Maybe he's the husband who manages his time poorly, falls through on promises to mow the lawn or get groceries, and grows bored within minutes. Maybe she's the wife who’s disorganized and cluttered, overlooks details, and flits from one activity to the next. "One of the most common things I hear is, 'If you really loved me, you would remember to close the cabinets in the kitchen, or pay the bills on time, or call before you leave work,'" says psychotherapist Walter Sherburne of Andover, Mass. "I know one couple who ended up divorced because the husband decided he just couldn’t live with someone who didn't close the kitchen cupboards."
Welcome to an ADHD marriage.
"Distractibility, forgetfulness, impulsivity—when you put the symptoms of [attention deficit hyperactivity disorder] into a marriage, it creates havoc," says psychotherapist Terry Matlen, author of Survival Tips for Women with ADHD. "There's a lot of anger and resentment. You think your husband doesn't love you anymore, but he's completely dumbfounded because he has ADHD and doesn't have a good sense of how his behavior affects other people. Things can start to unravel pretty quickly."
Indeed, the divorce rate is nearly twice as high for people with ADHD, which affects roughly 4 percent of adults, as it is for other couples, says marriage consultant Melissa Orlov, author of The ADHD Effect on Marriage. Symptoms include trouble staying focused and paying attention, difficulty understanding or following instructions, and hyperactivity, or fidgeting frequently and talking excessively. In adults, ADHD usually isn't diagnosed until symptoms persist and spread into multiple aspects of daily life, from success at work to the ability to form romantic relationships. There is no cure, but adult ADHD symptoms can generally be minimized with medication, therapy, or both.
ADHD is typically missed or overlooked when couples are dating. The partner with ADHD is often hyperfocused, sending flowers, checking in with frequent phone calls, and showering the significant other with loving attention. The excitement is stimulating—a feel-good self-medication of sorts, Orlov says. The transition to marriage can be jarring. Once the relationship becomes familiar, the frenzy of attention is likely to ebb. The partner without ADHD, bewildered by the abrupt change, may start to feel unloved or unattractive—interpreting a distracted spouse as an uninterested spouse.
As time passes, tensions can build if the condition isn't recognized or its symptoms and motives are misunderstood. The trademark impulsivity could translate into rash financial decisions. Or a husband might habitually interrupt his wife because he "doesn't have the brakes to stop" and is afraid of losing his skittery thoughts if he waits, says Orlov. To the non-ADHD partner, the interruptions are disrespectful.
Over time, a parent-child dynamic can develop, complete with constant nagging. The "parent" handles all responsibilities, while the "naughty child" has none. "The person with ADHD will have very good intentions and say, 'Yes, of course I'll do that chore, of course I'll pick the kids up.' And then it doesn't happen, and since they can't rely on that person, the other spouse takes over," Orlov says. Eventually, the uncertainty of not knowing whether a partner is reliable creates intense stress and resentment. And the person with ADHD feels belittled or inadequate.
When both partners have ADHD, the game changes—with mixed results. Personally understanding the condition may make one partner less likely to express frustration, "but you also see more disorganization, and all the symptoms times two," Matlen says. "It can make for a lot of craziness at home."
So what's an ADHD-affected couple to do? Whether one person or both have the condition, certain steps can help strengthen the relationship.
Seek a proper diagnosis—and appropriate treatment. Most deal-breaking problems arise when ADHD is unidentified or untreated. Once aware that a certain behavior is a symptom of an actual condition, you'll learn to respond to it differently. Instead of feeling hurt and angered by your partner's inattentiveness, for instance, start scheduling one-on-one time to focus on each other.
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Separate the person from the condition. If your spouse can't remember to run errands or forgets your anniversary, remind yourself: It is a medical condition. Look at it objectively. People with ADHD are bombarded with messages like just try harder, focus, and figure out a way to get it done. "The non-ADHD spouse needs to understand that [he] is asking for something impossible," Sherburne says. "The more pressure you put on, the more they'll feel like they're failing, and the more their confidence will sink."
Consider joining a support group. The non-profit CHADD (Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder) has chapters in nearly every city. When unaffected spouses attend support group sessions, they often feel relieved, says Sherburne. For the first time, they may realize the challenges they're facing aren't unique to their family.
Change the way you communicate. "Instead of pointing your finger and saying, 'You always forget to take the garbage out,' restate it with an 'I' message," Matlen says. Try: "I get really frustrated when the garbage piles up. What can we do about it?" That style of communication will lessen your partner's defensive reaction, and turn an obstacle into something you tackle together.
Break tasks into pieces. "If someone without ADHD needed to clean the garage, they might be a little overwhelmed, but they'd get to work," Matlen says. "But asking a person with ADHD to clean a garage is like asking someone to move a mountain." A solution? Make the project more manageable by tackling it one step at a time. Start, for instance, by buying garbage bags,then isolate and focus on one corner of the garage. The more a task is broken down, the more likely it will get done.
Get by with a little help from a digital assistant. People with ADHD have two time zones, says Matlen: "now," and "not now." Using a BlackBerry or a similar device is a way to set reminders that brings you back into the "now" time zone.
Invoke the help of outside resources. If your partner has trouble keeping the house tidy or remembering to mow the lawn every Sunday, hire a cleaning service or a lawn-cutting service. The cost may take a lesser toll on your wallet than another argument would on your marriage.
Embrace the good parts. People with ADHD are often fun-loving, high-energy, and exciting to be around. "If someone is impulsive, they usually come up with great, spur-of-the-moment ideas," Sherburne says. "Be open to the spontaneity."