I have had the pleasure of knowing Melissa Orlov over the past few years and when asked recently to write a “six word biography,” She wrote “Failed marriage resuscitated. Now helping others.” Melissa has blended her personal experience of coming back from the brink of divorce with an ADHD spouse with knowledge about ADHD in adults, becoming one of the top experts in how ADHD impacts relationships. She runs an active online community on the topic, consults with couples struggling to change their marriage dynamics, teaches seminars to couples as well as professional therapists and counselors on the topic, and has written an award-winning book, The ADHD Effect on Marriage. You can find more information at www.adhdmarriage.com.
As mentioned in my last Newsletter, I have been taking a 7 week class with Melissa entitled The ADHD Effect on Couples this past month and thought it would be great if she would be willing to do a guest interview for my blog on the subject . She graciously accepted and the following is the result;
Leslie: If there was one piece of advice that you would give to a couple (in which one or both partners had ADHD) that was struggling with their relationship what would that be?
Melissa: Learn all that you can about the issues that ADHD symptoms introduce into relationships. Right now you may be frustrated that nothing ever seems to change – no matter how much effort you put into making your relationship better. But learning about ADHD symptoms and their impact is really GOOD – in fact it is a turning point for many couples. And, it’s important to note here, that though it is the ADHD partner with the symptoms, it is not his or her “fault.” A non-ADHD partner (or second ADHD partner) plays a huge role in the dynamics the couple shares.
Leslie: Can you tell us what you feel are the 3 biggest obstacles that get in the way of couples affected by ADHD?
Melissa: The most important obstacles are denial, fear and hopelessness. Let me start with denial. Over 80% of adults with ADHD are currently undiagnosed. But even after diagnosis, it’s common that a partner with ADHD will deny that ADHD might be playing a role in marital dysfunction. This is usually because they prefer to blame their partner’s obvious anger and frustration. Not incidentally, denial for the non-ADHD partner is typically around anger. He or she denies that anger is hurting the relationship. As long as each partner remains in denial, little changes. This is one of the powerful things about my book. At the beginning is a section that talks about what a relationship impacted by ADHD looks like. A lot of people read it and say “have you been sitting in my living room?!” At that point they tend to start wondering whether or not it might, after all, really be the ADHD symptoms and their responses to those symptoms, rather than a spouse being a pain.
Fear is also a huge obstacle, particularly for ADHD spouses. They fear that they will try really hard to do something to please their partner and fail at it (which they often have a track record of doing, since their untreated ADHD symptoms have gotten in the way). Fear tends to have a paralyzing effect on ADHD spouses, though sometimes it has the effect of making them defensive. On the non-ADHD spouse side of things, the most common fear is that they’ll make themselves vulnerable to feeling warm feelings for their partner, and that he or she will then “revert” back to old habits again, which will hurt. So fear tends to have the effect of “hardening” non-ADHD partners.
Finally, hopelessness. By the time couples find me they are often near divorce and have had dysfunctional relationships for a long time. They have little energy for more work. I will try to provide them a glimpse of what their future might look like if they can pull themselves up and try again – this time by trying differently (in ways that acknowledge the ADHD issues), rather than trying harder. Usually they can see why it makes sense to try again.
Leslie: What is the best kind of help couples facing these challenges need to get? And where do they go to find this kind of help?
Melissa: The best sort of help is from a professional counselor who is familiar with ADHD and its issues. The patterns created by having a symptom, then a response to that symptom, then a response to that response, mean that if a therapist isn’t aware of the underlying symptom then the work that is done tends to be on too superficial a level. You might be able to temporarily address anger, for example, but if you don’t also improve the reliability of the ADHD partner by helping him or her manage their ADHD, then the anger will return.
Leslie: In your practice, what percentage of the couples you see have success in growing their relationship and learning how to rebuild their lives together in a healthier way?
Melissa: Some couples don’t make it, as you would expect, particularly given that most are in big trouble when they start with me. But a surprisingly large percentage do improve their relationship quite significantly. One of the reasons I remain so enthusiastic about the niche that I work in, in fact, is that so many people tell me how great a difference my advice has made in their lives. It’s very rewarding to feel you are genuinely helping people learn to thrive again!
Leslie: What do you feel is the single most important thing that a couple can do to strengthen their trust in each other, despite a long history of distrust?
Melissa: Rebuilding trust takes time, and there is no “quick” way to get there. In a nutshell, to learn to trust again, a couple must do the hard work necessary to create a “new norm” in their relationship – one in which they treat each other with respect, where ADHD symptoms and anger are no longer major factors in their interactions, and where they are both feeling satisfied or joyous in their relationship. Then they need to be in this new norm for a while in order to trust it will stay that way, as well as to trust each other again. Typically it can take about a year or more to move through all of the steps, once a couple is out of denial and really focused on creating change.
Leslie: When do you know it’s time to give up?
Melissa: Every person has to make this decision for him or herself. In my opinion, you give up when one of two things becomes obvious – a.) when even after a long time it becomes fully clear that either partner is dead set on remaining in denial about what’s going on and therefore won’t participate in the hard work of changing the dynamics or b.) the couple has changed the dynamics, gotten both ADHD and responses to ADHD out of the way, and realized that they have something else all together that makes them incompatible. In general, I think there are a whole lot more reasons to stay together than to give up, but I’m not a big believer that you should stay in a marriage which is clearly hurting you over the long run. Everyone deserves to live in a respectful, healthy relationship. My work points the way for many couples to find that…but not all.
Leslie: Thanks again, Melissa, for your valuable time and insights.