By Mike Fedel
This article looks back at the first year of ADDA’s Non-ADHD Partner Peer Support Group. I want to share some major themes that come up repeatedly. I’ve avoided obvious ones: “he’s always late” or “he’s impulsive with our money.” Instead, lets look at some that don’t always get talked about, some that are more personal and painful.
NOTE: to keep it less confusing, the couples will be portrayed as “husband with ADHD” and “wife without”, with apologies to guys and to non-traditional couples.
“It’s been a good week, we didn’t have any major fights.”
“He said to me ‘you’re nothing’.”
“He was out of town on business and I got a lot of housework done. It was crazy, but it was a different kind of crazy. ‘Busy crazy’, not ‘what’s going to happen next?’ crazy. I like it when he’s gone.”
“We are both so incredibly lonely.”
These are just a few of the things I’ve heard during check-in on our support group phone call. These things aren’t said with anger or self-pity. Sometimes they’re said with a sense of regret or even confusion, but they rarely sound like an attack. I wish more couples knew that. That they knew their partner was just trying to figure out how to make things better.
The list below contains only a few of the topics that came up over our groups first year. Some surprised me and some we really needed to hear.
1) He’s Defensive or Won’t Accept He Has ADHD
It’s not the easiest thing in the world to say “I have to change.” It can bring up feelings like “I’m the bad guy” and “it’s all my fault”. It can also make us feel like we’re being controlled or that we’re giving ourselves up for the sake of the relationship.
But if there’s one single thing that has made the difference between partners who have hope and partners who are struggling, it’s this: we – the ones with ADHD – have to own it. We have to say to ourselves and our partners: “some of the things I do don’t work for us. They don’t work for the family, for my job, for me. I want to change them.”
That’s it. That’s the baseline. There are many different ways to go from there: couples counseling, education about ADHD, medication, support groups, and forgiveness and growth. There’s no one-size-fits-all “next step”, but if we can’t at least do this – if we can’t at least say “something has to change” – there’s nowhere we can go.
It’s important to know that it isn’t about saying, “I’m broken” or “I’m the problem” or “I want to be normal.” It’s simply acknowledging that something isn’t working.
Almost everyone who’s called in over the last year said this or something similar. They want to work on this with us. They love us. But they’re stuck if we can’t at least say “Yes, I see what I’m doing to us and I don’t want to do it anymore.”
Please read this bullet point again. It’s probably the single thing all of our partners have asked for. They just want to be heard and acknowledged.
2) Lying / Reliability / Trust
These three topics came up a lot and I’ve decided to talk about them at the same time for reasons I’ll explain here.
One of the most frustrating things for me as a man with ADHD is that I forget things. And I don’t mean like missing an appointment or not knowing where my music stand is. I mean things like “I know you get scared when I tailgate and I promised I’d never do it again but OOPS! here I am doing it again.” (And let’s assume for sake of argument that it happens several times.)
How does this look to our partners?
It can look like “you lied to me. You never had any intention of changing.” This is the worst, I think, because it not only reinforces “you’re unreliable”, but it undermines trust between us.
It can look like “if you can’t even keep such a simple promise, what else are you going to slip up on?” This moves it out of the realm of “you lied”, but still leaves your partner feeling like they’re building on shaky ground. Are you going to forget to pick up the kid from daycare? Are you going to sink another $10K into a remodel project then abandon it midway through?
Or, it can look like “you did your best, but damn it’s frustrating.” This might be as good as it gets, but it isn’t very good, is it?
3) Nobody Gets It, They Think It’s Me
Aside from “lying”, this is probably the topic that’s come up most often. Our partners talk to their friends, even close friends, about the struggles they’re having but what they often hear is “Him? Really? I don’t see it, he’s quirky, sure, but he’s charming and brilliant and he’s good at so many things!” Conversely, they may hear “you’re just too demanding. Lighten up.”
Families can be another challenge. If he grew up in a household with ADHD, it’s often difficult to get any support from his parents and siblings, because they will see you as the problem. To them, his behavior is normal. After all, it’s what they’ve seen their whole lives.
Sometimes, even our partners start to think it’s them. When things are calm, they might enjoy our impulsive nature, the sense of enthusiasm and energy we bring. But we have to think about the long term effect – some of them say they’ve started doubting themselves and maybe they really are just demanding b*tches, which is not a position you want to put your partner in, is it?
4) Envying the Normals
“I found myself envying my friend when she talked about doing the taxes with her husband. Doing the taxes! How do you envy someone doing their taxes? Because they are doing them together.”
This and similar sentiments came up over and over. Not always in terms of envy, but wondering what life might be like if things were more “normal”; if they didn’t find themselves embarrassed over and over in front of their friends or apologizing for our bad behavior.
And this isn’t simple, something like being late to a party. This is showing up at the school play with your daughter but not her costume. This is apologizing for your partner who swore at the driver who stopped too quickly, and then used ADHD as an excuse. (It’s not.)
A deeper layer of this problem is that our partners start to wonder “why am I still here?”, or “is this a good/safe/healthy environment to raise kids?” or when they find themselves grieving the life they could have had.
I can’t recall how many times I’ve heard “this isn’t the life I signed up for” or something similar. And they’re right.
5) It’s So Lonely
This shouldn’t have surprised me, but it did. I wasn’t surprised to hear that the partners felt they were in the relationship alone, raising their kids alone, navigating life alone, with the person they married living at the same address but not really on the same team.
What surprised me was that they knew we are feeling alone too.
6) I/We Are Not Important To Him
This is the last item on my list, but certainly not the least. Here are the people we say are the most important people in the world to us – our partner and our kids – and yet spending time with them often comes after everything else. After all of the things we “need” to do”; work, the “little bit extra” we bring home, housework or home repairs, school or our “side hustle”, hobbies, friends, sports, checking our email, Facebook, etc., etc., etc.
We don’t do this intentionally; if you asked us, we’d all say we put our partner and family first. But what we do doesn’t always show it.
There are two sides to our behavior: how it appears to us and how it appears to others. When I make a decision to do X (something I want/need to do) instead of Y (something my partner wants/needs me to do) it usually looks and feels sensible to me (otherwise I wouldn’t do it, right?).
But it doesn’t always look that way to our partners.
Or our kids.
One story that stuck with me was a mom who had planned a vacation for the family – the couple and their two little girls. As the date got closer, dad kept promising he was on board, he just had to finish “a few more things.”
When it came time to leave, they missed their flight because dad was still busy, but promised he’d “be free soon.” But he couldn’t go the next day. Or the next. In the end, mom was finally able to get dad to sit down with the family for a rented movie night, complete with pizza and popcorn.
The part of the story that really stuck with me was how excited his little girls were. They didn’t need an airplane flight, a hotel, and a week at Disney. They just wanted some time with their dad.
That story sums up a lot of the year for me.
We can keep ourselves busy 24/7 with things that are important or urgent or both but if we do it at the expense of our relationships, if we create a life that makes the people we love feel like they’re an afterthought, we’re going to end up with a lot of things checked off our “to do” list, with a lot of accomplishments, but no one to share them with.
And that isn’t what we signed up for.