My most vivid memory of second grade is this: My mother appears during recess in the open classroom doorway to drop off my lunch. Not unusual in itself, since I pretty regularly forget it under the seat in the car. I should be playing outside with the other kids, but today I’m still in the room — still in my seat, in fact — with Sister Steven scrambling frantically to untie the rope that she has looped and relooped around the desk and my body to keep me from disrupting the class.
What I remember most vividly is the sound of the poor Sister’s fingers clutching and pulling vainly at the knots, accompanied by her little moans of distress. After a long, tense minute of this — with Mom looking on — Sister Steven stops and looks up. “We had a wandering problem,” she says. “I warned him several times.” On any given day my mother could have reigned thunder on me or Sister Steven for the situation unfolding here. But not today. “Wandering,” she said, then waved her hand dismissively. “It’s not the worst thing.”
Decades later, the wandering problem would be labeled childhood ADHD, but then it was just thought of as making trouble. Mom’s “not the worst thing” comment that day not only relieved my rising terror about what she might do to me for goofing off in class, but it let Sister Steven know that being a wandering kid was normal in Mom’s mind, not a character issue or even a particularly punishable offense. Not at that moment, anyway. Being in trouble for inattention was a familiar and painful experience for me, and having it characterized as not so bad felt great.
My client Sandra complained of a similar problem with her husband, Arlen, when the couple came in for therapy not too long ago. Arlen was a university professor, a brilliant researcher finishing up a social science book that was going to cement his tenure and ensure the family’s financial security. He’d been working on it sporadically for three years, having his usual difficulties staying motivated and focused. In the last six months, Arlen had pretty much abdicated his role as dad and husband, spending each week night working long into the morning, with no time left for the family. For Sandra, after nine years of marriage, this was the final straw — and there had been a lot of straws: the emotional distance, the years of delay as he completed his doctoral dissertation (“Oh, it had to be perfect,” she complained), chronic lateness and personal disorganization, even his inability to drive a car without terrifying her or making her sick. “I’ve tried, but in the end,” she said, “Arlen takes care of Arlen.”
When she told him she wanted a divorce, Arlen was not just grief-stricken but terrified. He genuinely loved Sandra, he said, and he depended on her to structure almost everything in their marriage, from their social life, to the money management, even their sex life. He felt lost in every way when she told him she wanted out. “What do I need to do?” he pleaded. “Anything. Just say it.”
“Even if he promises to change, he won’t follow through,” Sandra told me in a separate session. “We’ve been down that road. He’s like a selfish child.” She was furious with Arlen, but also deeply sad. “I just want more.”
Anyone living with a partner with even mild adult ADHD knows how difficult it can be. Tasks left unfinished. Lateness. A forgotten Mother’s Day or anniversary. The car lost in the parking structure. Shoes left anywhere imaginable. Adults with more severe forms of ADHD suffer far worse symptoms: low motivation, poor time management, anger and impulsivity, poor driving skills, compulsive video gaming and other addictions. Most of them have a lifetime of disappointments and failed expectations behind them. They’ve let everyone down, they feel, especially the people who love them.
Surprisingly often, they have never identified the source of their troubles as an attention problem. They are used to being criticized, and have erected huge emotional defenses to protect themselves from the pain of others’ judgment — particularly their loved ones. As a result, they have almost no capacity to listen with compassion or understanding to the genuine pain partners like Sandra feel.
“You just want me to be different than I am,” Arlen argued in a fit of anger early in our work together. “You wish you had married someone else.” Their partners, meanwhile, often explain the troubles in their relationship as stemming from selfishness and a lack of caring, rather than a spouse whose brain just works differently.
I wish I could say that all traces of my wandering disappeared with age, but like a large percentage of kids with ADHD, mine persisted into adulthood. My wife, Laura, understandably finds it irritating when I forget important dates or leave my shoes under the kitchen table. But she has made up a technique to deal with her irritation that I sometimes pass on to clients partnered with someone who suffers from this kind of wandering attention. Confronted with some irritating artifact of my ADHD, Laura puts on her “Russ-colored glasses” and sees it as just an aspect of my wandering personality — “not the worst thing” — rather than a personal affront. Over the years, Laura has made some interesting observations about this technique.
» It’s a choice. The shoes under the table support the Russ-colored picture or the character flaw argument. You can make either case.
» It has a cost: less moral high ground; much less equity in the “bank of payback.” Like most primates (see The Moral Animal by Robert Wright for more on this), Laura and I have a mental balance sheet where we keep track of just who has done what for whom, who owes apologies and gratitude, etc. By framing the shoes as not the worst thing, Laura misses out on the big deposit she could make in her “blame” account.
» There are benefits as well as costs to the Russ-colored glasses: You get the relationship you want rather than the one you fear.
One of the more fascinating exercises couple therapists sometimes conduct is to explore with their clients the early attraction in a relationship. The purpose is both to put the couple — however momentarily — back in touch with these feelings, and to throw some additional light on the emotional dynamics between them. Almost invariably, the troubles driving a couple apart are a shadow representation of the appeal that brought them together. Like the negative image of a sunny vacation snapshot, their problems appear as the polar opposites of their strengths.
“There was a sweetness to him I couldn’t resist” in the early years may translate to “he’s intolerably passive” now. “I admired her strength” might map to “it’s her way or the highway.” In Sandra’s case, she had been attracted to Arlen’s childlike artlessness after leaving a marriage where her husband had cheated. Now she was tired of Arlen’s distractedness and emotional distance. Arlen, on the other hand, loved Sandra’s independence and her ability to cheerfully confront the uncertainties that plagued him, first as a graduate student and later as an untenured associate professor in an overcrowded discipline. “We’ll manage,” was her confident response to his litany of fears. Now he was angry that she didn’t see how hard he was trying, and terrified of how easy it now seemed for her to “manage” without him.
I’m not an ADHD specialist, but I recognized the signs of adult ADHD in Arlen. My challenge was not to treat Arlen — I would refer him out for that. More urgent was to create for Sandra and Arlen the possibility of putting on Arlen- and Sandra-colored glasses if the relationship was to have a chance. This is never an easy challenge. Arlen felt deeply punished by Sandra’s constant criticisms. And after years of growing frustration in which she had become more and more convinced that Arlen was self-centered and unloving toward her, it would have been throwing fuel on the fire to suggest excusing his problems as just “not the worst thing.”
While ADHD is a specialized set of problems, in a sense this is always the challenge of couple therapy: to illuminate the pain and vulnerability that each partner is feeling in the relationship. Arlen felt hopeless and defeated by his failures; even simple things like being on time seemed overwhelmingly difficult. At the same time, there were issues in Sandra’s childhood — a nasty divorce that left her feeling abandoned by her dad — that made her more sensitive to Arlen’s missteps, and more likely to see them as signs that he didn’t really care. Getting them to see the vulnerability in each other — rather than the selfish, domineering or uncaring image they had come to harbor — can take time, but it’s worth the effort.
For Sandra, this meant really understanding Arlen’s attention problem. As part of that, I asked her to read through Is It You or Me, or Adult A.D.D.? by Gina Pera, whose deep experience with partners of ADD sufferers makes this a must-read for people like Sandra. Later in our work, Sandra began poking around the exceptionally valuable online support groups, which let her see she wasn’t alone in her frustration with her partner. Arlen, for his part, after recognizing his specific diagnostic profile in Daniel Amen’s book Healing ADD, sought help from the specialist I referred him to. And together we worked on his becoming less defensive toward Sandra.
Once partners begin to soften their judgmental stance toward each other, I sometimes tell the story of the Russ-colored glasses. Not to set my wife up as a superior example (although, of course, she is), but to open up a possibility that our character judgments of our partners can be seen as a matter of choice: We can choose to color them selfish or just suffering; rigid and domineering or just stiff with fear. Changing the color of the glasses is not as simple as “saying makes it so”; the cycles of hurt are too deeply entrenched for that. And the cycles always reach back into old childhood experiences and wounding.
But as couples gain even a little perspective on the conflict and begin to de-escalate, they become increasingly free to recognize the truth that, “In this moment, I get to choose.” Mean or just messy? Self-centered or just slightly befuddled? Two different visions of your most important relationship, with two different results for your life.
Like any serious problem couples confront, unwinding the damage caused by ADHD to a relationship can be challenging business, but in the end it’s within each person’s power to shape his own experience by choosing to compassionately declare, “It’s not the worst thing.”
— Russell Collins is a Santa Barbara psychotherapist and divorce mediator. Click here for more information.