Myrna has been married to Jon for 35 years. Up until eight years ago, they were constantly bickering. As much as they loved each other and their kids, they couldn’t seem to get through a day without arguments and recriminations. She felt constantly let down. He felt constantly nagged. Then he got a diagnosis that changed everything: ADHD, adult attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Telling me about the old days brings back tears of frustration for Myrna. “It was awful,” she said. “I’d count on him to pick up the kids and he’d forget. He’d promise to do something and then, suddenly, he’d be out the door doing something else. He couldn’t plan – still can’t. Plans seemed to be made only to be broken. He alienated friends and family with his forgetfulness and what looked like selfishness. He got fired from more jobs than I can count. I never knew when a “yes” was a real “yes” or just a way to get me to leave him alone. I ended up feeling like I had 3 kids instead of 2. Not fun. Not fun at all.”
“What made you stay with him, then?” I asked.
“Nobody’s perfect, you know,” she said. “Yes, he was unreliable and frustrating. But he loves me and the kids. He’s really sweet and funny and kind. He never cheated on me or put me down or got into drugs and alcohol – all things that I’ve watched destroy other marriages. He always seemed so well-intended. Usually there was some plausible reason why the jobs didn’t work out. He always worked real hard to find another one as fast as he could. So it wasn’t all bad. It just was never really good.”
“Sounds complicated and painful for you both,” I said. “How did having a diagnosis of ADHD help?”
“Well. I think it was a relief to us both. We both understood in a new way that he wasn’t intentionally being a jerk but that he had a problem that needed to be managed. We were then able to come up with some ways to work around it. Of course, it helps that the kids are older now so neither the kids nor I are as dependent on him following through on stuff, but, still, he’s a lot better.”
Myrna is one of those people who takes pride in her ability to analyze things and to solve problems. She’s fortunate that her husband is as concerned as she is that he function better in the world. Jon felt terrible that he was making life so hard for his family when all he wanted to do was be a good husband and father. Now that they know what he’s dealing with, he and Myrna have become a much better team. When I asked them what they would share with a couple who are just beginning to untangle their conflicts around ADHD, they offered the following tips:
- Accept that ADHD is real. Common symptoms are inattention, impulsivity, and the inability to relax. This is not the person’s fault. It is not the partner’s fault. It’s the “fault” of the ADHD. Myrna stopped blaming Jon and Jon stopped blaming himself – at least most of the time. Instead, they developed a private cue. When either sees a symptom taking over, they pull on an ear. This lets the other person know that something ADHD-ish is going on and maybe they can do something to change it. Even if they can’t figure out what to do, they can recognize it, take a breath, and take a break.
- Don’t let ADHD be an excuse for poor behaviors. Both members of the couple need to take responsibility for developing work-arounds so that the person with ADHD does his or her share and goes the extra mile in maintaining good relationships with family and friends.
- Make a commitment to treatment and management. This may mean making some trades around who does what. The non-ADHD partner can become an adept and important time manager if the ADHD partner can give up that piece of control. For example: Since internal controls aren’t always there for a person with ADHD, something has to be done to provide external structure. In Jon’s case, this meant accepting that Myrna will be the manager of his schedule. Since he has been notorious for forgetting appointments and missing deadlines, she now has his permission to be his “manager.”. They meet every Sunday night to scope out the week and to set realistic timeframes for things he needs to do both at home and at work. This is not infantilizing Jon. It’s accepting the reality that scheduling isn’t his strength but, fortunately, it is one of Myrna’s.
- Be willing to try some medication and counseling. Jon is lucky. Medication immediately helped him focus better. Meeting with a counselor makes Jon feel less of a burden on Myrna because he has an additional person to talk to about his problems. Myrna feels like she finally has an ally in helping Jon.
- Forgive the past and move forward. Being only human, both are sometimes still angry with each other for slights and failures of the past but they work hard to get past those moments. Myrna focuses now on giving Jon positive feedback whenever she can. Jon responds well to being told when he is doing things right instead of being steadily reminded of how he lets her down. This makes him less defensive and more willing to be honest with her when he is overwhelmed or when he feels pulled to do three new things instead of what he promised to do.
- Limit screen time — of any kind. Jon realized that video games fed his ADHD but diminished his family. He now limits himself to a couple of hours a weekend for recreational computer time. A bonus is that he now plays the games with his teenaged son and they are enjoying each other more.
- Live a healthier lifestyle. Both Jon and Myrna had been shortchanging sleep — he because he always wanted to do one more thing before going to bed; she because she would wait up for him. Sometimes they would overeat or eat high-sugar and high-fat foods in order to try to get some energy. They now go to bed by 11:00, no matter what. They have a renewed interest in cooking and keep junk foods out of the house. They also limit caffeine to the morning cup of coffee and limit alcohol to an occasional beer or glass of wine on special occasions. This has had the unexpected but welcome effect of calming some of Jon’s constant fidgeting.
- Accept this as a process. Because Jon was not diagnosed until age 47, both he and Myrna realize that lots of habits have grown up around it. They work on being patient with themselves and each other as they work to make changes.