I am delighted to present a new guest blog post by Melissa Orlov.
Melissa is an important thought-leader in the field of couples therapy.
This is a time of high stress for many couples, particularly for those with children at home or living in pandemic hot spots. But there is extra pressure on many couples impacted by ADHD.
Adult ADHD can have a huge impact on relationships. ADHD symptoms include chronic distractibility; difficulty planning and following through; impulsivity; poor time management; difficulty prioritizing and, for some, poor memory and/or hyperactivity.
Most adults with ADHD are still undiagnosed, meaning that these symptoms are present and creating very predictable patterns in the relationship that confuse and anger both partners without their knowing why.
Yet once you know ADHD is present there is a great deal that couples can do. Between 50-70% of adults with ADHD can find very significant improvement with solid treatment. Another 20% can see significant improvement. These numbers are huge in the world of mental health management.
ADHD has some very specific impacts on relationships. As one example, chronic distraction (the number one symptom of adult ADHD) means that an ADHD partner pays little attention to his or her partner because there are so many other distractions.
This leads that partner to feel lonely and unloved, and to respond by trying to get more attention, often in ways that actually inflame things.
Difficulty planning and following through, another ADHD symptom, leads to many promises to take on responsibilities around the house or with family members that never actually happen, eroding trust.
They also lead to ‘parent-child dynamics’ where the more organized partner turns into a household manager or parent figure, while the ADHD partner moves into a lower status, ‘child-like’ role.
These parent/child dynamics between spouses are toxic to marriages and breed chronic resentment, frustration, defiance, and anger.
You may have noticed in these two examples that it’s not just the ADHD symptoms that create the issue, but also the other partner’s responses to the symptoms.
Addressing the problems in an ADHD-impacted relationship takes the effort of both partners. Close to 60% of relationships impacted by ADHD are maladjusted and need help.
Most couples I’ve worked with experience feelings that have to do with the fact that ADHD has a specific set of symptoms, and responses to ADHD symptomatic behaviors, such as feeling frustrated or lonely, are predictably human.
ADHD partners often report feeling unhappy that their partners have become so demanding; embarrassed that they have so much trouble following through; angry that they never seem to get a break.
They feel constantly criticized and suspect their partner doesn’t really like them. Some become defiant, telling their partners “you’re not the boss of me!” or retreat from the relationship in an attempt to have less conflict.
Non-ADHD partners feel overwhelmed and stressed out that so much depends upon them and may say “it’s like I have another child in the family!” when talking about their spouse. They are always on guard, never knowing when they might have to respond to a sudden outburst of anger from their partner or clean up their partner’s mistakes.
They are resentful, angry, and don’t really like who they’ve become. Some report feeling hopeless – no matter how hard they try to change things, the same patterns repeat over and over (until the ADHD is diagnosed and managed).
The pressures of the pandemic are taking a toll on all of us. Unfortunately, for many couples with ADHD, it’s even harder. Here’s why:
Higher stress levels, less sleep, and less exercise all make adult ADHD relationships worse. If kids are at home, a ‘go with the flow’ ADHD partner might not follow the routine set up to help kids learn or get sleep.
Further, partners expect support during times of hardship but ADHD can get in the way.
Here’s an example:
“My partner avoids planning and when I try to do it together, calmly, he behaves like I’m his mother forcing him to do homework. It’s like he’s penned in, totally stressed by it. It’s easier not to ask for his input but very lonely.”
Another woman struggles with her partner’s hyperactivity during this stressful time:
“I had a panic attack and needed him to help calm me down simply by holding me. After 5 minutes he became antsy and needed to walk around. Sitting there holding me – essentially doing nothing in his view- was too much to ask. Ironically my panic turned to anger and I told him to go away. He did. He will be fine during this isolation time. I will be incredibly lonely.”
Because they may be weak in the executive functions that support creating routines and planning, many with ADHD live in the present moment, responding to what comes their way. But in a crisis, different responses to uncertainty can put stress on a relationship.
“The biggest thing here is ADHD hubby doesn’t follow (and doesn’t want to try to follow either) the routine I established with our two young kids. Feeds them at any hour, allows snacks, won’t respect bedtime routine and hour… resulting in lots of meltdown from the kiddies and a lack of patience from hubby. If only he could respect the routines…”
“He’s working from home every day and leaving things around the house and rooms open for our toddler to get into… going through this with him is a nightmare. He’s always asking me what to do and I’m still making all decisions. I don’t have a lot of respect for anyone who doesn’t own their issues and work to minimize the impact on others and he is that person.”
“…being home means he’s closer to his distractions and he’s out of his mental routine of work. Yesterday he didn’t get to his computer till about noon, then spent about 4 hours being totally unproductive….things like candy crush for 2 hours, random internet searches for an hour, assembling a homemade rain gauge, followed by Facebook, Twitter, YouTube videos and Corona memes.”
Another woman wrote that they had to set up an office for her husband in the garage because trying to work from home with kids present was simply too distracting. An excellent solution!
“His anxiety is high and it manifests with avoiding doing anything and being short-tempered. We are bickering more… I grieve for having a partner that could be more supportive because I am in healthcare and on the front lines with little support at home. I have to comfort him and myself as well. We will survive but not thrive.”
“My wife exploded the other day – worse than I’ve seen in a long time, over nothing much…”
“I feel because of the ADHD he will not be diligent being in the outside world with this virus. He already is very relaxed about handwashing and this virus. This is the ultimate test for any couple but adds in the relaxed nature of ADHD during a pandemic and it creates a very unsafe environment.”
“The nurse has instructed us to not leave home for 14 days. We are 7 days in and my partner thinks she can leave. She won’t listen to the strict requirements of the health system and potentially will put us at risk.”
Not every couple with ADHD is struggling with staying at home. In fact, some say that the enforced time together has lessened distractions and allowed for more time to attend to each other emotionally.
Scheduling time to genuinely focus on one’s partner is critically important in these relationships to counteract the negative aspects of chronic distraction and build resilience.
“Because my partner isn’t commuting or traveling, we have more time. It’s given us a chance to cook together and pay more attention, which has been great.”
Others report that they have had time to do video support groups, online seminars, and even take more walks together to just be a couple.
As we adjust to what it means to be at home, I hope that more couples can take the chance to remember what good friends they are.
Finding out that one or both of you has ADHD is really good news, because it opens the door to learning a whole array of strategies that will improve your adult ADHD relationships, manage the ADHD symptoms better, and start helping you find the joy you wish to have together.
The COVID-19 pandemic represents a particularly difficult time for many couples, but it will end, and in the meantime, couples can start learning, get evaluated, and begin their journey. I hope you will take some time to learn more from my website, books, or seminar, as well as talk with your therapist at CouplesTherapyInc.
Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist. He is the Blog Editor. He currently works online seeing couples from Massachusetts at Couples Therapy Inc. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and the Developmental Model in his approaches.