Overcoming Defensiveness in Your ADHD Marriage

We had this post from one of our readers and wanted to write a bit in response about the defensiveness many men feel when approached about having ADHD and/or going on medication.  The post:

"I can TOTALLY relate to the anger/defensiveness that other posters are bringing up. Most of my family has ADD so I understand it. My SO of 4 years has it was diagnosed about 3 years ago (thanks to my encouraging him to get diagnosed). Anyway, he refuses to get on medication. I've tried every way imaginable to communicate with him with no avail. Doesn't matter how I say it or explain I'm not upset with him or think it is his fault. He gets royally ticked off and loses his temper. I can't take his temper anymore. I would be more positive on "trying" if he would understand that his ADD does cause problems and WE both need to find solutions. It is very obvious he has low self esteem. What really upsets me is how he spins whatever I say to be my fault. To him I'm just a very negative person. I can't tell him when something bothers me because he gets defensive and thinks I'm being "negative". I'm at the end of my rope. I think the only way this would work is if I just excepted status quo and I can't live like that. I have also noticed whatever I tell him I need he almost unconsciencly does the exact opposite."

Walter's Response:

The situation you are describing is repeated daily between hundrends of thousands of couples who are dealing with ADHD symptoms. It seems that it would make sense that to talk to someone carefully and gently about their challenges would seem welcomed, right? Well, it sounds like your significant other is caught by at least two powerful dynamics in his life. He is male, and, he is a male with ADHD.

Most people with undiagnosed or misunderstood ADHD grow up hearing a constant refrain. “You should be able to do better” or “just work a little harder”. I recently asked an intelligent, beautiful, athletic and successful young woman what the word was that she most often used to describe herself. She said, “Inadequate”. When people see themselves as chronically inadequate, they cannot possibly have a great self-esteem. When those around them comment on their behavior and their actions, there is a predictable response comprised of anger or withdrawal/avoidance.

The problem here is that even if you think you are ringing a small bell when making an observation, what is heard by your partner is a banging gong of criticism that never is completely silenced and always ready to be activated.  The other problem you confront is that your significant other is male. I run men’s groups and I always start new groups with this question: When you were a small boy, what message did you receive about expressing feelings/emotions? The nearly universal response to this question is “don’t”. Your partner has a condition that was likely never understood for what is was, leaving him to figure it out for himself and I would almost guarantee that his own perception was that he was stupid, lazy or inadequate. In addition, he likely never felt permission to talk about these feelings with anyone. He sounds stuck and you sound understandably frustrated and sad.

You clearly want what is best for your friend and have tried several approaches. What he may not do for himself, he may do for you. Ask him to see a professional to support you. Tell him that you need guidance so that you can feel more successful in the relationship and be less “negative”. He needs to get in front of someone who can help him understand that what he is feeling is NOT his fault but that he is pushing others away. My guess is that he wants you very much at his side. Good luck! Walter Walter Sherburne, LICSW, is an individual and family therapist at the Hallowell Center and maintains a private practice. An expert in child welfare and mental health treatment, Mr. Sherburne is a consultant and speaker. He can be contacted at [email protected].