ADD and Marriage: What Lack of Focus Means

I am reading the posts of a woman who is about to get married to a man whom she adores who happens to have ADD.  She is frustrated and confused by his inability to pay attention to wedding planning.  This seems like a great time to elaborate upon what lack of focus means for people with ADD – and for their spouses.

One of the biggest differences between people with ADD and those without is that the non-ADD brain creates a hierarchy of ideas all the time.  Things come into your brain and they get put into an order without your even knowing it.  What the person in front of you is saying is more important than the bird chirping in the next tree or the squirrel running across the path nearby, for example.  We don’t think about this as it happens – it just does.  But next time you are in a conversation with someone, or reading a book, or doing just about anything, stop and think about all of the stimulus around you that your brain is very kindly blocking out for you so that you can stay focused on the task at hand.

The ADD brain doesn’t do this very naturally.  I can find myself annoyed when I am in the middle of saying something to my daughter and she suddenly starts playing with the ends of her hair…or picks up a magazine to look at the pictures…or (fill in the blank).  It’s not that she doesn’t want to hear what I say (I hope!) but rather that something else just caught her attention.  I know enough about ADD that I am able to bring her back to the conversation with a simple (nicely stated, not mean!) “Can you look at me for a few minutes more and leave your hair?”  She knows I’m not mad when I say this, just trying to finish my thought, and so she drops the hair and refocuses on me.  (If she thought I were mad, her response would be very different - probably defiant - which is why how distractibility is handled by the non-ADD partner is so critical to good communication.)

Think about what living with a non-hierarchical brain would be like!  Anything that comes at you, at any time, has the potential to lead you into a new direction!

The non-ADD ability to automatically create hierarchies makes it very hard to understand – even with effort – what the ADD experience is like.  Non-ADD people really have to think about the implications of natural distractibility if they are going to successfully live with an ADD spouse.  The woman who is about to get married is disappointed that her fiancé isn’t paying better attention to wedding details.  She sees the upcoming wedding as the most important thing in their lives right now (as does he, I suspect), and so is hurt by his inability to focus on his tasks for the wedding.  Here is where the communication starts to break down.  Yes, he also feels that the wedding planning is important.  But his brain isn’t going to suddenly start functioning differently just because a wedding looms…and his brain just doesn’t create a hierarchy very easily.  He is not trying to hurt her with his actions, but there is a lot of stimulus coming into his head (one would argue more than normal) and he is having trouble ordering it in a way that makes sense to outsiders (and maybe even to him – I suspect that he would like to please his wife-to-be.)  Again, it’s like my daughter.  She probably is interested in what I’m talking to her about…but that hair just happened to catch her attention and she slipped in a different direction.

The non-ADD fiancé has a choice.  She can take his lack of focus personally and feel hurt, or she can create a gentle language with her spouse-to-be that helps refocus him when it becomes necessary, as I have with my daughter.  And I don’t mean create that language right now, under the pressure of the wedding.  I mean make it a task of the first year or two of their marriage.  It takes time, thought, and experimentation.  One approach doesn’t work?  Try another!  The ADD fiance’s behavior really, truly, isn’t personal, but if the non-ADD partner ends up feeling hurt by it then that will be the beginning of a series of times when his inability to focus disappoints her.  Her empathy and tolerance for his distractedness will diminish with every occurrence, and they will start to have relationship issues that will sour their love.

I am not saying that the ADD spouse cannot ever manage his distractibility in a way that will diminish its effect on the relationship.  Partners who understand how the ADD brain takes in information, and who understand that it doesn’t “do” hierarchies, can create structures and conversational patterns that support the ADD spouse in a way that helps them both.  The ADD partner will be an active participant in creating whatever it is that works for the two of them.  My daughter has done a masterful job of creating structures that help her organize her work and her life, and I have learned over the years not to worry if she suddenly goes off in a new direction.  Actually, I have come to the conclusion that her very ability to do so is a wonderful part of her exuberance and love of life…it’s just inconvenient at certain times and at those times we work through it in a non-hurtful way.  (I’m NOT perfect with this, believe me.  Sometimes I am short with her…but she knows that I’m trying my best, and forgives me when I am short – after she brings it to my attention and I back off!  Part of our own structure is the ability to apologize and forgive quickly.)
Expectations are a tricky thing.  If you expect a person with ADD to behave just as a non-ADD person behaves then you will always be disappointed.  By definition, this won’t happen.  Our brains, and our ways of experiencing life, are just too different.  I personally am of the opinion that those of us without ADD are too biased towards our own ways of doing things…sometimes the natural hierarchy that our brain creates so well actually seals us off from experiencing wonderful, unexpected surprises.  So seek to understand the non-hierarchical nature of the ADD brain and to work with it – even adore it for its ability to bring new and exciting things into your life.  Just don’t take distractibility personally!