A woman who has been married for 3 years to a man who was diagnosed with ADD after they got married, has taken the time to write to me quite a bit about her situation. It is one that I recognize, as it closely mirrors the situation I had in the beginning of my own marriage. One of the key issues is that she and her husband had a wonderful courtship, during which he “hyperfocused” on her (though neither knew that this was the case as it was happening). Now she is desperate to feel loved and in the kind of relationship her courtship had led her to expect, but she finds her spouse unrecognizable. Not only does he not connect with her, but he dismisses her concerns about their lack of connection, leaving her frequently in tears. She is “in shock because I feel as if the person I fell in love with doesn’t exist”.
Writing this story, and providing ideas, will create a lengthy entry. But this couple is so completely typical of what many face that I feel you’ll want to take the time to read it.
Here is her story:
“It is my first marriage his 3rd... We had a wonderful courtship, attentiveness, great sex, kindness and consideration…But it as soon as the wedding ring went on all bets were off. It got to a point when I told my husband I felt like I got the "bait and switch". Truthfully, I don't know if I ever would have fallen in love, let alone marry, this man as he is now. The worst part of all of this is that HE cannot (or refuses to) acknowledge the ADD. Yes, he went to a Dr. after I wept for days, but he won't take the meds... (I can live with that) but he refuses to take any responsibility in learning to develop skills. He is so defensive. I can't say anything without causing a "tantrum". He is 55 yrs old but sometimes I feel as though he is 5. I am contemplating divorce. We have not had sex in over 2 yrs. and he doesn't even address that except to say "I don't know “…His m.o. is that if he doesn't talk or think about it then it doesn't exist. He says I am “too emotional” while he shows none. I’ve been crying for three years…
(We got into an argument). In my mind I am thinking...You jerk, you haven't had sex with me in over 2 yrs. You wont' talk about it, you don't have any explanation for it. We don't even french kiss!! You won't go to a doctor…You are so much work! You frustrate the hell out of me! You accept no responsibility in managing the household, the chores, our sex life, your ADD, and you have the nerve to speak to me in such a harsh tone, to constantly blame me for everything….He, of course, denies that he has changed. Even when I point out specifics he just acts confused. He used to be very jealous, got so upset once when we were talking on the phone and he said love you and I didn't say it back…Pitched a fit…This “same man” can now watch me weep for days and is unmoved…Because I am 'so dramatic. "
“He always says "you worry too much". I tell him I have to worry because you don't.”
“He did see my therapist and she tried to get him to understand, but he is in complete denial. I have tried to read Dr. Hallowell's book to him, but it falls on deaf ears. According to him, I am the problem. I am emotional, I am unhappy, and it’s my problem.
(We have tried other therapists, and sometimes we do connect.) …each time we had a (therapy) session we would have sex when we got home. Even when we fight and at least talk after we seem to have sex...I tried to show him that when we communicate we have a connection which leads to intimacy. I talk and express myself...he is Silent Sam...It’s like pulling teeth to get him to talk. He is extremely stoic, and unemotional, but of course he was not like that when we dated...just the opposite.
He is perfectly content in this relationship. I tell him we are living as roommates. What is the point? I call him detour man. Every time I try to talk about the problems he detours onto another topic (usually turning back to me) so we never address the problem.
When I told him I would not continue living this way that we needed help he promised he would go to couples therapy (soon). When I told him that I made the appointment he acted surprised, almost puzzled. I think he just gives lip service to "shut me up" and then is shocked when I follow through.
(After one therapy session I) really got scared... All this time I thought he knows and accepts the ADD but he is just too stubborn or lazy to try to cope. But now I am realizing that if he won't or can't admit or accept it...How can it get any better?. I felt so defeated that day. When I asked him if he understood the ADD better.. and if my therapist helped him at all.. his reply "Well she just asked me questions to help you deal with your unhappiness."
I have not said the word “divorce” to him...yet. I get the feeling that he would just dismiss me as being "dramatic". In his mind he is a great guy and so easy going and I am just an unhappy person.
This man, (who used to be so attentive and loving) can stand by now and watch me weep and clearly see that I am deeply saddened and upset...and just walks away. His excuse is that he doesn't know what to do...My answer to that is
"When in doubt just hold me, hug me”...but that doesn't happen either.
There are good things about him too, don't get me wrong, but it is like a bank account with credits and debits. He makes no deposits, just withdrawals...I give and he takes. I can understand his limitations but I feel that he should compensate by being loving, respectful, and washing the darn floor!! You won't have sex with me, you can't explain why, then the least you can do is wash the floor!”
There is a whole lot going on here, and the patterns that have been established are taking you in the wrong direction and need to be changed immediately. Some things do stand out to me when I look at what you have written. As you read this, remember that my own situation was very, very similar to this one…Happily, though, I’m through this bad part and back into the good part of our relationship. So bear with me here.
First, you say that your husband is happy with this relationship. No way! If you asked him today “which would you prefer – a relationship in which I am emotional and unhappy all the time or one in which we are happy together?” he would tell you the latter. Don’t take his unwillingness to fight for change as a sign of contentedness. Men and women have very different ways of dealing with relationship strife. You seem to be a “make the change” kind of person. You describe him as “laid back”, which usually means a person who is more likely to “go with the flow”. In the case of my husband (and yours, I would guess) his method of dealing with my anger, frustration and tears was to withdraw and put up defenses (such as deflecting difficult discussions, not dealing with tough emotional issues, etc.) to see what would happen next. (The book "Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus" talks about these differences and says men retreat into their caves when dealing with difficult situations.) Your husband has already told you that he “doesn’t know what to do” when you are emotional. He’s being truthful here, not providing an excuse. He really doesn’t know how to deal with the emotional state of your relationship and may well fear that if he holds you to comfort you that much more emotional strife (that he can’t deal with) will follow.
Second, just because you tell him something doesn’t mean he understands what you are saying or understands how it affects the two of you. My husband and I went through this type of miscommunication for years. I would say things that I thought were very easy to understand and were almost scathingly straightforward observations about our interactions. But even things that seem straightforward to you aren’t necessarily interpreted as you expect by him. For example, you say you haven’t had sex in 2 years. But you also say that after therapy sessions (after you’ve been communicating better) you do have sex. My guess is what you really mean is, “We have sex too infrequently and we haven’t had good, connected sex that I have found fulfilling in 2 years”. Men, who can be much more literal interpreters of conversations, will count the occasions, not the quality, so he is confused by your statement. And, what you may really mean underneath it all is “our low key, infrequent sex life is not what I expected and makes me feel lonely.” In fact, you can both be right at the same time. You can have some sexual contact, but if it isn’t fulfilling for both partners, you can do better. My point isn’t to force you to count occasions. My point is this: saying something, even in a straightforward way, doesn’t guarantee good communication or full understanding of what the implications are of what you said. If you expect it to, particularly with someone who has ADHD (because emotional cues tend to be hard for ADDers) you will be disappointed.
Third, you are connected, even though you don’t realize it. You are connected through your emotional responses. In fact, your escalating emotional responses, if you are like I was, not only serve to illustrate your distress, but also serve to continue to maintain his attention as he withdraws more and more in his confusion and self-protection. In my own case, the more my husband withdrew from our relationship, the more strident my claims for his attention became. The more strident I became, the less he wanted to be with me, so the more he withdrew (and the more time he spent on the computer, which was interesting, and a whole lot easier to deal with than me). Can you see how your own pattern has created an unhealthy cycle for your relationship?
Fourth, your husband is wrong…and he is right…when he says that you have a problem. The fact of the matter is that you BOTH have a problem – a very real one. What he is trying to tell you, though, is that your emotional state is getting in the way of the two of you resolving it. Forgetting about ADHD for a moment, marriages are not meant to be “roommate” situations. You get married because you love being with someone and sharing with them. Because you add something special to each others’ lives. His disconnection from you, even if it is a defensive response, and even if it is related to how hard it is for him to focus on anything (including you, unfortunately) is simply NOT OKAY. If the two of you don’t address this issue, and fast, you will be divorced.
The bottom line is that you both need to acknowledge and deal with the problems that you are both contributing to your relationship. He has to figure out how to overcome his natural tendencies to lack focus (i.e. deal with those ADHD characteristics that are negatively affecting your marriage) and you have to calm down enough so that the two of you have a fighting chance. This is a big challenge, but it is not impossible, and if you work through it together you have a chance of not only having a loving relationship similar to the one you had in courtship, but having a stronger relationship than you’ve had previously, because you’ve overcome – together – some real adversity.
You have nothing to lose, and everything to gain, if you can work this out, but it isn’t just a matter of him fixing what’s wrong. You have to take full responsibility for your own issues. When he sees that you’ve done that, and when the tone of your relationship has changed, he may be able to start to address his own issues (or may not, in which case your decisions about whether to stay with him will be easier to make). But as long as he feels under attack, you can rest assured that you will make no positive progress and that your anger, frustration and despair will continue to mount.
Here are some steps that you should consider taking:
Set the right emotional tone for repair, not blame. Right now you are seeing him from the negative – he “has limitations”, never has sex with you, never pays attention to you, doesn’t love you, brings you to tears, doesn’t measure up to the person you thought you married, etc. If he were to talk to you about it, he would probably tell you that he feels that he can never do anything right for you any more (as my husband would angrily tell me after my particularly scathing verbal attacks).
This is not the environment in which you are going to be able to fix your relationship. You, the active one, need to take the first steps here and set a better relationship tone. Get a copy of “Dare to Forgive” and figure out the steps you need to take to get rid of the anger and frustration you are feeling (don’t suppress it, deal with it and get past it. Grieve for the three years you’ve lost and been so miserable in…then move on.) Forgive him for falling into ADD patterns that he didn’t know were there, even though you were trying to tell him about them.
Internalize – really internalize - that his lack of attention to you doesn’t mean he doesn’t love you. It means that he isn’t focused on you – an effect of his ADD. These are two VERY different things. Lack of focus can be addressed. Lack of love can’t. Also internalize that getting diagnosed with ADD as an adult means that your husband carries lots of baggage of which he is probably unaware (such as years of people telling him that if he only tried harder, he could do better – just as you are doing now…) This means that dealing with his ADD is hard for him. He is likely to be defensive about it for a while – AND THAT’S OKAY, as long as the long-term outlook is that he would like to improve things between the two of you (even if it means eventually facing his ADD – which it will).
Make sure he understands that you believe that yours is a JOINT problem, not “his” problem. (You can only do this after you really believe it yourself, so don't just give it lip service - wait until you've gotten to this point.) Your responses to him are feeding his deep fears, contributing in an ongoing way to the deterioration of your relationship. And, yes, the initial issue was that he lacked focus on you. But if you had both known about his ADD at the time that you were still “in love” with each other, you would have both responded differently and your relationship would have run a different course (for example, you could have used humor to diffuse tension – “Yikes! It’s the golf mistress again! Hey, I’m feeling ignored today – let’s go have some amazing sex so I can get over it! Ninth tee works for me, you up for it?”)
Learn as much as you can about ADHD. What you’ll find out is that ADHD isn’t really your issue. Focus is your issue (which happens to be part of his ADHD, but his having ADHD does not doom you to a miserable life together.) Help him see that it is his attention that you miss most. Yes, you miss him! You miss the funny things you used to do, the way you used to interact, etc. You miss the romantic meals you used to have together and the secret jokes you shared. Even if he doesn’t need these things (though he probably does), could you do some fun things together because it will give you so much pleasure? This is a very different message from “you have ADD (read: “you are broken”) and you need to fix it”. The fact is, he will always have ADHD, and has always had it in the past. His ADHD is part of the reason you fell in love with him! It is the symptoms of ADHD that he is currently exhibiting (and your responses to those symptoms) that is creating this unhealthy cycle between the two of you. Looking at it another way, it was different symptoms of ADHD (and your responses to those symptoms) that helped you see just how great a guy he is when you were dating. You don’t want to get rid of his ADHD – you just want him to figure out how to focus on you again in a loving way.
Yes, his past experiences and characteristics as a person with ADHD are making things more complex now. But understanding more about him can help the two of you figure out good ways to get the current symptoms under control. For example, many people with ADHD have difficulty reading emotional cues from others. How hard is it for him, then, when the entire conversation is about emotional cues?! Just changing your expectations about what kinds of things he’ll be able to understand intuitively will help you communicate better (i.e. don’t expect that he will understand right away how much a hug will help when you are emotionally upset – or that he’ll immediately understand when you need a hug from him. He has to learn to interpret these things.) Here’s another example. People with ADHD find it hard, by definition, to focus. This doesn’t mean that they can’t focus. It means it’s very hard and they need help (medications often address this issue). Your entire issue, really, is about focus. It’s a big hurdle, but not impossible. Once you’ve redirected the conversation away from him as a person (his ADHD) to his symptoms (lack of focus) you have made your issues much more manageable and, because addressing symptoms is much less threatening than attacking the person, easier to deal with.
You both will, eventually, be best able to work things out when your husband deals overtly with his ADHD symptoms. He doesn’t need to “cure” his ADHD (and can’t, and shouldn’t want to). His job is to contribute to figuring out how to make your relationship work. Just the act of starting to deal with his symptoms will give you great hope as it will signal that he is taking your concerns seriously, and has finally found himself in a place where he believes he can positively contribute…and wants to. Take the fact that he has agreed to go to therapy with you as a good start (i.e. give him some credit for it) and try to make the experience as fruitful as positive.
As it happens, many of your joint issues relate to one of the symptoms of his ADHD which, thankfully, can be addressed with medications or alternative treatments. Medication is probably the best place to start, because one form or another can alleviate important symptoms, such as lack of focus, in about 80% of people with ADHD. But finding the right medication can be tricky. My daughter went through 5 different meds before finding the one that she likes the best (and that doesn’t have meaningful side effects). My husband went through 3. My husband will tell you to this day that he can’t even feel the medication that he uses as it works. I will tell you that it clearly helps him manage the two major symptoms he had that impacted our relationship – his ability to control unexpected spurts of anger, and his ability to focus on me. Since I’m the one complaining about these issues, he trusts me when I say it’s working. But while we’ve gotten to a good place on meds now, we started the conversation this way: “Can you please take some medications to treat your ADD?” “Why should I? I like myself just fine! You’re the one with the problems, not me! I don’t want to change who I am just because you have problems!” It took time for us to get to the point where he recognized that we both had problems, and that trying the meds was just a tactic to see if they would help. (It helped him to learn that many of these medications are out of your system within the day.)
Understand that medications are NOT magic pills. When they work, the only thing they do is help with difficult symptoms in a way that makes the effort needed to focus (or control anger, or whatever) more manageable. But since that is what you are seeking as a starting point, medications are often a good fit.
Finally, while in couples therapy, consider focusing on the present and the future. Yes, there is lots of anger and frustration there, but your job isn't to place blame on one person or the other, or to wallow around in how bad you feel. Your job is to take your new learnings, remember what you love about each other, and build some happiness. The last three years have been worse than either of you had expected. You can either let them affect your future, or you can learn from them, accept them, and move on. (There is a whole industry out there that makes its money helping people wallow in the sorrows of their past to be more in touch with themselves. It's just not my personal philosophy. For my husband and I, it was easier to decide that my husband wasn't intentionally trying to hurt me. He didn't know about his ADHD or how his lack of focus ruined his first marriage. I wasn't intentionally trying to hurt him when I responded so poorly to his lack of attention to me. So we agreed to accept that we didn't know what we were doing, learn from it, and focus on building a happy relationship again without interference from our past. Sometimes an issue from the past would trigger a bad response in the present - then we would isolate that one trigger and work on it (not dredge up the entire history of our relationship). It worked beautifully for us, hence the reason I can wholeheartedly recommend this approach to others.)
I’ve written a lot here, and there is much more to say. But if you get through these items, you will find yourselves in a completely different relationship than the one you are now in. It probably won’t be what you expect, and very likely not perfect (if “perfect” is ever achievable) but it will be a whole lot better. And, you’ll have a much better feel for whether or not your relationship will be able to stand the test of time.
So, to recap:
- You both need to acknowledge that there is a problem and that you are both contributing to it.
Understand that he loves you, he just isn’t paying attention to you. He CAN focus on you once the two of you have separated the symptoms from the man.
- Forgiveness, and getting past your anger and hurt, are critical to your own ability to move forward. Deal with your hurt, then let it go so you can move on.
- Learn all you can about ADHD. The more you know, the easier it will be for you to understand, to accept, and to develop creative tactics together to get around ADHD symptoms that are affecting you.
- Get yourself, and how you are interacting, to a place where your husband can stop retreating enough to deal with his ADHD. You’ll need to work together, in a loving way, to determine which meds, if any, can help him treat his symptoms. Unfortunately, it takes a lot of trial and error with these drugs.
- Try to reframe how you are thinking about him, and your relationship, so that you have a chance of having some fun together. Bottom line, you miss him!
- (And a plug – keep reading this blog for more ideas that may help…and keep writing as you go through your changes.)
Good luck in your upcoming marriage therapy sessions, and in moving forward.