Here’s what often happens with “ADHD and relationships”: You’re several years into a relationship before discovering that one or both of you have ADHD. By that time, both partners have developed some fairly counter-productive coping responses. For most people, it takes quite a conscious effort to overcome these entrenched destructive patterns and emotional responses.
I talk about this in my presentations to the public and clinicians, from San Francisco to Turkey. Because, rest assured, in addition to earning the status of “ADHD Expert,” I’ve had plenty of opportunity for practice at home. Why, there was an incident just yesterday. Let me ttell youabout it. But first, turn on your speakers, because there are sound effects.
Injured, Stranded, and Heartbroken
For me, one particularly negative pattern included a fear of my husband (the ADHD partner in our marriage) being incapable—and even disinterested—in caring for me should I become sick or disabled, even temporarily. And that pattern re-emerged this week.
Over our 20 years together, I had plenty of “evidence” to support this not-so-irrational belief, that I’d be on my own if I were ever to become sick or incapacitated.
For example, after foot surgery a few years back, I was under strict orders to keep my foot elevated and move as little as possible. My husband, who worked at home then, swore he would be a regular Nurse Nightingale. (If said Nightengale were 6’2″ and 230#.)
His tenure started post-surgery, where he steered my wheelchair careening through the hospital hallways and into the elevator—Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride-style. Whee!
I was holding on for dear life, praying he didn’t knock my foot into the elevator doorframe—or catapult me out of the chair entirely!
Once home, he dutifully set up my bedstead with a land-line phone and his cell phone. That way, I could be sure of reaching him upstairs in his office, should I need him.
Trouble is, the land-line phone ended up having a dead battery, and the “pay as you go” cell phone had no more “go”.
I was marooned for too many hours, with him out of shouting distance. He didn’t think to come check on me, either. As a result, I felt helpless, hurt, and duped. Against my better judgment—well-honed over so many years of disappointments—I’d taken a leap, trusting him with my care.
Warning To Self: Never Trust Again
Then, metaphorically speaking, I felt dropped on my head. And heartbroken.
The mental note made to my subconscious: Be very careful in trusting this person again with your welfare.
That was about six years ago.
Yesterday, I took a protracted, very ungraceful, and rather painful fall in the garage.
I tripped over a bicycle pedal, tried to avoid tripping over an air purifier, and in the process ricocheted myself in several directions and on several hard surfaces before finally landing with a thump on the raised kitchen doorstep.
I imagine it sounded like this:
My husband is working at home again these days, after 6 years of working in an office. He was right upstairs (at least I thought so).
Surely he heard me fall (it sounded loud enough to me!). If not that, surely he couldn’t miss my whimpering and calling out to him. Something like this, though not quite as energetic:
Lying there in a crumpled heap, my mind ran through all the likely scenarios: He had heard the calamity but figured “She’s okay. She’s the self-sufficient type.” Or, worse, he heard it and didn’t want to interrupt his work. But damn, I might have actually broken something.
I finally got to my feet and limped Quasimodo-like back to my office, calling for him as I went. I held out hope that he might actually be elsewhere in the house, out of earshot during and after my fall. Then, I discovered. He was in the bathroom. “Goat!” I said (because that is his nickname). “I just had a bad fall!”
Through the closed door, I heard it: profound annoyance at being interrupted. A sigh something like this:
He, however, recalls his sigh more like this:
My worst fear triggered: He was annoyed that something bad had happened to me that required his help.
Caring “Deep Down”? Exactly How Far Down?
It’s not as though this is the first time I’ve heard this scenario.
In more than a decade of leading an online group for the partners of adults with ADHD, I’ve heard it too many times: an ADHD partner who seems to view a partner’s illness not with compassion but as an….inconvenience.
It’s chilling, one’s first encounter with this reaction. The first response might be denial—surely one’s intimate partner cannot be so cold, callous, or selfish. After that, when the reality finally sets in, it can feel absolutely soul-numbing.
In fact, no matter what our fantasies are of our relationships, some of our intimate partners absolutely can be that cold, callous, or selfish—ADHD or not. If that’s the case, better wake up and smell the coffee!
How do we know, though, whether it’s ADHD creating this undesirable response or something else? Simple cold-heartedness, for example? There are no easy answers here. It’s for each person to judge.
But the hard truth is, sometimes you know for sure only after medical treatment for ADHD and any co-existing conditions, such as bipolar disorder, anxiety, or depression.
ADHD and Relationships: No Cookie Cutters
One caution: There are some self-proclaimed ADHD experts who routinely “gaslight” the partners of adults with ADHD. They proclaim that the ADHD partner really cares “deep down,” even if his or her actions don’t show it.
Granted, this is true for some; ADHD symptoms and poor coping strategies can stymie their ability to express or act upon what’s in their heart.
But this is not true for all the estimated 10-30 million adults with ADHD in the U.S. alone, and it is preposterous to claim so. Nothing is true for that many people. It’s honest only to emphasize that, for some ADHD partners, there is only more self-centeredness “deep down”.
There’s only one thing, truly, that millions of adults with ADHD have in common: variable aspects of this highly variable syndrome.
You must consider the rest of personality, as well as the complicating co-existing conditions (e.g. conduct disorder, antisocial personality disorder, and more). In other words, these judgments must be made on a case-by-case basis. It’s easy to toss around “cookie-cutter” platitudes. But, they don’t help anyone—and can do great harm.
Learning to Draw On Newer Memories
After almost 20 years together, I’ve learned that there is a “deep down” kindness in my husband. Too often in the past, it was obscured or downright sabotaged by poorly managed ADHD. He’d fail my expectations—and his own. Instead of reacting with contrition, he’d react with anger. Later, he could say, the anger was directed at himself (“I failed again!”). But I sure was caught in the cross-fire.
Happily, Things Are Different Now
That morning, as I limped to the back of the house, seeking solace, I decided to momentarily ignore my husband’s put-upon-sounding sigh and all the old painful patterns around it. Instead, I drew upon a more recent memory: when I had a bone-graft procedure two years ago.
The morning of that surgery, the physician gave my husband, who’d accompanied me to the office, strict orders for my care. My husband followed them to the letter. Every four hours, from before noon until midnight, he sprang to my bedside, plying me with barbiturates and French vanilla ice cream. Finally, I had to ask him to stop, lest he have a Marilyn Monroe-like tragedy on his hands.
With that memory in mind, I mentally stepped back and gave him a minute or so to “transition”—not to mention finish whatever he was doing in the bathroom. Something like this:
I flopped on the bed and finally said, “Hey, I hurt and I need some comfort.” At that point, he hepped to—speedily fetching a selection of cold packs, sitting with me on the bed, petting my head, kissing my banged-up wrist, and saying, “Poor you.”
This was a much better outcome than we both might have experienced in years past. To wit:
- I react with hurt and anger to his imposed-upon-sounding sigh, accuse him of being the most selfish man I ever knew, and storm out of the room feeling horrible about my marriage and plotting my escape.
- He reacts by withdrawing to the safe confines of manipulating databases on his computer, feeling put out with himself that he screwed up again, stunned that his intent is so badly conveyed in his actions, and “what the hell is wrong with her anyway?”
Will this strategy help you in your relationship? Will stepping back and allowing for your ADHD partner, now on board with treatment strategies, to have a moment’s transition help to heal past counter-productive patterns? Will you be able to build enough new patterns, enabling you to let go of some old ones?
I can’t promise it. But it might be worth a try.
Postscript: This morning I went to load the clothes into the washer. What did I find? An absolutely clear and wide path, free of bicycle, humidifier, and other flotsam and jetsam. Thank you, Dr. Goat!
We Hope Our Story Helps You
We both believe in sharing our story—and our lessons hard won—so that other couples can better enjoy the ride on their own ADHD Roller Coaster.
- For information about my latest book, visit the website for Adult ADHD-Focused Couple Therapy: Clinical Interventions
- For information on the online training and support based on the book, visit ADHD Success Training.
- For information about my first book, visit the website for Is It You, Me, or Adult A.D.D.? Stopping the Roller Coaster When Someone You Love Has Attention Deficit Disorder
I’d love to hear your experiences in your relationships with this phenomenon. Commenting is easy; there are no annoying codes to enter.