Conversation Stirred by NYTimes Article on ADHD and Marriage

Tara Parker-Pope’s article in the NYTimes today is creating a lot of conversation around ADHD and how it impacts marriage, which is a wonderful thing.  But there are a number of people who seem to be responding defensively to the idea and suggesting this is just another way to get people with ADHD drugged up.  Far from it – treating ADHD doesn’t necessarily mean medications, though they can help.  Also, knowing about ADHD in your relationship doesn’t commit you to doing anything differently – though I’ll almost guarantee that once you do know you’ll BOTH do at least some things differently and be happy you learned about it.


First, the treatment part.  Treating ADHD within the context of an adult relationship can be thought of as a three-legged stool.  The first leg is making physical changes to your body – specifically to your brain.  These can include taking fish oil, doing regular aerobic exercise and, yes, taking medications.  All of these things increase dopamine in the brain, and a low level of dopamine is one of the big issues with ADHD.  The second leg is behavioral, or habit changes.  This is creating coping strategies that accommodate the fact that an ADHD brain works differently (for example, can be easily distracted).  Good habit changes might include setting up regular reminders to do particularly important tasks, learning not to retreat from conflict conversations, or finding structures that work for you to curb impulsivity.  The third leg of treatment is developing new patterns for interacting with your partner.  Good examples of this would include creating verbal cues to interrupt repetitive types of conversations before they spiral out of control, or creating ways for the two of you to address sensitive topics without one or the other putting up a defensive wall or triggering shame.  As you can see, I think of treatment in the context of a marriage very broadly and for both partners, not just the ADHD partner.  Medications – seen as “evil” or scary by some, are just one possibility in the treatment “arsenal” and it’s up to the person with the ADHD to determine what he or she feels comfortable with.

Learning About ADHD Means Options

In my mind, what’s really exciting about learning how ADHD can impact your relationship is that it gives you more options – and a much clearer path towards improving your marriage.  If you aren’t taking the ADHD into account as you try to repair damage to your relationship you may well be solving for the wrong problem.  And just like in middle school math, if you solve for the wrong problem, you will likely end up with an unsatisfactory answer.  Here’s a simple, but all-too-common example:  After a wonderful hyperfocus courtship, the ADHD partner suddenly “goes off in his/her own world” and pays little or no attention to his non-ADHD wife.  She responds by feeling understandably rejected or wondering if she’s not interesting or has done something wrong.  So she tries harder to get his attention – pushing her way into his life as she can (sexy lingerie is one typical tactic – nagging is another).  He remains distracted (because he has untreated ADHD and is easily distracted).  She pushes harder still, but he’s still distracted.  She decides he doesn’t really love her so much and feels increasingly lonely and isolated.  Next time he asks something of her, she snaps at him.  Not realizing this is because she’s feeling rejected, he gets angry that she’s snapped at him “out of the blue” and feels put out, angry or rejected by her.  Since neither one can see what’s really going on, and since the distraction will continue until it’s addressed as an ADHD symptom, this downward spiral gets worse and worse.

In this case, if both partners knew that “distraction” was the issue, not disinterest, then the non-ADHD partner’s response could have been completely different and far more positive for the relationship.  She could have talked with him about the distraction and together they could have figured out times and ways for him to show her he cares…avoiding the negative spiral all together.

Imagine the improvements that can be made when you understand these patterns better!  Again – you don’t have to do anything, but if you don’t know about how ADHD impacts relationships then it’s quite possible you’ll misinterpret what’s going on and not be able to change the patterns.  I see this all the time – couples who have tried and tried, often with professional help.  But since they weren’t thinking about the ADHD they never got to the root symptoms that were initiating their problems.

Learning About ADHD Means Making ADHD-Sensitive Choices

Also, knowing about the ADHD lets both partners make choices about their behavior that are ADHD-sensitive.  I like to tell people that “trying harder” is much less effective for people with ADHD than “trying differently.”  For the most part, people with ADHD are already trying really hard (even if their partner can’t see this).  Living with and reigning in ADHD can be really exhausting.  But by the time someone is an adult, this struggle is often happening mostly internally, sometimes making it hard for the non-ADHD partner to see – particularly if they are observing through a cloud of frustration or anger.  Having a “tool box” full of strategies that can help and ADHD partner manage his or her symptoms better can literally turn a marriage around.  Likewise, having a non-ADHD partner who understand ADHD issues and how to respond to them can lighten the load for both partners.

And this is where my book is different from some of the others that are out there.  Not only do I focus on the specific steps you can take to make both your lives better, I make sure that both partners understand that it takes two people to make this work.  My “steps” start with empathy because I have seen time and time again that once both partners fully understand the impact that ADHD has on their relationship (and on their partner) they are internally motivated to change it for the better.  ADHD symptoms underpin many issues, but by the time you are thinking about where your marriage became so hard the non-ADHD partner is contributing to your problems, too.  No one turns a marriage around single handedly and to expect that everything rests on the shoulders of the ADHD partner is unrealistic and, often, damaging.  Particularly if the ADHD partner feels that he or she is being “blamed” and becomes defensive or depressed as a result.

The ADHD experts who’ve read my book in pre-publication like my approach.  You can get more details and their impressions at this link.

P.S.  In two-ADHD couples it is likely that one person has learned to manage ADHD better than the other and takes on a role similar in many respects to a non-ADHD partner.