ADHD and Marriage: You Are SO Different!

If you are in a marriage in which one spouse has ADHD and the other does not, I will guarantee you that you are both even more different than you think.  Your brains works differently, you experience the world around you differently, and you interpret information differently.  By understanding how, you can avoid common communication errors that lots of “mixed” couples make as well as learn to treasure your unique abilities.

Here are some of the key ways you are different:

People with ADD receive information in a “flat” way:  The non-ADD brain is hierarchical in terms of how it interprets lots of information coming at it.  What’s “important” is naturally sorted to the top (even if you aren’t thinking about this happening), while what’s not so important is suppressed enough to get out of the way.  So, for example, if a person without ADD is sitting in a meeting while someone is speaking, their mind generally blocks out the sound of the coffee machine, the tapping of a pencil across the table, the green flashing light of someone’s Blackberry.  Not so with the ADD person.  This mind sees all of those things – and they are all received with almost equal intensity.

Dr. Hallowell describes this as having a “noisy” brain.  Lots is going on, lots is coming in, and a key struggle is to learn to both identify and focus on the “top” priority event at any time.

A frequent mistake made by non-ADD spouses is to interpret the actions and responses made by their ADD spouse as if they had similar hierarchical brains.  A classic example – an ADD husband isn’t paying too much attention to his wife.  She interprets this as “he doesn’t care about me anymore”.  But what’s really happening is that he’s distracted.  He loves her a lot, but her walking into the room comes into his head at about the same level of urgency as the computer screen in front of him and the cat in the chair next to him.  He’s not trying to be rude.  He’s just distracted.  His brain is noisy.

A couple can get around the damage that this “noisiness” causes by doing two things:  1.)  The non-ADD spouse can be sensitive to the fact that this distraction isn’t intentional and 2.)  Both spouses should recognize that this is an area of potential conflict (intentional or not) and make sure to create scheduled time to spend focused on each other away from other distractions.  Perhaps a regular date night, Saturday afternoon bike rides or hanging out together an hour before dinner each evening.  This reassures the non-ADD spouse and helps both maintain much-needed connection.

You perceive time differently:   I laugh when I hear Ned Hallowell say there are really only two time zones for a person with ADD – “now” and “not now”!  A person with ADD is very “present” focused.  Something that was going on 10 minutes ago is out of mind, as is the thing that is supposed to happen 10 minutes into the future.

This “present-ness” shows up in a number of ways in your marriage.  An ADD husband, for example, may have trouble remembering what you talked about not too long ago.  He may know that it’s good to save money for the future, but has trouble staying focused on that goal when spending right now seems so much more appealing.  Research  shows that executive function issues in the brain account for these differences.  So, if it seems as if you have the same arguments over and over again - well, you probably do, because that last one you had was in the “not now”.

Another way to think of “now and not now” is to imagine you have “time tunnel vision”.  Here is how one man with ADD describes how he interacts with time:
“I often use this analogy: I look at time through a paper towel roll moving from left to right on a time-line. I see only what is in my vision at that moment. As I progress along the time-line the thoughts and sights that were in my little window have passed to the left and often forgotten. If I act on things in the window I can be somewhat successful. If I miss it, it could be gone forever. I also cannot see or think about the time to the right of my window. This makes it difficult to plan ahead. (For instance, I have a hard time planning for the weekend and before you know it, the weekend is here and I have no plans.)”

Being aware of “now/not now” (or “time tunnel vision” if you prefer that) can work in your favor.  You’ll probably be more successful, for example, if you don’t put the ADD spouse in charge of long-term planning.  And consider “now and not now” when planning chores.  A task that is not currently being done is in the “not now” zone.  But, if you can create an emotionally neutral system of reminders that brings a task back into the “now” at the right time, it has a far greater chance of getting done.  I say “emotionally neutral” because it is important to choose a way that doesn’t make the ADD person defensive.  Setting an alarm or posting a note can be neutral.  Nagging and berating is never so.

A related, but different difference in terms of how you both perceive time is that the ADD spouse perceives time more fluidly than does the non-ADD spouse.  People with ADD are terrible judges of how long it will take them to do something – hence the reason that they are often late, and don’t seem to learn from how long it took them to do something in the past.  There are essentially two versions of time fluidity that I’ve seen.  One is the “consistently wrong” version – in which someone consistently underestimates how long it will take them to complete a task because their sense of time is always off in the same way (my husband).  The other is what I think of as “unevenly distracted” (my daughter).  In this case, the person with ADD might get distracted by anything while doing a project – or might not.  So she’ll often guess wrong about how long something will take, but she might be off by a little, or off by a lot - and which it will be is unpredictable.

A non-ADD spouse can compensate for the former by allowing a consistently greater amount of time for any project.  If my husband says “5 minutes!” I leave about 25 and don’t worry about it.  In the latter, you need to keep closer track by checking in with your partner on a regular basis.  Again, you need to figure out a mutually agreeable way to do this that is “neutral” between you.  With my daughter, it’s usually just a “how are you doing?” question and response…I don’t try to alter what she is doing, just stay on top of where she is so that I may plan what I am doing around her without getting annoyed.

How emotions are expressed and received:  If you are the non-ADD spouse, do you often think that your ADD spouse is “overreacting”?  This is another difference between you.  One neuropsychological study done in 2002 suggested that adults with ADHD show a greater intensity of expressed emotion as well as less intensity in terms of how they recognize emotion in others.  Another study found that ADD adults tend to use less emotion laden words than those without ADD to express themselves.  Think about the importance that understandable communication plays in how couples get along, and you can see immediately why this might cause friction!  When a non-ADD spouse wants to get an emotional issue across (“I’m feeling really lonely and depressed!”) the ADD spouse is likely to under-interpret and under-respond while when something less important is communicated (“would you please do the dishes?”) you may get an explosion!  Soon, you feel completely out of sync.

Just being aware of the fact that this is an artifice of the executive function issues that an ADD adult has “built in” can help a couple devise ways to diminish the mismatches that may occur around this issue.

Energy and Speed:  Hallowell likens living with ADD to driving in the rain with bad windshield wipers at about 90 miles per hour.  Every once in a while things are very clear, but most of the time you’re not completely sure what’s coming at you – and it’s coming fast!  He is referring to two kinds of speed here – the bracing, euphoric, exciting variety (think race car driving) and also the speed and all-encompassing way that information comes at a person with ADD.  As pointed out earlier, ADD brain has few filters on it – everything enters at once, and in a big jumble.  This provides some interesting dilemmas in a world that values hierarchy, but also opportunity. 

Embracing speed is one aspect of ADD with which many non-ADD spouses have trouble.  While it may have been exciting during your courtship, it seems more threatening (and often exhausting!) once you’ve settled into a marriage.  It also often seems diffuse and unharnessable, which is frustrating once the chores and responsibilities of married life settle in.

I advised one woman whose ADD husband went on business trips every two weeks (which she described as periods of “blissful calm”) then came home in a whirlwind (“completely exhausting!”) to start to plan ahead for ways to harness that energy in a positive way.  I suggested scheduling fun outings with the kids to take advantage of her husband’s energy, and perhaps some time out together.  But I also suggested that she plan her own much-needed downtime while he was home, as well - perhaps scheduling to go to the library to read or a quieter night out with her girlfriends.  If you are exhausted by the energy of your ADD spouse, setting quiet time aside just for you is important for your health, as well as for the health of the marriage.

Impulse control:  One of the hallmarks of ADHD is lack of impulse control.  This leads to the ADD spouse interrupting you in the middle of an important discussion point, or saying “honest” but hurtful things because he didn’t think about how to word what he was saying carefully before the words “got out”.  It’s easy to misinterpret this as intentionally rude behavior…but it’s unintentional.  The ADD spouse needs to take control of the behavior (it hurts, intentional or not!) but it helps if the non-ADD spouse is understanding enough to support a spouse’s efforts to get impulses under control rather than lash out at the rudeness and trigger defensiveness and anger responses in the ADD partner that get in the way of solving the problem.  With this particular issue, ADD treatment can help a great deal.

Vive la differance! These differences between the two of you are likely part of why you were attracted to each other in the first place and should be treasured, rather than discouraged.  Impulsive people can make great entrepreneurs, and people who receive information in a “flat” way often have a great ability to “think outside the box” because their brain doesn’t get in the way.  Energy, of course, can be a real asset when you are trying to accomplish something difficult, and speed can allow a person with ADD to juggle many things at once.  Conversely, the ability to think ahead is a wonderful asset, as is organizational ability.

So my point here is this – be open to learning how different you really are and you will be better positioned to have a successful partnership of two unique, and wonderful, individuals.