ADHD is associated with higher rates of unemployment, financial trouble, more accidents, higher divorce rates and more, yet many adults with ADHD are quite optimistic. Many non-ADHD partners interpret this as meaning the ADHD partner isn’t aware enough of the consequences of what is happening, or of the non-ADHD partner’s pain. What’s going on?
It seems that ADHD adults have more than their fair share of woes, and research into the troubles they face supports that this isn’t just perception, but reality. Not everyone with ADHD loses their job or their driver’s license, for example, but they are more likely to do so than the general population.
Yet through it all many (not all*) stay quite optimistic. They seem ready for the next big dream and recover quickly from disappointments, often to the despair of their non-ADHD partners, who want them to spend more time focusing upon the gravity of their situation and doing something about it. As a result, non-ADHD partners may reinforce the negative, trying to drive home the problems as a first step in motivating their partner to do something about them. This is a classic example of how a strategy that works for those without ADHD might not be very helpful for those with it.
The optimism non-ADHD partners observe in their significant other may create feelings of fear, anger or distress in the non-ADHD partner. ‘If he’s this upbeat, our problems will never get solved!’ is how the thinking goes. For those without ADHD, hooking into the negative side of experiences can be a good motivator to create change and shine a spotlight on what they most need to concentrate. Focus, and effort, will typically translate into concerted, effective action. And, happily for the non-ADHD partner, there is a good correlation between effort expended and achieving the desired outcome.
However, with a long history of painful feelings of failure and ‘not meeting my own standards,’ focusing on past problems isn’t a particularly good motivator for those with ADHD. To focus on the negative raises feelings of incompetence and reinforces just how hard it is to manage the inconsistencies associated with ADHD symptomatic behaviors. For those with ADHD - particularly unmanaged ADHD - the correlation between effort and outcome is not so clear. There have been numerous times in their lives when they have tried really hard, but ADHD symptoms got in the way of good results.
And optimism? ‘Today’ is where many with ADHD live. Dr. Edward Hallowell likes to note that there are two time zones for those with ADHD – ‘now’ and ‘not now.’ If something is in the ‘now’ it is immediately attended to. In the past or future (i.e. the ‘not now’) it is completely off the radar screen.
This is, in part, physiological. Executive planning functions that help visualize the future and lay out ideas into steps can be weak in those with ADHD, and ADHDers can have short-term memory issues, too. But this present-moment focus is also psychological. It can be a coping strategy that helps adults with ADHD keep from getting paralyzed by the inconsistencies that ADHD symptoms have created in their lives. One poster in the ADHD forum at my adhdmarriage site put it this way:
“I try to be present and look forward to the future and doing things to get there…being positive…and without influences from (my partner) I manage to do this fairly well because I know how important it is for me to do this. Part of the reason why has to do with feeling ‘of little consequence’ (in the past)…when something negative (has happened) I process it and get rid of it to move into the present…(to focus on the past) makes me ruminate and remember all those bad feelings about myself…therapy has helped me learn to process the past and leave the past behind and not get stuck there living in negativity all the time…”
Past experiences are so painful that forgiving himself and moving on into the present – and staying there – is a critical survival tool.
This suggests a specific strategy for partners of those with ADHD, as well. Forgive your past together…you both did the best you could do. Focus, instead, on what is happening today, and where you wish to get to in the future.
The ADHD man who wrote about his experiences with the past and present went on to say that it was a breakthrough for his relationship when he finally was able to verbalize how important it was to him that his wife focus on what she is experiencing today, rather than dredge up the past every time they had a disagreement. He told her he was working hard to create a new future together and asked:
“All I can ask of you is for your forgiveness of the past, but I promise you the future will hold a different story for us if I can focus on the now and try to stay positive and work on improving like you have seen me working so hard to do. If I could ask only one favor from you when you come to me with a need to express your anger with me. Please try and limit the conversation to the present moment and not bring up the past, will you? There’s nothing there that I don’t already know, so there is nothing positive for either one of us in talking about it now. That’s not where we are headed so why keep going there? If you feel the need to vent about the past, maybe you could do it before you come talk with me about the future?”
In this way he could maintain his hope for the future, celebrate his accomplishments and changes, and keep up the hard work needed to continue to make positive changes. And, by not focusing on the past (where so many hurt feelings existed for both of them) she might be able to better observe those changes as they happened.
So, is his optimism an indication that he’s not tuned into reality or not taking her concerns seriously enough? Not at all. In this case, his optimism is a tool he uses to help him move forward and create just the kinds of changes his wife is seeking. Her best opportunity for supporting the changes she hopes he’ll make is to notice (and comment upon) the positive advances he creates, and stay firmly planted in the present with him.