One spouse of a person diagnosed with ADHD wrote us: “My husband says he loves me, but his actions say otherwise. He often forgets what we talk about and pays me little attention. How do I get beyond feeling abandoned and unloved?”
Another spouse wrote: “Do you have any suggestions for helping my partner with ADHD pay more attention to me? I struggle to connect with him even when he is around, as he seems to be lost in his own world. I feel very much uncared for by him, but he struggles to understand these feelings.”
Distractibility, chronic tardiness, difficulty following through on things, not remembering what the two of you talked about a few weeks ago — these classic ADHD symptoms seem to say to the spouse without ADHD, “I don’t love you.”
You, the person with ADHD, might love your partner. You might feel all mushy inside when she walks in. You might feel as if your world would fall apart if she left you. But trust us when we tell you that your behaviors might be communicating that you don’t care. When your partner without ADHD says she feels lonely or that you don’t love him enough, accept and believe it.
Hey, It Hurts
Lack of attention hurts. In fact, we think it is the number one villain in a relationship in which one partner has ADHD. Paying more attention is a critical component of repairing your relationship. We call it “attend time” — engaging with your partner in a positive way, one that leaves no doubt in your partner’s mind that you care. This might mean making coffee each morning and bringing it up to the bedroom with a smile, making love just the way your partner wants it, or anything positive in between. Going out to dinner with friends, while fun, is not attending, since it’s not exclusive to the two of you. Nor is telling your partner how much she still has to do to be a better partner. While this may be one-on-one time together, it does not say unequivocally “I love you.”
It is not just distracted behavior on the side of the partner with ADHD that gets in the way of attend time. Partners without ADHD are usually doing some loud communicating suggesting that they don’t care as well. These are just a few of the ways they communicate “I don’t love you” to their partners with ADHD: criticism; disapproval and disappointment; nagging and suggesting that the partner with ADHD isn’t competent; chronic anger and frustration; verbal abuse; contempt; disengagement; constant attempts to educate and correct. Each of these is destructive to a relationship.
Having enough time for attending in a loving way is critical to a relationship. You must make time and master attending to your partner. Here are some strategies you can use to add more of the right kind of “attend time” to your relationship:
> Schedule regular blocks of time to be together. You can figure out what to do during that time later. Set aside, say, 1-4 p.m. every Saturday afternoon to explore your town. At 1, stop what you are doing and decide what sounds like fun for those few hours. If you have kids, get a sitter.
> Say, “I love you” at least once every day. If you need to, set a reminder.
> Say “thank you” whenever you can. Positive words are important forms of attend time. Appreciation is critical to joyful relationships.
> Create regular “little routines” that say I love you and I want to be with you. In the Orlov household, one of those routines is George making coffee for Melissa in the morning, and Melissa making breakfast. In Nancie’s household, Nancie and Steve take a late-night stroll with their dogs, often catching up on the day’s events or planning for the next day.
> Create a five-minute no complaints rule. When you walk in the door after a hard day, spend five minutes in the same room talking about positive things that happened that day. This makes the transition back home easier while also reinforcing a positive tone to your relationship.
> Don’t respond to individual annoyances, just to larger patterns. Sometimes your partner will do something that bugs you. Let it go unless you see a pattern developing over a period of a couple of weeks. If Melissa is cranky one day, George won’t mention it. If she throws her weight around for a week, he will ask her what is going on and gently remind her that he likes the loving version of her better.
> Surprise your partner by planning something she has told you she would love to do. Make sure it’s something you’ve heard your partner say she wants. If you have ADHD, jot down a note on your cell phone when she says, “I wish we could….” Nancie remembers how excited she was when her husband Steve surprised her with tickets to the Orange County Science Center after she had mentioned it in passing. Not only did he remember, he wrapped the tickets as a Christmas present.
> Schedule a repeating weekly “event” on your cell phone calendar to remind you to take 15 minutes to research and plan something new to do together, perhaps during the time you’ve set aside to be together (see the first strategy).
Attending to your partner in a loving way is in your best interest. When people feel loved, they are more likely to be generous with their feelings in return. However, if the partner with ADHD in your couple remains too distracted to reciprocate, take the high road. Talk lovingly about not feeling loved, and think of ways to share more attend time.