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Attention Deficit Disorder Association

ADHD and Marriage: Six Steps to Nurturing A True Partnership
By Melissa Orlov


If you're in a marriage in which you or your partner has ADHD (or both of you do!) chances are your marriage needs work. You're likely frustrated with each other, have difficulty communicating effectively, and anger and resentment have been building for years. If you are a non-ADHD partner, you're tired of "always having to do everything" and being with a partner who doesn't seem to carry his or her share of your joint responsibilities. You may feel lonely and unappreciated. If you're an ADHD partner, chances are you see your spouse as being too controlling and too angry.  Your sex life has suffered (sometimes dramatically), as well.  You may have tried marriage counseling with some success, yet the big issues remain. 

If your marriage is increasingly adversarial or disconnected, you're not alone. Research suggests 58% of marriages with at least one ADHD spouse are clinically dysfunctional. Yet there is good news in all this mess - it need not be this way. Understanding why your ADHD-impacted marriage has reached this point, and understanding the role you've both played in this (notice that I do not single out the ADHD partner here - you are both responsible) can help you turn things around - often dramatically so.

ADHD symptoms encourage certain types of exceptionally consistent behaviors and interactions in a marriage. This is bad news when it's impact goes unrecognized, as it does in so many marriages, but great news when you finally connect the issue to underlying ADHD symptoms and responses to those symptoms. The very commonality of experience allows spouses to step away from blaming their partner for their problems to more accurately identifying the role that symptoms play… as well as the role responses to those symptoms plays.

Of the twelve patterns ADHD introduces into a relationship, three are particularly intrusive and difficult:

Symptom/Response/Response: An ADHD symptom is present (distraction, for example). The non-ADHD spouse responds to that symptom in a negative way - for example, becoming angry at the distraction, rather than partnering to get around it. The ADHD spouse responds to the response (in this case, anger - which an ADHD partner might respond to defensively or aggressively) rather than focusing upon the underlying problem (distraction). The interaction pits you against each other, rather than helping you work together to solve the problem.

Parent/Child Dynamics: In this pattern, the non-ADHD spouse takes on too much responsibility to compensate for the inconsistency of undertreated or untreated ADHD symptoms. However, the extra burden causes resentment over time, as well as lots of nagging, bossing and controlling behavior. The ADHD spouse resents this behavior, and once again you're adversaries.

Misinterpretation of ADHD Symptoms: 80-90% of adults with ADHD don't know they have it. This means they probably entered their relationship without either spouse being aware that some of the behaviors in the ADHD partner were due to ADHD. That leaves lots of room for misinterpretation. For example, "distraction" that leads an ADHD partner to ignoring his or her spouse (there's too much else going on) can be interpreted by the non-ADHD partner as, "my spouse doesn't love me anymore." Impulsive behavior, such as interrupting in a conversation, can be interpreted as "my spouse doesn't respect me" rather than "my spouse has an ADHD symptom that needs better management." Emotional or moral misinterpretations of ADHD behaviors can be exceptionally destructive to a relationship as they tear at the most important elements of a relationship - respect, love, reliability and more.


How to Rebuild a Partnership Dynamic

So what do you do? There are six specific steps you must take to change the dynamics of your interactions away from opposition and disconnection and towards working as partners and lovers. All are grounded in becoming much better educated about adult ADHD - what it's like to have it, what it's like to live with it if you're married to someone who has it, and what specific tactics work for couples impacted by ADHD (and this is important - because many tactics DON'T work - and it's likely you've been using a lot of them!)

Step 1: Cultivate Empathy: You and your spouse are much more different than you think. You literally experience the same situations differently because of how your minds work (biology) and the differences of growing up with ADHD and without it (often more "shaming" experiences have impacted self image for the ADHD spouse.) You can't make any assumptions about how your spouse experiences life or about his or her behavioral motivation. Stated another way - it's probably time for you to get "reacquainted" with each other - only this time with the fact that one of you has ADHD in mind. Briefly, here are just a few examples of common differences:

  • (Untreated) ADHD minds tend to be non-hierarchical and "noisy" - it's hard for a person with ADHD to get mentally organized enough to plan, initiate and follow through on tasks. Really hard. It also means that you may each pick out something completely different as "the most important part" of a conversation or experience.
  • Memory issues - many people with ADHD have significant short-term memory issues - meaning your spouse really doesn't remember the conversation you had three days ago - he or she is not just making an excuse.
  • Difficulty anticipating - if it's in the future, it's often hard for a person with ADHD to completely imagine the steps needed to accomplish something, and what the outcome will be. This is hard for a person without ADHD to comprehend, as it seems a "basic" skill to non-ADHD spouses.

Step 2: Address the Obstacle Emotions of Denial, Anger, Fear, and Hopelessness: You won't be partners again until some of your most difficult emotional baggage is acknowledged and is being dealt with openly (it doesn't have to be completely resolved for you to be partners - just openly acknowledged and "owned".) Most couples I start working with as a marriage consultant, for example, start out with these positions of denial:

  • ADHD spouse: "If my partner would start being nice to me again, everything would be fine." This position denies the reality that ADHD symptoms have a major impact on the spouse.
  • Non-ADHD spouse: "If my partner would just "fix" his/her ADHD, everything would be fine." This position denies the impact of anger, frustration or hopelessness in their interactions.

This mutual denial is a very real obstacle to making progress back towards a partnership. Acknowledging your own "obstacle emotions" is the first step to addressing them and getting them out of your way.

Step 3: Get Treatment for Both of You: Readers of this newsletter are probably aware that treatment for ADHD is about more than just taking medication. In a committed relationship, there are actually three legs to effective treatment for a couple: 1) physiological changes to ADHD brain chemistry; 2) behavioral, or habit, changes for the ADHD partner; and 3) developing a "tool kit" of interactions between the two partners that acknowledges ADHD. The first leg includes medications, fish oil, exercise, nutrition and sleep. The second includes a whole host of strategies to create structures for better reliability and success for the ADHD partner. The third leg includes certain types of structured conversations, verbal cues, not making assumptions about motives and more. Simultaneously, non-ADHD spouses may also need to deal with physical or psychological health problems.

Steps 4-6: The remaining steps for becoming partners again include: Step 4) Improving communication with specific, ADHD-friendly techniques; Step 5) Setting more effective boundaries that allow you each to regain control over your own life; and Step 6) Reigniting romance. I talk about all six steps in detail in my book, The ADHD Effect on Marriage, as well as those predictable behavioral patterns that ADHD introduces into relationships.

Why is all of this important? It's important because, right now you have an imbalance in your relationship that doesn't need to be there. You're not partners when one person dominates (as in parent/child relationships) or when one is inconsistent and unreliable due to under-managed ADHD symptoms. Following these steps can help you become equals again - which then opens the door to defining your new and improved partnership any way you wish.

Melissa Orlov is a marriage consultant and the author of The ADHD Effect on Marriage. She teaches seminars for couples impacted by ADHD, and blogs for Psychology Today and at www.adhdmarriage.com


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