ADHD and Marriage - Be Aware of "Filters"

We all interpret the world around us through a set of filters.  These can be based upon our upbringing, our family’s values, certain knowledge and, sometimes, our fears.  Recently, I’ve been thinking about how the filters one chooses to use affect your relationship for better or for worse.  One of the tricks, of course, is understanding your own filters.

Just the other day my husband, who watches the weather forecasts in Boston as one of his winter hobbies, declared “Hey!  It’s going to be 55 degrees this weekend!  Time for a bike ride!”  Never mind that this was Wednesday and it was 5 degrees and there was currently almost 2 feet of snow on the ground!  I laughed and told him “You are such an optimist!”  My response was a direct result of the filter that I use when being around him these days – the “he has lots of great qualities and, yes, a few quirks” filter.

As recently as a few years ago he was making these exact same comments, but I was using a completely different filter.  Back then I used the “you can’t do anything right” filter.  My response to the same situation would likely have been more like “Geez, can’t you see the two feet of snow on the ground?!  Aren’t you paying attention?  But knowing you, you’ll go try it and go kill yourself!”  If I hadn’t said it out loud, I still would have thought it.  (Just imagine that little black cartoon cloud over my head…!)

As I reflect on the effect that filters have on how we react to neutral events around us (for surely a comment about the weather is a neutral event) I worry about what I call the “ADD filter”.  This is the one that a non-ADD spouse creates as she starts to associate many of the things she doesn’t like about her life with her husband’s ADD.  It’s a filter evident in many of the posts in our forum.  When someone says their spouse must get an ADD diagnosis or it’s divorce, I know that they are using this filter.  Ditto when someone writes “my ADD wife just can’t keep the house clean!  I can’t live like this!”

Often the “my spouse has ADD” filter includes fear – fear that you won’t be financially stable, that your ADD spouse might never get it together, or that ADD might take over your life as well as that of the ADD spouse.  I see fear of ADD in many of the posts here in our forum.  A person with ADD has a bad day or a bad week and his non-ADD spouse shuts down completely with “I just can’t stand this any longer!”  Yet people make some of their worst decisions – and interpretations of events around them – when they fear.

The non-ADD spouse creates an ADD filter based upon a series of negative experiences, so I’m not saying it’s unreasonable.  I’m suggesting that a.) some of the experiences that create the filter are misinterpretations of ADD symptoms and b.) regardless of its origin, the filter negatively impacts your relationship.

For one thing, filters affect your immediate interpretation of comments, actions and events.  And the ADD spouse’s anticipation of your filter also affects how you interact.  When I had my “you can’t do anything right” filter in place my husband often said to me “why should I bother to try?  I’m never good enough for you!”  He was responding, even before I said anything, to my “you can’t do anything right” filter.  He was also responding to the fact that even when he did do something, such as the dishes, I wasn’t able to see his effort.  Instead, I saw that he hadn’t done it “right” (my way)…my filter got in my way.

Researcher John Gottman suggests that 96% of the time how couples begin talks about issues determines the subsequent course of that conversation.  Your tone of voice really counts, and so does the filter through which you make your initial impression of what’s going on as you make that first response.

The “ADD is a bad thing” filter creates a whole litany of problems for the couple, not just for that partner with ADD:

  • It significantly lessens the opportunity to create a stable and safe place for the ADD spouse to take the risks necessary to change ADD patterns
  • It changes otherwise neutral (or even positive) events, such as the weather story above, into negative interactions
  • It creates an ongoing anticipation on the part of both partners that their interactions will be negative, therefore almost ensuring that they will be
  • It does not give credit to the positives that ADD can bring to a relationship
  • It places too much emphasis on ADD – and not enough on the other qualities that a person with ADD possesses

ADD is not inherently a bad thing.  In fact I really do buy into Ned Hallowell’s idea that ADD is a gift that’s hard to unwrap.  I’ve seen the wonderful results of that “unwrapping” too many times, and know too many wonderful, crazy, compassionate people with ADD, not to believe it.  But while ADD isn’t inherently a bad thing, letting ADD symptoms and hidden “filters” get the best of you, is.

Many of you read the forum at this site and have probably read comments such as “my husband is the warmest, most compassionate man I know but his disorganization, ADD, and inability to keep a job are driving me crazy!  He’s a great dad, but acts like a six year old!”  When I read comments like that I cross my fingers.  Why?  Because the writer is at a crossroads.  She can choose to focus on her entire spouse – that wonderful, warm man who happens to also have some ADD symptoms that get in his way – or she can start to filter her experiences through the common “you can’t do anything right” ADD filter.

If she does the latter, their relationship will worsen.  Once that filter is in place the chances for negative interactions increase exponentially and then feed on themselves.  If she does the former, she increases the chances that they will find the balance they need as a couple to continue to love each other and live together happily.  The latter path isn’t always easy…life with ADD usually isn’t.  But it can be incredibly happy, and even funny (come on, many “6 year olds” are hilarious!).  Or, put another way, who wouldn’t want to live with an optimist, as I do?

What filters are you using?