The impact of adult ADHD on marriages can be terrible for couples with one or more partners with the condition. Research suggests that the marital “maladjustment” rate may be close to 60%. Statistics on the divorce rate for those with ADHD vary, seemingly depending upon the age of the respondents in the study. Studies with younger respondents don’t show statistical differences in divorce rates, while studies with older respondents show an almost doubled rate of divorce.
Though not specifically addressed in the research, my work with couples would suggest that this may be due to the intractability of ADHD symptoms and to the fact that the vast majority of adults with ADHD are still undiagnosed. Lack of diagnosis means that couples go for years without knowing why all of the negative patterns encouraged by ADHD symptoms are happening to them. Escalating anger, frustration and anxiety, as well as financial difficulties and growing trust problems can be depressingly difficult to conquer without the “label” of ADHD to understand how to fight back. Over time, couples with undiagnosed ADHD can simply lose hope and run out of ideas for how to improve their interactions.
This might make you think that ADHD causes divorce. Not so. Unmanaged and undiagnosed ADHD can be terrifically difficult to live with for both the person with ADHD and for his or her spouse. But ADHD that is diagnosed is one of the most manageable mental health issues there is. To provide some perspective, research suggests that about 70% or more of adults with ADHD can find significant relief from their symptoms by taking medication — about 50% can “normalize” their behaviors. And that’s just one part of the treatment process, which has many different complementary and cumulatively effective options.
Management of ADHD in a relationship consists of three steps:
- Diagnosis and treatment
- Accepting that ADHD has a huge impact on your relationship
- Learning and implementing specific tactics that work for couples with ADHD
With these three steps, couples can turn even a dysfunctional relationship around. I’ve seen it happen many, many times.
Diagnosis is critical. You have to know about ADHD to start to treat it. But it is the second step — internalizing that ADHD symptoms and symptomatic behaviors are the starting point for many negative patterns between partners — that is actually the differentiator between rebuilding a relationship or not. Furthermore, non-ADHD partners must also internalize that they, too, play a huge role in the relationship dynamics initiated by (but certainly not ending with) ADHD symptomatic behaviors. They need to understand "the ADHD effect."
This acceptance can be difficult for both partners. It’s easier for an ADHD partner to say, “I’ve had ADHD all my life and done fine... my spouse’s anger and frustration is the problem. And anyway, now I’m taking medication.” It’s even easier for a non-ADHD partner who, after all, has not just acquired a mental health “label” to point a finger at the ADHD partner and conclude, “There’s something wrong with you, and you are the cause of all of our problems. Find me when you fix them.”
Couples who think this way are in mutual denial. Neither admits their own role in their dysfunction and blames their partner instead. Because of their denial, they will not make personal progress, and the relationship will not change for the better. (It may change for the worse, though, as they will become more and more impatient with their partner’s stubborn refusal to take responsibility and change!) Denial, if it continues, is much more likely to destroy their relationship than the ADHD itself.
The ADHD partner needs to optimally treat the ADHD symptoms with physiological treatments such as medication and exercise, and then use the resulting improvements to change behavioral patterns. An example of the latter might be learning how to stay more organized or setting aside specific times and ways to lessen distraction and pay full attention to a spouse.
The non-ADHD partner typically needs to lessen their desire to control the events in the relationship (and the behaviors of the ADHD partner), work on healing anger and trust issues, and reintroduce patience and empathy into dealing with their spouse, to name just a few.
If either partner denies the importance of ADHD or the importance of non-ADHD responses to ADHD, the relationship will not mend. ADHD may be manageable, but it doesn’t get "cured." To keep it under control takes constant vigilance. Couples have to keep a set of robust responses in their back pockets in order to be able to live happily with ADHD, rather than have it overwhelm their interactions.
If the ADHD partner doesn’t improve symptomatic behaviors, then the impact of distraction, difficulty planning and executing tasks, poor memory, and more will continue to plague the relationship and burden both partners. If the non-ADHD partner doesn’t manage his or her resentment, controlling behavior, anger, and other responses, then no matter how much improvement the ADHD partner makes, the relationship will not recover. It is impossible to have a healthy relationship that is marred by chronic anger, controlling behavior, or the disengagement of hopelessness
Truly, it is denial that causes divorce, not ADHD. So if you think that you or your partner might be one of the many adults who has undiagnosed ADHD, go get an evaluation! Learning about ADHD, educating yourself about “the ADHD effect,” and learning what to do about it is the start of changing your life for the better.