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Grieving the Relationship You Thought You Had, but Didn't

Your hyper-focus courtship wasn't at all like the real relationship. Now what?

How It Begins

In the beginning, there's a hyper-focused courtship. For many couples where one or both has ADHD, the high levels of dopamine that accompany infatuation mask the attention deficit. This is because ADHD is caused, in part, by low levels of dopamine. ‘Infatuation dopamine’, as I think of it, does a great job of connecting the two of you.

My husband, who has ADHD, was hyper-attentive. He thought up amazing, fun, and creative things to do together, and he had a little bit of a mysterious ‘edge’ to him that made the relationship even more exciting. To him, I was smart, interesting, even-keeled, thoughtful, and fun to be with. We were madly in love and started living together after three months. Sound familiar?

Sadly, that extra dopamine wears off between two and two and a half years into your relationship, according to Helen Fisher, author of Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love. Suddenly, you are faced with a different person as a partner—someone who shows the signs of ADHD—often distracted, not particularly attentive, having trouble following through, and often not on time. Still a great person… just not quite the person you thought you were with.

In courtship, you envision a life-long partnership with an attentive partner. When that dopamine wears off you are dropped into a distracted, lonely, sometimes angry relationship.

In our case, no one knew about how my husband has ADHD. This is common. According to Dr. Ned Hallowell, about 80% of adult ADHD is currently undiagnosed. So there was no explanation, and I suffered—thinking that my husband didn’t love me anymore, that he was mad at me, that I had done something wrong. We fell into all of the typical behaviors that couples fall into when they are impacted by ADHD.

Every time a symptom would show up (say distraction), I would misinterpret it (thinking he didn’t love me because he wasn’t paying attention to me) and become hurt or angry. He would respond to my comments and attacks by being angry back, and soon we were fighting about fighting. There was so much that we didn’t understand about what was going on!

In any event, at some point, both partners look back and think, “this relationship isn’t at all what I thought I signed up for!” I was sad that the attentive, helpful man I had met now almost never paid attention to me, and when I was out of sight, I was definitely out of mind. My husband, for his part, was sad that he thought he had married a calm, fun person and had ended up with an angry, harping, unrecognizable witch.

The Second Stage

Responses to the realization that this is not at all what you both expected vary. I, for example, said to myself, “well, if this is all there is to romance, I might as well start my family!” (Yes, I know, not the first strategy I would now recommend!) My husband’s response was to retreat further from me because it didn’t feel good being with me. This is a completely understandable choice for a person who has, as Dr. John Ratey calls it, a “reward-focused brain.”

Others become bitter and angry, blaming their partner for their difficult lives or live in pain, without understanding how to address it—or even that they need to. But this pain does need to be addressed.

Why It’s Important to Grieve

Not all couples struggle with ADHD and responses to ADHD. But if you do, then you probably have some grieving to do. Your relationship may not be what you had dreamed it could be. That doesn’t mean it is a bad relationship for you, or that either you or your partner are bad people. It simply means that you have been impacted by “The ADHD Effect” and have some obstacles to overcome before you will find the happiness you seek. It also means that the form of your happiness will likely be quite a bit different from what you originally envisioned. That’s okay. But to get there, it’s extremely helpful to grieve the fact that your relationship is different from what you expected.

Why am I such a big fan of grieving? Because until you acknowledge and accept that your reality is quite different from your dreams, you can’t fully enjoy your real life. You’re held hostage by your sadness, which colors many of your interactions. And you may also be ruining the relationship you do have by either clinging to that old dream and trying to change your partner into the person you dreamed he or she would be (as I did) or you may be in ‘fight or flight’ mode either lashing out or retreating (as my husband was). Neither works to connect you.

What Is Grieving?

Grieving is looking at your sadness, regret and pain, and coming to the understanding that there are some things you can’t change. Death, for example, or a horrific accident, or the fact that your child has cancer—these are the kinds of things we normally associate with grieving. ADHD is like that, too.

Yes, the two of you can dramatically improve your relationship once you get to a place where you both accept ‘what is’ and also learn ‘what can change’ and strategies known to help. But as long as you hang onto your original dreams of the relationship you don’t have, you’ll have trouble finding the happiness you seek in the relationship you do have.

I was speaking recently with a woman who told me “I’m a doer—my father had cancer, and up until the day he died I was still looking for the thing that would cure him.” While she has now accepted her father’s death as reality, she’s having trouble grieving her relationship loss because she still wants to believe she can ‘fix’ the ADHD ‘problem.’

She’s not all wrong—we have a lot of influence over how we live our lives and both partners can instigate significant improvements. But there are some things that we can’t change. We can use science to stay healthy much longer. We can use behavioral and mental health science to vastly improve life with adult ADHD. But we can’t fully eliminate either of them.*

Grieving is about understanding that we are not as powerful as we would like to be and that while we have influence, our influence has limits.

How Do You Grieve?

Grieving is a deeply personal process, so I will share what I went through and what I have observed others do.

After many years, it could no longer wait. My sadness about the obvious gap between dreams and reality needed exploring. So I journaled. I read. I talked with friends and sometimes my husband about my sadness and his own sadness. I took better care of myself and taught myself to love myself again so that I was in a position of strength to better take on this pain. I explored what my life was and reconnected with some of my most important values.

Through this exploration, I tried to sort out the positive from the negative. That search for the positive was a really important part of my grieving. During times when I felt hopeless, it was really hard to accept ‘what was.’ It was just too painful! When I could find some positive parts, it was easier to say ‘this is what is… and there are ways to make good parts better while understanding how to negotiate the bad.’ It made me feel sad to think about the lost years, but also hopeful to think about a better future. While having ADHD isn’t changeable, how we deal with ADHD most certainly is.

Educating myself about ADHD was critical. When I didn’t understand ADHD, I misinterpreted the symptomatic behaviors—almost always in a negative way. As an example, his ‘distraction’ was interpreted as a lack of affection rather than a non-emotional symptom. If you don’t understand ADHD, it's hard not to feel bitter when you (incorrectly) think the person who is supposed to love you the most no longer does.

I came to the conclusion that we were both good people who had gotten lost. That we had given it our best (in our own ways) and we had both reacted in ways that were human and understandable. I learned that not only was my husband’s ADHD a huge issue, but so were my responses to his ADHD. I realized that what I needed was to forgive myself for all of the poor choices I had made and forgive my husband for all of the poor behaviors and choices he had made, too. That forgiveness freed me.

I came to a conclusion that helped me greatly as I moved through my grief. We had both done the best we could, with the information that we had—which turned out to be incomplete because it had lacked the ADHD component.

It’s sad that we didn’t know what we were doing. But I couldn’t hang onto my ignorance forever. If I could accept my own actions and forgive them, and accept my partner’s actions and forgive them, then I could put my sadness into context and move ahead. Yes, we had made many mistakes. Yes, we had had dreams of the perfect relationship, which I now understood were based in that short, hyper-focused courtship phase. I understood why I was sad and felt it was ok to be sad… but that continuing to hold onto that sadness wouldn’t help anything.

After Acceptance

After finding acceptance, I was ready to take the next step—asking “what do I want this pain I’ve experienced to turn into?” I knew for sure that I needed to create a life in which I was happy and whole and that I was the best person to take responsibility for that. I am responsible for my own happiness—not my husband, or kids, or anyone else.

So I figured out who I wanted to be (certainly not that aggressive witch!) and started acting that way. Armed with knowledge, I was better able to treat my husband with empathy and respect. He responded quickly—taking on his ADHD issues with more rigor once he was less concerned about my responses.

I didn’t stop asking for what I needed, but now I did so respectfully, and I was able to see his side as well as mine. I could act in loving ways, and lessen my anger. Seeing my changes helped inspire my husband to start to treat me better, as well. Yes, we had bumps but we did make it through. It all started with me deciding that I didn’t have as much control as I thought I did.

This sort of shift doesn’t change the fact that the struggles of our early relationship aren’t sad. It will always be sad that we spent what should have been some happy years in a miserable struggle, just as it will always be sad that my mother, who died at too early an age in 2008, has not been around to see the amazing people her grandchildren have become.

But in both cases, asking, “what do I want this pain to turn into” is a useful tool. I can use the information and wisdom I’ve gained (along with my husband’s new knowledge) to grab life and create joy—not relying on far off dreams, but right now, today, based on who we really are.

*About 20-30% of kids diagnosed with ADHD no longer qualify for a diagnosis of ADHD as an adult. It is unclear why this happens, though it’s thought that some of it might be misdiagnosis and some of it might be putting strong coping strategies in place that manage ADHD to a point of no longer qualifying. Adult ADHD, however, does not go away and, in fact, can intensify with age.