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 things harder.
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:
- Seek 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.
- Better 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.
- Learn “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.
- Increase 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.
- Pursue 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 love.
Photo by Ed Yourdon