Embarrassment in Social Situations

Are you embarrassed when your ADD spouse takes over a conversation at a party, and doesn’t notice when his audience winces or starts to yawn?  People with ADD often have more difficulty reading emotional cues than those without, and this can cause some interesting moments both socially, and even between just the two of you at home.  What to do?

First, understand that you and your spouse do not “receive” emotional input in the same way.  Think about all of the emotional input that you can easily read – a certain type of baby cry means frustration, while a different one means pain and danger; a slight inflection in a sentence means that the person with whom you are speaking is becoming irritated and you need to stop pursuing what you were saying or risk an argument; or that few situations are appropriate for hurtful sarcasm.  You don’t really think about it when you are faced with situations where your gut tells you to change direction…you just read the signal and respond accordingly.

But what would it be like if you didn’t “hear” that signal most of the time?  What would it be like if you couldn’t differentiate between the “this is war” and the “I’m alerting you to the fact that my blood pressure is going up, but you’re not in trouble yet” version of your spouse’s statement “I’m starting to get angry”?

Personally, I think this would be a terrible position in which to be!  Reading your audience’s response is a sort of mental and social agility that I used to take for granted…until I started living with someone who sometimes lacked it, or, in this case, used to lack it.

That’s the good news.  If your ADD spouse has trouble reading emotional cues, he (or she) can teach himself how to do so better.  Here’s a path to take to aid in this learning:

  1. Both spouses need to understand that this is an ADD symptom.  Also, the ADD spouse needs to trust the non-ADD spouse that there is a problem.  In other words, a person with trouble reading emotional cues is not the best judge of whether or not people are sending emotional cues their way.
  2. Determine whether or not this is an ADD symptom that is really problematic, or just somewhat annoying.  Is it something that is so destructive for either the ADD spouse (as in he’s in trouble at his job because he doesn’t respond appropriately at work, and is getting criticized for it at review time) or for the non-ADD spouse (as in it’s affecting how she thinks about her spouse in a very negative way) then it’s worth working on
  3. In that case, jointly set up a system that notifies the ADD spouse when there is a cue that they are not seeing.  Note, it is important that both spouses agree to this, else it’s just offensive “butting in” by the non-ADD spouse.  So, perhaps it is a touch on the arm, or a sentence (“Honey, I need to talk to you for a moment”) or an agreement that if your non-ADD spouse changes the subject on you, you won’t change it back or get angry.  Whatever you both think will work to notify the ADD spouse that they are in a situation that they aren’t reading correctly.
  4. Both spouses should then try to remember the situation, so that they can talk about it a bit later in private.  Again, this takes some trust, as the spouses will likely have been reading the situation quite differently (which, of course, is the heart of the issue in the first place!)

The goal is for the ADD spouse to learn what he was missing in the situation, so that he might recognize it in the future.  It is NOT to upbraid him for missing it this time, or make him feel bad about it.  Reading emotions is a skill – one that takes longer for people with ADD to learn than for people without ADD, but it is only that – a skill.  As such, constructive and supportive comments are the best approach.  Here’s a way to think about the role of the non-ADD spouse in a way that might relieve some of the tension that will be natural when one spouse is critiquing the other’s behavior – have the non-ADD spouse think of herself as a really great coach…one that is supportive, thoughtful, and never condescending, but who also trusts the athlete to try to apply the coaching in the future to improve performance.

I am happy to report that this really works.  My husband (without really even realizing it) has become much more receptive to the hidden signals sent to him at emotional cues after we put the sytem above to work (and, importantly, after he learned to trust that I wasn't judging him when I commented on awkward situations he didn't see).  Several people have commented about successfully using cues in social situations with their spouses in the forum.  One who comments on this, and also has other good points to make about accepting your ADD spouse is in the forum discussion at this link: (read "Been There, Done That" in this forum discussion)