The ADHD Effect on Marriage: Understand and Rebuild Your Relationship in Six Stepsby Melissa Orlov
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An invaluable resource for couples in which one of the partners suffers from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), this authoritative book guides troubled marriages towards an understanding and appreciation for the struggles and triumphs of a relationship affected by it, and to look at the disorder in a more positive and less disruptive way. Going beyond traditional marriage counseling which can often discount the influence of ADHD, this discussion offers advice from the author's personal experience and years of research and identifies patterns of behavior that can hurt marriagessuch as nagging, intimacy problems, sudden anger, and memory issuesthrough the use of vignettes and descriptions of actual couples and their ADHD struggles and solutions. This resource encourages both spouses to become active partners in improving their relationship and healing the fissures that ADHD can cause. Also included are worksheets and various methods for difficult conversations so that couples can find a technique that fits their unique relationship and improve their communication skills.
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The ADHD Effect on Marriage
Understand and Rebuild Your Relationship in Six Steps
By Melissa Orlov
Specialty Press, Inc.Copyright © 2010 Melissa Orlov
All rights reserved.
The ADHD Effect
* * *
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity....
— Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
Marriages affected by ADHD, like all marriages, range from highly successful to completely disastrous. It is safe to say, though, that those distorted by ADHD symptoms sit squarely in "the worst of times." Pain and anger abound. During the worst times, you can barely talk to each other. When you do, you rarely agree or see things the same way. You're frustrated that you've gotten to this point, and you're incredulous that you haven't been able to make things better. Both of you have begun to suspect that your spouse doesn't really want to improve things. If he or she did, wouldn't things have gotten better by now?
If you are married to a person who has (or might have) ADHD, you might feel ignored and lonely in your relationship. Your spouse never seems to follow up on what he agrees to do — so much so that you may feel as if you really have another child in your home instead of an adult. You feel you're forced to remind him all the time to do things. You nag, and you've started to dislike the person you've become. The two of you either fight often or have virtually nothing to say to each other that either of you finds meaningful. You are frustrated that your spouse seems to be able to focus intently on things that interest him, but never on you. Perhaps worst of all, you feel intense stress from not knowing whether you can rely on him and feeling saddled with almost all of the responsibilities of the household, while your spouse gets to "have all the fun."
If you have ADHD, (or think you do), you may feel as if the person you married is buried deep within a nagging monster that lives in your home. The person you had cherished has been transformed into a control freak, trying to manage every single detail of your life together. No matter how hard you try, you can never do well enough for your spouse, even if you are successful elsewhere, such as in your work. The easiest way to deal with her is simply to leave her alone. You're willing to admit that you make mistakes sometimes, but so does she — and certainly, no one is perfect. You wish she would just relax once in a while and live life as a happy person, instead of a harpy.
If either of these descriptions sounds familiar, you are suffering from what I call the ADHD effect. Your courtship was happy and exciting (and often fast), but your marriage has been completely different. You may feel desperately unhappy and lonely, and your partner isn't even aware of it — even if you've tried to talk about it. You fight and nag much more than you expected, and life often seems depressingly up and down and out of control. The underlying reason could be that ADHD symptoms — and the responses both of you have to those symptoms — have been destroying your partnership.
The good news is that understanding the role that ADHD plays can turn your marriage around. In The ADHD Effect on Marriage, you will learn how to identify ADHD and the issues it brings to marriages, as well as specific steps you can take to begin to rebuild your lives.
You will be surprised by the consistency and predictability of the patterns in marriages affected by ADHD. These patterns start with an ADHD symptom that triggers a series of predictable responses in both spouses, creating a downward spiral in your marriage. In this case, knowledge is power. You both contribute to these patterns. If you know what they are, you can also change them or avoid them altogether.
This book is the guide my husband and I wish we had from the beginning. It will take you through the steps needed to regain your footing in your relationship, repair the emotional damage, and create a path into a brighter and more satisfying future. You'll find out that your problems aren't because of character flaws or failings, but are the result of the ADHD effect — and that the two of you together can overcome it. You'll learn how to put ADHD back where it belongs: as just one of many aspects of your lives, not as the overwhelming determinant of your days.
The Stakes Are High: The Research on Divorce and ADHD
The stakes are high. Research on how ADHD affects marriage suggests that many of these marriages founder under the misunderstandings and issues that ADHD symptoms add to the relationship. It is quite possible that you are currently considering divorce, or have done so at some point in your marriage. If so, you would not be alone.
According to one study, a person who has ADHD is almost twice as likely as one who does not have ADHD to be divorced. A different study suggests that 58 percent of relationships with at least one person with ADHD are clinically dysfunctional — twice that of the non-ADHD population. These frightening statistics reinforce just how difficult many of these relationships become. However, these statistics do not mean that people with ADHD can't make good spouses. In these marriages, both partners fall victim to a combination of ADHD symptoms and their mutual responses (and lack of responses) to those symptoms.
I see evidence of this every day. Thousands of couples have shared their ADHD marital stories at www.adhdmarriage.com, the blog and forum I have run with Dr. Edward Hallowell since 2007. The challenges these couples face are significant, as well as often shockingly familiar. They share their deepest feelings, experiences, and dreams.
Untreated or incompletely treated ADHD can be really hard to live with for both partners. Symptoms create real physical, financial, and mental hardship. But there is something else going on, too. What I have observed at the blog, as well as in my consulting practice with couples, is that a great deal of damage is caused by lack of knowledge about, and misinterpretation of, ADHD symptoms. Couples who learn about the specific patterns that emerge in these relationships can learn how to avoid them. That's why this book addresses all of the following:
Identifying and interpreting ADHD symptoms in adults
Why treating ADHD effectively is critical, and what "effective treatment" looks like within a relationship
Finding ways to interact that are positive for both of you while taking the presence of ADHD into account
The Rewards of Rebuilding Your ADHD-Affected Marriage
A brief overview of my own story will demonstrate that even the most dysfunctional marriages can improve and thrive with the right knowledge, understanding, compassion, emotional strength, and a determination to move past marital history.
Like many couples, my husband and I had no idea that one of us had ADHD. I had fallen in love with my husband's brilliance, sharp wit, and penchant for adventure. He is a lover of music, food, and wine, and he breathed unexpected excitement into my life with love, attention, gifts, and surprise trips. He focused on me with a ferocity that both surprised and flattered me. He was accomplished and professionally successful, yet warm; when I got sick on our first date, I was touched that he tucked me under a blanket on the sofa and made me hot tea.
But in its early years, our marriage began to fall apart, despite the fact that we loved each other. I couldn't understand how someone who had started out so attentive could now ignore me and my needs so completely, or be so "consistently inconsistent" when it came to carrying his weight around the house and with the children. He sometimes helped out, but usually didn't, and often seemed to be unaware of my existence. As it turned out, he was equally confused and annoyed. How could the woman he had married, who had seemed so warm and optimistic, change into an exhausted nag who wouldn't give him a break and wouldn't leave him alone?
By our ten-year anniversary, we were completely dysfunctional as a couple and contemplating divorce. We were held together only by our desire to raise our children well and a feeling deep inside that we ought to be able to do better. We were angry, frustrated, completely disconnected, and deeply unhappy. I was clinically depressed. Around that time, our daughter, at age nine, was diagnosed with both a math learning disability and ADHD.
We did not know that ADHD is extremely heritable — comparable in its heritability to height. If you have a child with ADHD, chances are good that one of the biological parents has ADHD. Eventually, we learned of this connection and confirmed through a full evaluation that my husband has ADHD. This started a battle over whether he should treat it, and how he — and I — should respond. This kind of battle is typical. For some people the diagnosis is a relief and a new beginning; for others, like my husband, it seems a threat to their status, self-knowledge, and self-image. How much should one change? For whom is one changing? Over time, and with the right kinds of support, most with ADHD can accept the implications of their diagnosis and make their lives, and the lives of their partners, better.
Discovering that one or both of you has ADHD is just the beginning. Medication is the most efficient way to jump-start treatment, but it does not effectively treat ADHD in marriages without the addition of behavioral changes. These changes must be voluntary. No matter how much a non-ADHD spouse may want to, she can't "make" her spouse do certain things like be more organized or more attentive. Furthermore, these changes must come from both partners. Changes only in the ADHD spouse don't resolve the marriage's issues. We learned both ideas the hard way, mostly at my husband's expense, as I kept trying to force him to do things differently. The harder I pushed, the more he resisted, and the worse our relationship became. Sound familiar?
I am asking you to come on a journey of change, not offering a quick fix. (If I did offer that, would you believe that I can deliver it?) The rewards of the journey are worth it. My husband and I have moved from completely dysfunctional to almost ridiculously happy. We are thriving as individuals and feel that our relationship is stronger now than it has ever been. Back "in love," we feel safer and more optimistic than on the day we married over twenty years ago. My husband's ADHD symptoms are under control, and I have a much stronger understanding and appreciation of the effort that takes. Unlike during our difficult times, we know and accept each other's faults and rejoice in each other's strengths. Our pride in our ability to pull ourselves back from the brink helps us to celebrate our feelings in ways that are loving and supportive. We won't ever go back to our difficult past, and have crafted a new relationship and brilliant future.
You can do this, too. You can move past your current unhappiness and create something better than you could have ever dreamed possible.
1. The first notable study on divorce and separation rates for adults with ADHD was done by Biederman et al. in 1993, and was replicated by Murphy and Barkley in 1996. Both of these studies used older participants than later studies done by Barkley et al, which showed less elevated divorce rates but very elevated dysfunction rates (58% of marriages). Given that marital dissatisfaction builds over time with the repetitive introduction of ADHD symptoms into relationships, I find that these studies are consistent with what I observe: that things can be bad right away, with dysfunctional patterns between spouses building, eventually leading to divorce if not addressed. For more details about all of these studies, see ADHD in Adults: What the Science Says by Russell A. Barkley, Kevin R. Murphy and Mariellen Fischer, The Guilford Press, 2008, pp. 380-384.
2. About half of children whose parents have ADHD also have ADHD. Research done by Biederman et al. in 1995 put the chances of an adult with diagnosed ADHD having a child with ADHD at 57 percent, while in 2003 Minde et al. placed it lower, at 43 percent. For more detail about these studies and the heritability of ADHD, as well as the heritability of coexisting conditions, see ADHD in Adults: What the Science Says by Russell A. Barkley, Kevin R. Murphy, and Mariellen Fischer, The Guilford Press, 2008, pp. 384-393.CHAPTER 2
ADHD and Its Diagnosis
* * *
"I have seen too many people with ADD prevail over their problems to ever believe it's impossible. Everyone who has ADD can sculpt a fulfilling, joyful life out of what they've been born with. ... Doing so starts in your head and in your heart: you need knowledge and you need hope."
— Dr. Edward Hallowell
At the extremes of opinion, ADHD is either a terrible "disorder" that can ruin your life or a "way of being in the world" that is misunderstood by many and can be considered a gift when properly treated. Both views are supported by the same research; they simply represent different approaches to thinking about and treating ADHD.
The "curse" camp points to the statistics — historically, people with ADHD have fared worse than those without ADHD in many life functions (holding jobs, staying happily married, staying out of jail). This is "proof" that ADHD is a problem that needs to be treated as a dysfunction or an illness, much in the same way one would treat a physical illness or a disease.
The "gift" camp believes that people with ADHD have many wonderful attributes that can be obscured by their symptoms. This group believes in the power of human inspiration and willpower to change one's circumstances. They know that it takes a lot of hard work to change the habits developed in response to ADHD symptoms so that one can thrive in the world. Change, they say, can best come from hope and inspiration.
After years of dealing with both child and adult ADHD in my own family, as well as advising couples struggling with ADHD, I take a modified positive approach. Being realistic about the great stress ADHD can place on both spouses is critical to dealing with ADHD in your relationship. Yet optimism is also critically important. I have seen firsthand the benefits that being positive can provide. My daughter, a smart, creative, lovely woman of nineteen at the time of this writing, has her share of challenges created by her ADHD symptoms. Yet I heard her tell another teen a few summers ago, "I wouldn't want to be without ADHD. It's the reason I am who I am — creative, able to think differently, able to see the world in fresh ways." She recognizes that every individual is unique, and she attributes much of her specialness — for better and for worse — to her ADHD "way of being."
When the harder aspects of ADHD symptoms are accepted as the flip side of the very positive aspects of ADHD, a balance can be achieved that is similar to the balance that people without ADHD create for themselves. I, for example, do not have ADHD, but I do have specific weaknesses that I acknowledge and work around in my everyday life. I generally have not needed medication to help me achieve that balance, though I found that the experience of treating depression with medication for several years (and the dramatic improvement in my outlook that this medication provided) helped me to gain greater respect for the benefits and limits of psychotropic medications. My daughter, with the help of ADHD medications in low doses, has found her own balance point. Like me, she has strengths she pursues with passion, and weaknesses she must accommodate. But I am confident that if her father and I had treated her as if she had a terrible disorder, she would have matured with quite a different opinion of herself and likely had different results from her efforts.
What Is ADHD?
Technically, ADHD is a series of symptoms that can be identified by a medical professional with training in ADHD evaluation through specific tests and the compilation of a medical history. The heritability of the condition, along with recent MRI research studies, suggest that there is a biological underpinning for ADHD in the brain. Dr. John Ratey, an expert on how the brain functions, suggests that ADHD is the result of dysregulation of the reward system (primarily dopamine) in the brain. In short, the brain of a person with ADHD does not move dopamine and other chemicals in the attention areas of the brain in the same way that the brain of someone without ADHD does. This chemical difference results in the symptoms associated with ADHD. Social pressures at home, at work, and at school often exacerbate a person's response to ADHD, and can create additional conditions such as anxiety or depression.
Excerpted from The ADHD Effect on Marriage by Melissa Orlov. Copyright © 2010 Melissa Orlov. Excerpted by permission of Specialty Press, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Melissa C. Orlov is one of the leading experts on how ADHD affects marriages. She writes a regular column on this topic for ADDitude Magazine, gives lectures, and writes online at www.ADHDMarriage.com. She lives in Wayland, Massachusetts.
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My wife (who has ADHD) and I (who does not) have just started reading this book together, and we are already benefiting from it! This is the first book that I have been able to find that isn't only about understanding ADHD and the behaviors that tend to be associated with ADHD. It also addresses behaviors that are associated with the nonADHD person in the couple. And that is essential in order for both partners to feel validated, and also in order for each partner to feel empathy for the other. In the past, when my wife and I have attempted to read other books together - books that were written for couples in which one of the partners has ADHD - my wife always felt so bad that her ADHD behaviors were causing such pain for me that she was unable to continue. She came away feeling that since she was the one with ADHD, she was to blame for all our problems. And in some ways, I actually agreed with her. But because she was feeling so guilty, she wasn't able to take a step back and really see the effect her behaviors were having on me. And so we were stuck. The ADHD Effect on Marriage, on the other hand, puts the "blame" not just on the ADHD, but also on the nonADHD spouse's very predictable responses to ADHD behaviors, and also on the ADHD spouse's predictable responses to the nonADHD spouse's responses! So both of us are able to more clearly understand how we are each contributing to the dynamic. She can see the effect her behaviors have on me, and perhaps more importantly, I can see the effect my behaviors (in response to her behaviors) are having on her. And ironically, rather that both of us just feeling bad that we are to blame, we actually now feel that we can work together to improve things. We've only gotten through the first part of the book - Understanding ADHD in Your Marriage. And already we are listening to each other more, and fighting less! And we both look forward to reading the next section - Rebuilding Your Relationship in Six Steps. I think if you are in a relationship where one person has ADHD and one does not, I believe you will find this book to be very helpful. I'll write up an update when we have finished the second part of the book.
A great book that helps couples work with ADHD in the marriage! ADHD does lots of damage to an intimate relationship. Melissa has practical advice and applications from her own personal struggle and victory in her own real life marriage. My husband and I loved reading this together and finding hope for ourselves...It easy to read, gives hope and encouragement, that an ADHD marriage can be "better than ever" with some understanding, coping skills and comminication. This is a wonderful tool! Maria L.