Adult ADHD: Loving a Man with ADHD
As if loving a man isn’t difficult enough, just to make it interesting, throw in adult Attention Deficit / Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Trust me, as a man diagnosed with ADHD in his 40′s, I have some insights – at least from the man with ADHD side, and a much greater respect for how my ADHD has affected my wife. Rather than re-invent the wheel, after a little Internet research, I ran across a very good article, “Loving a man with ADHD,” that pretty accurately describes the struggles that my wife, and many like her in relationships with men with ADHD, has gone through – and continues to live through to some extent – on a daily basis.
“I would drive Bron crazy, always losing things or forgetting what I’m talking about and she would constantly remind me to do things only to see them half done.” This is how Dave, 53, describes his 20-year relationship with his partner, Bronwyn, 51, before he was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Bronwyn puts it differently: “I thought he was a knucklehead.”
Losing things and ADHD go together like peanut butter and jelly.
It’s something I have struggled with all my life. Especially as a child. Later, even without knowing I had ADHD, I began to compensate by developing the habit of always putting my keys, cell phone, etc. in the same place. Unfortunately for my wife, those times I failed to leave my keys, etc. in the same place brought out frustration, anger and blame. Difficulty controlling emotions is common in people who have ADHD. So, especially before being diagnosed with ADHD, I quickly became frustrated and angry when I couldn’t quickly find something I needed. Of course, this usually occurred when I was running late. My first question to my wife often was, “Did you move my (fill in the blank)?” She almost never did. Instead, I misplaced the item and she suffered for it. Today, knowing better both my tendency to lose things, and frustration at not being able to find them, I try to always put the things I need in the same place. When I can’t find them I attempt to calmly follow my last steps and ask (not accuse) my wife whether or not she has seen the lost object.
It doesn’t take an expert to know the following:
“Those who have been struggling all through childhood and teenage years and don’t know they have ADHD will particularly experience frustration and self-esteem issues,” says Dr Steve Dawson, a Sydney-based clinical psychologist who specialises in the condition. “Those issues will, in turn, have an impact on their relationships, which is why it’s so important to get an early diagnosis.”
My wife, and many like her, soldiered on for over 15 years. There were lots of ups and downs. There were times I wasn’t sure if our relationship would survive. Sadly, for most of that time, I really didn’t understand what she was so upset about. Sound familiar?
Getting tested, receiving counseling and appropriate treatment are critical for treating adult ADHD and the first steps towards resolving marriage problems arising from ADHD and beginning to heal old wounds.
In relationships, the partner with ADHD sees things in black and white and is often difficult to please, rigid, judgmental, uncompromising, negative or lacking empathy, according to author Gina Pera in her book Is It You, Me or Adult ADD?
Confirms Dawson, “Difficulties with executive functions will frustrate partners, who see the ADHD partner as unreliable and disorganised. The partner may expect that if they talk things through, the ADHD partner will improve, but this doesn’t happen easily. The ADHD partner cannot easily change time- and task-management strategies, while poor memory means they might forget important discussions quite quickly. They might also forget other things, like picking up the kids or the shopping.”
This inflexibility of ADHD adults can be quite difficult to live with.
They’re also often inflexible. An ability to reprioritize on the fly and shift to whatever is important at the moment is difficult. Whenever they get involved in an enjoyable activity, they find it difficult to get away from. Or they’ll quit if there’s no immediate payoff for what they’re about to do.
My Dad, who has since passed, often had a very black and white view of the world. I also had a very similar viewpoint. Something was either right or wrong – and not just matters of morality, but very small and inane things such as the proper way to cut the grass. If things weren’t done the way I wanted, I became very agitated and frequently this came out in an angry outburst. For my wife these outbursts were very unpleasant and caused a great deal of tension between us.
Since being diagnosed with ADHD I still struggle with being inflexible, but am learning to let go at least a little bit. Not everything can be controlled. Especially at work, where I am a shift supervisor at a plastics recycling company, I have come to realize that the work is accomplished through the efforts of others. It isn’t so important that any particular task is accomplished in a specific way. The most important thing is that tasks are accomplished in a safe and efficient manner.
Returning home, living with and loving a man with ADHD can be a challenge:
Another big frustration is the way ADHD affects communication as the sufferer changes topics, interrupts or drifts off. The problem is not that people with ADHD don’t think, but that they think too much. “People with ADHD tend to have multiple, competing thoughts that can distract them from the topic at hand,” says Dawson.
Dave agrees. “I have trouble staying engaged; my mind is running 10 different things at once. I also have less tolerance for things that are boring to me. My brain is constantly looking for stimulation or activity, and if things slow down, then I have to find something to be stimulated by. Someone could be talking and instead of concentrating on what they’re saying I’m lining up the lines in the carpet to keep my mind occupied.
“Bron would say I wasn’t listening because I didn’t care,” he continues. “I would turn that back on her and tell her to ‘stop carrying on’, but really it was my own inability to stay focused I was trying to cover up.”
For me, communicating can be extremely difficult. Written communication is not as difficult, but speaking and listening can be very frustrating. My wife often had sentiments as expressed above – especially believing that I just didn’t care. Caring is rarely the problem. One of the challenges in having a conversation for me is following and keeping focused on what, for me, is a long and drawn out story. This is especially true if there is anything distracting going on in the background such as the television, dog barking, loud noise outside, etc. I finally arrived at the point of communicating this challenge clearly to my wife. If she wants to have a more meaningful conversation with me, the television needs to be turned to a very low volume or muted. Even the TV images can be distracting. Anything interesting or stimulating in some way is likely to pull my attention away from what she is saying.
I also think that women have a tendency to weave fairly complex stories. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it requires a great deal of attention to follow the “plot”. My wife might tell how her day went, the projects she is working on, and mention the people she interacted with. Put all together it becomes more and more difficult for me to follow. My attention has a tendency to “flicker” and I miss parts of her story. I end up asking questions that reveal I wasn’t paying attention to everything she said and her reaction is that I don’t listen because I don’t care about her. Nothing could be further from the truth. I love her very much. She is the most important person in my life. It’s just a matter of difficulty following all the details of what she is saying in light of lots of other distractions.
My suggestion to anyone married to a man with ADHD or in a relationship with one is to eliminate as many distractions as possible if you want to have a meaningful conversation. Try and tailor your story in light of the limited attention your significant other with ADHD has. Try not to take it personally if he misses some detail. If he looks lost or distracted, he probably is. Try and gently bring him back. Don’t be afraid to let him know it hurts when you feel he isn’t listening to you, but try to not frame how you feel in a negative light accusing him of not caring. If he knows how you feel, and that it is important to you that he try to pay attention, you might be pleasantly surprised that he will make an attempt to pay attention. When he does pay attention, offer some praise. Men in general, and especially men with ADHD, like to get some praise now and again. It’s stimulating and interesting. Remember too that while everyone suffers from a certain degree of being mentally taxed after a long day at work, people with ADHD can find the work day to be very taxing on their attention.
Personally, I often come home from a hard day at work and just want to vegetate for a while. I just need some down time to recover before I re-engage in any activity that requires more focus. So, in light of this, you might consider what times and days are the best times to have an important conversation. It might be better on the weekend. Perhaps morning is better than night – before attention is taxed. Many with ADHD, like me, tend to be night owls, so you might want to try to talk to him at night when he may be more focused and alert. The important thing is to try to discover what works best for both of you. Try and remember that paying attention and caring aren’t the same thing. That doesn’t excuse not paying attention. Part of caring for another person is paying attention to them, but for someone with ADHD it takes significantly more effort to do what, for many, seems to be something simple.
Frustration and anger, as pointed out earlier, are also a very common source of conflict seen in marriage and relationships affected by adult ADHD.
Add difficulty with managing frustration to this and anger can escalate. “I get worked up and then lose it pretty quickly, which would put Bron on the defensive and we’d fight,” says Dave. According to Dawson, people with the more hyperactive type of ADHD will be “more reactive, inclined to respond impulsively or be hurtful without stopping and thinking, and this can be difficult for a partner”.
Pera writes that the adrenalin stimulation from fighting can actually make people with ADHD feel calmer and they can unknowingly pick fights as a form of self-medication. This can leave the non-ADHD partner questioning their own sanity. These frustrations, if left unaddressed, can see a partner ready to walk.
A hair-trigger temper, unfortunately, often goes hand-in-hand with adult ADHD. I can get frustrated and have an angry outburst in seconds over seemingly stupid things. While I am getting better (I think, you might want to ask my wife), it isn’t always easy to fight this tendency. A lack of inhibition and inability to hit the “pause button” can cause me to say things I don’t mean. In the past I often used to jokingly say something to my wife and end up hurting her feelings. I’m learning to pause and think before I speak. When I get angry I, more often than not, wait before I say something. The first thing that pops into my head often is not the right thing to say. Combined with inflexibility, quickness to anger can be an ugly combination. Proper diagnosis, counseling, in combination with the right medication can make a huge difference. For me, ADHD medication has made a world of difference. Yes, I still get angry. Yes, I still hate it when somebody tries to tell me it’s going to be OK or that I am overreacting.
However, I more often realize when my anger is coming on and when it is not appropriate. I am better able to get outside of my own head and see things from a different point of view. I’m not always as flexible as I ought to be, but I am aware of that part of my personality and try to be more accepting of different ways of accomplishing tasks, different opinions, etc. The process takes time and likely will last a lifetime, but with time issues with anger and other inappropriate emotional responses can improve.
Receiving an ADHD diagnosis is the first step toward a better life for both the person with ADHD and for the one(s) they love. However, it can be a painful process.
Receiving the diagnosis was a relief for Dave, who is able to “laugh at some things now”, but it also presented a new challenge. “I have a really good understanding of it, but I’m also grieving the loss of being ‘normal’. I have to work so hard to do things other people seem to do easily, it’s upsetting.”
A diagnosis of any kind can commonly cause a grief reaction: shock, denial, anger and depression all come before acceptance. For Bronwyn, the diagnosis made a lot of sense and she says it was liberating “knowing the reasons why he did what he did. I’m more tolerant and patient now.” She also needed support to come to terms with the diagnosis and its effect on Dave.
Says Dawson, “A sense of loss is common – sadness that for all those years it could have been different, especially if earlier treatment had enabled someone to function at a level closer to their potential.” Continued support is vital. Dawson helps clients to understand ADHD, then to come to terms with the associated issues, and finally to develop practical strategies to deal with symptoms.
I can attest to the truth in the above. On the one hand, receiving the ADHD diagnosis was a relief, it does make me sad sometimes knowing that doing seemingly simple things can often be very difficult for me. But, along with that sense of loss, there is optimism, knowing that I have ADHD gives me a chance to better understand how my brain lives and gives me the opportunity to more fully fulfill my potential.
Improving your relationship still may not be easy, but you don’t have to do it alone.
Dave and Bronwyn saw a relationship counsellor who helped them manage conflict. “We found the problem started when all Dave was hearing was ‘blah blah blah’ and not me,” says Bronwyn. “Through counselling we both realised it wasn’t because he didn’t want to listen, but because he was genuinely struggling with it. This reduced the arguments because we both understood why we were having the problems and how to work with them. Now we can blame the condition instead of each other.”
Choosing counseling is, of course, a personal decision. For some, it may be a necessary step to begin the healing process. It can help the non-ADHD person understand the perspective of the person with ADHD and vice versa (the other way around). Shifting away from blame and toward understanding can reduce conflict and point the way toward solutions.
For men with ADHD, realize that you are not alone – many others, some well-known, have blazed the trail before you.
Dave also did his own research and took comfort from finding himself among impressive peers: Justin Timberlake, Richard Branson and Jim Carrey all have ADHD. He also repaired his dented self-esteem by reminding himself of all that he had managed to accomplish despite the condition. His family – the couple have four adult children – tops the list.
It helps to have real-life examples of others who have succeeded while living with ADHD. In fact, Jim Carrey and Justin Timberlake epitomize the zany humor that many with ADHD often exhibit. For me, Timberlake, is a particularly inspiring example as he has both ADHD and OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder). I’m not sure I would even get out of bed in the morning with both ADHD and OCD, but Timberlake has gone from child celebrity, to successful boy band member, to successful single artist, to actor, and in his spare time he has had some hilarious comedy skits on Saturday Night Live.
Oh, there’s so much good Justin Timberlake stuff out there. Did you know he can sing too? Here he is with Jimmy Fallon showing that singing can be funny, entertaining and leave you standing on your feet in the end.
Over time both partners can come to an acceptance of living with ADHD.
Dave now recognises there are advantages to having ADHD, including loyalty, creativity, a great sense of fun and the ability to be empathic once feelings are understood. “It’s a different way of being, a different normal,” he says. “It’s who I am; I have strengths and weaknesses, but I’m still me.”
Bronwyn has come to her own place of acceptance, too. When asked if there are any positives to Dave’s ADHD she lists “good in a crisis, playful, adventurous and outgoing”. Then she pauses. “I don’t know if the positive qualities are Dave or the ADHD, but I guess it doesn’t matter. There’s a lot to love about him.”
Loving a man with ADHD can be a challenging journey. As a wise man once told me, a marriage (or relationship) is a living, breathing thing. So, take the time to live and breathe. Pause and reflect. Learn to see the good as well as the bad. No relationship is perfect. Love and ADHD are not incompatible. It may take time, but if both of you are committed to making the time and effort to understand each other, things will get better. I know.
- What We Know About ADHD (capeadhd.wordpress.com)
- Announcing Cape ADHD Support Group (capeadhd.wordpress.com)
- The ADHD Label (capeadhd.wordpress.com)
- Mindfulness and Adult ADHD (psychologytoday.com)
- ADHD and Emotional Intelligence (capeadhd.wordpress.com)
- Breaking the Silence of ADHD Stigma (psychcentral.com)
Posted on April 14, 2012, in ADHD and emotions, relationships and tagged ADD and ADHD, ADHD, ADHD ADD, adult ADHD, Adult attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, counseling, Diagnosis, marriage, men, relationships. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a Comment.