We All Want To Be Heard

By Mike Fedel

This article looks back at the first year of ADDA’s Non-ADHD Partner Peer Support Group.  I want to share  some major themes that come up repeatedly. I’ve avoided obvious ones: “he’s always late” or “he’s impulsive with our money.” Instead, lets look at some that don’t always get talked about, some that are more personal and painful.

NOTE: to keep it less confusing, the couples will be portrayed as “husband with ADHD” and “wife without”, with apologies to guys and to non-traditional couples.

“It’s been a good week, we didn’t have any major fights.”

“He said to me ‘you’re nothing’.”

“He was out of town on business and I got a lot of housework done. It was crazy, but it was a different kind of crazy. ‘Busy crazy’, not ‘what’s going to happen next?’ crazy. I like it when he’s gone.”

“We are both so incredibly lonely.”

These are just a few of the things I’ve heard during check-in on our support group phone call. These things aren’t said with anger or self-pity. Sometimes they’re said with a sense of regret or even confusion, but they rarely sound like an attack. I wish more couples knew that. That they knew their partner was just trying to figure out how to make things better.

The list below contains only a few of the topics that came up over our groups first year.  Some surprised me and some we really needed to hear.

1) He’s Defensive or Won’t Accept He Has ADHD

It’s not the easiest thing in the world to say “I have to change.” It can bring up feelings like “I’m the bad guy” and “it’s all my fault”. It can also make us feel like we’re being controlled or that we’re giving ourselves up for the sake of the relationship.

But if there’s one single thing that has made the difference between partners who have hope and partners who are struggling, it’s this: we – the ones with ADHD – have to own it. We have to say to ourselves and our partners: “some of the things I do don’t work for us. They don’t work for the family, for my job, for me. I want to change them.”

That’s it. That’s the baseline. There are many different ways to go from there: couples counseling, education about ADHD, medication, support groups, and forgiveness and growth. There’s no one-size-fits-all “next step”, but if we can’t at least do this – if we can’t at least say “something has to change” – there’s nowhere we can go.

It’s important to know that it isn’t about saying, “I’m broken” or “I’m the problem” or “I want to be normal.” It’s simply acknowledging that something isn’t working.

Almost everyone who’s called in over the last year said this or something similar. They want to work on this with us. They love us. But they’re stuck if we can’t at least say “Yes, I see what I’m doing to us and I don’t want to do it anymore.”

Please read this bullet point again. It’s probably the single thing all of our partners have asked for. They just want to be heard and acknowledged.

2) Lying / Reliability / Trust

These three topics came up a lot and I’ve decided to talk about them at the same time for reasons I’ll explain here.

One of the most frustrating things for me as a man with ADHD is that I forget things. And I don’t mean like missing an appointment or not knowing where my music stand is. I mean things like “I know you get scared when I tailgate and I promised I’d never do it again but OOPS! here I am doing it again.” (And let’s assume for sake of argument that it happens several times.)

How does this look to our partners?

It can look like “you lied to me. You never had any intention of changing.” This is the worst, I think, because it not only reinforces “you’re unreliable”, but it undermines trust between us.

It can look like “if you can’t even keep such a simple promise, what else are you going to slip up on?” This moves it out of the realm of “you lied”, but still leaves your partner feeling like they’re building on shaky ground. Are you going to forget to pick up the kid from daycare? Are you going to sink another $10K into a remodel project then abandon it midway through?

Or, it can look like “you did your best, but damn it’s frustrating.” This might be as good as it gets, but it isn’t very good, is it?

3) Nobody Gets It, They Think It’s Me

Aside from “lying”, this is probably the topic that’s come up most often. Our partners talk to their friends, even close friends, about the struggles they’re having but what they often hear is “Him? Really? I don’t see it, he’s quirky, sure, but he’s charming and brilliant and he’s good at so many things!” Conversely, they may hear “you’re just too demanding. Lighten up.”

Families can be another challenge. If he grew up in a household with ADHD, it’s often difficult to get any support from his parents and siblings, because they will see you as the problem. To them, his behavior is normal. After all, it’s what they’ve seen their whole lives.

Sometimes, even our partners start to think it’s them. When things are calm, they might enjoy our impulsive nature, the sense of enthusiasm and energy we bring. But we have to think about the long term effect – some of them say they’ve started doubting themselves and  maybe they really are just demanding b*tches, which is not a position you want to put your partner in, is it?

4) Envying the Normals

“I found myself envying my friend when she talked about doing the taxes with her husband. Doing the taxes! How do you envy someone doing their taxes? Because they are doing them together.”

This and similar sentiments came up over and over. Not always in terms of envy, but wondering what life might be like if things were more “normal”; if they didn’t find themselves embarrassed over and over in front of their friends or apologizing for our bad behavior.

And this isn’t simple, something like being late to a party. This is showing up at the school play with your daughter but not her costume. This is apologizing for your partner who swore at the driver who stopped too quickly, and then used ADHD as an excuse. (It’s not.)

A deeper layer of this problem is that our partners start to wonder “why am I still here?”, or “is this a good/safe/healthy environment to raise kids?” or when they find themselves grieving the life they could have had.

I can’t recall how many times I’ve heard “this isn’t the life I signed up for” or something similar. And they’re right.

5) It’s So Lonely

This shouldn’t have surprised me, but it did. I wasn’t surprised to hear that the partners felt they were in the relationship alone, raising their kids alone, navigating life alone, with the person they married living at the same address but not really on the same team.

What surprised me was that they knew we are feeling alone too.

6) I/We Are Not Important To Him

This is the last item on my list, but certainly not the least. Here are the people we say are the most important people in the world to us – our partner and our kids – and yet spending time with them often comes after everything else. After all of the things we “need” to do”; work, the “little bit extra” we bring home, housework or home repairs, school or our “side hustle”, hobbies, friends, sports, checking our email, Facebook, etc., etc., etc.

We don’t do this intentionally; if you asked us, we’d all say we put our partner and family first. But what we do doesn’t always show it.

There are two sides to our behavior: how it appears to us and how it appears to others. When I make a decision to do X (something I want/need to do) instead of Y (something my partner wants/needs me to do) it usually looks and feels sensible to me (otherwise I wouldn’t do it, right?).

But it doesn’t always look that way to our partners.

Or our kids.

One story that stuck with me was a mom who had planned a vacation for the family – the couple and their two little girls. As the date got closer, dad kept promising he was on board, he just had to finish “a few more things.”

When it came time to leave, they missed their flight because dad was still busy, but promised he’d “be free soon.” But he couldn’t go the next day. Or the next. In the end, mom was finally able to get dad to sit down with the family for a rented movie night, complete with pizza and popcorn.

The part of the story that really stuck with me was how excited his little girls were. They didn’t need an airplane flight, a hotel, and a week at Disney. They just wanted some time with their dad.

That story sums up a lot of the year for me.

We can keep ourselves busy 24/7 with things that are important or urgent or both but if we do it at the expense of our relationships, if we create a life that makes the people we love feel like they’re an afterthought, we’re going to end up with a lot of things checked off our “to do” list, with a lot of accomplishments, but no one to share them with.

And that isn’t what we signed up for.


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      • Kevin
      • October 24, 2018

      Somebthings Mike did not mention which I believe is very important
      Is the ADHD spouse on medication ?
      Is the ADHD spouse involved with cognitive therapy ?
      Seeing an ADHD coach ?
      Marriage family therapist together ?
      I did not read any mention to these questions. If anyone knows the answer please respond. Without using any of resources I mentioned, yes life with ADHD spouse will be a roller coaster. When those resources are implemented your life and the relationship can thrive

      • Tom
      • August 2, 2018

      Great article – I have saved this so that I read it again. I need frequent reminders that my ADD presents challenges to my relationship – and although sometimes they are big ones, all relationships have challenges. I am fortunate to be with a person who loves me while accepting that I have ADD. Most of the time it is so hard for me to take legitimate criticism and much easier for me to get defensive and think my spouse is nagging me. It’s not fair for me to try to turn things around on someone who is not nagging but pointing out things I need to be aware of but overlook due to my ADD.

      For anyone who is in a relationship with someone who has ADD/ADHD, know that it may take a long time (if it ever happens) for that person to not get defensive when you point something out that they did due to their ADD. After years of lashing back at the critiques, I am only now starting to see more clearly that I was getting defensive because I didn’t want to admit that my ADD was causing me to do things and make decisions that were not the best for my relationship or myself.

      • mary.katherine
      • July 14, 2018

      Wow. Very helpful and real. I’m not in a relationship…the last guy, with a graduate degree in engineering, broke it off saying I was too immature (though over 50), not a good enough housekeeper, and don’t stop long enough for stop signs. Good for me to start finally learning the realities of how my ADD affects relationships and ways I can start working on myself so there may be one that works in the future.

      • Mark
      • June 18, 2018

      Wow. I’m new to the ADDA organization and website. I am just now checking out the resources. Saw this article and OMG, I’m somewhat overwhelmed with about 100 responses that are stirred within me. Thank you for summarizing some of the experiences from non-ADHD partners. Incredibly helpful.

      Please know that one of my “100 responses” from reading this is to send out my most sincere and gentle energy of encouragement and gratitude to all of our non-ADHD partners.

      • Marge
      • June 17, 2018

      For me it is my adult son. As hard as i try when visiting i always fail to notice things ( griddle was missing grease tray, forgot plate on sofa and it slipped into sofa, and i totally forgot). When i visit and things happen, he has begun to yell and berate me. Breaks my heart. I think he has no respect for me. I dont know how to resolve this as he feels justified in screaming at me.

      • Dennis
      • June 17, 2018

      My own ADHD diagnosis came late in life. My version is the “other” type of ADHD..not the more common hyperactivity type. I guess that’s why it took so long for me to get diagnosed. I had to do most of it myself… Some of the things that well meaning people have done to me have amounted to emotional torture. Loneliness seems to be standard with this diagnosis.
      Other people sometimes DO notice that I have certain tendencies, Now I realize what they’ve been paying attention to and I’m working to correct it…for others. Because I really don’t notice if I do or do not do certain things. Really.
      If my partner (if I had a partner) brought it up, I’d deal with it. These things literally “slip my mind” and I DO sometimes need reminding to do some of them.
      I’ve had a lifetime of being used by others for the ideas I produce…but the sociopaths that seen always to be nearby trying to do this are not good friends and I’ve had to learn how to figure out that kind of personality type or their typical habit of chasing people away gets extended to me if I keep hanging around with them.
      I have had lifetime issues with finding and maintaining relationships with women. The part of it I that I have control over (ex.: religiosity and similar have acted to distance me from the local religious zealots, etc.) I’m working on. There ARE women that are not hyper-religious, etc, it’s just a matter of finding them.
      I have excellent self control and over the last several years I’ve friended and been able to spend time with some of the local “super attractive” women. They all have life issues too. We ALL have some kind of issue to deal with and the sooner we all take responsibility for ours and help others with theirs the sooner our world will improve for everyone.

      • Julia
      • June 17, 2018

      My husband is a pilot. That seems to compound all these issues/feelings. He is brilliant,people love him,I often say I get tired of being in the shade of his 10 gallon hat. It is very lonely. I often feel like a bitch . He is exhausted when he comes home and I honor that and him. Tho there is never a time to converse about the issues at hand. Then he will take a all or nothing approach. You have observed many of the things that make it difficult. My husband is sweet,kind and full of all the things that ADHD brings to the table plus a few more. The 1st 20years of marriage were riddled with potholes and I felt like a horrible wife. Then 1 day as we were seeking learning difference help for our daughter a Dr. acknowledged how difficult things must be for ME. Wow! I’ve hung on to that statement of a lifeboat forever! I believe that ADHD is a form of brilliance and that society doesn’t know how to measure or teach to it. I think if you spent a little time with our most brilliant folks they would show many of the challenges of ADHD. Like the great Kermit the frog stated”it ain’t easy being green “

      • Ms. Cheryl Tebo
      • June 17, 2018

      Sad but so true.

      • Erin Stoekl
      • June 17, 2018

      I wish this came with a counter-point to show how a couple can navigate each of these issues in a healthy way. As an ex-wife with ADHD, it’s hard not to feel like my efforts to change will still not be enough to make me a good partner.

      • Anne Heller
      • June 17, 2018

      Nailed it. This was written as if l was the one interviewed. Been married and alone for 45 years. We’re old now and there is no where to go. We both have ADHD but our priorities are so different. It is such a sad existence.

      • Nancy Rieke
      • June 13, 2018

      loved it.

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