"I told you the movie started at 8 p.m., but we missed it because you were late."
"Let's just see another movie. This one looks good."
A primary foundation of any relationship is spending time together, and decisions about how to use time are made every day. But when one partner has adult attention deficit disorder (ADD ADHD), time management can be as big a thorn in the side of your ADHD marriage as those classic marriage problems: money, sex, and communication.
"Time differences are a critical issue to these couples," says psychiatrist Donald Davis, M.D., co-founder, with his wife, clinical social worker Susan Davis, of the Family Therapy Institute of Alexandria, Virginia.
After years of counseling people with ADHD, the Davises saw that they have a fundamentally different sense of and approach to time than most other people. A body of research, indicating that people with ADHD have difficulty with time perception and reaction time, backs up the Davises' conclusions.
So the team devised a way to reveal how each person perceives time, a framework "that allows people to talk about how their minds work differently, and gives them something to do about it." They gathered couples in which one partner has ADHD in workshops to help them understand their differences and ease tensions that stem from disputes over planning, memory, and time management.
At a recent workshop, Dr. Davis led couples in a simple exercise in diagramming their time-organization scheme. He first asked the participants to envision a simple, everyday event in the past. "Imagine a meal you had 20 years ago," he suggested. All took a moment to see their meal. Then they imagined a meal from 10 years ago, then one year ago, then a month, a week, and a day ago. They kept going, into the future — tomorrow, next week, and beyond, to 20 years from the present.
Finally, once all the meals were imagined across time, Dr. Davis asked participants to see all the meals at once. The people with ADHD sighed, groaned, or squirmed as they labored to bring all the meals together in their minds, while their partners had far fewer struggles. As each described his or her picture, Dr. Davis drew it on an easel.
With each pictured image, the pattern became clearer. The people without ADHD saw events in a linear format, and depicted neat lines and precise grids. But the people with ADHD didn't see events so much as "feel" them. They organized events in clusters, often out of time order, and the patterns they drew frequently followed the shape of their bodies rather than a straight line. The Davises labeled the ADHD style "kinesthetic," for the sense we have of our bodies.
The pictures reveal that people with ADHD perceive time, not as a sequence of events the way others usually do, but as a diffuse collection of events that are viscerally connected to the people, activities, and emotions that fill them. The ADHD person focuses intensely on all of the related details, experiencing these events with all of their interconnectedness. Slotting events into their proper place in time is a challenge. This simple difference in the experience of time can profoundly affect life for people in both groups.
A Couple of Different Timelines
The time picture of workshop participant Tim Hanley fits the typical ADHD pattern — jumbled shapes organized in a way only he could understand. Tim's time scheme came out very different from the neat, linear-brain calendar his wife, Tammy, described.
"When I visualize the passage of time," says Tim, "I see before and after and during and everywhere in between all at once, and everything is forever changing."
Tim and Tammy's approaches to planning reflect different wiring in their brains. "My wife can organize a to-do list and prioritize it and carry out each activity one at a time to completion," says Tim. "I approach a to-do list full on, with the chores or activities all needing to be done at once. I call it 'living the matrix.' I feel I can do everything while time stands still for me."
People with ADHD describe several problem behaviors that trace their origin to the elusive nature of time and the way they perceive it:
- Missing deadlines
- "Hyperfocusing" on one task for hours at the expense of other tasks
- Underestimating the time needed for tasks or trips
- Doing things in the wrong order
Their sense of proportionality is often skewed — a week from now and a month from now may seem closer together, or further apart, than they do for someone with a linear time scheme.
The usual ADHD style of handling time often doesn't fit into typical life schemes. Since most people employ a linear approach to time, like Tammy, the world largely operates that way. But the linear pattern isn't always best.
"Focused Attention Disorder"
In the partner workshops, Dr. Davis is quick to equalize the two styles. He informs the people without ADHD that they too have a disorder, which the Davises have named Focused Attention Disorder [FAD]. The only reason FAD is never diagnosed, he says, is that most people have it. Whether in the workplace or at home, the world is organized around the FAD way of doing things.
People generally assume minds should work similarly, an assumption that can lead to negative judgments about those who think differently. "Because of the bias in society toward minority groups, it's easy to see the minority ADD way of thinking as a liability," says Dr. Davis. The majority think about time in a linear way, so they tend to be good at planning and budgeting time. But this is not the only way to think. Giving the majority group a label with the word "disorder" in it takes the pressure off people with ADHD.
The Davises suggest that partners look objectively at each other's time styles. Couples then see that ADHD thinking can have advantages over FAD thinking. "A typical asset of the ADD way of seeing time is the ability to step into the moment and experience it fully," says Dr. Davis, "not burdened by thinking about the before and after (how did this happen and where is it going?)."
Do you handle time differently than your partner? To connect with others in your shoes, visit the Couples With One ADHD Partner support group on ADDConnect.