What happens when you are your partner reach an impasse about how to move forward in your relationship? I got email today from a woman who wrote about how she and her husband are ‘stuck.’ She wants to work on repair, while he expects her to ‘act like nothing has happened in the last five years and move on’…including have sex together.
This couple may be stuck, in part, because they are moving in opposite directions. While it is impossible for the two of them to repair painful memories by ignoring them, his general direction is to live in the present, as many with ADHD do. She, on the other hand, is more focused on what has happened over the last five years. This is pretty common for non-ADHD partners, and particularly non-ADHD women partners. ‘If we discuss it enough,’ the thinking goes, ‘ we will come to understand it better and be able to relieve the pain and move forward.’ What really happens, in my observation, is that discussing the past creates additional pain – both for the ADHD partner (who often feels as if he/she is being blamed for all the past experiences) and for the non-ADHD partner as he/she relives those past, painful experiences and (subconsciously sometimes) sees their continuation in the present day interactions.
A better approach would be to focus on the present and the future, making each day you are currently living as positive as possible. I’m not talking about plastering a smile on your face and pretending to be happy. Rather, I’m suggesting that making an effort to create positive interactions, and an effort to notice and comment on positive interactions, can improve your current situation. Call it the power of positive thinking.
This approach doesn’t magically fix things, but it does tend to make the conversations you have between you be about problem-solving, rather than about blame. Furthermore, it makes each individual in the partnership responsible for creating – right now – good interactions.
To get there, it helps to empathize with your partner’s misfortune and problems. In the best scenario, this leads to forgiveness – both for your own participation in painful episodes from the past (and you are always a participant!) and for your partner’s missteps. That forgiveness allows you to approach your daily interactions with a more positive feeling and a sense that a different future might be able to be had.
This ‘focus on today’ approach won’t work if your partner isn’t thinking the same way. (NOTHING works, in the long run, if your partner doesn’t work with you to address your issues…see the two posts at the end of this post about the impact of denial.) To succeed, you must both understand that your task is to make today the best it can be. And that, as a task, is a whole lot more manageable than ‘fixing what happened before’ which, by definition, is impossible. Over time, if you follow this ‘working on the present’ to its logical conclusion, you will also address the issues that plagued you in the past. After all, until the symptomatic behaviors and negative responses you have had get addressed, they will keep coming up in your present moment. But the ‘today-focused’ environment in which you tackle those challenges should be quite a bit more contained (i.e. manageable) and more positive – both of which increase your likelihood of success.
As for the sex issue? That's often a difficult situation for couples in trouble. My personal view is that a short-term refusal to have sex can be reasonable, but over the long-term it is unreasonable to assume a relationship can prosper if one partner demands monogamy but refuses to have sex. It is also unreasonable to expect that sex will be happy or good if the more interested party isn't paying attention to the issues the less interested partner reports are interfering with (in this case) her desire to have sex. In other words - both partners need to 'give,' listen to each other's needs, and attempt to address those needs...as well as try to find and give intimacy.
Denial posts that may be of interest:
My blog post Getting Past Denial
Words from my husband about the importance of ADHD partners getting past denial
My blog post at Psychology Today, ADHD Doesn't Cause Divorce, Denial Does