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Marital Malpractice: “I Didn’t Believe My Husband When He Told Me He Had ADHD”

When I read “The ADHD Effect on Marriage,” by Melissa Orlov, I began to see its impact on my relationship with my husband.

When we dated, my husband told me that he had attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD), half jokingly, citing an inability to focus at times. I said, “No, you don’t.” I was a clinical psychology graduate student, and my husband wasn’t like the kids I evaluated, whose attention drifted away mid-sentence, who lost their school supplies, who had terrible grades and paid attention only to video games. He was high achieving, attended a top business school, and had a history of excellent performance in jobs, school, and in team sports. When he graduated, he got a great job in finance.

We got married, and had a kid. Everything was great, except for his long work hours. Then he got a new job that didn’t demand as much time, and we had a second child. Having two kids is very challenging for most marriages. Instead of me handing one of them off and getting a break, and vice versa, now someone needed to be with at least one child most of the time. Multitasking was the norm, and a lot less sleep.

Beyond the physical stressors, my husband seemed off. He didn’t remember basic things I asked him to do, and he seemed detached and distant. When I asked him about this, he got defensive. I got angry and critical. The worst part was that I had hoped his new job would bring us closer. I felt much further apart.

Here’s what I started to notice:

1. He fell asleep in the middle of the afternoon, even when he slept well the night before. He didn’t snooze if he was doing something interesting or stimulating.

2. He forgot simple things, like keeping our oldest child out of the room where I was nursing the infant, closing the refrigerator door, putting away scissors or power tools that were in our toddler’s reach.

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3. He forgot a lot of other stuff, like taking the lunch that I packed for him to work, or remembering what we were doing on the weekend, or the names of people we met.

4. If he didn’t write something down, he wouldn’t do it.

5. Come to think of it, he always forgot names, and lots of other stuff, even when we first met.

6. Also, he always seemed tired and distracted in the afternoons, even when we were dating.

7. Hmmmm.

My mind started making connections, helped along by a book that was referred to me by one of my clients, The ADHD Effect on Marriage, by Melissa Orlov. My client had recommended it, so I would understand her experience with her partner, who had ADHD. Here’s how I thought about my husband before and after reading the book:

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1. “You just don’t try with me. At work you try, and you do everything you’re asked. At home, you phone everything in.” At work, there were “fire drills,” meaning that work had to get done quickly, on a deadline. Individuals with ADHD work best with their adrenaline pumping. At home, there were no deadlines.

2. “You don’t care enough to remember what I ask.” Why would he purposefully create conflict by failing to remember what I asked, over and over. Maybe he just couldn’t remember.

3. “You fall asleep in the afternoon because you’re bored by hanging out with me.” Or there just wasn’t enough stimulation going on during lazy afternoons with the kids.

4. “You don’t admit when you’re wrong because you’re just being a jerk.” Many people with ADHD get defensive when they misremember things or fail to do what they promise. They get defensive particularly when something they did was out of line or dangerous, like leaving tools around a toddler. It is embarrassing, and they don’t know why they can’t remember or follow through, so they defend and cover up. Partners are often obsessed with getting their spouses to admit they were wrong, creating an healthly prosecution-defense dynamic.

5. “You loved me more earlier in our relationship.” We dated long distance and had a long-distance relationship the second year of our marriage. And my husband spent at least 60 hours a week at his job. We had a “hyper-focused courtship” (as Orlov describes), and he was “on” whenever he saw me, since he didn’t see me that much. When he worked more, he also saw me less. I was novel to him. Having our first kid was also a novel experience. Now that he saw me more, and we had a second child, there wasn’t a lot of newness to engage him, and his ADHD got worse.

I also realized that my husband’s brother had ADHD. My husband always joked about his poor grades as a child, “until he started trying” in high school (or until things got more challenging and stopped boring him). He said that he didn’t remember things that weren’t important to him-like my mother’s maiden name, which hurt my feelings. He told me that he felt best after doing extreme sports, and so on and so on. I started to feel like a big idiot for having dismissed his early mention of ADHD.

When I jumped on the ADHD bandwagon, though, my husband promptly jumped off, saying he may not really have it. His pride prevented him from embracing having a “real” disorder, even though he agreed that all the evidence, including his own mention of it early on, was there. Eventually, he came around to the truth.

Our experience with ADHD medication has been life changing, at least for me. Although ADHD still affects our lives, I have my husband back, the guy from our early dating life, who was present during our conversations, remembered what I said, and had energy and drive, even on the weekends doing boring things. I was, and still am, grateful that my husband takes his medication, even though he doesn’t always think he “needs” it. Our marriage improved greatly with the realization that high-achieving, intelligent, motivated people have ADHD, and that this disorder takes a terrible toll on a relationship.

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