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ADHD Isn’t Just for Kids – Adults Feel Big Impact in Marriage

Untreated adult ADHD often hurts marriages - perhaps yours?

Undiagnosed or untreated ADHD can lead to real marital distress.

Many of us equate ADHD with kids who can't sit still. But the reality is that about 5% of adults have ADHD (1) and the majority of them are going undiagnosed. But lack of diagnosis doesn't mean they don't suffer from the symptoms, only that they aren't currently managing them. The results are often confusing and dire.

One of the most obvious places that adult ADHD symptoms create problems is in marriage. The marital dysfunction and divorce rates for those who suffer from ADHD are almost double those of people without ADHD. If you've heard that 50% of all couples will end up divorced (which is actually a misleading number), that may sound confusing. But remember that within the larger divorce average there are smaller cohorts with higher and lower rates of divorce. For example, of people marrying in the 1980s, those who were college graduates and married after age 25 have about a 19% divorce rate. Those married in the same decade but who have only some college and married before age 25 have about a 51% divorce rate(2).

Often, marriage between an ADHD spouse and non-ADHD spouse starts out with a wonderful, exciting courtship in which both partners focus intently upon each other. In fact, with the aid of large amounts of dopamine that are present during the infatuation period of any relationship, both people are able to hyperfocus on their partner. But the raised levels of dopamine wear off, often somewhere around 20-24 months into the relationship, leaving the ADHD partner with the lower-than-normal levels of dopamine and other neurotransmitters that typify ADHD. Simplified, this results in the symptoms of ADHD reasserting themselves. Unfortunately for the relationship, this "newly" inattentive (i.e. ADHD) partner can be a shocking stranger to the non-ADHD partner, who usually has not come into contact with the ADHD symptoms in a meaningful way before because the most important symptom (distraction/lack of attention) was masked during courtship.

Chronic distraction is one of the hallmarks of ADHD, and it results in numerous behaviors that are just plain bad for your relationship: not paying attention to your partner; not focusing on chores long enough to get them done; not remembering things you committed to or that are important to the couple, and more. The result is that the ADHD partner who is not actively managing ADHD symptoms is an unreliable mate. While a non-ADHD partner will usually compensate for this at first, over time the responsibility of making sure everything gets done for the family is just too overwhelming. This is particularly true after children, and the result is usually extreme frustration and anger on the part of the non-ADHD partner. "If you cared about me/us you would help out!"

Though it has been little discussed, ADHD symptoms add consistent and predictable patterns to a marriage. As long as the ADHD remains untreated or undertreated, these patterns can leave both partners unhappy, lonely, and feeling overwhelmed by their relationship. They fight frequently or, alternately, disengage from each other to protect themselves from hurt. A common response for the non-ADHD partner is to become overly controlling and nagging ("the only way to get anything done around here") while the ADHD partner becomes less and less engaged ("who wants to be with someone who is constantly angry?")

Yet it is the very predictability of the patterns and responses that makes discovering that an adult has ADHD such good news for a couple. Treating ADHD and developing healthy coping strategies for your special type of relationship can change miserable to marvelous. And that's what I'll be blogging about.

(1) Russell Barkley, Kevin Murphy and Mariellen Fischer, ADHD in Adults, What the Science Says
(2) Betsey Stevenson, Wharton School, UPenn, from For Better: The Science of a Good Marriage by Tara Parker-Pope