Research suggests that people with ADHD have more trouble reading emotional cues than those without. Often this means that ADHD partners are slower to respond to “under the surface” emotional cues than adults without ADHD. This leads to two specific types of misinterpretations of ADHD spouse behavior by non-ADHD partners:

  1. My ADHD partner isn’t responsive to me and doesn’t understand me
  2. My ADHD partner doesn’t care about my feelings or is self-centered

And then, if the non-ADHD partner makes this interpretation, every additional time that the ADHD partner misses an emotional cue, or is slow to respond as expected, it further reinforces these two ideas. Yet couples can avoid this unnecessary downward spiral with some simple changes in how they interact. Don’t expect your partner to guess your feelingd, and don’t ding him (or her) if he probes what it is you would like. Rather, be happy that he or she cares enough to try to find out and supply the answer.

One man with ADHD, who often can tell something is wrong for his wife, but doesn’t understand the subtleties of his wife’s needs, put it this way in my forum:

I experience it like this. I can tell there is something wrong with my wife. I’m pretty sure I know what’s making her feel bad. I understand her feelings and why she’s feeling bad. But I’m not certain what, exactly, what she wants or what I should do to help her feel better about it…in my mind I see so many possibilities for things I can do for her, and I can’t figure out which ones are the ones she wants.

If I do nothing, she’ll be upset with me for ignoring her. If I try to figure it out on my own, half the time I don’t do what she was looking for and she’ll be upset with me for not understanding her I ask ‘Is there anything I can do to help?’ she’ll answer ‘No’ and then get upset at me for having had to ask.

Note the idea “in my mind I see so many possibilities for things I can do for her." This is the classic ADHD brain—lots of ideas swirling around, but it’s hard to put them in order. Note also the paralyzing influence of her response to him. He feels as if there is no right choice he can make, so remains paralyzed. She doesn’t see the ideas he considers, only his lack of action. This is a classic “Symptom/Response/Response” interaction in which he displays a symptom (difficulty fully reading her emotional needs), she responds over time by misinterpreting his symptom, and he responds to her responses over time by becoming paralyzed. 

You may well experience something similar. If so, change this dynamic! Talk about the issue with your partner, make it safe to ask “how can I help you?” or “what do you need?” Also, make it a neutral interaction for a non-ADHD partner to say respectfully exactly what he or she wants (don’t expect your ADHD partner to “guess” or “read” your feelings or desires—this can be surprisingly hard for him or her to do.) Then, make sure the ADHD partner’s treatment is good enough that he is able to follow up on whatever that need is in a timely and loving way.

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