ADHD & Relationships: Marriage and Friendship Help

Why adults with mild ADHD may flourish at the office but flounder in personal relationships like friendships and marriage.

Why adults with mild ADD may do fine at the office but struggle at home. ADDitude Magazine

If a bleak feeling is coming upon me, I don't say, 'I'm a terrible person.' I just say, 'It's a gray day'...

Debby, ADHD adult

For the adult with mild attention deficit disorder, high energy levels and the ability to hyperfocus can lead to a flourishing career while the real trouble surfaces at home in an ADHD marriage.

Harvard's John Ratey, M.D.coined the term "Shadow Syndrome" to describe a psychological disorder in so mild a form that diagnosis can elude even a trained therapist. Just as a cloud can cast a pall across an otherwise sunny day, a mild case of attention deficit disorder casts its cloud over our day-to-day lives. In the following excerpt from his book, John Ratey offer some examples of domestic mini-dramas, caused by mild ADD, that can "trap" our attention and cause major discord.

To understand the mild case of ADHD, it helps to look at ADHD in its full-blown form, where precipitous actions tumble forth as quickly as do impulsive words. The adult with attention deficit disorder may quickly jump in and out of jobs, relationships, projects, and commitments, swerving from one to another. The classic story of untreated full-blown ADD is the intelligent person who cannot get her life together, and who becomes increasingly demoralized, anxious, and depressed as the years wear on.

But the person with mild ADHD is not simply the less chaotic sibling of his severely afflicted twin. In fact, the adult with mild ADD may be a brilliant success on the job. High energy, enthusiasm, and the ability to hyperfocus can take a person to great heights in some professions. The mildly hyperactive adult can survey herself and see what she needs to work on. Thus, she might deliberately cultivate an obsession with her datebook, checking and rechecking it throughout the day. The mild ADDer may be the top salesman who can never finish his paperwork on time, or the financial executive who cannot file his own taxes. With a good assistant, these limitations won't cripple your career.

But the two ends of the attentional spectrum - hyperfocus on the present moment and the constant search for the next high-energy task - that can be assets on the job may not work to the same advantage in the mild ADDer's personal life. With mild ADD, as with many shadow syndromes, the real trouble registers in the social realm.

ADD and Love

A person who has a problem with paying attention is not going to be any more "attentive" to relationships than he was to school as a child. So, when the disorder goes undiagnosed, the ADD adult's lack of attentiveness looks like poor judgment or a lack of intimacy and consideration. The mild ADDer is probably not going to be a social klutz, but he may have problems in the subtler realm of deciding whom to approach and whom to avoid. A mild ADDer may repeatedly choose the wrong person to love, in part because he does not absorb all the social cues other people may see from the start.

Or the ADDer's need for stimulation may actually cause her to seek out trouble when choosing a mate. A mildly hyperactive adult may choose mates who are "bad" for her because they hold her interest in a way that the "nice guys" don't. Some individuals know this about themselves; they know they are not looking for a calm and steady presence, as this leaves them feeling starved for stimulation.

One of Dr. Ratey's patients came for help when she found herself consistently provoking fights with the one good man she had finally been able to love. The last straw had been a recent romantic evening. Despite wine, good food, and candlelight, she could not relax, could not unwind, and was horrified to find herself subtly sabotaging the mood until the evening was ruined. The diagnosis of ADD came as a revelation, although she was certainly no stranger to its symptoms. She had not made the connection between being hyper and her previous pattern of falling in love with men who were not good for her.

What she learned was that, she was, in short, self-medicating with the drug of a bad relationship. Life changed radically once she received a diagnosis and began treatment. For the first time, she could sit still; she could not only tolerate a calm day in the presence of a benevolent love, she could enjoy it. The difference was so startling that she took to calling the medication she had been prescribed her "love potion."


This article comes from the April-May 2005 Issue of ADDitude.

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