(ADHD in men is distinctive and, as such, this article is focused on this particular male-female dynamic.)
You knew when you fell in love that he had adult ADHD. Or maybe you didn’t. Whenever you found out, you never imagined how much it would affect you. Inside.
You no longer feel as calm, centered and confident as you once did. You’re questioning yourself, your relationship, and whether anything can change.
Sometimes, you think you could fix the problem if only you were clear/strong/smart/informed enough. But you’ve learned that there is no direct fix, so you begin to imagine life on the other side of the relationship. Then you feel guilty about even considering walking away from your partner. One client asked me with tears in her eyes: “How do I stay in it? How do I love him and myself?”
You matter too
I’ve worked with countless men with ADHD. But their spouses usually don’t ask to attend nor even ask to be part of the coaching process. And yet, the husbands report: “She’s going to leave me if I don’t fix this. She’s bearing the brunt of this and I feel bad. I want to be the man she thought I was. She’s so disappointed.” Clearly, there’s a whole population of women out there who are in pain.
Is this you? If so, this is my love letter to you. My hope is that it will help you feel clearer about how to support yourself and reconnect with your partner.
Trust your experience
My invitation to you is to trust what you are experiencing. All of it. The self-doubt. The confusion. The grief. The frustration. The sense of being alone. It’s all normal in a situation that is unpredictable, confusing and sometimes overwhelming. And it is true that you’re not getting the attention you want and deserve, neither from your partner nor from the science.
A 2016 study confirmed that women without ADHD who are married to men with the diagnosis, are the most neglected and least studied group in all the research about ADHD.
Intimacy is the key
But science has validated that if you want to stay in your relationship, emotional intimacy is the key. This means you both feel able to share your feelings freely, express your limits, and trust that it will all be heard with an open and curious heart.
Intimacy = better ADHD management = increased marital satisfaction.
I know what you must be thinking: “He needs to address his ADHD symptoms before I can even think about feeling close to him! If only he would just get with the program, I could feel good about us again.”
I get it. You’ve tried hard to restore emotional intimacy and your efforts fell flat. He either forgot to show up, scheduled something else, or wasn’t present enough to connect with you. You maintain that he HAS to change his behavior BEFORE you can turn things around.
But no, actually. It’s the other way around.
Change your lens; change your experience
Of course, you don’t have ADHD so everything he does and says you will see through the lens of a neurotypical brain and then assign meaning to it. For example, when he fails to show up for a dinner date in order to see a client; you may feel invisible or betrayed. When he talks over you when you are trying to talk to him; you feel unimportant and frustrated. When he loses important documents but maintains everything is under control; you lose trust. When the pattern continues despite your repeated requests for something to change, you feel helpless and inconsequential.
And then you feel angry.
Then he feels small and/or defensive. And the cycle continues.
To change this cycle and create space for renewed intimacy, first give yourself plenty of compassion for what you are going through. Yes, you’re feeling a lot. Yes, you deserve to feel loved, supported and valued. And then remember that you married him. HIM. Not his ADHD behaviours. How he feels about you is actually underneath the forgetfulness and poor time management. He will want to hear from you that he matters to you too.
Start with Feelings; not ADHD strategies
The win-win is to first share with him that you want to be close again. Reassure him that he matters to you and that you want to feel like you matter to him. (Emotional safety is foundational to all kinds of learning including being more strategic with ADHD.) Let him know that he is the man you fell in love with and want to feel connected to again.
Then you can share how the ADHD behaviour makes you feel: lonely, unimportant, forgotten. Tell him what you want e.g. trust, stability, and dependability.
Then tell him how he can do that.
Pick one behaviour that would make a big difference to you. (This is a marathon, not a sprint.) And be clear about what makes that behaviour so important to you. You could say, “When we make plans for dinner and you show up on time, I feel like I matter. We matter. Can we start there?”
Plan for Success
You can safely assume he wants to succeed every bit as much as you want him too. And you also need to assume – you both do – that he will need external structures in place to help him follow through with the change. This might include putting it in his agenda, timers, or a post-it note in front of him. He may also need a cue on a post-it note such as, “DO NOT SCHEDULE ANYTHING ELSE AFTER 5:00 NO MATTER HOW IMPORTANT IT SEEMS.” These are to support the executive functioning weaknesses in the ADHD brain, not a reflection of his lack of interest in you.
No matter how it goes, rinse and repeat. Your hearts are the priority.