How to manage your marriage when your spouse has ADHD

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By Jessica Yadegaran
Sunday, January 2, 2011

WALNUT CREEK, CALIF. - The constant bickering was only the beginning of Fong's and John's marital problems. John was angry, explosively so. She'd ask him to do something, and then later, her husband of 32 years would deny that she ever did. They both knew he wasn't paying attention.

Sometimes, it went the other way. When the 50-something couple decided to paint the walls of their Cupertino, Calif., home, Fong saw it as a team project. They'd need to pick a day, agree on colors and purchase paint, she thought. But, when she came home from work the next day, the walls were wet with paint.

"He'd done it on his own because he needed something to focus on that day," says Fong, who works in biotech. She felt ignored and unloved.

Meanwhile, inside John, a war was brewing. He grew bored easily and had trouble finishing projects, yet he suffered from anxiety and racing thoughts.

"I would think of 100 things at a time," says John, who holds a government job. "I couldn't sit still. And I had a lot of fear, mostly of failure."

Four years ago, John was had adult attention deficit hyperactivity disorder diagnosed. ADHD is a syndrome that experts believe affects nearly 5 percent of adults. Because they weren't squirmy or chatty as kids, an estimated 90 percent of those adults are never diagnosed and try to cope as various degrees of distractibility, disorganization, impulsivity and lack of emotional control cause problems in all areas of their relationships.

The breakdown occurs because the non-ADHD spouse feels frustrated, unheard and unloved, based on her spouse's behavior, explains Russell Barkley, an ADHD researcher, author and professor of psychiatry at the Medical University of South Carolina.

"The ADHD spouse is not following through on promises and often isn't able to understand the needs of others," Barkley says. "It's a torrent of one-way conversations for the non-ADHD spouse. It feels like they're raising a kid."

On the ADHD spouse's watch, bills may not get paid, credit can be destroyed and a bad driving record often means the person isn't fit to schlep the kids to school and soccer practice, he explains.

All of this creates an unequal division of labor, says ADHD specialist and author Ned Hallowell, a Boston psychiatrist who in 30 years has treated 10,000 adults with ADHD.

But the ADHD spouse is not doing any of this on purpose.

"Their brain is like a toddler on a picnic," Hallowell says. "It goes where curiosity and enchantment lead it with no regard to authority or danger."


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