Categories: 2012, February
by Terry M. Dickson, MD, ACG
IF YOU ARE MARRIED TO SOMEONE WITH ADHD—and
you do not have ADHD yourself—you have probably experienced how
the disorder affects a marriage. Classically, the relationship begins
with much excitement and energy as your partner intensely hyperfocuses
on you. You feel like you are the complete center of his or her
attention and you are all that matters to him or her. The courtship can
be very stimulating.
Then things change dramatically. You may end up feeling confused and
unloved as the person you married appears to have lost interest and
spends more time with the TV, computer, or hobbies. As time goes
by, you feel ignored and neglected. You begin to realize that your
spouse doesn’t help much around the house and you end up doing
most of the work—as though you are doing ninety percent of the
chores around the house while your spouse does ten percent. In essence,
you have become the janitor. When you ask him or her to do something, he
or she seems to agree, only to forget afterwards. You complain and it
only leads to more tension and misunderstanding between the two of you.
You find that he or she fails to keep certain commitments,
procrastinates, and doesn’t seem to listen to what you have to
You begin to nag and over time begin to feel that instead of being
married to an equal, you are raising “a child.” In time, you
feel emotionally abused and because you don’t feel cared about
anymore, you become more resentful and angry, and you typically react to
your spouse in anger. Your spouse’s behaviors are consistently
inconsistent and your marriage is like a rollercoaster ride. You become
hypervigilant as you stomp out “fires” to avoid calamity.
This turns into a vicious cycle of a downward spiral. If this cycle is
left unchecked, many of these marriages end up in divorce.
The partner who does not have ADHD may fear that things will stay the
same or that the partner who has ADHD could cause harm to the children.
When anger and resentment set in, there can be an emotional void and
withdrawal from the spouse with ADHD. You get the feeling of walking on
eggshells and you get used to not getting much positive feedback. You
feel trapped and unworthy of your spouse’s love or attention. You
can become so preoccupied with your spouse who has ADHD that your own
self-help, desires, and goals are put aside.
Fortunately, there are things that you can do.
It is easier said than
done, but don’t take your spouse’s behavior
personally. Remember who has the disorder and don’t take
the blame. It is not your job to “rescue” him or her. You
cannot make his or her ADHD go away, and you are not responsible for his
or her disorder. Ultimately, he or she needs to take ownership for his
or her actions and seek help for the disorder. He or she must learn to
deal with his or her anger and frustration in an acceptable way. On the
other hand, you too are responsible for your actions in response to your
spouse’s actions. It is important to act but not react.
Your spouse may seem to be
unmotivated to change his or her behaviors. Remember that the
problematic behaviors are usually a result of the way his or her brain
is wired and that he or she is not purposely trying to annoy you. With
increased awareness and understanding of the disorder, many adults with
ADHD are able to acknowledge how ADHD has affected their marriage and
accept responsibility for their actions. It is important that you
transform blame into empathy and understand that your spouse’s
actions may not be due to a lack of caring. Remember that your spouse
may not link cause and effect because of poor working memory problems
and may actually not see how his or her behaviors affect you.
Learn as much as you can about
ADHD. Read articles, books, attend support
groups—whatever it takes.
Remember that your relationship
is most important. Go on a date together (getting away from it
all) where you can talk about rebuilding your relationship one step at a
time. Find things to laugh about and celebrate about your relationship.
Don’t attempt to “fix” the other person. It
doesn’t work. By all means, resist accusing and being defensive.
Visualize possibilities for the relationship and do not bring up past
Be patient with your spouse who
has ADHD. Change takes time. Find ways to give positive
feedback everyday as your spouse has probably grown up with a lot of
negative comments and criticism and may be very sensitive to it. Be
supportive and a cheerleader for positive change in your spouse.
Concentrate on his or her strengths.
Do not tolerate abuse
whether it is physical or verbal. ADHD is not an excuse for
those things. Your spouse may need professional help if he or she cannot
manage emotions on his or her own. You must insist on being treated like
a human being with feelings! Likewise, you too are responsible for not
tearing down your spouse. Your love for him or her must be unconditional
even if you don’t agree with his or her actions.
Remember that you married an adult and you don’t have to do
everything for your spouse. You can be a helper, but you are not a
personal slave. It is the responsibility of your spouse to learn
strategies to cope with the challenges of daily life.
Work on building better
communication. Agree to certain times during the week when you
spend time together without distractions or interruptions. This is a
time to clarify what hasn’t been working in the marriage and what
is truly important for the relationship. Perhaps choose one or two
issues to work on together. Learn to listen more and talk less. Be
really transparent with your spouse how his or her ADHD traits affect
you. Ask open-ended questions to explore your spouse’s feelings
and explore together the possibilities for change. Try to resolve
misunderstandings by seeking clarifications rather than by getting
angry. Express your thoughts and feelings fully and encourage your
spouse to do the same. Always be honest with each other. That is the
best way for a healthy relationship. If you feel that you can no longer
communicate together, seek professional help such as a mediator or
Work with an ADHD
Your spouse is not defective or
flawed; it is just the way his or her brain works. His or her
brain is just wired differently. Learn to look for positive traits (yes,
everyone has them!).
When you speak with your
spouse, try to speak directly face-to-face with him or her with good eye
contact. You might want to check in to make sure that he or she
understood what you were saying.
Learn to recognize when your
spouse is in an “ADHD-charged moment.” This may
occur when he or she is overwhelmed, frustrated or running on stimulus
overload. It can happen anytime, but often it happens in the evening or
late at night after a stressful day. This may not be the best time to
bring up certain subjects that may lead to a heated discussion.
Your spouse may have
experienced years of rejection due to ADHD behaviors and
traits. Chances are that he or she grew up with a poor
self-image. So it is important that you show him or her respect and that
you value his or her opinion and that he or she is accepted by you.
NEVER bring up past hurts. Learn to forgive and forget.
Give your spouse
unconditional love. This may not be easy to do in light of
years of feeling unloved by him or her. You are modeling the kind of
love that he or she has not been able to give you.
Encourage your spouse to get an
accurate diagnosis and the best treatment available from a health
provider who has a lot of experience treating ADHD and associated
conditions. You might approach it by saying, “This may
help you finish projects or get your paperwork done.” (Remember
nothing is broken that needs to be fixed.)
Learn to differentiate between
“facts” and “feelings,” especially during
emotionally charged moments. Your spouse may have hurt your
feelings and made you feel unloved by apparently not listening to you.
But the fact is that he or she may not even be aware of how he or she is
It has long been known that
people with ADHD tend to be behind in social maturation. They
may not recognize certain social cues or appropriate boundaries. There
may be times that your spouse does not seem emotionally connected to
you. This can be very hurtful, leading to frustration and often anger.
You might feel like you are parenting a child. Be open and honest about
your feelings and express your concerns out of love and concern for the
relationship and your spouse.
Look for your spouse’s
strengths and point them out to him or her. Champion your
spouse whenever possible.
To your success in building a better marriage!
Anthony Rostain, MD, MA, on the years of transition to adulthood
interview by Susan Buningh, MRE
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