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Pandemic Emotions: Stage 2 (and 9 Ways to Deal with Them)

At first there was fear, anxiety, and purpose. It’s not so straightforward now.

Learning as the weeks have gone by, couples are finding ways to address issues around the changes in their lives that the pandemic has brought. In addition, some couples have found that fewer outside-the-home distractions have created more opportunity to connect. This is a big deal in relationships in which an ADHD partner may normally be too distracted to focus on the other.

In spite of the adjustments, there is an emotional theme emerging during what I call Pandemic Emotions, Stage 2. Explosive tempers; medication mismanagement; reversion to old habits of smoking marijuana and heavy drinking; an increase in emotional (and physical) abuse; an increase in problems following through on promises, and more are taking a toll. This is not what these couples had hoped for. Where before anxiety and uncertainty were the main issues, now depression, hopelessness, and roller-coaster emotions are taking over.

In my support groups for non-ADHD partners, I’ve had people unable to speak without tears for the first time. People report complete breakdowns of trust or great hope at improved connections that then gets decimated by poor decision making. One woman recently talked about the intense anger she feels at her husband, who has decided to put their family at risk by defying government orders “and stand up for his freedom” instead of his family. A noticeable number of people are clearly sliding into depression. It’s a roller coaster of ups and downs that is wearing everyone out.

Under the stress of the pandemic, these relationship emotional events feel huge. There is no outlet. You can’t get away from your partner’s decisions or actions. You have fewer activities to provide a healthy outlet and build perspective. The monotony and/or stress of your stay-at-home situation makes all of this feel interminable and depressing. Patience and flexibility – an important part of a couple’s tool kit for dealing with ADHD – are in short supply.

One of the biggest issues seems to be the mismatch between expectations about how couples will respond in a crisis and what’s actually happening. The expectation from non-ADHD partners has been that their partners – in fact, any partners – would step up in times of crisis and become part of a team. Some have done so quite successfully.

For many, though, the issues created by their ADHD interfere. The reality of ADHD – that it’s physiologically based, and that symptoms can be magnified during stress – means that just when their partners need them the most their symptoms may be out of control. That has put some of these relationships in true crisis mode. “The pandemic has really highlighted all of the problems between us” is a refrain I’m hearing quite often these days.

ADHD isn’t managed until one works hard to put ADHD-friendly structures in place in all three "legs" of treatment – physiological, behavioral, and interactive. If you weren’t managing it effectively before the pandemic, you probably aren’t doing so now, regardless of how much more your partner needs your help.

Sadly, many who were managing pretty well have slid back into "pre-treatment" behaviors. Stress, and changes in carefully constructed habits designed to counteract the impact of ADHD, has upended their ability to stay focused.

How to Get Through Stage 2

Here are ways for couples impacted by ADHD to get through this period more successfully.

Call your doctor if you’re feeling depressed, anxious, or at risk of abuse. Situational depression and anxiety are real, and your doctor may be able to help. Domestic abuse is on the rise and seeking assistance for this to stay safe is critical. You are not alone, even though you may feel isolated.

Check in regularly to listen to each other. One way to do this is to spend 10 minutes at night having each partner finish the sentence “the most important thing you need to know about me today is…” Another is to have a daily check in for both who is doing what and how you are each feeling. If an ADHD partner keeps committing but not following through, bring this up in a neutral way. The solution may be to shift assignments; temporarily increase medication dosages to accommodate stress; or to put some less important items off.

Resist the temptation to equate poor ADHD performance with not caring about you or the family. ADHD disorganization, trouble following through, poor memory, and impulsivity have nothing to do with how that person feels about you and everything to do about ADHD symptoms. Over the long-term, all couples need to know they are loved and one of the goals of counseling couples impacted by ADHD is helping both partners feel loved. But you may not be working on that at this particular moment. If you aren’t, don’t believe your gut when it says ‘if my partner loved me s/he wouldn’t be forgetting to follow through.’ Your gut is wrong.

Try to keep your status even. These are tough times, but the pattern in which non-ADHD partners take on too many responsibilities (overfunction) to compensate for ADHD partner lack of follow through (underfunction) has a huge negative impact on the long-term health of the relationship. So, resist falling back into that pattern. Put things off. Kindly stand your ground. Be more flexible than usual. Seek empathy. Seek additional support for ADHD to manage out-of-control symptoms. All of these are better options than the old over/under function patterns.

Create a re-energizing or quiet space for yourself. The more chaotic your family life, the more you need this. Whether it’s a corner in which to read, or the joy of riding your bike around the neighborhood, make sure you get some "me" time.

Exercise. It supports better mood and better health.

You don’t have to be superwoman (or man). When in crisis, we tend to want to make everything "right." The reality is what we really need is to get through with a sense of calm. So, give yourself and your partner a break. Neither of you will be perfect during this time. Seek what makes you calm.

Seek safe ways to connect with others. We are lucky to live on a cul-de-sac. Once a week a few of us bring out our own chairs and drinks, sit a minimum of 10 feet apart, and chat. Most seem to be calling or videoconferencing. Some walk together at a safe distance and catch up. Humans are social and we need this connection.

Start talking now about preferences for getting out of lockdown. It’s coming fast for some, and you may well disagree about what’s safe and necessary. Start talking now about your fears and needs so you can agree upon a family framework. This can be revised in the future, but avoiding the topic may leave one of you surprised when the other suddenly disappears for the day.