I Said, 'Honey, Are You Listening to Me?'

Aaron and Michele Redalen
Aaron and Michele Redalen, still together even with Aaron's attention deficity hyperactive disorder, thanks to his new medication. (Bill O'leary - The Washington Post)
By Matt McMillen
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, March 21, 2006

From the start of their marriage, Jeremy Gaylord had a habit of walking away from his wife, Nancy, while she was in mid-sentence. That annoyed her. But when he also did it to people at parties, she took action.

"I'd slam my foot down on his to keep him from drifting off," she recalled, laughing, in a recent phone interview from the couple's home in Bridgewater, Vt.

Nancy thought he was just plain rude. Five years ago, she learned there was another possible explanation: attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD. When Jeremy's attention wandered, he did, too.

Just about everyone occasionally zones out, procrastinates or speaks and acts without thinking. But for those with ADHD -- including many who don't know they have the disorder -- such experiences are more frequent, intense and disruptive, said Tom Brown, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Yale University and author of "Attention Deficit Disorder in Children and Adults" (Yale University Press, 2005).

All of which can be hard on a relationship -- especially a committed one.

It's not that people with ADHD don't inspire love or affection. "There are likable, lovable sides to ADHD, " said Brown. People with the disorder are often "spontaneous, funny as hell, and bring a fresh view on things to a relationship." It's just that their admirers generally have to balance these traits with a few exasperating ones.

For example, Brown said, "many [people with ADHD] have a reputation for being chronically late"-- a trait that others find more than a little irritating.

Take Michele Redalen, 31, of North Potomac. She met her husband, Aaron, also 31, when they were in college. They fell for each other hard and spent hours talking together. But he never seemed to be able to show up on time for dates. She accepted that -- sort of: "In college, people are always late, loud and obnoxious," she said.

New Orleans jazz singer Phillip Manuel, 52, and his wife, Janice, know something about the challenge of a long-term ADHD romance. A year after they met nearly two decades ago, they married. She was the organized and logical and cautious partner. He was impulsive and fearless.

"He was forgetful, easily distracted and constantly in motion," said Janice Manuel. "That energy was one of the first things that attracted me to him, but you start to wonder, where is it going?" Not into a steady job -- he relied instead on freelance singing gigs and voice-over work, the uncertainty of which became the source of many fights. But his energy took positive forms as well.

"He was always hands-on with the kids. He went on field trips, helped with homework and class projects. All the teachers knew him," said Manuel. "And he always made us breakfast. Not just cold cereal -- the works."

Remembering how he often felt he would never live up to his wife's expectations, Phillip Manuel insists, half-joking, that he tricked his level-headed and accomplished wife into marrying him. "I took her for a ride," he said. Since he started taking medication 5 1/2 years ago for his newly diagnosed ADHD, he said, "that ride is a lot smoother."

Janice Manuel agrees. "Sometimes, I think, you can become perhaps too serious, too focused. He's helped me to be a little lighter, a little freer, more of a risk-taker. He evens me out. There's this middle ground, and we've moved toward it."

The Gaylords' and the Manuels' experiences as couples are common for those with the disorder, said Patricia Quinn, a District-based pediatrician and author of several books on ADHD. "Most people with the disorder, they created the relationship before they knew they had ADHD," she said. "[Later,] they are struggling or suffering in relationships, and they don't know why."

Working on Focus

Couples who are affected by the problem, she said, can't assume ADHD medication will solve all their problems. Education is also essential, Quinn said, so that "partners . . . don't take the behavior personally. The spouse starts to understand they're not doing this on purpose."

That kind of understanding has been crucial for Winnie and John Rodriguez. The Alexandria couple fought frequently over Winnie's piles of papers, magazines and other odds and ends that cluttered their house. (An inability to get organized is a hallmark of ADHD.) The mess often left neatnik John, 29, wondering, "When are we going to have an adult house?" But it was also frustrating for Winnie, 28.

"I don't know how John can walk through this house," she says she'd fret. "And when we'd go to other people's houses, I always asked myself, 'How do they keep it clean?' "

More troublesome to John was Winnie's tendency to tune out when he was talking to her, even when he was standing just a few feet away. "We were in the same room, but we weren't together," said John. He interpreted that as not caring.

Winnie now practices a few tips she learned from a therapist: "When I hear John talking, I stop what I'm doing and listen, and I've learned to make eye contact to focus on him."

And John? "I've learned I'm never going to have a clean house," he said. "I'm pretty proud of myself to have gotten over that."

Their first child, due in a few months, will bring new challenges: "We're still struggling to get organized," said Winnie. Added John, "She's already told me I've got full responsibility for the dogs."

A similar coming to terms has helped the Gaylords.

"Just having an explanation and knowing you have to make a point in a different way" has been tremendously important, said Nancy, who often holds Jeremy's face in her hands and looks right at him to be certain she is heard. They have also divided up the household chores in ways that take advantage of Jeremy's energy and creativity.

"I cook now and treat her like a queen to make up for everything," he said. "Sometimes, it's very seasonal, like last night's fillet of gray sole." After the interview, he was heading back to the kitchen to finish a chocolate cream pie.

By contrast, medication has been a marriage-saver for Aaron and Michele Redalen. Before diagnosis and treatment, they fought frequently, and always about the same things. Aaron promised to fix things around the house but never did. At parties, when he wasn't ignoring her, Aaron was interrupting her, finishing her stories, hurrying her along. Eventually, Michele would no longer go out socially with her husband.

Since he's been on medication, Aaron said, he's been better able to recognize when he's about to interrupt Michele and to rein himself in. "It's made it easier to accept what Michele was telling me. [Before,] I felt like a bad person," he said. "I still have all the same tendencies and urges, but now I see myself and can stop myself."

Both point to the survival of their marriage as proof, if they needed it, that they really loved each other. "I sort of feel it falls into the whatever-doesn't-kill-you-makes-you-stronger category," Michele explains. "It forced us to choose whether we really wanted to be together." ยท

Matt McMillen has written for Health previously on attention deficit in adults and children. Comments: health@washpost.com

© 2006 The Washington Post Company