How to Grieve for the Relationship You Didn't Get

How it Begins

In the beginning, there was the hyper-focus courtship.  For many couples where one or both of them has ADHD, the high levels of dopamine that accompany ALL infatuation masked ADHD.  This is because ADHD is caused, in part, by low levels of dopamine.  ‘Infatuation dopamine’, as I think of it, does a great job of connecting the two of you.  If you’re like we were, be both knew quite quickly we wanted to be with the other person.  My husband (the one with ADHD) was hyper attentive; thought up amazing, fun and creative things to do together, and had a little bit of a mysterious ‘edge’ to him that made the relationship even more exciting.  To him, I was smart, interesting, even-keeled, and fun to be with.  We were madly in love and started living together after 3 months.  Sound familiar?

Sadly, that extra dopamine wears off between 2 and 2.5 years into your relationship, according to Helen Fisher, author of Why We Love:  The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love.  Suddenly, you are faced with a different person as a partner – someone who shows the signs of ADHD – often distracted; not particularly attentive; having trouble following through and often not on time.  Still a great person…just not quite the person you thought you were with.  In courtship you envision a life-long partnership with an attentive partner. When that dopamine wears off you are dropped into a distracted, lonely, sometimes angry relationship.

In our case, no one knew about the ADHD.  This is common…about 80% of adult ADHD is currently undiagnosed.  So there was no explanation, and I suffered - thinking that my husband didn’t love me anymore; that he was mad at me; that I had done something wrong.  We fell into ALL of the typical behaviors that couples fall into when they are impacted by ADHD.  A symptom would show up (say distraction).  I would misinterpret it (thinking he didn’t love me because he wasn’t paying attention to me) and become hurt or angry.  He would respond to my comments and/or attacks by being angry back.  Soon we were fighting about fighting.  There was so much that we didn’t understand back then about what was going on!

In any event, at some point, BOTH partners look back and think “this relationship isn’t at ALL what I thought I had signed up for!”  I was sad that the attentive, helpful man I had met now almost never paid attention to me and when I was out of sight I was definitely out of mind.  My husband, for his part, was sad that he thought he had married a calm, fun person and had ended up with an angry, harping, unrecognizable witch.

Responses to the realization that this is not at all what you both expected vary – I, for example, said to myself “well, if this is all there is to romance, I might as well start my family!”  (Yes, I know, not the first strategy I would now recommend!)  My husband’s response was to retreat further from me because it didn’t feel good being with me.  Others become bitter and angry, blaming their partner for their difficult lives.  Or live in pain, without understanding how to address it – or even that they need to.  But this pain does need to be addressed…and if you’re feeling it, please read on.

Why It’s Important to Grieve

Not all couples struggle with ADHD and responses to ADHD.  But if you do, then you probably have some grieving to do.  Your relationship isn’t what you had dreamed it could be.  That doesn’t mean it is a bad relationship for you, even if things are not going well at the moment.  And the fact that you feel disappointment or bitterness doesn’t mean that either you or your partner is a bad person.  It simply means that you have been impacted by “The ADHD Effect” and have some obstacles to overcome before you will find the happiness you seek. It also means that the form of your happiness will likely be quite a bit different from what you originally envisioned.  That’s okay…but to get there, it’s extremely helpful to grieve the fact that your relationship is different from what you expected…and that right now it doesn’t feel all that good.

Why am I such a big fan of grieving?  Because until you acknowledge and accept that your reality is quite different from your dreams, you can’t fully enjoy your real life.  You’re held hostage by your sadness, which colors many of your interactions.  And you may also be ruining the relationship you do have by either clinging to that old dream and trying to change your partner into the person you dreamed he or she would be (as I did) or you may be in ‘fight or flight’ mode either lashing out or retreating (as my husband was).  Neither works to connect you.

What IS Grieving?

Grieving is looking at your sadness, regret and pain and, over time, coming to the understanding that there are some things you can’t change.  Death, for example, or a horrific accident, or the fact that your child has cancer – these are the kinds of things we normally associate with grieving.  ADHD is like that, too.  Yes, the two of you can dramatically improve your relationship once you get to a place where you both accept ‘what is’ and also learn ‘what can change.’  But as long as you hang onto your original dreams of the relationship you don’t have, you impede your progress towards finding the happiness you seek in the relationship you do have.

I was speaking yesterday with a woman who told me “I’m a doer – my father had cancer, and up until the day he died I was still looking for the thing that would cure him.”  While she has now accepted her father’s death as reality, she’s having trouble grieving her relationship loss because she still wants to believe she can ‘fix’ the ADHD ‘problem.’  She’s not all wrong – we have a lot of influence over how we live our lives.  But there are some things that we can’t change – death…and the presence of adult ADHD…are two of them.  We can use medical science to stay healthy much longer.  We can use behavioral and mental health science to vastly improve life with adult ADHD.  But we can’t fully eliminate either of them.*

Grieving is about understanding that we are not as powerful as we would like to be and that while we have influence, our influence has limits.

How Do You Grieve?

Grieving is a deeply personal process, so I will share what I went through and what I have observed others do.

After many years, it could no longer wait.  My sadness about the obvious gap between dreams and reality needed exploring.  So I journaled.  I read.  I talked – with friends, sometimes with my husband about my sadness – which he shared.  I took better care of myself and taught myself to love myself again so that I was in a position of strength to better take on this pain.  I explored what my life was, and I tried to sort out the positive from the negative.  That search for the positive was a really important part of my grieving.  While I felt hopeless, it was really hard to accept ‘what was.’  It was just too painful!  When I could find some positive parts, it was easier to say ‘this is what is…and there are ways to make the good parts better while understanding how to negotiate the bad.’  It made me feel sad to think about the lost years, but also hopeful to think about a better future.  While ADHD isn’t changeable, how we deal with ADHD is.

Educating myself about ADHD was critical.  When I didn’t understand ADHD, I misinterpreted the symptomatic behaviors – almost always in a negative way.  His ‘distraction’ was interpreted as lack of affection rather than a non-emotional symptom.  It’s hard, if you don’t understand ADHD, not to feel bitter when you (incorrectly) think the person who is supposed to love you the most no longer does.

As I was doing all of this learning I came to the conclusion that we were both good people who had gotten lost.  That we had given it our best (in our own ways) and we had both reacted in ways that were human and understandable.  I learned that not only was my husband’s ADHD a huge issue, but so were my responses to his ADHD.  I realized that what I needed was to forgive myself for all of the poor choices I had made…and forgive my husband for all of the poor behaviors and choices he had made, too.

I came to a conclusion that helped me greatly as I moved through my grief.  We had both done the best we could, with the information that we had had…which turned out to be incomplete because it had lacked the ADHD component.

It’s sad that we didn’t know what we were doing.  But I couldn’t hang onto my ignorance forever.  If I could accept my own actions and forgive them, and accept my partner’s actions and forgive them, then I could put my sadness into context and move ahead.  Yes, we had made many mistakes.  Yes, we had had dreams of the perfect relationship, which I now understood were based in that short, hyper-focused courtship phase.  I understood why I was sad and felt it was OKAY to be sad…but that continuing to hold onto that sadness wouldn’t change anything.

After finding acceptance, I was ready to take the next step - asking “what do I want this pain I’ve experienced to turn into?”  I knew for sure that I needed to create a life in which I was happy and whole and that I was the best person to take responsibility for that.  I am responsible for my own happiness – not my husband, or kids, or anyone else.

So I figured out who I wanted to be (certainly NOT that aggressive witch!!) and started acting that way.  Armed with knowledge I accepted my husband, and started treating him with empathy and respect.  He responded quite quickly – taking on his ADHD issues with more rigor etc.  Yes, we had bumps but we did make it through…and it all started with my deciding that I didn’t have as much control as I thought I did…unless I wanted to leave, which I didn’t want to do until I felt confident that all other avenues had been exhausted.

This sort of shift doesn’t change the fact that the struggles of our early relationship aren’t sad.  It will always be sad that we spent years in which we could have been happy in a miserable struggle…just as it will always be sad that my mother, who died at too early an age in 2008, has not been around to see the amazing people her grandchildren have become.  But in both cases, asking, “what do I want this pain to turn into” is a useful tool.  I can use the information and wisdom I’ve gained to (along with my husband) to grab life and create joy – not relying on far off dreams, but right now, today, based on who we really are as people.


*About 20-30% of kids diagnosed with ADHD no longer qualify for a diagnosis of ADHD as an adult.  It is unclear why this happens, though it’s thought that some of it might be misdiagnosis and some of it might be putting strong coping strategies in place that manage ADHD to a point of no longer qualifying.  Adult ADHD, however, does not go away and, in fact, can intensify with age.