Over eight years of researching ADHD and relationships for my first book, I discovered that partners of adults with ADHD typically went through three stages. Call them the Three Loop-de-Loops of the ADHD Roller Coaster. After the previous post’s Explaining the Inexplicable, we move on to Managing the Unmanageable.
To be sure, these stages mostly apply to relationships in which ADHD has long gone unrecognized or otherwise poorly managed. That is, sometimes an ADHD diagnosis earlier in life is disclosed, but many of the partners of adults with ADHD don’t know what to make of it. Their ADHD Partners might even tell them they grew out of it or have developed coping responses. This is sometimes accurate — but sometimes not.
Recognizing that you aren’t alone, that there is a recognizable pattern and predictable solutions, can help to reduce anxiety and self-blame. Next step: Focusing on solutions, however they might look for you.
Welcome back to the “You, Me, and ADHD” Book Club”! The door is always open and the essays never go out of style.
Here, Taylor J. shares her insights about Chapter 9, which further explores the potential affect of Adult ADHD on the partner. She was diagnosed with ADHD in her 30s, her husband was diagnosed shortly after. They have four children.
It Dawned On Me: Our Marriage Went Beyond “Quirky”
It’s eerie, re-reading Is It You, Me, or Adult A.D.D.? after both my husband and I were diagnosed. Clearly, our relational patterns well fit the paradigm Gina presents here.
Chapter 9 is the second chapter in the second section of the book. This section brought to light a subject never previously written about: the effect of one spouse’s undiagnosed or poorly managed ADHD on the other spouse.
In each of this section’s three chapters, Gina details the three stages of stress responses—that is, the progressively intensifying efforts to cope. She calls them the Three Plunges of the ADHD Roller Coaster.
Following Chapter 8 (Explaining the Inexplicable), this chapter explores the second stage of stress responses: Managing the Unmanageable.
Not knowing what else to do, we might desperately attempt to “fix the unfixable.” Over time, these well-meaning attempts grind destructive patterns more deeply into our already wounded relationships and families.
Something Destructive Is Happening Here
I’m biting my lip as I read the prolonged effects of “Managing the Unmanageable”—this second plunge of the ADHD Roller Coaster. It’s like a laundry list of everything that drove us both to treatment. The quotes from partners in this chapter have all been said, again and again, within the four walls of my house.
ADHD is often painted as just a cute or “quirky” difference between spouses. We’re told we need to appreciate how creative and original and unique our partner is. That might be true for some; ADHD is a highly variable condition.
For many of us, however, this “second plunge of the ADHD roller coaster” is when we start realizing that things in our relationship aren’t quirky, or cute, or just a little bit different from everyone else. Instead, there’s something destructive going on here. We’ve coped and adjusted and worked and loved, and things still aren’t getting better.
We may become completely caught up in a partner’s needs—because there’s so much disorder, and our assistance is really, really needed! One woman says, “My goals? My dreams? My desires? They were getting lost in his chaos.”
We Feel Both Guilty And Helpless
We may feel guilt that we couldn’t control our partner’s chaos—or our response to it—in a more calm or effective way. Psychologist Herbert Gravitz, an expert in the effect of a person’s alcoholism on family members, says there are parallels for the loved ones of these adults with ADHD:
In trying to control the uncontrollable, loved ones can feel helpless, impotent, and frustrated, all of which can lead to a pervasive sense of failure and sadness.
Gina adds: “It can also make you look like a certified nut job.”
She shares examples of partners who have lost it after one too many broken promises, double-binds, and roller coaster rides:
Only extreme behavior gets his attention, and he doesn’t remember [everything I tried before I behaved in extreme ways.] The night I found myself hurling a small end table, I knew he’d pushed me to an edge I didn’t know I had.
Yes, I Thought I Was a Nut Job
A nut job. That’s honestly what I thought I was. I was married to a brilliant math professor, for crying out loud! Everyone could tell you that “Dr. Math” is a quiet, nice guy who thinks deep thoughts.
They would never know that he once quietly told me that we couldn’t afford a babysitter for our 2-year-old—while I was on bed rest with my pregnancy. They would never learn that, when I was having preterm labor symptoms, he told me, “Put her in front of the TV, and only move to get her food.”
(ADHD Roller Coaster readers might recall Dr. Math’s double-standard around spending money in Chapter 4: ADHD Marriage and Money — Financial Loop de Loops
After ten years on the ADHD roller coaster, I lost it.
I didn’t throw an end table. I threw a bag of apples at the couch. And I threw an iPhone charger plug against the wall. Screaming. Shouting: “I NEED MONEY, not EXCUSES, and I’m not PUTTING MY BABY’S LIFE IN DANGER!” I felt like a monster.
But I’d already lost four babies to miscarriage. I wasn’t about to lose another one because my husband couldn’t understand cause-and-effect: if I move too much, the contractions come harder, I lose the baby, and I can’t get her back. If the toddler gets hurt, because I can’t move, I can’t undo that.
Isolation and “Freezing Our Feelings”
In the second ADHD Relationship Roller Coaster plunge, we ask ourselves, “How can anyone not see that this is a problem?” We may explode—and then, to our partners and friends, our explosion is the problem.
Because there is no time to “feel”—or what we feel is so hurtful if not terrifying—we may “freeze our feelings,” because heck, there’s no time to feel! We become isolated, wondering if this really is all our fault. What’s at risk here? Our health, for sure. For some, the risk is falling into an addiction. Support-group members report having started drinking, having affairs, or working eighty hours weekly simply to avoid going home.
We may even start accepting too much of the blame. It’s so tempting, even empowering, to do that! If the problems are our fault, at least we can do something to fix it!
I certainly tried that route. Taking responsibility for things that were not my fault, however, eventually hurt him more than it hurt me. It kept him from making real changes that could have helped him professionally, as a dad, and as a husband.
We, the spouses and partners of adults with poorly managed ADHD, don’t have to be the sole stabilizing force in our families. We don’t have to keep living with the labels of “negative, controlling, the-killer-of-all-that-is-fun.” There are ways we can stabilize our rickety roller coaster, and get on the path of enjoying life again.
Sometimes, however, it is up to us alone to make that happen.
Chapter 9 Discussion Points:
- How have you tried to compensate for your ADHD spouse in everyday life?
- How has your life changed as you’ve tried to accommodate your ADHD spouse’s challenges?
- Have you experienced any grief over your own lost potential or dreams?
- How does it feel to be viewed by your ADHD spouse and outsiders as the “negative, controlling, the killer-of-all-that-is-fun”?
The ADHD Relationship Book Club is always open!
Your Comments Welcome.
Below you’ll find a preview of the chapter-by-chapter lineup: the book’s table of contents. Chapter titles appearing as hyperlinks correspond to an essay in the Book Club. Click to read.
We stopped at Chapter 20. Would you like to submit your own essay to the Book Club? We welcome it! “Finding Your Voice” is an essential part of slowing your ADHD Roller Coaster.
Here’s a link to the book on Amazon (available in paperback, Kindle, and audio) Is It You, Me, or Adult A.D.D.?
From the Tunnel of Love to the Roller Coaster: Could Your Partner Have ADHD?
Roller Coaster Whiplash and G-Force Confusion: How Many Plunges Before You Say, “Whoa!”
9 Second Plunge: Managing the Unmanageable (this post)
Your Relationship and the Art of Roller Coaster Maintenance: Four Success Strategies
Success Strategy #1: Taking Care of Yourself
Introduction: The Amusement Park’s Emergency Room
Success Strategy #2: Dealing With Denial
Introduction: Roller Coaster? What Roller Coaster?
16 More Solutions and Strategies
Success Strategy #3: Finding Effective Therapy
Introduction: Calling in a Consultant to Help Retrofit Your Ride
17 Why the Wrong Therapy Is Worse Than No Therapy
18 Therapy That Works for ADHD
19 More Solutions and Strategies
Success Strategy #4: Understanding Medication’s Role
Introduction: Tightening the Brakes on the Roller Coaster
This post from Jaclyn at The ADHD Homestead touches on a range of issues within this section on medication
21 Rx: Treatment Results That Last
22 Maximizing Lifestyle Choices, Minimizing Rx Side Effects
23 Catch Your Breath and Take Five
Adult ADHD Evaluation and Diagnosis
“But I Heard That…”: More Background for the Unconvinced
Three Views from Decades on the ADHD Roller Coaster