If You Are Engaged to Someone with ADHD

There have been quite a few comments lately on this site suggesting that people should avoid marrying someone with ADD.  This advice makes me very uneasy and I would like to weigh in on it.

Statistically speaking, about 50% of ALL marriages entered into these days end in divorce.  That’s not great odds.  If a doctor said to me “If you eat these raspberries, you have a 50% chance of dying” I would give up raspberries immediately.  But satisfying relationships aren’t like a food you can give up and replace with other nutrients.  I don’t know about you, but I feel that the potential upside of having a great relationship is worth that 50% statistical risk of heartbreak (which is, after all, less final than death).

The folks who say “stay away from ADD” are suggesting that marrying a person with ADD increases your chances of heartbreak.  Certainly, research suggests that people who have ADD are more likely to be in dysfunctional relationships (the jury is out on whether or not they are more likely to divorce – one study says yes, another says no).  But there are other things that add to a person’s likelihood for divorce which these folks aren't mentioning.  When was the last time someone said to you “Don’t marry someone whose parents got divorced!  It increases your chances of heartbreak” or “Don’t marry someone with a family history of depression…”
Statistics are averages.  What is important to you is what will your specific relationship look like?  The people who are saying “stay away from ADD” know nothing about your specific relationship, only their own unsuccessful one.

I would like to give you some questions to ask yourself about your relationship to better assess whether it has a chance of being in the 50% that lasts.  These ideas take ADD into account, as that’s only smart.  But you’ll note that they are also just generally good relationship suggestions...so consider this pre-marriage counseling with an ADD twist.  For this exercise, I will assume that the non-ADD partner is female, and the ADD partner is male.

Do you love him as he is today?  If he never changed a thing, would you cherish being with him?  Or do you secretly wish you could change him?  Too many women fall for the “Beauty and the Beast” myth – that is “if I only love him enough he’ll overcome his faults and we will live happily ever after”.  Reality is quite different.  What you see today is what you will get tomorrow, with one exception, which is…

If he stopped hyperfocusing on you, would you still love him?  People with ADD find courtship so intensely stimulating that they often hyperfocus on their partner.  The recipient of this hyperfocus feels intensely loved and cared for.  But hyperfocus ends – always – and the relationship looks quite different afterwards.  In order to be able to survive that shift, you need to know that you can communicate clearly and safely with each other, and that there is a strong foundation in place – shared values and interests, similar styles in how you live in your home (messy, neat, organized or not), and desire (or lack of it) for a family.  Unfortunately, the only time you will be able to truly ascertain if you can survive the shift is after you've made it - typically 24-28 months after the start of the hyperfocus courtship.  So that means WAIT to figure out if you're compatible.  When you're in that hyperfocus stage it's 'clear' you are great for each other.  It's only after the dopamine levels of infatuation subside that you get the real picture of how you are together.  

What does your financial situation look like?  Do you both have the potential to hold jobs and support the responsibilities of marriage and a family?  Some people with ADD have spotty work track records or are financially impulsive (gambling, lots of debt, etc).  If this is the case with your potential partner, don’t gloss over it.  Addictive behavior and risk-taking are often part of an ADD personality and can be very hard on a marriage (just ask anyone whose husband just gambled away $50,000 or took on significant debt without her knowledge.)  If you see these characteristics, take a step back and give yourselves enough time before marrying to verify that you will make a financially responsible couple.  Ask yourself how you would feel if you were the sole bread earner for the family.

Are you flexible and ready for adventure?  The best ADD marriages I’ve seen are those in which the non-ADD spouse values flexibility and adventure over perfect organization.  You can be a good organizer (as I am) but you must have the ability to at least tolerate confusion and last minute changes if you are going to live successfully with someone with ADD.

How well do you communicate about difficult or highly emotional issues?  Have you developed healthy ways to work through your differences?  Every marriage has tough conversations and ADD can add even more of these.  If your current way of solving problems together is to put them off, walk away from them, or never resolve them, then you should work hard to develop good communication skills before you tie the knot.  If you have no method of satisfactory conflict resolution (and by that I don't mean one spouse always giving in), rethink your plans.

Does your spouse accept his ADD?  Does he take responsibility for making sure it’s not interfering in his life?  Does he understand that his ADD can affect you?  Most people who accept their ADD and take responsibility for it can manage it so that it will not interfere significantly with their lives.  But a spouse who denies his ADD is trouble.

Call me cautious, but marriage is a bigger, more varied commitment than most who are embarking upon it realize at the time.  Infatuation and our own complex dreams about “happily ever after” cloud our vision about what is arguably one of the most life changing decisions we will ever make.  For everyone, ADD or not, it makes sense to step back and ask some tough questions.  For people who have fallen in love with someone with ADD my advice would be to take your time.  Give yourselves plenty of opportunity to understand what your life will really look like once the hyperfocus has stopped, and once you’ve become familiar with each other.  To do this, you have to be together, unmarried, long enough for the hyperfocus to end.  (You’ll know when it does, for things will feel quite different, but it's likely to happen sometime between 24 and 28 months out.)

Once that’s happened, see whether or not your living and communication styles are compatible.  Find out whether or not you love each other for who you are today, not for who you dream you might be.  Determine whether or not you need to separate your finances (and speak with a lawyer about ways to do this, if you need to).  Learn all that you can about each other.  As a couple you have advantages over the people who are saying “don’t marry someone with ADD”, for you know what to look out for related to ADD.  Unlike them, when your husband stops coming to bed with you because he’s distracted by something else you will know enough to talk about it right away as an ADD symptom rather than to take it personally and think he doesn’t love you.

While ADD has disadvantages in a relationship, it also has many advantages that people don’t always attribute to ADD.  To give you some examples – one ADD friend of mine took his fiancé aside 20 years ago and said “I’m pretty impulsive…I can’t guarantee that I won’t have an affair while we are married.  I don’t think I will, but I can’t guarantee it.  Are you still interested in marrying me?”  Who, but an impulsive ADD person would have started that conversation?!  (They’ve been married happily, with a wildly loving family life for 20 years…and no affairs.)

In my own case, my husband’s ability to “live in the moment” and let things be is a wonderful complement to my own desire to “shape” my life around me.  I have learned a great deal from him over the years about “live and let live” and my life has been greatly improved over what I envision it would have been if I had not been under his gentle tutelage.  His compassion for others is another aspect of his ADD personality which I value tremendously.  We both have faults, but our strengths make us greater as a couple than the sum of our parts.

I know numerous other very successful couples with an ADD husband and a non-ADD wife.  In each case she organizes most things and provides the driving force and momentum to the relationship and he contributes much more subtle things – a warmth with the kids, lots of surprises which keep things varied, intensity, breadth of interests and passions.  No marriage is easy, but these marriages are, well, interesting in the most positive way.

Importantly, these marriages all share one thing.  ADD is not the defining element of the relationship.  As you think about whether to marry a person with ADD, think hard about where ADD fits in.  If your partner takes responsibility for his ADD and if you have a strong foundation together, then ADD will likely stay in the healthy position of being just one more aspect of many things that make you a successful couple.  If ADD is already at the forefront of how you interact, then be cautious.