Rekindling Love and Affection, or “Losing the Heart of Stone”

There is a very interesting conversation going on around my “Learning to Like Yourself Again” post of 7/30/09.  A number of readers relate their stories about the relief they have felt as they have started to “become themselves” again and let go of some of their struggle.  The question for some, though, is “how do I rekindle the warmth/affection in my own heart for my spouse?”

It’s wonderful if you can rediscover the core of who you are and begin to reassert your true self.  Most times this means creating something of a separation between you and your ADD partner’s life.  For the most part, this is very healthy.  You will do better if both people recognize that each is an individual – each with free will, different approaches to the same problems, different ways of seeing and interpreting what goes on around you.

But after years of conflict, things have changed.  Your mutual ability to connect affectionately has disappeared as has your ability to feel “safe” with your partner.  If your marriage follows the patterns that mine did, you hardened your heart to protect yourself (from repeated disappointments, from pain, from the struggle of managing it ALL).  Your spouse hardened his heart from the pain of being pursued and put down, from the loss of the “safety” of your love as you withdrew it.  Being a person with ADD, and living primarily “in the moment”, he moved on and filled his days with things other than you even as he (and his ADD) became more and more central to your struggle.

There remains a chasm that seems impossible to bridge.  How do you get past it?

The very first steps are to recognize that the chasm exists, and that it exists for very legitimate reasons.  Your lives were too raw to leave yourselves open – you both HAD to protect yourselves in order to simply survive.  Even as you start to heal, the fact that you don’t immediately feel warmth for your spouse (or he for you) after what you’ve been through is OKAY.

That said, you would prefer to feel fulfilled in your relationship again, not just happy about re-finding yourself.

Scientific studies about the nature of romance suggest that doing challenging and new things together is an excellent way to recreate bonds.  Things that make you laugh at the same time are particularly good.  One study, in which couples had their arms tied together and legs tied together and had to move an object across a room showed an improvement in emotional bonding in just 7 minutes!  Related research suggests that doing things together that aren’t engaging/new/challenging doesn’t help you bond.  So sitting in the same room and reading a book or cooking family dinner might be an improvement in “togetherness” for you, but it won’t enrich your bonds while hot air ballooning or taking tango lessons together might.  “New and exciting” doesn’t have to be just physical activities (though physicality plays to most ADD peoples’ strengths).  Anything that is “new” and “challenging” will do.  Things that make you laugh together aren’t bad, either.

If both of you are up for it, one rule of thumb can be “do something silly together every day.”  Another great idea – spend some part of every day physically touching each other.  Start small – take a walk and hold hands.  Sit on the sofa and watch a movie together with your legs intertwined.  Or, (one of my favorites) for one month set your alarm 10 minutes early and start each day holding each other before you get up in the morning and talk about things that make you happy (including what you like about your spouse or things that you did together recently).  For a while, insist that these interactions NOT include any sexual activity – they are just a great way to start your day feeling positive and focusing on each other.

Treatment for ADD symptoms is part of the mix as well.  An untreated partner who is consistently distracted is going to be hard to get to know again because he or she will not spend enough “engaged” time with you.  (This will be different from when you were dating, when he was hyperfocused on you.)  The good news iis that folks with ADD are often real optimists who easily live in the present.  Once a spouse starts to really trust that the changes you’ve made (as you’ve found the “real” you again) are going to stick, and that he’s not going to get hit over the head every time he does something differently than what you expect, it’s possible he’ll throw himself back into the relationship with gusto.  This was true in my marriage (in fact my husband’s enthusiasm ran ahead of the reality of our situation for a while).  For him, the important factor was learning to “trust” that I was committed to being the old me, and wouldn't revert to the newer, bitchy me.

Talking plays a role, as well.  It’s important that both spouses acknowledge the emotional distance between them, its validity, and agree that it’s worth working on getting to know each other again.  While it’s possible that a non-ADD spouse will be taking the lead on this (due to better organizational skills and less distraction) it is, none the less, important that the ADD spouse be open to seizing moments of emotional connection as they happen.  It might feel a little emotionally “dangerous” or false to take that walk and hold hands, but you have to start somewhere as you rebuild your trust in your ability to connect again.

Though you need to be willing to take emotional risks, reconnecting can’t be forced.  You both need to want to reconnect and do the work that is involved in making it happen.  And, yes, you both need a period of time to mourn the fact that your relationship hasn’t gone the way that you once expected it would.  Some of the singly most painful moments of my marriage came after we had both committed to re-connecting and I faced the truth about just how far apart we had become.  However, the great news is that with concerted effort (and using all of the ideas given above) we did bridge that gap and ended up more in love than we had been at any other point in our marriage (including our wedding day).  Our love is different now – deeper, with more understanding, more accepting…better.

Teach yourselves to openly acknowledge the positive.  This is habit you've gotten out of, in part because you suspected that if you said "thank you" or something positive then it would take off some of the heat and things would start to "slip" again.  Be aware of this bias and make a pact to both try to overcome it.  Say "thank you" when he unloads the dishwasher.  Tell him he looks great in that pair of pants.  Smile and respond if he says something positive about you.

If you are both invested, you can rekindle your feelings.  Think of the process as creating many “threads” of connection between you.  Each contact provides an opportunity to attach another thread.  After many threads are established, you start to weave the “cloth” of the new emotional relationship.  So be open to whatever moments of connection come your way.  Remember to make time to laugh and try to do new and challenging things together.  Try to relax, but seek out small ways to touch each other verbally and emotionally that can improve your bonds.  You’ll start to know you are succeeding when some of the tension around being together starts to ease.

One last note for those with children.  Make sure to keep opportunities open for doing fun things together as a family.  I’ve seen a number of families where a non-ADD spouse decides to “move on with her life” and creates a fulfilling life with her kids that leaves her spouse on the “outside”.  While it may be more efficient to leave the ADD spouse behind to do whatever he’s doing at the moment, your love for your children is an important potential point of connection…and who can’t laugh sometimes when with their kids?!

As idea starters, here are a few “new and exciting” things you might be able to do together:

More physical

  • Take up kayaking, try sailing lessons, go white water rafting
  • Take dance lessons together (try some of the romantic steps – tango, etc)
  • Join a biking club (try a tandem?) or hiking club
  • Build and take care of a garden together
  • Join a good cause walk or ride (AIDS, MS, hunger) and train together
  • Spend a week at a dude ranch
  • Take up any new sport that’s easy for couples to do together (tennis, yoga, golf etc)
  • Have an old fashioned outdoor family party – pizza, tents in the back yard for the kids, sack races, egg toss, etc.  Make sure all the adults participate, too
  • Volunteer for the local “rails to trails” organization or an environmental group of your choice
  • Hike out into the wilderness for a week or weekend

Less physical

  • Go hot air ballooning
  • Go to driving school (skid school) together
  • Find a mutual topic of interest and start a blog together
  • Start a weekly date night – don’t do the same thing twice in 6 months
  • Take a picnic on a pontoon boat – go to a beach
  • Find a weird new hobby together (collecting something inexpensive, building musical instruments, creating paper airplane contests for local schools?)
  • Go to an amusement park and ride the ferris wheel, merry-go-round and any others you loved in your childhood
  • Serve food at the local soup kitchen
  • Take walks and hold hands
  • Splurge on a concert or play – rent a room and take yourself out of your normal environment
  • Go gliding
  • Try fishing
  • Join a community chorus or band
  • Leave love notes on his mirror