ADD and Marriage: The Turning Point for an ADD Spouse

I have an old friend who has finally, in his mid-life crisis, decided to determine whether or not he has ADD.  He has started to write me about his self-exploration, and the process he is going through is so positive that I would like to share some of the key elements here so that others with ADD can benefit from his learning and, possibly, follow his path.  I’ve been getting many questions lately along the lines of “Please, tell me what I can do to keep my life, and marriage from falling apart!”  Here are some concrete ideas.

There are a number of specific steps which can help move a spouse with ADD from “stuck” towards a new (and improved) life.  My friend (I’ll call him Anthony) has started down this very path…now, how to stay on it?!  Here are the steps he has taken so far...and my suggestions for what to do next.

Step 1 – Crisis = doing something different:  If you (and your marriage) have suffered from all of the ills that I describe elsewhere in this blog – marital unhappiness, a life that has gone in a different direction from your spouse, job woes – you must come to terms with the idea that you are in crisis.  Why?  Because crisis motivates you to do something different and think more deeply about your goals.  Crisis can be something as basic as obvious as affair or job loss, or it can be more subtle – your spouse is feeling hopeless and suggesting she can’t take it any more.  This last is also a crisis (she will either leave, or remain so unhappy that your life will be awful…neither is desirable!)

My own crisis was marital (affairs and the like), Anthony’s crisis is professional (leaving his job), marital (long history of not aligning with his wife in major ways), and personal (mid-life self doubt).  But his crisis has caused him to reach out to others, as well as start thinking more critically about who he is and what he wants.  All this is good.  Rule number 1 in ADHD relationships – if nothing changes, nothing changes.

Step 2 – Diagnosis = knowing what you are up against:  Finally in crisis mode, Anthony went for that diagnosis he had been considering for years.  He discovered he does have ADD, and is trying medications to help him focus as well as talking with others about his personal issues.  These two actions are ways to measurably alter how he relates to the world around him.  The meds are helping him focus better, and the talking is helping him isolate key issues so he knows where to expend his energy as he seeks to improve his life.  Rule #2 – alter how you relate to the world through ADHD treatment and you dramatically improve your ability to change your life for the better (see rule #1 – if nothing changes, nothing changes!)

Step 3 – Involving those who care = changing the dynamics of your relationship:  Anthony has been open with his wife about the changes he is trying to make and has actively invited her to participate in his exploration (including copying her on emails he sends to me as he explores some of his issues).  This is a.) a relief to her as she is finally seeing concrete proof of his efforts and b.) allows her input into some of his issues, helping them hone in as a couple on things that matter to them both.  In his new mode, Anthony is finally ready to consider what she means when she says “your actions affect me more than you understand” and has the tools in place to explore (with her and others) how he can change/improve.  Rule #3 – involve those around you in positive ways as you make changes and you will both benefit.

Step 4 – Thoughtful, open discussion = increased likelihood of both partners taking responsibility.  Anthony’s willingness to take concrete steps to change his future has encouraged his wife to start to explore her own needs and actions in their relationship.  She is now considering seeing a therapist, and is more open with him about how she would like their relationship to proceed.  Rule #4 – Both partners are always responsible for the state of the marriage.  The best outcomes result when both partners take it upon themselves to respectfully explore all the issues, including having the non-ADD spouse explore his or her role in the disintegration of their relationship and take ownership for making his/her own changes. (see action/reaction blog post).

Next Steps:
Anthony and his wife have more to do, but they are on their way to what I expect will be a strong marital recovery enabled by his willingness to finally own problems he has had for years.  As next steps…

Anthony should:

  • Keep taking his ADD medication and actively treating his ADD in other ways.  He admits that it helps him focus, and his progress since starting has been impressive.  It’s an important part of the change needed to make things different for them.
  • Break his efforts into small, measurable and doable chunks.  He will experience some excitement as he sees successes…the risk is that he will take too much on, overwhelm himself and lose momentum.  Smaller, “doable” chunks of “work” will help him stay on track.
  • Start to forgive himself for his past.  He can’t change what has happened, but he can work to keep it from happening in the future.  The best course of action is to mourn the time he and his wife have “lost”, accept that they did the best they could, and start thinking about how to make today better (and, if you have many better “todays” you will end up with a better tomorrow).
  • Forgive his wife for her past with him.  She did the best she could, too.  By accepting her and focusing on the fact that she is trying to work with him today he can encourage the best in her.
  • Say “thank you” for hanging in there through the tough times.
  • Strive to understand his affect on others, and work to stop “running” other’s lives by default.  By this I mean that people with ADD often underestimate the effect that their actions (standards that are too high or too low, inability to follow through on tasks, etc) have on those around them.  By coming to terms with the fact that he is not a single entity, but rather part of a web of interconnectedness and being more sensitive to that interconnectedness, Anthony will improve his relationships with those he cares about most.  There is evidence that Anthony is doing this across a broad spectrum – professional, as a parent, and with his wife.  His personality is such that he has tended to try too hard to “change people for the better” - critical evaluation of this trait and improving his willingness to accept people as they are will bring him disproportionately high reward.

His wife should:

  • Seek professional help to work through the complex issues she harbors around their relationship and their past behavior, including anger and resentment.
  • Seek to forgive herself and him for what has already passed.
  • Support his efforts to change while not becoming too attached to him or his search  - i.e. making sure she stays a separate entity so that he stays responsible for the outcome of his work.  Though it may be tempting to give him lots of advice, she does not want to “take over” his exploration, as this will effectively end it.
  • Accept his “thank you” with grace, and take it for what it is – an indication that the future may well be different if she can put herself on the line again and give him the room and encouragement he needs to grow through his exploration.
  • Keep the lines of communication open, while not impeding his progress.  When a person with ADHD finally opens themselves up to open exploration of what ADD means to them and to those around them, it is tempting to tell them everything you are thinking – including how angry you are with them.  She needs to be careful not to “dump” everything at once and be careful to lay blame where it belongs – with ADD symptoms, not with the person who has them.  Thoughtful communication at this critical time will help build a healthier future…for example Anthony’s wife would be better to express her disappointment about their past by saying “I’m glad to find out about your ADD because that explains so much about why we had so many problems and now that we know about your symptoms you have a good opportunity to address them” than to say “You’ve been such a jerk for so many years – now I know why!”

Finally, when they both feel more stable they will want to creatively think up fun things they can do together (in this case possibly with their kids) that will help cement their growing feelings of fondness and acceptance.