How Untreated Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity (ADHD) Can Affect Relationships

Aug 3 07:48 2010 Brunetti Brunetti Print This Article

It's easy to understand why people are initially attracted to their partners who have ADHD. Humor. Creativity. They typically find those qualities in spades. Originality. Innovation. Those crop up a lot,Guest Posting too. Thinking outside the box? As long as it doesn't mean living in a box, they're there.

Yet, for the past ten years, my online exchanges with hundreds of partners to people with undiagnosed or untreated ADHD also tell me this:
* They do love their partners, yet they're desperately hurting and confused by their behavior.
* Many of them have only recently learned that adult ADHD exists or can pose problems other than the occasional forgetting or acting impulsively.
* They didn't know Adult ADHD had anything to do with rage, mood swings, compulsive spending, job loss, quickly losing interest in a partner, sexual challenges and difficulty parenting consistently, patiently, and fairly.
* Many live with adults who are in complete denial of their problems, refusing to even hear of Adult ADHD and its diagnosis. And even many of those who have been diagnosed with Adult ADHD are not pursuing good treatment strategies.
* They need help.  

It's not that the partners of these adults with ADHD consider themselves perfect paragons of mental-health virtue. They represent a spectrum of personalities, behaviors, intelligences, and neuroses–just as their ADHD partners do. (Guess what? Sometimes both partners have ADHD, but typically different sub-types.) Most of them want to grow, change, expand, and meet their mates halfway or more.

Yet, when these adults' untreated ADHD symptoms create chaos at every turn and everyone's understanding of ADHD is nil, the partners of these adults often sink into a confused and stressed-out state I call "ADHD by Osmosis." They're left unable to act, only react—sometimes until they reach "meltdown."

Even the most formerly confident among them start to believe that their partnership woes are entirely their fault. After all, their partners were so in love with them and so charmingly attentive in the beginning, it must be their fault that things have changed so drastically. On top of that, they are sometimes helping their children with ADHD, performing most of the household chores, and often working a full-time job. And, given the physiological nature of "denial," some of their partners remain oblivious to their role in the couple's or family's struggles.

For the most part, it's not the little ADHD'ish things that wear them down. They can live with the memory lapses and such (mostly) once they understand their neurobiological causes, and they can work together on solutions. Rather, it's the big, teeth-rattling behaviors that send them seeking a support group.

Female and male members alike commiserate on the same issues, with a few variations. This following list of most-problematic "hot spots" is not for the faint of heart. And it's important to know that these issues are not universal with ADHD. Rather, they are found primarily among those refusing Adult ADHD diagnosis and treatment and perhaps also dealing with not-uncommon co-existing issues such as conduct disorder and personality disorders.

* Financial:
They wrestle with the ADHD Adult's secret (and not so secret) debts, impulsive spending, chronic job losses or underemployment. They're called "anal" for insisting on filing with the IRS. They planned for a carefree retirement but instead face mountains of debt. Mention Ebay to them at your own risk; their closets are filled with their partner's impulsive and expensive online purchases.  Clutter fills the house.

* Health:
They manifest the effects of ADHD-induced stress and tumult in such disorders as fibromyalgia, migraines, chronic fatigue, and irritable-bowel disorder. Suddenly, it can seem that they are the burden to their partners instead of the other way around–an especially tricky cart-before-the-horse scenario that many couples therapists don't understand. They grow more isolated and restricted in their daily activities.

* Careers:
Their careers often suffer, perhaps meaning they stay in secure jobs they hate because they can never afford to take a risk. Theirs is the sole, steady income. They often under-perform at work because they're constantly putting out fires created by their partners.

* Children:
An often-heard phrase is "We feel like single parents." They make all the decisions. They act as referee between their children and partner—doubly so if both have unaddressed Adult ADHD symptoms. Some must deal with the authorities when their partner loses their temper. They often stay in toxic marriages because they know that "shared custody" would be disastrous. If their partner "loses track" of their toddler now, what will happen later? If their partner does fly off the handle again and smack their adolescent now, what will happen when they're not around to intervene?

* Support:
Not much. Their families often see the charming "social" side of their partners and think they're exaggerating. Their closest friends commiserate but can't help other than to say "get out!" Their in-laws often are ensnared in their own undiagnosed sagas of dealing with, or denying, this highly genetic condition. Much of the public, including the family doctor or their therapist, too often relegate Adult AD/HD to tooth-fairy status: They don't believe in it.

* Sex:
They've experienced their partners with untreated ADHD turning off the sex spigot the day after marriage—and then they find a way to blame it on them. If they would just do this, that, or the other, they're told, they would be sexually attractive again. They try, but none of it works. Or, they find they're expected to be their partners' sexual stimulant 24-7, with nothing in the way of romance or even foreplay. Others feel little enthusiasm—and maybe even a tad incestuous—about having sex with someone who acts like their child.

* Driving:
They fear for their safety and that of their children. They pray for no more costly traffic-violations, or worse. Their insurance rates are already through the roof.

* Self-Esteem:
When they are consistently not valued or "seen," they slowly become invisible. Even to themselves. They're blamed for the sky being blue. They identify with Ingrid Bergman in the movie "Gaslight." They get beaten down.

* Provocation to anger:
They hate themselves when their anger overwhelms them—it's a new behavior for most of them—and they hate that their partner keeps provoking them. They are bone-tired of fighting.

* Getting Help:
Many place trust in physicians and psychologists only to find their problems worsen due to professional ignorance about Adult ADHD, especially not understanding the proper use of the medications that treat Adult ADHD. In therapy sessions, their ADHD partners might conveniently forget the trauma that only recently transpired (or place the blame squarely on their partners) and therefore sit in a therapy session looking happy-go-lucky. Meanwhile, the partners are so traumatized, confused, and depressed that, to the untrained eye, they often look like the cause of the relationship woes.

It often takes from 5 to 30 years before they gain a clue their partner's behavior comes with a name—and hope for change. By that time, much damage has been done.
Before they can move past the anger and hurt—helping everybody concerned—they must understand the disorder. And they must understand it first through the impact it is having on their own mental and physical health. From there, they can, as the flight attendants advise: "Put on their own oxygen mask first."  Then they can begin to help their partner and children with ADHD.    With education and support:

* They find workable communication techniques and chore-sharing arrangements.
* They learn to set better boundaries with partners whose life goal seems to be trampling on their boundaries.
* They learn to focus more on what makes them happy. They develop their own interests and activities to "charge their batteries."
* They gain confidence to insist on finding doctors and therapists who will work with them and accept their input not as "controlling" but as filling in the sizeable gaps usually left out by their partners.
* If they're lucky, the partners to these people with ADHD learn valuable lessons about damaged egos—their own and their partner's—and how to reach beyond them. With any luck, they find the person they always knew was there, underneath the noise of unrecognized ADHD. Their partner's ADHD has pushed them both to become better people, and their lives are richer for it.

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About Article Author

Brunetti Brunetti
Brunetti Brunetti

Gina Pera is the author of the award-winning comprehensive guide to Adult ADHD: Is It You, Me, or  Adult A.D.D.? Stopping the Roller Coaster When Someone You Love Has Attention Deficit Disorder.

For free excerpts of the book and resources for the partners and family members of Adults with ADHD, including information on the Adult ADHD diagnosis, and the link between ADHD and sex, click on those links to Gina Pera's blog. She also posts there the results of The ADHD Partner Survey, the largest study of Adult ADHD's effect on relationships. 

 Reproduction permitted only when all active hyperlinks are included. 2010 All rights reserved  Gina Pera.

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