Getting Past Relationship Ambivalence in ADD Marriages

Stay or leave?  That is a question that many exhausted spouses ask as they struggle through the rollercoaster of feelings in their ADD-affected relationship.  At the suggestion of one of the readers of this site I have just finished reading a very interesting book about how to resolve this ambivalence and I think it could be an excellent resource for many here.

The working theory of the book is that resolving relationship ambivalence is not like balancing a scale – putting the negatives on one side and the positives on the other measured until one “outweighs” the other.  Rather, feelings about relationships are complex in a way that calls for “diagnosis” – testing your relationship against various “symptoms” of health.  If you reflect upon your symptoms and find that your relationship is very sick then the “treatment” is to get out of it.  If you find it is “well” enough to work on it, you stay.  This is the same process used by doctors to determine what illnesses you might have.

The book, “Too Good to Leave, Too Bad to Stay: A Step-by Step Guide to Help You Decide Whether to Stay in or Get Out of Your Relationship” was written by Mira Kirshenbaum, who is a psychotherapist.  She provides 36 symptoms against which you measure your relationship’s health, as well as insight into the kinds of responses people she has seen have had and how to evaluate your responses to a specific symptom.

Remembering just how miserable I was at one point in my ADD relationship, I will admit to some trepidation upon opening the pages of this book.  How could a relationship with that much profound unhappiness make it through 36 “tests”?!  To my surprise, I think it would have passed the tests, though it’s unclear how I would have answered the questions in the section on “Your partner’s problems”.  This is the area of the book which is most complicated by ADD, it seems.  Diagnostic question #16, for example, asks
“Is there something your partner does that makes your relationship too bad to stay in and that he acknowledges but that, for all intents and purposes, he’s unwilling to do anything about?”  The key to this question is “unwilling”, but readers working with ADD need to be very careful to pair this diagnostic question with some insight provided a few pages later about whether or not your partner really knows you care about this thing that isn’t getting changed.

In our case, even though I had said to my husband “I’m miserable” and “these things need to change” and even “maybe we should get divorced”, he still didn’t internalize how important his taking charge of his ADD symptoms were to the survival of our relationship.  Kirschenbaum suggests a simple question to pierce this phenomenon of denial.  She suggests you ask him “On a scale of 1 to 10 how important do you think this is to me?”  If he doesn’t say “10” you know he doesn’t really know how important the specific issue is.  This would have worked for us – my husband would not have said “10” (more like 7 or something, I’m guessing) and that helped explain why he felt okay about continuing to stonewall and put me off.  Once he really understood my issues with specific behaviors were a “10” for me (and us), then he did make the specific changes needed.  Would my evaluation 5 years ago have been able to see through our accumulated anger to “correctly” respond to this diagnostic question?  I don’t know.  Probably.  From my own limited experience, I would suggest that if you find that the only area of the book that suggests you should leave your relationship is section 10, and none of the others do, then I would urge taking a bit more time to explore the potential benefits of improved ADD treatment before de-camping.

Should those experiencing the rollercoaster emotions of relationships affected by ADD read this book?  I would say yes.  Kirschenbaum’s words will give you a great deal to think about, and her treatment of the subject is very well thought out and balanced.

Ambivalence about your relationship can be depressing.  It can also paralyze you from addressing the underlying issues.  "If I don't really know if I care about this relationship, why should I bother working on it?" you might ask.  This book can help you move away from your paralysis.  If you find that you don’t find specific reasons to leave the relationship, you can stop expending lots of energy wondering and worrying about whether you should leave the relationship, and start expending that same energy towards making the changes you need to get where you want to be.  If you find that you do have a reason to leave, you will have given the subject as thorough a vetting as I’ve seen anywhere.

ADD does complicate a few of the issues explored in this book, and I welcome any questions or thoughts from blog and forum readers who read it.  I won’t be able to solve your problems for you (this book is a personal journey) but may be able to give you additional ideas specific to how ADD might be playing a role in your feelings.