Feeling Ignored - The Non-ADHD Spouse Dilemna

Being a person who does not have ADHD married to a person who does have ADHD can be wonderful.  It can also be intensely frustrating.  I am a non-ADHD spouse married to a man who has ADHD.  Dr. Hallowell has the opposite - he has ADHD while his wife does not (part of the reason we are teaming up to write a book on this topic - we balance each other out!)  If you are a spouse without ADHD, you may well recognize much of what I am about to describe in your own marriage, for without a doubt I have experienced the "classic" ADHD-affected marriage.  Before going further, I will also tell you that while my husband and I have had significant struggles - born largely of his ADHD and my response to it, we now have a very strong relationship.  In fact, we are living proof that learning how to manage ADHD in your relationship can improve it immensely.

So, what does it feel like to be married to a person with ADHD when you do not have it yourself?  What are some of the basic patterns?

At first, it can be absolutely exhilarating to be with a person who has ADHD.  The energy!  The intense focus!  The creativity!  Dating a person with ADHD takes the thrill of any new relationship and magnifies it many times.

Then, once things settle down a bit, things can change dramatically.  I found myself completely confused and somewhat resentful, when the man I had married seemed to stop paying attention to me and started to spend much more time with his computer and his hobbies.  What about all that attention he lavished on me?  It felt as if he didn't really care about me any more, and wasn't tuned into my needs or our relationship.

Many years later, my resentment at feeling ignored had hardened into anger.  I started to nag him - a lot - he wasn't doing ANYTHING around the house, and he wasn't really taking me (or my needs) into account as he lived his life.  I would ask him to, and he would agree, but then he would forget.  After several reminders he would still forget.  I started to call him "reliably unreliable" - and it wasn't a joke.  I thought I had signed up for a partnership, only to find out that I got stuck doing all the "unfun" stuff in our marriage with a man who seemed to not be tuned in at all.  YUCK!  The more I complained about this, the more he seemed to "subconsciously" resist.  It seemed as if we were engaged in a constant battle and the "stuff" around living our lives was just hard work all the time.

I will explore what this anger and resentment does and how it changes everything that happens to you in a later blog entry, but here is a brief overview of a very typical cycle when a non-ADHD person is married to an ADHD spouse:

  • The start of the relationship is exciting and very focused, for the ADHD spouse is "hyperfocusing" on you and you feel amazed and excited that someone cares that much about you
  • The relationship can change its character rather sharply as the ADHD person loses focus.  The non-ADHD spouse becomes confused and begins to feel ignored.  This generates frustration and resentment
  • This frustration leads to anger, particularly when the ADHD spouse does not respond to criticism that he/she is ignoring you
  • The non-ADHD spouse, particularly if this is a woman, ends up with all the scut work around the house, feeling like the maid, rather than a cherished wife.  This leads to arguments, nagging and further anger
  • The relationship goes in an up-and-down, seesaw sort of pattern as there are longer and longer periods when resentment and anger are the predominant feeling punctuated by spurts of great fun, energy and togetherness

Resentment is a difficult emotion to overcome because of the chemicals it induces in the brain (more on this in a different entry).  But here are a couple of ideas that you may wish to consider:

Most frequently, even though it doesn't feel this way to the non-ADHD spouse, the ADHD spouse is not intentionally ignoring his/her partner.  My husband and I went through this exact pattern (and more!) and he could never understand why I felt so ignored by him at the outset of this pattern (which started almost as soon as we moved from courtship into marriage).  In his own mind he loved me just as much as he had before, and because he was just following what was interesting him at the time (often the computer) he didn't realize just how dramatically different our relationship became once he stopped hyperfocusing on me.  I could tell him that his actions affected me in a negative way, but he just didn't get it because they didn't seem to be affecting him (they were, of course, because my response to his actions was to be angry with him, but he didn't connect this cause/effect yet).

The issue was really two-fold:  First, he really wasn't as focused on me as he had been.  Second, in my response to this I made the assumption that his lack of "interest" in me was due to the fact that he didn't like to be with me as much as he had previously.  In this scenario, my response to his actions was at least as hurtful to our relationship as his initial lack of attention.  And, because I assumed the worst (he didn't love me as much) I approached in about the problem in a resentful and angry way.  My approach - "why don't you pay attention to me any more?"; "why don't you listen to me?"; "why don't you ever bother to take me out any more?" made me hard to deal with...and suddenly he, too, was with a person whom he didn't really recognize.  As far as he was concerned, I was attacking him simply for being him, and he didn't like it much.

At the time we didn't know about his ADHD, so did not realize that we could have changed this pattern early on - simply by my making the assumption that he did, in fact, still love me and was simply being distracted by other things, then talking in a non-judgemental way about what was distracting him, how important it was to him (or not) and how it affected us as a couple.  At that time he literally had physical trouble disconnecting himself from that mecca of information overload we call the computer (a problem that many people with ADHD have as the computer is very high-stimulation for them).  A healthier approach to our issue would have been to agree that our relationship needed help, create systems for him to have specific periods of time when he was focused on me so I didn't feel rejected, and improve our ability to communicate in a non-judgemental way (in both directions).