If you are angry, frustrated, or just plain feeling hopeless
about your relationship with your ADHD partner, you would not be alone. Many couples get married not realizing
that one or both of them has ADHD.
The undiagnosed symptoms encourage very specific, and often very
destructive, patterns in their relationship. These patterns can lead to intense anger and frustration. It’s not that it’s the “fault” of the
person with the ADHD -- both spouses contribute to the degradation of their
relationship. Typically there is
an ADHD symptom such as distraction,
then there is a spousal response to
that symptom (such as anger at being ignored) and, finally, a response to the response (such as
defensiveness in response to a non-ADHD partner’s anger). Interactions become a reinforcing cycle
of negatives and you both become quicker and quicker to explode and more and
more hopeless. Often, the ADHD
partner begins to avoid the non-ADHD partner to distance himself (or herself)
from the conflict. This only makes
Unfortunately, if ADHD is a problem at all, then anger is
almost inevitable for as long as ADHD is not addressed in the relationship. Harriet Lerner, an expert on anger,
notes that anger is inevitable as long as you are “giving in and going along”
and don’t feel in control of your own life. This is just what both partners are doing when they don’t
know what to do about ADHD symptoms in the relationship. The ADHD -- and responses to the ADHD
-- are “in control.”
So how do you address the anger and frustration you are
feeling? It’s obviously a complex
issue (if it were easy, you would have done it already!) however here are some
of the most important ideas:
comprehensive treatment for the ADHD -- including physiological treatments
such as medication, exercise and fish oil, as well as behavioral coaching or
therapy. To really manage ADHD,
you need to put a “full court press” on treatment.
define your boundaries. As
“giving in and going along” leads to anger, setting boundaries around what’s
really important to you can alleviate feelings of anger. Think carefully about what these
boundaries are and try to keep them at a conceptual level that can be applied
in multiple situations, such as “I need to feel respected.” Boundaries help you decide what to “let
go of” and what you really need to push back on. Note that boundaries are for YOU, not your spouse. This form of taking control of the
really important things can help you feel freer and less angry.
“ADHD-friendly” ways of communicating and being together. Some examples include: scheduling time to be together (not
just waiting for it to happen -- ADHD partners are often too distractible for
this to be a successful strategy!); using verbal cues to stop a conversation
when it starts to escalate out of control before you hurt each other; making
sure a non-ADHD partner doesn’t “parent” and nag an ADHD partner. Finding ADHD-friendly approaches can be
thought of as “trying differently” vs. “trying harder.” The latter is probably
what you’ve been doing and it often isn’t very effective when ADHD is present.
your empathy by learning more about your partner’s “way of being” and
experiences. ADHD partners often
are shocked to discover how much their ADHD symptoms impact their partners once
they really start to try to learn about it. Non-ADHD partners are often hugely surprised to find out
that the reason their partner avoids them or fabricates stories is in response to
the non-ADHD partner’s anger and disappointment. This is a bit tricky -- one good source that is balanced and
provides perspective on your differences is my book, The ADHD Effect on Marriage.
Another good source is the forum at www.adhdmarriage.com
though a word of caution -- there is a lot of really raw material shared there,
particularly by non-ADHD spouses, so it can be painful to read.
- Stop all
nagging and criticism, cold turkey.
Nagging and ongoing “critiques” of what an ADHD partner is doing wrong
are hugely destructive to a relationship and one of the main reasons ADHD
partners harbor anger and resentment.
Find more positive ways to interact around and address the issues that
you are currently nagging about.
the positives. When possible,
try to have some fun together so you can remember what you’re not mad about and
what you love about your partner. Don’t
let the negatives in your relationship be the only thing to define it.
Overcoming anger and frustration in marriages impacted by
ADHD is the work of two people.
Success is the result of a sort of “dance” that the partners do
together. The ADHD partner gets
ADHD symptoms under control (thus undermining the destructive patterns) while
simultaneously the non-ADHD partner gets his or her own issues under control,
as well. (These typically have to
do with anger, controlling behavior, nagging, and too much criticism.) You rely on each other to make
progress, just as dancers do. Gradually,
by implementing the ideas above, you can diffuse your anger and rebuild your
Photo by Ed Yourdon