ADD Husband Asks for Help Turning Marriage Around

You know you have ADD.  Your marriage is disintegrating and you think the ADD might have something to do with it, but you can’t figure out what to do improve things.  What do you do?  This post is very long, but worth the 10 minutes you’ll need to take to get through it as it gets at the very heart of what goes wrong in many ADD relationships.  I think every couple struggling with ADD can learn important coping skills from my response to this man’s question.
The man who posted the comment that inspired this post is completely typical of the high achieving ADD man.  In spite of his business success, his story shows these classic patterns of a downwardly spiraling ADD relationship at home:

  • He adores his wife, but she no longer knows this
  • They are now in a parent/child relationship
  • He is trying to address his ADD, but not aggressively enough
  • Both he and his wife are working completely solo at this point, rather than supporting each other, so any victories are lost in their struggles
  • She’s very, very angry, and her anger is coloring all of their interactions
  • They are both desperate (he shows it in his plea for help, she shows it in her punishing him and her retreat from him)
  • She is contemplating divorce, he is scared she’ll leave and becoming paralyzed – fearing that he won’t “guess right” in how he chooses to respond

Here’s the post:

“I suffer with ADHD hyperactivity and impulsivity.  As a kid, I was diagnosed with ADHD with the same issues when I was in kindergarten.  I took Ritalin up until I started high school and my parents took me off of it b/c I became involved in sports.  I graduated from high school and went on to college and graduated.  I am 42 now and am successful in my career.

About 5 months ago, my wife and I started to have some marriage difficulties which really brought a lot of my ADHD symptoms to the surface.  I read both of Dr. Hallowell's books and, unknowingly, I have managed to survive and be fairly successful by applying the tips to successfully manage my ADHD symptoms without medication for all of these years.  Nonetheless, I am an adult sufferer of ADHD and this has caused A LOT of damage to my marriage.

My wife is the love of my life.  Nonetheless, about 5 months ago she felt that she was becoming lost in our marriage and she lost herself and her identity.  In the process, she built up a lot of anger and resentment towards me.  In all of this, the communication between the two of us broke down and she put up huge walls around herself to protect herself b/c I over-reacted by not being the sole focus of her life.  I don't want to be her sole focus but I also do not want to be no focus, either.

Over the past five months she has taken off her wedding rings.  Moved me into our daughter's bedroom.  Has told me on a few occasions that she wants a divorce.  Has given me the "I need space" lecture many times to figure things out.

Three months ago, I went to the psychiatrist and he started me back again on fast acting Ritalin.  During the day, I seem to focus pretty well.  The meds work for about 4 hours and then wear off.  I take 10 mg 3x's /day.  Around 8 o clock, I start to lose focus and we get into our arguments around bedtime.  I think part of it is I want to let her know that I am trying and I love her. Also, I am pissed b/c I want back in my bed with my wife.  My daughter's bed is too short and I can't get a good night’s sleep.  We fight or argue around 10 o clock and the next day I get up and say...why did I do that?  Is there a rebound or withdrawal effect  b/c the meds are wearing off?

The problem is I set out to try and give her the space that she needs but I continually blow up every attempt that I make to try and do this.  I can go for about 3-5 days but then I do something stupid.  I don't want to go another 5 months let alone five days like this.

All I want is for my wife and I to be happy.  She realizes that I have ADD but she says that that shouldn't be an excuse for my behavior.  I love her and the kids and she says for me to show her rather than tell her. If anyone has experienced this or can provide help or insight...I am willing to listen.

I don't want to lose my wife and family.  But because I have blown things up so much...she thinks my word isn't very good right now.”

Though the picture he paints is bleak, there are a number of ideas embedded right in the post that point the way to making things immediately better for this couple.
First, and most importantly, this man’s ADD is not being adequately treated.  Yes, he has pills, but they wear off at an important point of day (resulting in repeated friction with his spouse) AND he needs to include behavioral therapy as well as the medications to succeed.  Research shows, over and over again, that people with ADD are most successful when they learn new ways to communicate and do specific tasks in addition to taking medication.  And, yes, one of the side effects of Ritalin can be a “coming down” period as it wears off during which you are very cranky.  So some of his behavior at night is likely linked directly to his medical regimen.  So, this man should:

  • Find a medicine regimen that wears off right when he is going to bed, not at 8:00, which leaves him too vulnerable to the impulsivity that is hurting his wife, himself and his relationship.  Long acting meds in the morning might help change his timetable, or taking his afternoon or evening med at a different time (such as dinner).  The goal is NO side effects – right now the “coming down” side effect is wreaking havoc with his life…so he and his doctor should keep trying!  (Another approach – exercise in the evening.  Hard aerobic exercise focuses the brain for several hours and might provide the link he needs until bedtime.  The treatment doesn’t have to be medicinal, it just has to work!)
  • Insist that his psychiatrist partner with him to find just the right configuration of meds AND help him with changing his behaviors.  He mentions that he has trouble separating from his wife in ways that satisfy them both.  He needs to work with someone to figure out what patterns WILL work for them both, then practice them.  This is called behavior therapy – when you specifically work to change behavior patterns.  Once he gets going, he’ll find that changing some behaviors is more important than changing others.  His wife and psychiatrist can help him identify what to work on.  If the psychiatrist is the wrong person for this counseling for some reason, then get a therapist.  The point is this – the coping strategies that this man has in place right now aren’t enough.  He needs to identify areas of continued need, and then address them.  His wife says as much when she says she wants action, not words.
  • Enlist his wife’s help.  She is furious right now, in part because she thinks he is all words and no action.  But if he changes his meds (and tells her why he is doing so, and that his new goal is no side effects and symptom relief throughout the entire day and evening) then she can help him monitor his success.  Not to do so would be a form of spousal sabotage because ADD people are notoriously bad self-evaluators.  And she is the one closest to seeing those behaviors that need to be changed.  She may be mad, but if she’s worth her salt (and not just being mean to hurt him), when he starts to take action she’ll be willing to help him keep it up.

If this man takes better control of his treatment, he will be moving out of the realm of “excuse” and into the realm of taking charge in a positive way.  His wife will see this, even though she may not immediately respond.  She is likely at the point where she won’t believe he can keep up his changes…she’s seen too many times when his good intentions just petered out and she ended up feeling disappointed again.  Those walls he says she has erected are there as a protection against the hurt of repeated disappointment.  So, it’s in his best interests to keep up weekly (or twice a week) appointments with a therapist, and pursue getting the treatment just right…then keeping it that way (sometimes you have to adjust things).  It's in his best interests in any event, and over time she’ll trust that these changes are here to stay.

His wife also needs help.  She is feeling completely depressed, angry and embattled at this point.  She resents that he can’t help himself better, and she is looking for every possible way to punish him into doing more.  He wants to be closer to her, so she insists that she needs space.  (I’m guessing what she really needs isn’t space, what she really needs is a husband she loves again – then she wouldn’t require the space.  But asking for space is both the ultimate punishment for him, and a way of pulling herself out of the current pain.)  She has even stopped wearing her wedding rings to make sure he understands that he is in the doghouse and on his own.

This couple has moved into the classic parent/child dynamic.  The wife is the mother who is “completely in charge”, kicking him out of his own bed, threatening to leave him, and setting down lots of rules.  But the irony here is that she wouldn’t treat her KIDS this way – she would consider it inhumane.  (“Sorry – you keep wetting your bed – you’re going to need to sleep out in the yard tonight!” would be inconceivable to her, I’m sure.  So would “Son, you’re not good enough for me.  I think I’ll desert you and let you find a new mom.  But before I leave for good I’m going to make sure you know I CAN leave by putting a sign on your wall to tell you I’m thinking about it.”)  Unlike her normal parenting style, she’s turned into a caricature of a parent to her husband – something she probably realizes deep inside and hates.

Which I can completely relate to, as it happened to me, too.  I finally grew tired of my husband repeatedly disappointing me (and in my case being so distracted that I was alone all the time) and started to badger and punish him in the thought that he would get it right if I only pushed him hard enough.  He was a smart adult…given enough “motivation”, I suspected he really could change.  THIS is the hugely destructive parent/child pattern that so many couples struggling with ADD fall into.  It’s destructive because it diminishes the ADD partner, but even worse, it takes away the humanity of the person in the “pseudo-mom” role.  Her husband, in his post, refers to this without realizing it when he says “about 5 months ago she felt that she was becoming lost in our marriage and she lost herself and her identity”.  In other words, she started to really dislike herself and the way she was becoming, and she placed the blame for this upon him and his ADD.  I’ve been there, and it’s a terrible place to be.  You start to hate who you’ve become (as well as your spouse), and you can’t seem to pull yourself out of it because of this terrible dynamic you’ve gotten into with your spouse.  You want things to change but he isn’t changing because he isn’t fully addressing the ADD symptoms at the heart of your issues.  If he doesn’t get better treatment, then he doesn’t change – at least not permanently.  But a miserable spouse makes the wrong conclusion - that he CAN’T change unless she forces him to, so she goes after him to MAKE him change.  This tactic might work with someone who lacks motivation, but has the skills.  But it doesn’t work when the underlying issue is ADD symptoms that need treatment.  This man is plenty motivated…but doesn’t know HOW to change.  It’s like telling someone who needs glasses to try harder to see, without providing them with glasses.  (Doesn’t feel like it when you are blinded by your anger, but trust me on this one…when the anger goes away and the symptoms are treated FULLY, the behaviors should also go away…provided the ADD person isn’t completely paralyzed by that time by his wife’s anger.)

The worst part of all is that the spouse ends up being angry at both herself and her spouse. She’s mad at herself for behaving so badly at the same time she hates him for being so weak and putting her in this position in the first place.  This is when divorce starts to look appealing.  This man’s wife has walled herself off from him because she couldn’t stand it the impact he seemed to be having on her – “In the process, she built up a lot of anger and resentment towards me.  In all of this, the communication between the two of us broke down and she put up huge walls around herself to protect herself”.

What is terrible about this set up is that it is so hard to break out of this pattern.  To be successful, both partners need to be involved.  The husband needs to take charge of himself and his life more effectively (which she will respect when he does).  Letting ADD get in the way every night at 8pm is not effective treatment.  He needs to push himself to fulfill his half of the marital bargain by pushing until he gets the best treatment possible – both physically, and behaviorally.  She was interested at one time and I suspect that there are many reasons that she might want to continue to be his partner – if they can get out of this current pattern.

At the same time, it is in everyone’s best interest if the wife comes to understand her anger and starts to take control of her life in a way that actually moves her towards a positive outcome.  He will respect this behavior, as well as be grateful for it.  This new direction would be a different direction than the one that she is currently taking, which is only making her life worse (forget about anyone else right now – her actions are making her life much worse than it needs to be).

Let me explain.  Right now her path reinforces the negatives in their relationship.  She remains the bad parent, ignoring some of her husband’s basic needs as a human being (for example, the need for autonomy and the need for connection) as well as her own basic needs for those same things.  The role of parent to her husband will ALWAYS infuriate her because it’s not a natural partnership role (nor romantic), thus “parent mode” is always destructive.  She needs to find a different role in order to move forward in a positive way.  I would suggest that role should be “best person she can be”.  This is the role that I took, and I found it incredibly freeing.  It made ME responsible for me, and allowed me to focus on being good, forgiving, thoughtful, and self-centered enough (in a good way) to set boundaries that I felt good about.

Her desire to punish him (which results from her anger and lack of other ideas/options for how to get him to change) hurts her at least as much as it hurts him.  The result of her punishment (putting him in a different room to sleep, for example) is to increase his anger.  Again, if she is looking for positive change, this isn’t a good solution.  Same with her pushing him away.  She may be doing this in part to protect herself and cling to some sense of her own identity as a non-mother wife, but relationships never thrive when the two parties are disconnected.  Furthermore, the more she pushes him away, the more insecure that he gets about whether she’ll actually be there for him – increasing the very neediness she is trying to dismiss.  No, she would be much more likely to get what she wants if she could be empathetic, tolerant and (even better) involved in cheering on his efforts to develop effective ways to deal with his ADD.  In other words, if she could be the good person she wants to be, employ some empathy about this trick box he is currently in, and set down rules for herself, not him, she would be far better off.

Right now it is actually her anger, not his ADD symptoms, that makes it so hard for them to repair their marriage.  It is a poison that hurts them, and their kids (who are most likely emotionally responding to the lack of stability in the household right now).  She needs to address it.  (If you doubt this, think back to when they were dating.  He had his ADD symptoms then and they did so well they decided to get married.  Yes, it’s a simplification because marriage adds other stressors, such as taking care of kids and finances, that didn’t exist before.  But her anger is a key new ingredient in how poorly they are doing.  Which is not to say he doesn’t need to do anything more about his ADD – he clearly does if he is going to be a successful partner.  But the repair of their relationship right now depends upon her overcoming and letting go of her anger.)

She can address her anger about her marriage in one of two ways.  She can give up and simply go for a divorce, thus ridding herself of day-to-day contact with him (the irritant).  However, this option isn’t optimal because they have kids and will still need to have some sort of future relationship which, ultimately means that she MUST address her anger if she doesn’t want long term misery.  So it’s in her best interests to make a pact with her husband that they will both take responsibility for their own actions while trying to support and communicate respectfully with the other.  She will benefit greatly if she takes charge of her anger in all possible outcomes (divorce, separation, staying married…she benefits in all of these outcomes if she has diffused her anger).  If she continues to allow it to fester she hurts herself and her children and, yes, even her husband (or ex-husband), again, in all possible outcomes.

Just as treating the husband’s ADD is completely his responsibility (one hopes he’ll get support from her, but it is 100% his responsibility) so treating her anger is 100% her responsibility.  She can’t pin it on him.  If she allows the anger to continue to exist in her then it’s her responsibility to deal with how to diffuse it (and there are many, many choices for how to do this).  She can choose to allow anger to be her response or she can choose not to let her anger take over.

My “prescription” for doing something about anger varies by person.  For me, the solution was to simply decide that my anger was too destructive to me to be a viable way of living anymore.  I simply stopped it dead and shifted gears.  (This realization was brought on by my discovery that my husband was having an affair and about to decamp from me and our kids – which was a very effective way of learning the true results of anger, though teaching me that being mean didn’t work wasn’t his intention when he went elsewhere…and I don’t recommend this way of learning to anyone!)  Another option for diffusing anger is to seek therapy.  A third is to learn how to forgive the other person (and yourself).  Or, perhaps some combination of all of these or some other option.

I actually think that this couple can succeed.  Unlike some, this man knows about his ADD, understands that it is affecting him and others around him (one of the singularly hardest things to understand), and adores his wife.  They have kids, giving them incentive to hang in there and try to work things out.  At this point, he needs to move into action (getting help from his psychiatrist, this blog, and any other resource he can muster – he doesn’t need to do this alone).  She needs to come to the understanding that her anger is equally as destructive as his ADD, maybe more so, and start to take her life, her personality, and their relationship back (a therapist who understands ADD can help her alot).  They haven’t been in this pattern for too long (I was in it for over 10 years before coming out of it – years and years of unneeded misery that I mourn) and so they have the opportunity to turn things around before they get into it even more deeply.

I hope they can both throw their biases and anger aside long enough to start to think like partners again.  The stakes are high, but the rewards even higher.

Oh, and as for that “sleeping in the daughter’s room” thing.  I would put that on the agenda as one of the first items to resolve.  It’s his room, too, and they are adults.  Rationally (and I know this isn’t rational, this is punishment) if she is uncomfortable with what's going on in the bedroom, then she should be leaving to sleep in another room, not forcing him to.  It’s time to talk a bit (during a time of day when he is adequately medicated and she is feeling somewhat calm) about what’s underneath her request.  If it’s simply to get him to pay attention, she’s achieved that…time to relent.  If are also underlying sexual issues (and I suspect there are…you don’t get to this stage of anger without thinking you don’t want to have anything to do with your hubby sexually) then they should make an agreement that he can sleep in his own bed (and she in her own bed, which at this point happens to be the same one) and that they won’t have sex – or even ask to have sex – between the hours of one half hour before bedtime to one half hour after bedtime.  This doesn’t mean they can’t have sex ever…it just “depoliticizes” and de-stresses the act of getting into the bed if you don’t have to wonder whether or not you are going to have to tell your spouse to back off.  (If they want to have sex, they can have it at a different time.)

When they get to a point where they can sleep in the same bed without discomfort, they might consider going one step further and agreeing to spend some time holding hands, cuddling or doing some other sort of non-sexual touching (in bed or during the day).  This helped my husband and me a lot as we were coming out of the period that this couple is currently in.  We chose to do this in bed - we set our alarms for 10 minutes early, then agreed that we would cuddle a bit and find something nice to say to each other to start the day out.  It wasn’t long before we actually MEANT those nice things we were saying to each other (familiarity breeds familiarity, not contempt in this case!) and it helped us start the day off on a nice note.  For this couple, which has had more trouble in the evening, perhaps night would be a good time to try this…but not until the “sleeping in the bed” thing has been de-stressed.

A final thought on sleeping elsewhere.  When your relationship is on the raocks, there are some times when things are too stressful to sleep in the same bed.  It’s important to have another “safe” place to go to if this happens to you.  The couple should agree ahead of time that either person, if they feel uncomfortable, can go elsewhere as a way to diffuse their discomfort and that they will talk during daylight hours about what the underlying issues are that need to be solved.  In the meantime, going elsewhere should be an option that means nothing other than “I’m having trouble sleeping here” and brings with it no hard feelings from either party, nor any retribution (you don’t lose your ability to sleep in your own bed the next night, for example, nor do you blame your spouse for your own uneasiness).  Choosing to sleep elsewhere should be anyone’s choice…without consequences (other than the need for an additional blanket, perhaps!) but it should not be the choice of one spouse to boot the other one out.  You’re uncomfortable…you move.  Then you work with your partner to find a creative way to address what made you uncomfortable in the first place.  The couple that can’t resolve this issue won’t stay married very long (and booting your spouse out is a form of not resolving it).

One final thought.  It helped me a great deal to stop thinking about my relationship as a “marriage” and start thinking about it as a “relationship”.  This helped me put my husband back on equal footing as someone responsible for his own actions and worthy of support.  “Relationship” was how we thought when we were dating…”Marriage” felt bigger than just us two people, and carried some scary ideas with is, such as “forever”, that were too hard to contemplate when we were in trouble.  Somehow "forever" kept getting in the way by making the stakes too scary.  "Relationship" brings you back to "two equal people" who are trying to enjoy each other...which is where this couple needs to move to.

Sorry about the length of this post, but there was simply too much here to address…