When a “Good News” Diagnosis Means “Bad News” for the Relationship
By Guest Author: Gina Pera
We call ADHD a “good news” diagnosis. That’s because it offers not only a long-elusive rational explanation for vexing behavior but also effective treatment strategies. So, why does diagnosis (and sometimes even treatment) mean “bad news” for some relationships?
The reasons run the gamut, as complex as the individuals involved and their history together. To explore this topic a bit here, let’s begin with a letter (below) sent to me by a reader. This is only one example of how the ADHD diagnosis and treatment might create new challenges even as it resolves old ones.
Jack Celebrates His Success: Why Can’t His Wife?
Consider Jack, 42, married 12 years and diagnosed nine months ago:
“It took about six months for me to get on board with medication, and the doc and I haven’t worked out all the kinks yet in that regard. But let’s put it this way: Before I started taking medication, I was often criticized for being hyper, loud, disorganized and easily distracted. Since the medication, I hear myself as I sound to others and so have much more sensitivity to my own volume. I am also now more aware of my tendency to rant. A good argument used to be like food to me. Now, I don’t have to be in the ring with every discussion, and I can focus normally on a discussion that I am engaged in.
“So, between medication and therapy, I feel my approach to life has changed dramatically. I’m also better organized, more focused, and doing better at work. But has all this helped my marriage? That’s the big surprise. The situation at home has actually gotten worse in many respects.
“In fact, now that my ‘ADHD Fog’ has cleared, I’m seeing the long-running dysfunction in our relationship and wondering if my wife, Judy, could use a diagnosis. Maybe she has ADHD, too, or she’s codependent. Whatever it is, it seems that she can’t stand my being higher functioning; I think it’s because it means she’s losing control. You’d think she’d be happy for me, but she’s not.
“My psychiatrist and therapist agree that my therapy is not only working, it’s a success story! With my therapist’s support, I’m standing up for myself more – demanding more control over our finances, for example — and Judy doesn’t like that. She seems lots angrier in general these days, or maybe I just notice it more because the medication means I can’t tune her out as well as I used to.”
Jack’s is one variation on a common theme: Newly diagnosed adults with ADHD begin treatment, often including medication, and soon the “fog” of distractibility, impulsivity, and inattention begins dissipating.
With newfound clarity, many of these adults start re-examining their choices – job and career, friendships, health habits, and sometimes even their mates.
Frequently for the first time in their lives, adults feel solidly optimistic about their ability to evoke permanent changes; after all, they finally have the right answers and right tools. As they excitedly embrace new competencies and confidence, though, inevitably the “balance of power” in their relationship starts shifting.
Therefore, it’s understandable that adults, such as Jack, might feel deflated or even resentful when their partners don’t share their optimism and, in fact, rain on their parade, constantly demoralizing them by dragging them back to past misdeeds.
Understandably, they chafe at a partner who, as if on auto-pilot, constantly issues reminders, directives and second-guesses. It must be devastating, or at least highly irritating, to hear a partner chide, “Well, I give your latest self-help kick six weeks.”
No doubt about it. Change can be threatening, especially when a couple isn’t unified in learning about ADHD and collaborating on new strategies. “Denial” about ADHD can be a problem on both sides. In other words, it might be true that Jack’s wife is unwilling to accept that he can possibly change old habits. Moreover, she might be blind to her own little peccadilloes or even pathology.
But Is Jack Understanding His Wife’s Reactions?
For edification’s sake, though, let’s ponder what Jack might be missing in this equation. Perhaps Judy has valid reasons for her reactions, reasons that might totally elude Jack, who self-admittedly spent many years in an “ADHD Fog.” Judy might, in fact, be asking herself these questions:
- How long will Jack’s “new and improved” behavior last this time?
If Jack is typical, he no doubt has a pre-diagnosis history of “doing better” for weeks or even months at a time – improved focus at home, regular exercise, more patience with the kids, following through on agreements, and the like. Gradually, though, his attention faded or moved on to more stimulating activities. Lather, rinse, repeat. Many times over the years.
His acknowledgement of this pattern? Perhaps rather fleeting and vague, in part because it depresses him to talk about past failures; he’s trying to remain positive about the future. But Judy’s more worried about the past as prologue.
- How can I trust Jack when he won’t accurately acknowledge past problems as well as show empathy for my experience over the years?
Caught up in the excitement of embracing new possibilities and seeing the past in a rather distorted rear-view mirror, Jack might not clearly remember past patterns, much less their relevance to today. After all, he (and his therapist) consider him a success story.
Judy’s Perspective On All This
Then again, has this therapist solicited Judy’s perspective on all this? Some people with ADHD can talk a real good game during that stimulating hour of therapy (not really lying but perhaps being a bit unrealistic); therefore, how it plays out in real life is only the therapist’s guess. Hence the recommendation for couples working as a team on ADHD education and treatment strategies.
For her part, Judy long ago learned to protect herself from Jack’s “other shoe” inevitably dropping. She’s sworn to never again prematurely celebrate any positive changes he makes; it’s simply too devastating when the positive changes stop suddenly, with no explanation or even acknowledgement from Jack.
As far as him demanding more financial control, how can she possibly acquiesce when he fails to even acknowledge his old spendthrift ways and the devastating impact it had on their family, not to mention how he plans on avoiding the same predicament? It took years for her to dig them out of debt. And just the idea of his demanding financial freedom — as if she never wanted to work together on decisions — makes her neck veins pop. Angry? Darn straight she’s angry.
Story Continues With The Next Blog Post
Jack and Judy’s story, along with a new story from Katy, continues in our next blog post titled “Good News Diagnosis Sometimes Means Bad News For The Relationship”.
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Gina Pera is an internationally renowned author dedicated to exploring ADHD especially its impact on relationships. Follow her on Twitter at @GinaPera or on her website www.ginapera.com.