A woman recently wrote me to ask what could be done to respond to her husband’s flirting behavior with others.
"It’s not an affair, but small flirty tendencies that lead to hurt, and discussions, but then happen again. We're both calm people, but he feels attacked when I question every little thing, and what’s worse, for the first time in my life I’ve had to struggle with jealousy."
What’s going on here?
Within the context of an ADHD-impacted relationship (my area of expertise), I’m guessing that the following things may be at play:
Now/not now time zones. People with ADHD focus most well on the present moment and can, when interested in something that feels good (such as the positive feedback from flirting) lose track of agreements in the past. In addition, they are not particularly good at stopping something that feels good now for a payout that will come in the future (such as having a happier wife).
Parent/child dynamics. Since this woman wrote "he feels attacked when I question every little thing" she may be "keeping an eye on him" more often than just when he’s with other women. This oversight, while very common in ADHD-impacted relationships, feels diminishing to him and may make him less inclined to follow her instructions to not flirt so much. Think of it as a tiny, perhaps even unconscious, rebellion.
Impulsivity control issues. Many people with ADHD are impulsive – it’s one of the top symptoms of adult ADHD. People with ADHD can lack the "brakes" necessary to stop and think long enough to make a more informed decision about what they are doing. In this case, those brakes would give him time to consider whether or not he wants to further hurt his wife.
Disagreement over the issue. It’s possible that he just thinks his wife’s concerns are overblown and, therefore, it’s not worth giving up the "harmless" flirting. When they are talking about the issue at home, he may well go along with her so as not to be in extended conflict with her on the topic.
Research suggests men are particularly conflict-avoidant and the result is that they may "agree" when they don’t actually really agree, leading to doing their own thing later on and enraging the partner with whom there was supposedly an agreement.
(Note: Couples sometimes talk about this as an issue of trust – as in “since you did something other than what we agreed to you are not trustworthy.” I see it as an issue of relationship safety. The potential conflict feels too "unsafe" and, therefore, thoughtless "agreement" is provided to avoid provoking the other partner. This is actually a disagreement in disguise.)
What to do:
Address impulsivity issues: If impulsivity is playing a role for the ADHD partner, consider treatments designed to help increase the space between input and action. These include mindfulness training and, for some, medications that provide pause. These would include anti-depressants used to manage ADHD symptoms. Improvements in this area will benefit all parts of the ADHD person’s life.
Move away from parent/child dynamics. Stop overseeing your partner, if you are, and don’t comment on specific incidents – wait until you see a pattern. This will help lessen the sense that one partner is picking on the other for every little thing.
Continue to make your feelings heard, but make it easier to disagree. Talk about your hurt in a non-blaming way; and invite his opinion (to which he is entitled, even if you don’t like it.) In my seminars, I teach conflict intimacy skills — a form of non-aggressive speaking and non-defensive listening which can make it easier for both partners to get heard. This sort of training or something similar could be very useful.
Increase your connection time. One of the issues in ADHD-impacted relationships is that distraction (the #1 symptom of adult ADHD) interferes with connection. The ADHD partner is simply too distracted to pay enough attention. If you overtly and intentionally increase the amount of positive ‘attend time’ in your relationship, the flirty behavior may seem less threatening, decreasing jealousy. Think about scheduling dates, and scheduling time to hang out, among other connectors.
Understand it’s not personal. Chances are good that this behavior is related, at least in some part, to ADHD symptoms, such as the impulsivity mentioned above. As such, it’s not so much of a reflection of how this husband feels about his wife as it is a reflection of the reward-seeking and impulsive behaviors inherent in ADHD.
If you have similar issues in your relationship, talk about these ideas with your partner and see how he or she responds. It might open up an interesting and useful conversation about your interactions from which you can both benefit.