “consistently inconsistent” when it came to carrying his weight around the house and with the children. He sometimes helped out, but usually didn’t, and often seemed to be unaware of my existence. As it turned out, he was equally confused and annoyed. How could the woman he had married, who had seemed so warm and optimistic, change into an exhausted nag who wouldn’t give him a break and wouldn’t leave him alone?
By our ten-year anniversary, we were completely dysfunctional as a couple and contemplating divorce. We were held together only by our desire to raise our children well and a feeling deep inside that we ought to be able to do better. We were angry, frustrated, completely disconnected, and deeply unhappy. I was clinically depressed. Around that time, our daughter, at age nine, was diagnosed with both a math learning disability and ADHD. In time, we learned my husband has ADHD, too.
Discovering that one or both of you has ADHD is just the beginning. Medication is the most efficient way to jump-start treatment, but it does not effectively treat ADHD in marriages without the addition of behavioral changes. These changes must be voluntary. No matter how much a non-ADHD spouse may want to, she can’t “make” her spouse do certain things like be more organized or more attentive. Furthermore, these changes must come from both partners. Changes only in the ADHD spouse don’t resolve the marriage’s issues. We learned both ideas the hard way, mostly at my husband’s expense, as I kept trying to force him to do things differently. The harder I pushed, the more he resisted, and the worse our relationship became. Sound familiar?
Finding joy in your marriage again after years of hurt is a journey of change, not a quick fix. The rewards of the journey are worth it. My husband and I have moved from completely dysfunctional to almost ridiculously happy. We are thriving as individuals and feel that our relationship is stronger now than it has ever been. Back “in love,” we feel safer and more optimistic than on the day we married over twenty years ago. My husband’s ADHD symptoms are under control, and I have a much stronger understanding and appreciation of the effort that takes. Unlike during our difficult times, we know and accept each other’s faults and rejoice in each other’s strengths. Our pride in our ability to pull ourselves back from the brink helps us to celebrate our feelings in ways that are loving and supportive. We won’t ever go back to our difficult past, and have crafted a new relationship and brilliant future.
You can do this, too. You can move past your current unhappiness and create something better than you could have ever dreamed possible.
Twelve Ways ADHD Symptoms Affect Your Marriage
It’s amazing how consistent are the patterns in struggling ADHD marriages. These patterns start with a common ADHD symptom that triggers a series of pretty predictable responses in both spouses, creating a downward spiral. But what if you knew what those triggers are, so that you could eliminate them or respond differently? What would happen if you could just say “Oh, that’s the ADHD right there” and brush it off, rather than engage in battle? You can learn to recognize many of these patterns and then eliminate them from your relationship using methods that take ADHD into account.
- Painful misinterpretations of ADHD symptoms: you may misinterpret each other’s motives and actions for two reasons – a.) there is an ADHD symptom lurking that you don’t realize is influencing your interaction and b.) you “live in the world” so differently that you incorrectly assume you understand the motives that are influencing frustrating behaviors. A common misinterpretation is that an ADHD partner “doesn’t care” if he’s distracted. Really getting to know – and respect – your differences can dramatically alter this pattern.
- Symptom-response-response: Symptoms on their own are often not destructive – it’s the response to the symptom, and then the response to the response that hurt. You can respond to distraction by feeling hurt…or by scheduling time together to just focus on each other. If you know about ADHD, you’ll do the latter, if you don’t know about it, you’ll be likely to do the former.
- Hyperfocus courtship: Chemicals released in the brain during infatuation mean that your courtship was probably incredible! You were completely focused on each other. This makes it all the more confusing and hurtful to a non-ADHD partner when his or her spouse returns to the distracted state that comes with ADHD.
- Parent-Child Dynamics: The most common and most destructive pattern of all is one in which one partner becomes the responsible “parent” figure, while the other the irresponsible or inconsistent “child” figure. This results from the inconsistency often inherent in untreated ADHD. Since the ADHD partner can’t be relied upon, the non-ADHD partner takes over. This results in a great deal of anger and frustration in both partners. Couples need to acknowledge that parenting a spouse is never beneficial and consciously move away from these patterns by putting ADHD support structures in place that help the ADHD partner become more reliable and by vowing to solve their issues in other ways.
- The Chore Wars: Unfortunately, having a spouse with untreated ADHD can translate into a lot of extra work for a non-ADHD spouse. If workload distribution inequities aren’t addressed, the resentment and feelings of “being a slave” that the non-ADHD partner often feels can result in divorce. But it’s not as easy as trying harder. ADHD partners need to learn to “try differently” – in ways that take their ADHD into account as they take on more of the work at home so they will be more successful.
- The Blame Game: Each partner blames the other for their issues. The most common combination? The non-ADHD partner blames the ADHD partner’s unreliability and ADHD symptoms, while the ADHD partner blames the non-ADHD spouse’s anger. “If she would just calm down, everything would be fine!” But partners both contribute to their marital issues, so are most successful when they both take responsibility and make appropriate changes.
- Walking on Eggshells, Spurts of Anger, and Rude Behavior: Tantrums, spurts of anger, and rude behavior often accompany ADHD symptoms and have to do with impulse control and self image. The result is that a non-ADHD partner can feel as if he or she is “walking on eggshells” – always wary and vigilant. Getting at behavioral issues for both spouses is part of good treatment – don’t just assume they “are just the way things are.”
- Pursuit and Escape: Frequently a non-ADHD partner will aggressively pursue a spouse with ADHD to get him or her to “pay attention,” to things, and change. It’s part survival strategy – if things don’t change, the relationship will become untenable. But an ADHD partner will usually “retreat” when pursued, which leaves both spouses even more frustrated. Couples do better when they set up specific systems for communicating their needs and negotiating solutions.
- Nag Now, Pay Later: One form of pursuit is nagging, and if you are a non-ADHD spouse, I’m guessing you do it. Though you feel as if you have to nag to get things done, nagging is always a negative. Treat the underlying ADHD symptoms; vow to stop nagging and find other types of reminder systems and you can get rid of this pattern.
- Losing Faith in Your Spouse and Yourself: You thought you had found the perfect mate, but now you find that you feel as if you are never good enough (ADHD partner) or have turned into an angry, unhappy nag (non-ADHD partner). This pattern diminishes naturally once a couple starts to experience relationship successes again.
- Your Sexual Relationship Breaks Down: As the ADHD-affected relationship breaks down, sex becomes strained or nonexistent. But once the underlying issues are dealt with, couples can reinvigorate romance.
- Believing ADHD Doesn’t Matter: Even after all of the patterns I’ve laid out, some ADHD spouses still won’t believe that ADHD is a factor in their relationship. But even if you don’t believe ADHD is an issue, there is still good reason to act as if you assume it is: there is no downside to exploring treatment options; and pursuing the role ADHD plays demonstrates commitment to improving your relationship in a way that helps the non-ADHD partner more realistically examine his or her own role. This joint openness is a win/win for everyone involved.
These twelve patterns are discussed in much more depth in my award-winning book, The ADHD Effect on Marriage. Learning about them is just one step in your journey. It is my hope that you’ll be inspired to seek more information and start taking the steps you need to take to find the joy in your partnership that you thought you had lost.
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The ADHD Effect on Marriage available here and at your local bookseller
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