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ADHD can destroy a marriage — here’s how to help

by By Melissa Orlov /  / Updated  / Source: TODAY books

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Melissa Orlov, author of "The ADHD Effect on Marriage," has spent five years studying the issues surrounding ADHD and relationships. In her book, she writes that couples are often unaware of how ADHD plays a role in their marital problems, but that once they understand certain patterns, they can make a positive change in their marriage. An excerpt.

The surprising ways ADHD symptoms show up in your marriage

It’s amazing how consistent are the patterns in struggling ADHD marriages. These patterns start with a common ADHD symptom that then triggers a series of pretty predictable responses in both spouses, creating a downward spiral. But what if you knew what those triggers are, so that you could eliminate them or respond differently? What would happen if you could just say “Oh, that’s the ADHD right there” and brush it off, rather than engage in battle? You can learn to recognize many of these patterns and then eliminate them from your relationship using methods that take ADHD into account.

Spoiler alert: You will see your relationship in this chapter, and you may have mixed emotions about it. On the one hand, if you’re like many at our blog (, you might feel relieved that someone is finally articulating what you have been experiencing as well as grateful to learn you are not alone. But these descriptions might also make you feel even sadder than you have been feeling. “What a waste!” you may think, or “This seems just hopeless!”

You should allow yourself to experience this sadness, for grieving for what you have not had in your marriage up to this point is one of the first steps towards building a new life together. But know that there are many reasons to be hopeful as well. As you learn about the patterns in ADHD relationships, you will also learn what to do about them.

Pattern 1 — Painful misinterpretations of ADHD symptoms & motives

Good communication isn’t just a matter of saying the right words or starting your assumptions in the same places. Correct interpretation is critical, and in this realm couples dealing with ADHD may fail miserably for two basic reasons:

• An ADHD symptom is lurking that they don’t realize is having an impact on their interaction (and subsequent interpretation of the interaction).

• They “live in the world” so differently that they incorrectly assume they understand the motives that are influencing frustrating behaviors.

One of the most common misinterpretations is feeling as if an ADHD spouse doesn’t love his partner anymore because he isn’t paying attention to her.

Take Maria. After five years of marriage, she wondered, “Why did I ever bother to get married? He doesn’t even know I exist anymore!” During their courtship, Dan had been completely focused on her. But now she felt abandoned and ashamed that she no longer attracted her husband. She tried more and more desperately to get him to notice her. She started with sexier lingerie and new clothes, but that only worked for a while. She tried planning dates and sending cards, but he still didn’t pay much attention. Frustrated, she turned to yelling at him, berating him, and demanding attention. Though this in-your-face approach forced Dan to pay attention in the short term, it drove him farther away over time. He took to retreating to his computer almost as soon as he came home, widening the distance between them. Because she was expressing herself so loudly, and he wasn’t responding, Maria’s resentment turned into full-blown anger.

What’s going on here? Early on, Maria misinterpreted Dan’s actions that were the result of his ADHD. One of the defining symptoms of ADHD is distraction. Dan had been able to temporarily hyperfocus on Maria during their courtship with the help of the brain chemicals released with infatuation, but once things settled down he reverted to showing his more typical ADHD symptoms. His distractibility meant that it was just as likely he would become interested in his dog, his computer, his car, or the soccer game as he would his wife. Things fell apart when she ascribed the negative emotion of dislike to the neutral act of distraction. “He doesn’t love me anymore” was her fear, and every act of distraction served to reinforce this message in her mind.

If you had asked Dan during that period whether he still loved his wife, he would have looked at you in total confusion and said, “Of course!” Although his wife was at that very moment wallowing in despair over his treatment of her, he perceived things to be fine between them. This isn’t because he is dense; it’s just that after a lifetime of having people mad or disappointed with him, Dan weathers periods of anger and criticism by mostly ignoring them. And, because people with ADHD don’t receive and process information in a hierarchical way, Maria’s suffering enters his mind at about the same level as everything else he perceives — the lights on the radio clock, the dog barking, the computer, the worrisome project he has at work.

“But wait!” you say. “It doesn’t matter — she’s still alone!” You would be right. Regardless of whether or not Dan was intentionally ignoring his wife or just distracted, actions speak louder than words. She becomes lonely and unhappy, and her needs must be addressed. But recognizing and then identifying the correct underlying problem is critical to finding the right solution. In marriage, just like in middle school math, if you pick the wrong problem to solve, you generally don’t end up with a satisfactory result. Furthermore, the hurt caused by the incorrect interpretation that he no longer loves her elicits a series of bad feelings and behaviors that compound the problem. This is the critical dynamic of symptom-response-response at work.


Avoiding misinterpretations of ADHD symptoms and motives

• Learn all you can about ADHD and how it manifests in adults.

• Assume you don’t know your spouse’s motives. If something makes you feel bad, ask questions so you can better understand the underlying motives. Err on the side of too many questions so that you can reach an understanding. Keep the questions neutral. “Why did you take the dog fo a walk right then?” or “Was the dog crossing her legs?!” are better approaches than “Is taking the dog out more important than finishing that chore I needed you to do?” or “I can’t believe you ignored my request and played with the dog, instead!” Remember, tone of voice really matters.

• Put measurements in place to differentiate between actions and words. If you are feeling ignored, for example, make a plan together that can clarify the dimensions of your problem — perhaps keeping track of the amount of time you spend together for a week.

• Consider weekly “learning conversations” (explained in detail in Step 4) to address issues that simply won’t go away. Make it a point to discuss your motives and differences in approach that might be getting in the way of finding common ground.

• Learn to laugh when you miscommunicate, rather than see it as a sign that you’ll never figure it out. Laughter reduces tension and helps keep you both in a positive mindset.

Excerpted from “The ADHD Effect on Marriage” by Melissa Orlov. Copyright 2010.

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