“I get kinda hopeless. I don’t think he’s ever going to change”.
This is what Sara said to me about her husband, John, who has had difficulty keeping a job, and had mismanaged their finances, putting the couple in a great deal of debt. John has ADHD, and his work and financial track record is text book for individuals struggling with ADHD. John was not gambling. John was not doing drugs. John was simply not organized enough to keep the bills paid on time and get things done at work.
Sara, on the other hand, is a text book example of the non-ADHD spouse in an “ADHD couple”. Sara is struggling now, but was not always feeling this way. In the beginning, Sara felt like a princess with all the attention that John paid to her. Sara loved John’s spirit and spontaneity, his warmth and easy going nature. Then, in what felt like a sudden shift, the attention stopped, which can be characteristic of a courtship affected by ADHD. John was onto something else. He wasn’t less interested in Sara, he was just easily taken by any number of other interests: TV shows, video games, projects that started and then ended half-finished.
Soon after their wedding, Sara began to appreciate John’s spontaneity less and less, as she had to “pick up the slack” more and more. Sara was working full time and John wasn’t. Sara would clean up when she got home because John didn’t. Sara would cook dinner because John wasn’t. Sara would take care of the food shopping because John couldn’t seem to do it. Sara went from happy, to content, to annoyed, to frustrated and angry, even questioning if she had married the right person.
For a while, Sara’s anger would prompt John into some productive action, but she didn’t like having to resort to that behavior, and she knew John hated it too, and it was killing their relationship. Fortunately, with some support and coaching in couples counseling, she was able to put aside the anger and “nagging”. This was good. Unfortunately, she felt hopeless instead, asking herself the question, “now what?”. She was tired of being seen as a nag and she was tired of feeling alone in managing their lives. Sara missed John’s attention, and she was grieving the loss of “the partner she thought she’d have”. At a point not too long ago, Sara was contemplating divorce. Fortunately for them both, John agreed to seek treatment for his ADHD.
A good diagnostic work-up and an effective course of medication can work wonders for someone with ADHD. With medication and coaching, John was much more able to “keep up with things”, which began to help heal the marriage. But Sara’s hopelessness is a symptom shared by many non-ADHD spouses in an ADHD couple. For Sara and John’s marriage, the work of repair had just started, which was separate from the treatment John needed on his own. Often times the non-ADHD spouse and the marriage need solid support, if not life-support, while addressing one spouse’s ADHD symptoms.
Sara had shared her contemplation of divorce in a session, and confessed feeling guilty for considering it simply because her husband wouldn’t “do his chores”. With the couple, I talked about the symptoms of ADHD, and how they affect a marriage. Psychoeducation about ADHD helped John realize that he wasn’t “just lazy”, and freed him from a lifetime of shame related to unfinished tasks and late arrivals. Understanding ADHD also helped Sara feel better, as she began to see John’s actions as symptoms of ADHD, rather than indicators of his commitment to the marriage or his feelings towards her. Sara also felt better knowing that her struggles were shared by many other wives, and husbands too, who have spouses with ADHD.
The healing of a marriage worn by ADHD is a steady and concerted effort for the hopeless spouse and those who support him/her. The non-ADHD spouse learns how to communicate his/her needs more clearly, recognize behaviors of ADHD, and master techniques of organization and cooperation in new ways that work better for both spouses. In the process, hopeless spouses who stick with it learn a lot about themselves. Sara learned what was truly important to her; for instance, staying together was more important than having a 50/50 split of the household chores. And she learned what she could do without; for instance, the pair cut back on other discretionary spending to cover the cost of a cleaning service to come in once a week. Sara learned to ease some of her expectations of what John could do, and John learned to see his wife’s frustrations differently and take them less personally. Coaching, support and understanding are as important for the hopeless ADHD spouse as they are for the spouse with ADHD.
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