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The Distracted Marriage

In the tea aisle at the grocery store, I burst into tears. The list says “herbal tea”. Does that mean mint? Chamomile? Strawberry Rhubarb Zest? There are dozens of varieties, stretching as far as I can see in any direction. My head starts to hurt, the colors blur. I lose it.

Having ADHD makes even simple tasks extra challenging. My brain just can’t process all that input fast enough, and I get overwhelmed. Confused. Distracted.

As you can imagine, all this makes me hard to live with.

My honey-do list is long, and strange. He does all the grocery shopping. I pay the bills and balance the budget, but it’s his job to remember to go to the bank. If we need to talk to a customer service agent, he makes the phone calls. After years of frustration, I had to admit that I simply do not have the attention span to make it through an electronic phone tree. I’d call, get lost, hang up, and try again over and over for hours without ever getting through to a live person.

In a new book on the subject, author Melissa Orlov writes about the effect attention disorders can have on a marriage.

Being married to a person with ADHD can feel like raising an additional child, without the help of an adult partner. It goes way beyond the usual complaints spouses have about the other’s foibles and forgetfulness.

As Orlov put it talking with the New York Times:

“I felt like he was consistently inconsistent. I could never count on him. It goes from feeling responsible for everything to just chronic anger. I didn’t like the person I’d become either.”

I cried when I read this. And then I read it aloud to my husband, who just stared at me. We’ve had this exact conversation dozens of times.

I’m the one with ADHD, but my husband is no great shakes at organizational skills. We call him the absent-minded professor.

He’s probably 90% effective at remembering doctor’s appointments, filling out the right paperwork, finding his keys. Contrast that with all the times I’ve called him to leave work and rescue me because I locked myself out of the house, or the way he cooks dinner every night because I would just forget to, and he sure looks like the organized one in our family.

But that 10% gap means I can never trust him to do it. If he’s responsible for scheduling an appointment or paying a bill, I feel the need to check in and make sure it’s done. A lot of couples operate like this. I resent it, though, because it is so hard for me. Being a household manager plays right into all my weaknesses.

I was angry at him about this for years, until I realized that I was really angry at myself. Yes, those miscommunications and dropped balls are annoying. But what made them a major problem wasn’t the missed appointment fees. It was my frustration at being unable to keep our household functioning on my own. I resented needing so much help from him, and felt ashamed about my  .

When I’d get stressed, I’d do what people with ADHD classically do: dive away from the stress. Into the kids, into my work, into my computer. Away from the problem. Leaving my husband wondering why I’d barely say hello to him when he came home. I wasn’t angry, just distracted. Connecting with him would mean being present in the house with all it’s looming messes and chores and disorganized tasks.

Things are much smoother now. We’ve developed systems that work for both of us. This section of the article could well be titled: How The iPhone Saved My Marriage. Sharing calendars, to-do lists and text messages helps us stay in the loop together, so fewer balls get dropped. That frees up a lot of energy to do things we like together.

We also have a shared language to talk about these issues and how they affect us. Paying attention to how my ADHD symptoms manifest makes it easier to take the blame off each other and look for coping strategies and treatments.

This is exactly what Ms. Orlov recommends: not only medication and treatment for the partner with ADHD, but behavioral therapy and coping strategies for both partners. She also says talk therapy is often needed to unravel years of tension between couples who’ve been living with the strain of ADHD in their marriage.

For many of the couples Ms. Orlov works with, recognizing and treating ADHD in marriage saves the relationship. It’s not a magic bullet, but it’s an important piece of learning to live well together as a couple.

Photo: dearbarbie

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