How Untreated ADHD Can Affect Our Relationships
How Untreated ADHD Can Affect Our Relationships
by Gina PeraSan Francisco, CA
We aren't attracted to our ADHD partners for nothing.
- Humor. We find it in spades.
- Innovation. Those crop up a lot, too.
- Thinking outside the box? As long as it doesn't mean living in a box, we're there.
Yet, for the past two years, my online friendships with hundreds of troubled partners of people with undiagnosed or untreated ADHD also tell me this: We desperately love our partners, and we're desperately hurt and confused. We need help. Many of us have only recently learned that adult ADHD exists or can pose problems other than the occasional forgetting. We didn't know it had anything to do with rage, compulsive spending, job loss, and difficulty being a parent. Many live with partners who are in complete denial, refusing to even hear of AD/HD.
We partners consider ourselves far from paragons of virtue. We represent a spectrum of personalities, behaviors, intelligences, and neuroses-as our ADHD partners do, too. Most of us want to grow, change, expand, and meet our ADHD mates halfway or more.
Yet, when our partners' untreated ADHD creates chaos at every turn and our understanding of ADHD is nil, we often sink into a confused and stressed-out state we may call "ADD by Osmosis." We're left unable to act, only react-sometimes until we reach "meltdown." Even the most formerly confident among us start to believe our partners' line that our partnership woes are entirely our fault. After all, they were so in love with us and so charming in the beginning, it must be our fault that things have changed so drastically. On top of that, we are often dealing with financial difficulties, helping our children with AD/HD, performing most of the household chores, and often working a full-time job.
For the most part, it's not the little ADHD'ish things that wear us down. We can live with those (most of the time) once we understand their underpinnings, and we can work together on solutions. Rather, it's the big, teeth-rattling things that send us seeking a support group. Female and male members alike commiserate on the same issues, with a few variations.
The following list of most-problematic "hot spots"-again, primarily found among those refusing diagnosis and treatment-is not for the faint of heart. Perhaps only the most motivated and frustrated make it to a support group-or maybe just those most certain that there has to be a better way.
- We wrestle with our partners' secret (and not so secret) debts, impulsive spending, chronic job losses or underemployment. We're called "anal" for insisting on filing with the IRS. We planned for a carefree retirement but instead face mountains of debt. Don't even mention eBay.
- We manifest the effects of ADHD stress and tumult in such disorders as fibromyalgia, migraines, chronic fatigue, irritable-bowel disorder, and "AD/HD by Osmosis." Eventually, it can seem that we are the burden to our partners instead of the other way around. We grow more isolated and restricted in our daily activities.
- Our careers often suffer, perhaps by staying in jobs we hate because we can never afford to take a risk. Ours is the sole, steady, family income. We often under-perform at work because we're constantly putting out fires created by our partners.
- An often-heard phrase is, "We feel like single parents." We make all the decisions. We act as referee between our ADHD children and their ADHD parent. Too often, we must deal with the authorities when our partners lose their tempers. We often stay in toxic marriages because we know that "shared custody" would be disastrous. If our partners "lose track" of our toddlers now, what might happen later? If our partners fly off the handle and smack our children now, what might happen when we're not around?
- Not much. Our families often see the charming "social" side of our partners and think we're exaggerating. Our closest friends commiserate but can't help. Our in-laws often are wrapped up in their own undiagnosed sagas, decades in the making. Much of the public doesn't "believe" in AD/HD.
- We've experienced our partners turning off the sex spigot the day after marriageÿand then they find a way to blame it on us. Or, we find we're expected to be their sexual stimulant 24-7, with nothing in the way of romance or even foreplay. Some of us have enjoyed a good sex life prior to our partner's treatment, only to have that curtailed by medication side effects. Others feel a bit incestuous, having sex with a partner who acts like he or she could be their child.
- We fear for our safety and that of our children. We pray for no more costly traffic-violations, or worse.
- When we are consistently not valued or "seen," we slowly become invisible. Even to ourselves. We're blamed for the sky being blue. We feel beaten down.
- Provocation to Anger
- We are eternally grateful for Dr. Amen for this chapter subtitle in his book Healing A.D.D.:"I bet I can get you to yell at me or hit me." We hate ourselves when it happens-it's a new behavior for us-and we hate that our partners keep provoking us.
- Getting Help
- Many place trust in doctors and psychologists only to find our problems worsen due to their ignorance about AD/HD. While our partners can conveniently forget the trauma that's transpired or place the blame at our feet, we are so traumatized, confused and depressed that, to the untrained eye, we often look like the cause of the relationship woes.
It often takes from 5 to 30 years before we gain a clue that our partners' behavior comes with a name-and we hope for change. By that time, much damage has been done.
Before we can move past the anger and hurt-helping everybody concerned-we must understand the disorder. The mounds of books about AD/HD, however, can't supplant real-life experience-though many partners read volumes. We can name all the sub-types and behaviors, but the fog doesn't start lifting until we hear exactly how those behaviors are playing out with others in our shoes.
Newcomers often limp into the online support groups, utterly beleaguered and bedraggled or, at best, befuddled. Never bemused. Some dart back out again, citing no time for a group because they live with so many crises, not to mention ADHD children. Others need time to rant or grapple with the shocking fact that years were squandered to needless frustration. Some come post-divorce, asking, "What was that train-wreck that just happened?" Others conclude they're dealing with "ADD-lite," count their blessings, and exit.
Gradually, many who remain find clarity. We challenge each other to re-examine long-held expectations about gender roles, relationships, and our own core issues. We remind each other to detach a bit from the ADHD behaviors and focus on ourselves for a while. We encourage each other to help our partners find help. (We can't expect someone whose very disorder inhibits initiation to spring into action immediately and find a qualified care-provider.)
Change happens-with each others' support.
- We find workable communication techniques and chore-sharing arrangements.
- We learn to set better boundaries with partners whose life goal seems to be trampling on our boundaries.
- We learn to focus more on what makes us happy. We develop our own interests and activities to "charge our batteries."
- We gain confidence to insist on finding doctors and therapists who will work with us and accept our input not as "controlling" but as filling in the sizeable gaps usually left out by our partners.
- We develop and hold a vision for what can be because our partners often have lived so many years with what cannot be.
If we're lucky, we learn valuable lessons about damaged egos-our own as well as our partners'-and how to reach beyond them. And, we find the partners we always knew were there, underneath the noise. Our partners' ADHD has pushed us to become better people, and our lives are richer for it.
San Francisco-based writer Gina Pera actively participates in the two online support groups for partners of people with AD/HD. Here is the address of one, http://groups.yahoo.com/group/adhd_partner. She is writing a book based on members' collective experiences and wisdom. She recently started a CHADD-sponsored support group in Palo Alto. Her work producing special issues for USA Weekend magazine garnered the "Best Magazine Edition" award from The Association for Women in Communications and a Unity Award in Media, which recognizes accurate exposure of issues affecting minorities and disabled persons.