Does one of you consistently promise to do chores but then forget them? Does your relationship suffer from chronic nagging or anger? Does one of you feel that you are living with another child, rather than a spouse? Did you used to feel important to your spouse, but now feel like chopped liver?
If so, your marriage may be suffering from the effects of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Though it has been little discussed, ADHD symptoms add consistent and predictable patterns to marriages in which one or both partners have ADHD. As long as the ADHD remains untreated or undertreated, these patterns can leave both partners unhappy, lonely, and feeling overwhelmed by their relationship. They fight frequently or, alternately, disengage from each other to protect themselves from hurt. A common response for the non-ADHD partner is to become overly controlling and nagging (“the only way to get anything done around here!”) while the ADHD partner becomes less and less engaged (“who wants to be with someone who is constantly angry?”)
These are just some of the results of what I call “the ADHD Effect.” The good news is that understanding the role that ADHD plays in a relationship can turn your marriage around.
Here is an example. Adults with ADHD are likely to have distraction as a primary symptom. After marriage, a distracted adult is paying attention to just about anything that happens to come along–whatever is present in that moment is what captures the attention. This leaves his or her spouse unattended most of the time. The spouse (a wife in this example) begins to feel very lonely and resentful that anything and everything seems more important than she is. She thinks her husband doesn’t care enough about her to pay attention to her and becomes resentful and angry, demanding more attention. Unaware that his distraction is causing a problem, he responds only to the negative tone of voice she is using with him and becomes angry at her, compounding the problem. A negative feedback loop develops and soon their relationship is in trouble.
In this example, she thinks the problem is that he doesn’t care enough about her to pay attention to her. He thinks the problem is that she has suddenly, unreasonably, become demanding and ill-tempered. The real problem is that he has an ADHD symptom (distractibility) that is not well controlled and she is misinterpreting that symptom in a negative way. In this case, the way to solve the problem is to recognize the impact that ADHD is having, treat the symptom so he is more available to her (and others), and schedule some good “attending” time to be together, such as date nights or regular afternoon walks, etc. On her side, she needs to respond to future distraction by understanding that he really does care but is just distracted, and bringing it gently to his attention at times when she really does need him.
This example illustrates one of the 12 predictable and consistent patterns that I outline in my book, The ADHD Effect on Marriage. In this case, the pattern is “misinterpretation of ADHD symptoms.”
The damage that distraction and other unacknowledged ADHD symptoms wreak in a marriage can be devastating. Research suggests that rates of marital dysfunction and divorce can be almost twice as high for those with ADHD as those without. Yet ADHD symptoms don’t doom a marriage– it’s denying that ADHD has an impact and therefore not doing something to counteract it that dooms the marriage. And one can’t just “blame” the ADHD spouse. Both partners are responsible for the difficulties they face and play very specific roles. In the story above, for example, the wife’s response to the symptom of distraction is just as important as the symptom itself. If she responds to his distraction by saying “that’s an ADHD symptom that can be overcome” the downward spiral in their relationship never begins.
One more important fact. ADHD is highly heritable. This means that if you have a child with ADHD, you most likely have a parent with it, too.
As Dr. Ned Hallowell likes to say “ADHD is a good-news diagnosis!” There are so many tools that adults can use to manage ADHD and lessen or eliminate it’s impact! Medications can play an important role in treatment, and fully 70-80% of adults can find a medication that helps them reduce symptoms without meaningful side effects (the trick to this is doctor-supervised experimentation with doses and medication types). But there are many other ways to manage ADHD, including nutrition, sleep, exercise, behavioral changes (VERY important in marriages!) and interaction changes between spouses.
If you think there is any chance that ADHD is impacting your marriage, please take a moment to learn more. You and your partner can finally start to unravel the mystery around why you haven’t been doing better in spite of all of your hard work. In fact, you can completely transform your marriage.