I’m spending quite a bit of time these days thinking about how to get men with ADHD to realize that their ADHD affects those around them more than they think. At least two men I can think of who have ADHD say they wish someone (other than their wives) had “hit them upside the head” with information that would convince them that their ADHD was causing real problems. They could have saved themselves divorce (in both cases), many personal problems and saved their wives a great deal of hurt. So here’s one attempt at doing just that – providing an outside voice that says “pay attention”. I would be interested in your feedback:
For Men with ADHD Who Aren’t Convinced it Matters
Do you feel as if your wife spends a lot of time blaming you and your ADHD for your marital issues? Does she nag you all the time? Suggest that you’re no good or never help her? Perhaps she’s claimed that you don’t love her, even though you know that’s not true. Are you frustrated because you are successful at work, but can’t seem to get a break from your wife at home?
Did your wife used to be fun but now she’s just tired and complaining all the time – just a “stick in the mud”?
Do you wonder what happened to the woman you married? Does the disappearance of your “old wife” make you sad or angry?
If you are experiencing any of these things, then it’s likely that ADHD is getting in the way of your marriage. And getting in the way much more than you might think or may be willing to admit at this point.
But wait, you say. You’re describing issues with my WIFE, not me. But I ask you to stay with me, and hear me out. I’ve studied ADHD-affected relationships for quite a while now, and know a lot about them.
This may be a touchy subject because you are probably having arguments with your spouse right now about who is to blame for all of your marital issues. I would urge both of you to put aside trying to blame a PERSON and, instead, both turn to blaming ADHD symptoms. The reason to do this? It more accurately reflects your situation. If you are like most men with ADHD you don’t realize it, but after you got married your behavior changed because of ADHD. Under the pressure that those symptoms put on your wife, she changed, too. You can’t see this clearly right now (or at least may not be able to see the whole effect) because of the specific wiring of the ADHD brain. But that effect is there. It’s like a black hole. You can’t see it, but you know it’s there because things around it act differently. Same with ADHD. You may not know its effect is as great as it is…but people around you act differently – most importantly, your wife.
If you’re not too sure yet about whether I know what I’m talking about, here are the specific symptoms which cause the most pain and problems in a marriage. You and your wife are experiencing the effects of at least some of them.
- Impulsivity or “Inability to “put on the brakes”” – financially, in conversations
- Defensiveness and anger
- Inability to accurately assess emotional cues
DISTRACTIBILITY is the #1 criminal here. The ADHD symptom – inattention- leads to a wide variety of BIG problems. First and foremost, when a man with ADHD is distracted and always off doing other things, his wife feels unloved and taken for granted. Love is about attention – his distraction says “I don’t love you”, even though he’s not aware of it.
Further, distraction leads to an inability to complete basic tasks around the house. At first a non-ADHD spouse (particularly a wife) compensates for her husband’s distraction by taking over what needs to be done, but she ends up feeling like a slave. So she turns into a nag – because “turning up the volume” on her requests for help is the only way she can get attention when he’s so distracted. Or she throws a fit or gets angry. Same concept. Sometimes her nagging works – he focuses enough and does some work, but he’s not happy, and it’s a pyrrhic victory for her, too. And it’s not a permanent solution – she has to nag again later to get more done, which is a very vicious cycle, as I’m sure you’re aware.
Another distractibility issue? Doing things on time – if you have ADHD it’s just too easy to lose track of time when so much is always going on…so bills don’t get paid, or you’re late getting home, or you can’t get to parties on time, or you forget to pick up the kids at school, or you don’t make the parent/teacher conference… You may not see being late as a real issue – and if you didn’t have other issues in your marriage, it might not be. But if you’re not actively working with your spouse to mitigate ADHD symptoms, then ALL symptoms become a problem – they work together to make everything worse for the non-ADD spouse and for the marriage.
IMPULSIVITY is particularly hurtful in the financial arena. Not all ADHD spouses have this issue, but there are many instances when an ADHD spouse’s family finances are in ruins because they bought toys instead of paid the utility bill, or had a spending addiction (EBay, anyone?), or they quit their job without having another in hand. Yes, one can give reasons why this might be the habit (from “I deserve it” to “I pay less on EBay than I would in a store” and more) but if you recognize this issue, it’s an ADHD symptom, NOT something else. And, yes, it’s hurting your marriage because having financial problems while married to a person whom you can’t trust to reign in their spending causes huge emotional stress.
Impulsivity also hurts in the area of communication. How many times can a man blurt out something mean (apologizing tomorrow…or maybe not apologizing at all) before his wife no longer wants to communicate with him constructively? He may justify his words as “just being honest” but she’s hurt. After a while, she’ll think “Why bother? Why not just fight back?” And how many times can he interrupt her without sending the message that his point of view is just plain more important than hers?
INABILITY TO READ EMOTIONAL CUES If your wife complains that you interrupt her too much, believe her. One of the symptoms of ADHD is that you don’t “see” what you are doing very well without training yourself in special ways to do so. She might be saying she’s unhappy. Believe her – she really is. She might say she feels lonely (even if you don’t). She is. You can’t pick up what she’s saying “between the lines” very well unless she’s screaming at you (in which case her anger isn’t really between the lines at all!) This has to do with brain wiring – it’s not a deliberate attempt to misunderstand on your part. But your inability to pick up on all she is saying and its importance for how she feels puts you at a disadvantage. To neutralize this disadvantage you have to trust she’s being honest with you when she describes her pain. Trust the scientific studies that show that people with ADHD don’t read emotional cues well, and don’t respond to these cues adequately when they do read them.
DEFENSIVENESS is a standard way to manage ADHD problems. So many people have said over the years that people with ADHD need to do better, and lay problems at their feet (marital problems, work problems, school problems, etc) that it seems it just can’t be so. People with ADHD are a good people trying to do their best (okay, there are a few bad apples, but that isn’t their ADHD)…so they develop a coping strategy that works pretty well when lots and lots of problems come their way – they become defensive. If they’re defensive enough (or aggressive enough) and able to deflect the problem, the problems will often just go away because no one wants to deal with fighting through that defensiveness. It works when you’re a kid, because no one is invested enough to “stick with you”. But once you’re married you’re STUCK…by contract. Which means defensiveness doesn’t deflect problems effectively anymore. All it does is distance husband and wife. He, in his defensiveness, becomes inapproachable. She ends up with nowhere else to go, so she pushes harder, and harder, and harder. Lots of anger – in both spouses – ensues. She’s PISSED he won’t deal with the issues. He’s PISSED she won’t leave him alone.
All of this complexity – and all of these hard feelings – are the result of ADHD symptoms. Yes, the person with the ADHD is the starting point for all of this pain. And, unfortunately, he is the only one who can alleviate it accepting his ADHD is hurting his relationship and then addressing the symptoms. Has the wife contributed? Sure. Sometimes a whole lot. But the ROOT CAUSE of the issues is ADHD symptoms. The ONLY way to get rid of the problems is to address the root cause.
Is your wife a nag now? Yep. Is she angry? Probably. Is she considering leaving? Very possibly, even if you aren’t aware of it. Does it feel as if she’s punishing you sometimes, making you sometimes want to punish her back? Probably. But just as you don’t deserve to be punished for the unfortunate fact that you have ADHD, she doesn’t deserve to be punished for her natural response to your ADHD. Your symptoms are making her life oh so much harder than it has to be. Put the shoe on the other foot. You’d be really angry if someone had something that was treatable and refused to take it seriously enough to treat it and your life fell apart as a result. Particularly if that person vowed to love and protect you for life.
Don’t believe she’s right? Think she’s just complaining? Can’t understand why the soft, wonderful, organized, caring woman you used to love has disappeared? Does it all feel unfair? Well, it is unfair – ADHD is a biological fact and that isn’t fair at all. But you can either take charge of what biology has handed you (just as you would take responsibility for a heart condition you’ve had since childhood) or you can continue to let your ADHD symptoms create misery for those around you.
And here’s the real kicker.
Women whose husbands are currently resisting taking full responsibility for treating their ADHD feel that their husbands are highly responsible for the problems in their marriage. This angers them and they show it. Women whose husbands have taken control of their ADHD – and who have allowed their wives to work with them on their ADHD issues - are much more likely to admit that yes, they too had a pretty big role in their marriage problems. They back off, and start working on their own issues (anger, etc), too.
Take real control of your own problems, and your wife will take control of hers.
You may not feel like you are in crisis right now – you’ve spent your entire life putting coping strategies of various sorts in place so that you can move forward day to day. You may even be really successful in your job, even if you aren’t currently successful in your marriage. You MAY even think that you are successful in your marriage. Lots of men with ADHD (my husband included in his first marriage) are absolutely SHOCKED when their wife asks them for a divorce. Just didn’t see it coming.
If your wife has shown you this post, trust that your marriage is in more trouble than you understand, and that your trouble is the direct result of your ADHD symptoms. You can get them under control so that your marriage doesn’t disintegrate further and, in fact, starts to be fun again. FUN – REALLY!!! You CAN have a marriage that both you and your wife enjoy being part of.
Don’t hide from this or downplay the issue. Statistically, if you have ADHD it is more likely than not that your marriage is actually clinically dysfunctional. But because of the nature of ADHD, those dysfunctional marriages can be changed with effective treatment.
If you don’t believe you have ADHD, it’s easy to find out. Go get a full evaluation from a psychiatrist who knows what they are doing. Then you’ll know – one way or the other.
You have NOTHING to lose and a HUGE amount to gain by saying to yourself “I owe it to myself and to my family to fully treat my ADHD and start to relieve the pressure it puts on us all”. If you are unsuccessful, you are no worse off than you are right now. If you don’t try, your marriage will most likely get worse or fail. (Do you know that people with ADHD are twice as likely to be divorced as people who don’t have ADHD? That’s how miserable their symptoms make those around them…) And treatment doesn’t mean “trying harder”…
Good treatment consists of two simultaneous approaches – physical changes and behavioral (habit) changes. The first group includes things like taking medications, taking fish oil, exercising (which changes chemical flows in your brain), LENS therapy and more. The second is changing habits that you’ve developed over the years. Some examples – improving organizational skills, learning to have conversations in which both parties listen better, finding ways to remember things longer, mindfulness training.
Meds alone won’t do it. And you can’t address the habits side without the physical changes (there’s a reason they became habits – you have trouble doing them other ways). “Trying harder” doesn’t work. “Doing differently” works. And in this case – doing differently means something VERY specific - doing both sides of treatment.
Take a chance that I’m right. Take a leap of faith that the science is right and even though you can’t see it, your ADHD affects those around you more than you realize. Think about your wife’s changed behavior over the years and that black hole. ADHD is there – and it’s changing the behaviors of those around you. While she (and you) can make temporary adjustments, the root cause of her behavior is untreated ADHD symptoms. Only addressing the root cause will affect lasting change. Treat the ADHD symptoms (fully, from both sides of treatment) so that you - and those you love - can live a life you love living. It’s worth it for all of you.