Driven To Distraction
Adults are as scatterbrained as kids. And the disorder may be rooted in basic biology
And yet, even with the increasing interest in this subject, and the burgeoning research on adults, living with distraction proves to be a tremendous challenge for everyone. Nowhere are the challenges more apparent than in that most adult of all relationships: a marriage.
Last month, six couples sat in a relaxed circle, the waiting room of the Hallowell Center in Sudbury, Mass. They were gathered for a group therapy session for couples in which one or both partners have ADD. Ranging in age from their early 20s to late 50s, the group members were generally educated and upper-middle-class. They also revealed the variations in these relationships: one hyperorganized spouse and one ADD spouse, one comfortably disorganized spouse and one ADD spouse, and one diagnosed and one apparently undiagnosed ADD spouse. Specialists in associative mating would have found this group fascinating.
Edward Hallowell, a psychiatrist who was the coauthor of a 1994 bestseller on ADD and who has the disorder, began the group with a relaxed question about the past week. The challenge for couples in which one spouse has ADD, he says, is that the dynamic becomes one of a parent and child, rather than of married partners. The ADD person feels nagged and attacked, while the spouse feels resentful, angry, and burdened. "This is all a function of a moral lens rather than a medical lens being used to look at what is going on," he says. "ADD is not an excuse but a powerful explanation. The ADD person is not being deliberately narcissistic, controlling, passive-aggressive. These are all symptoms of a medical disorder." Once that is recognized, he says, the couple can begin to come up with strategies together for coping with daily life.
Struggles. Those gathered at this meeting, however, were not there yet. The stresses and strains of a marriage to someone with ADD emerged during the 90-minute discussion, as spouses complained about the difficulty of living with someone who needs little sleep, or constantly interrupts, or who impulsively spends money or says whatever comes to mind. One husband confessed that he felt as if he were "constantly screwing up and getting criticized." The lost credit cards and cellphones seemed unimportant for the ADD partner but were infuriating for the spouse. Money management, always a volatile issue, becomes especially so when both impulsiveness and a reluctance to pay attention to details are involved. Then there are the complicated power dynamics that occur when one partner of a couple has been officially "diagnosed" and the other partner is officially "normal."
Stephen and Annette Spector have been married for nearly 40 years, and while they did not attend the group in Sudbury, they have extensive experience with the issue. Stephen, a lawyer, has the disorder, and Annette runs support groups for the spouses of those with the disorder. "We have all kinds of names we give ourselves," Annette says of the non-ADD spouse. "The whip-cracker, the nagger, the mother, the baby sitter, the harper. And because of that we have a great deal of resentment. We don't like being in that role. But you have to get over it. Love and commitment are more important parts of the relationship."