Getting a diagnosis of ADHD is good news – very good news! A lot is known about the multi-modal treatment of ADHD (meaning you need to do more than just take medications to optimize the treatment of ADHD) and researchers and clinicians in the field estimate that between 70% and 90% of adults with ADHD can significantly manage their ADHD symptomatic behaviors.
Once you know about ADHD, it’s often easy to see that it has had a huge impact in many areas of your life. More than half of adults with ADHD who are in committed relationships struggle in those relationships, for example. They may have had 20 or more years of struggle with a partner about whom they care deeply. But the ADHD symptomatic behaviors – and responses to those symptoms - have so interfered with their lives that their relationship has become filled with chronic anger, power struggles and little or no intimacy.
And so…once that ADHD diagnosis is determined, there is often regret on the part of both partners. What would have happened if we had known about the impact of ADHD on our relationship when we first got married? How much more connected would we feel? How much healthier would our family be? Wouldn’t it have been great to have wonderful sex together all these years? Both partners feel this regret and it’s important that they have an opportunity to grieve together about the ‘what ifs’ they will never have a chance to relive.
Part of recovering from this grief – as well as overcoming regret – is to create a plan for how to move forward in a way that helps couples feel better about the future than they do about their past. Happily for couples impacted by ADHD, there is now enough information available to provide a path to move away from the frustration, anger and dysfunction that they feel. Much is at my website, but let me lay out some of the steps for creating a happier relationship with ADHD and moving past regret here:
Get educated about ADHD and each partner’s experience with ADHD:
Understanding the patterns ADHD encourages in relationships, and disrupting the predictable patterns that symptoms – and responses to those symptoms – create. This includes learning about how differently the brains of non-ADHD and ADHD partners function. ADHD is physiological, and it’s an eye-opener to learn just how different you are.
Find good treatment:
Optimal treatment for ADHD consists of three ‘legs.’ Leg 1 includes anything that changes the physiology of the brain to improve performance around attention – research shows medications, exercise, fish oil and improved sleep all do this. For those with undiagnosed Celiac disease (estimated to be a high 15% of those with ADHD vs. 1% of the population at large), dietary changes can also make a big difference. Leg 1 treatments improve the ability to focus, sustain attention, and improve inhibition.
Leg 2 treatments are those that help an ADHD partner become more reliable – less a victim of the interference that ADHD symptoms cause in his or her life. In essence, this means taking the gains from Leg 1 treatments, and applying them to behaviors. That includes creating structures to stay more organized (lists, systems, alarms), ways to be more regularly on time, become better at planning and better able to follow through on tasks once they’ve been agreed to. Finally, Leg 3 treatments are those that improve the interactions between ADHD adults and their partners and family members. These include using cues, becoming more transparent about their activities and ideas, slowing down or speeding up conversations, and the like. Leg 3 work is done in conjunction with a partner.
Improve communication with your partner and others:
There are many communication techniques that help couples negotiate their lives when ADHD is included. These include using verbal cues, de-escalation and repair techniques, how to better express anger, structured conversations that help you ‘speak’ about the un-spoken assumptions that lurk beneath the conversation, and more.
Contribute your ‘best self’ and find your own voice again:
Both partners in ADHD-impacted relationships tell me “I don’t like myself anymore” and “I didn’t used to be this way.” The stress of dealing with undiagnosed ADHD has warped their experiences and even themselves. Partners can move away from these feelings and find themselves again by re-locating their true values and bringing their own actions back into line with those values. As one simple example, if you value respect, then it makes sense to be respectful of both yourself and your partner. And yet, most couples who have struggled with ADHD for a long time have become quite disrespectful – hence the “I don’t like myself” comments. Once partners reconnect with their own values, they can then start to contribute their 'best selves' to the relationship – dramatically increasing the chances that they will be able to turn around even a dysfunctional situation.
And, finally, focus on building intimacy:
Learning the ins and outs of how ADHD impacts adult relationships is so powerful that even couples who have struggled greatly can recover the intimacy they have lost. This includes a general ‘ease’ of being together, all the way to a renewed sex life.
Moving beyond regret is, truly, about creating a plan to move yourself into a different future. Happily, for adults with ADHD and their partners, there is now good information about treatment and relationship recovery that can help guide them along the way.