When Jessica met Josh it was love at first sight. He was affable, fun and outgoing, not to mention darkly handsome and athletic. When he told her about his ADHD, it didn't faze her. "He was succeeding in law school," she says. "His ADHD didn't seem to have much of an impact on him or on anything he did."
But Jessica soon would feel ADHD's impact on their marriage.
That's because Josh's style of coping with ADHD was to stay strictly organized and create a rigid structure for his life. From his desktop to his sock drawer, everything had to be in order and in place. "He had to have his keys in a certain place," Jessica says. "If I messed with them, he freaked out."
He was the same way about their bank account. "Before each month began, everything had to be budgeted and accounted for. I had to know exactly how much I had to spend on what each month. Otherwise he'd be anxious and upset."
Jessica, a 30-something professional used to her independence, found the money part especially difficult to swallow. "If something popped up and got us off track, he couldn't handle it," she says. "It got to the point where if I got a $50 traffic ticket, I was afraid to tell him about it."
If something didn't change, their marriage would be in jeopardy. So says Lynn Weiss, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and expert on ADHD in relationships. "Women often find that ADHD guys are great to date because they're active, fun to be around, joyful and outgoing," says Weiss. "But when you get to the point of running a household and running a life, it's a totally different story."
"The differences between men and women are exacerbated when the man has ADHD," says Weiss. If you agree with Weiss's premise that women tend to personalize more often, and that men tend to be more detached emotionally, you can understand what she means. If the husband acts a certain way that seems to speak of his detachment (say, forgetting the time and showing up late to meet her at the movies) the wife may feel he doesn't care enough about her. When ADHD is involved, such scenarios take place more frequently.
Dealing with the Uh-Huh Scenario
The wife says, "Honey will you take out the trash?" and the ADHD husband responds "Uh-huh." Three hours later the trash is still sitting there. The wife personalizes: "He's being oppositional," or "He never listens to me," and that makes her angry. A fight ensues. It will be the first of many.
"Wives of ADHD men need to understand that the husband's level of attention to task is extremely shallow," says Weiss. "He is not behaving that way on purpose. But once she starts personalizing his behavior, the marriage is in trouble."
To emerge from the troubling Uh-Huh Scenario trap, the wife first has to understand what the issue is: difficulty focusing and staying on task are hallmark symptoms of ADHD. Accepting this fact of life, she then needs to frame her request in a way that penetrates at a deep enough level to be implemented. Weiss suggests a four-step strategy:
- Touch your husband when you make the request. People with ADHD receive information more readily and thoroughly when several senses are engaged.
- Make eye contact with your husband, and engage him conversationally. Tell him, "Thanks, I really appreciate your taking out the trash." Wait for him to respond.
- Give him a time limit. Say, "I will feel better if you take out the trash by 3 o'clock." (Note the use of positive language.) Ask him what he thinks about that.
- Remind him again if need be. He may need you to do so.
Weiss notes that many women bridle at such advice, suggesting it's easier to take out the trash themselves or that such studied interactions are "like raising another child." Big mistake.
"If the strategy is framed in a condescending way there will be secondary problems," Weiss says. "The wife has to understand that if she views listening or organization or follow through as more mature behaviors, the marriage will suffer."
In short, don't judge moralistically your husband's ADHD behavior. Be responsible for your part of the equation. This is the man you loved enough to marry. You owe it to both of you to learn about ADHD and develop the tools to work together.
The Controlling Scenario
Jessica's description of her husband's "freaking out" over out-of-place keys or out-of-budget items speaks to his intense anxiety over losing control of his world. People with ADHD, whose internal ability to remain organized and in control of their universe may be lacking, often cope by creating a highly structured environment for themselves.
"They truly feel that if they lose one thing, the whole thing falls apart," Weiss says. And non-ADHD people need to respect that.
Then again, a marriage consists of two people, who must work together as a team. A few helpful tips:
FOR HER: Don't touch his stuff. Each spouse should have separate areas for work or personal items. If it bothers the ADHD spouse to have his things rearranged or somehow lose control of them, then try not to touch them. "She really shouldn't be at his desk," says Weiss.
FOR HIM: Own your behavior. He needs to realize that his over-controlling, over-structured habits are compensatory and that angry acting out is not fair or acceptable. It helps to develop a self-deprecating sense of humor about it too (e.g., "If I didn't have my head screwed on, I'd probably lose it too.") Over-controlling types can be very hard to live with, but a husband's personal insight and good humor will make his wife feel a lot better.