Rethinking Aggression and Defense in ADHD Relationships

How to help couples understand the destructiveness and intertwined nature of many of their interactions?  I was reading a novel the other day about civil war (an apt analogy for many ADHD marriages!) and came across some ideas that I think can help describe why couples get into negative patterns even when neither one of them wants to.

Here are the quotes:
“Rarely do people set out to start a civil war.  Invariably, when such wars break out both sides consider themselves to be the aggrieved ones…The moment one group feels itself so aggrieved that it uses either its own weapons or the weapons of the state to “prevent” the other side from bringing about its supposed “evil” designs, then that other side will have no choice but to take up arms against them.  Both sides will believe the other to be the instigator…

It’s the lesson of Yugoslavia and Rwanda.  If you were a Tutsi just before the Rwandan holocaust who did not hate Hutus, who married a Hutu, who hired Hutus or taught school to Hutu students, it would not have stopped Hutus from taking machetes to you and your family.  You would have had only two choices:  to die or to take up arms against Hutus, whether you had previously hated them or not.”
- Orson Scott Card, from the afterword of Empire

No one is wielding machetes in your marriage, though there is pain enough to go around even without the machetes.  Card’s point is right on target, though, about how one must respond to protect oneself from aggression and, also, about how both parties feel the other is responsible.  “If you hadn’t forced your ADHD behavior on my life then I wouldn’t have responded this way” and “It’s all your fault – if you weren’t so mean to me then I could do something about my ADHD!” are the common justifications for fighting in an ADHD affected marriage.

I’m more interested, though, in the first idea – that overt aggression about things that matter requires a response.  Think about ADHD – the person with the ADHD isn’t aware of how his ADHD affects his spouse, but it really does – “aggressively” changing her life for the worse.  As many of the posts in the forum attest – these aren’t small changes.  The non-ADHD spouses are desperate, exhausted, ready to give up their marriages and all they dreamed of because their lives become so unbearable.

The non-ADHD spouse has her own form of aggression.  In response to the unwanted imposition of ADHD symptoms, the non-ADHD spouse starts to attack her spouse – nagging, belittling, withdrawing affection or sex, and cutting him off from his kids are just a few ways that the attacks come.  He can either hide in a hole/deaden himself or…fight back.

The most common way I see spouses with ADHD fight back is to take the position that their ADHD isn’t really the issue – or, perhaps, that they are “doing enough” for their ADHD symptoms.  Their other option, to admit that ADHD is a core problem in the face of the onslaught, feels like surrender and “giving in too much”…which isn’t so likely in the "civil war" that many of these relationships turn into (think of the Rwandan example). 

So both fight, in their own ways, and reinforce the need to fight further in order to maintain any semblance that they are in control.  It’s sad that a truce is very, very hard to call until there is literally no other option – that is until one spouse asks for a divorce.  At that time the pretense of control that fighting instills is shown for what it is – a sham - and suddenly the spouse who is being left realizes he or she simply doesn’t have control…and must approach their relationship completely differently.

But wouldn’t it be better if both parties could agree that they have no other choice right now – before they have so worn each other out that there is no affection left anywhere?  That their current path is unsustainable...period?  Moving away from ingrained aggressive patterns starts with understanding that the root cause of the issue is ADHD symptoms and that they must be effectively treated for forward progress.  But I'm not letting the non-ADHD spouse off the hook here.  She (or he) must understand the destructive power of aggressive anger – and the fighting response that it inevitably invokes.  She might train herself to think Hutus and Tutsis next time she's tempted to lash out at her partner.

It’s a mistake to think that aggression helps (though it's easy to see why frustrated spouses turn to aggression).  One might win a short-term battle - for example getting a chore done that would otherwise have remained incomplete.  But though the battle is won the war is lost.  Nagging, belittling, and shutting out are the machetes of the non-ADHD spouse’s side of the marriage, just as underestimating the effect of ADHD symptoms is the machete of the ADHD spouse.  For an eventual “winning” of the war,  BOTH need to step away from these things.  Better treatment on one side.  Counseling, reading, meditation, exercise, forgiveness…on the other.

Just as you were in lockstep in the escalation of your “war”, so too must you be in lockstep for its de-escalation.  Neither partner can do it on his or her own.  The crisis is jointly created and must be jointly – and simultaneously - defused.  It doesn’t matter that the ADHD came first – particularly since the ADHD spouse has been unaware (and probably still is) of the complete effect of his symptoms.  Not an excuse – just reality.  The past is just that – the past.  As in the ideal of any peace negotiations, the questions are can you move beyond and let go of your past? and where will you go from here?