When my husband and I were dating, he forgot my birthday...two weeks after we had celebrated it together. “Isn’t your birthday coming up soon?” he asked. I found this amusing and teased him about how I could have used his mistake to my advantage.
Five years ago, long after his forgetfulness and lack of focus were no longer funny, he was diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder — ADHD.
We all bring challenges into our marriages — dysfunctional family histories, sinful tendencies, perhaps mental or physical disorders. I brought my fair share of baggage with me, and I know that, even if my husband didn’t have ADHD, we’d still have struggles. But ADHD brings with it difficulties that few people outside the situation seem to understand and that evangelical subculture may exacerbate.
Learning that my husband had ADHD was a turning point for our marriage. I realized that actions I had judged as lazy, unloving, or passive-aggressive were, in fact, symptoms of ADHD. Before his diagnosis, if I ran across a half-finished chore, such as a pile of laundry he had left on our bed, I would get upset. Once I understood ADHD, I realized that, even though I might think about something else while working on a task, I can complete the chore successfully. For my husband, these thoughts are so distracting that he will leave the chore to follow up on the distraction and then forget to return to whatever he was doing. Understanding that there is no malice or lack of love behind his behavior has really helped.
Unfortunately, I’ve also learned that the ADHD diagnosis, coupled with a prescription for Adderall, hasn’t made things much easier. First, an effective treatment plan includes counseling, and my husband has not yet chosen to pursue it. Also, some of the things I thought might help us have not. For example, I read that labeling where things go can help a person with ADHD put them back in their proper places, so I carefully labeled cupboards, drawers, and shelves. Unfortunately, he doesn’t “see” the labels, so things continue to be put back (if they are put back) pretty much anywhere that strikes his fancy. My solution has been to purchase duplicates of things that frequently go missing and hide these items so that I can access them when needed. It feels dishonest, but it cuts down on my frustration when I can’t find the scissors...again.
On top of the common struggles faced by spouses of people with ADHD, evangelical women can face additional hurdles. As singles know, the evangelical subculture practically idolizes traditional families; marriage is considered the normal state for Christians. Within this marriage, many evangelicals assume that the husband will lead, there will be children, and all family members will attend church together. While plenty of Christians fall outside of these norms, we frequently receive messages — on the radio, online, in books, and maybe from the pulpit — that make us feel like we don’t belong or have failed if we don’t fit the pattern. Because my husband tends to do whatever interests him, and because many church activities do not interest him, I frequently attend church functions alone or in a single parent-like role. When my child was interested in going to our church’s annual family camp, I took her by myself. I make sure she gets to Sunday school, and because it is held before the worship service we attend, I’ve often gone into the service with her not knowing if or when my husband would show up.
There was a time when the messages I heard from other evangelicals led me to question myself and my husband. Was our problem that I hadn’t been allowing my husband to lead? Would everything be better if my husband would just attend a men’s conference that called him to take up his role in the family? The presence of ADHD in a marriage is more complex than that. Day-to-day life is often hard, boring work. People with ADHD have trouble focusing when they are bored and, because they can become easily overwhelmed, they may avoid difficult tasks. They also have a tendency to get so caught up in whatever interests them that they neglect the needs of family members. Shame can be an issue as well. A husband with ADHD usually knows that his behavior can upset others, so he may choose to avoid situations that cause him to feel like a failure. It would be helpful for families in my situation if the church would acknowledge that a husband’s lack of involvement at home may arise from issues other than sin on someone’s part and provide the support families need in such situations.
It is also possible that the presence of ADHD in a family can be more difficult for non-ADHD spouses who work in professions were highly competent people congregate, such as academia. This is not to say that people with ADHD are not present or successful on college and university campuses. But when you spend much of your day in an atmosphere focused on competence and achievement, it can be frustrating to come home and discover that your loved one with ADHD cannot seem to accomplish even a simple task. I know my husband is bright, but when I discover that he has shoved dishes into the dishwasher in such a hodgepodge manner that they will not get clean, I find myself questioning his intelligence. To have to return home from work and find that one cannot rely on one’s spouse to carry their share of the load at home can be draining...and can make it difficult to have a healthy marriage relationship.
Being married to someone with ADHD can be lonely, exhausting, and frustrating. I yearn for help, but I can’t talk as freely as I’d like about my husband’s ADHD, because he is concerned about how employers’ perceptions of ADHD could affect future employment opportunities for him. I do talk individually with others about our situation as I feel comfortable doing so, but most people do not know our situation. Here’s what I wish others would understand:
Everyone has different challenges. It’s important to keep your eyes open for information about challenges people outside the norm face. The body of Christ is diverse, and if we are to love others in God’s name, we need to understand the challenges that they face. Obviously, we will never understand all of the challenges people who are different from us deal with, but if we keep our eyes and ears open, we can learn from them and grow more sensitive to them.
Non-ADHD spouses need support. If you know someone in this situation, talk with them about what their life is like, and ask them how you can care for them. They might want someone to listen to them on a hard day. They might need practical help from time to time. They might feel lonely and welcome an invitation out for a cup of coffee. When my child was younger, I really would have appreciated someone taking her shopping for a Mother’s Day gift, because even when I specifically asked my husband to do it, he never got around to it.
Support their marriage. If you are friends with a married person with ADHD, do what you can to support the marriage’s health. If your friend is spending excessive amounts of time with activities and friends outside of the marriage, encourage him to take a break and spend some time with his wife. Of course, spouses are sometimes pretty angry and unpleasant to be around, and you may hear that from your friend with ADHD. He’d rather not go home to his angry wife when he can have more fun with friends who ask much less of him. Her anger hurts him, and you don’t need to excuse it, but ask your friend to think about what life is like for his spouse and encourage him to take steps to rebuild his marriage.
My daughter’s birthday exemplifies the highs and lows of the presence of ADHD in a family. My husband had the day off and spontaneously decided to bring me flowers to celebrate me as the mother of his daughter. Playfulness, creativity and spontaneity are some of the wonderful things that are often present in people with ADHD. Unfortunately, he also forgot to wish our daughter a happy birthday, which she tearfully mentioned to me a couple of days later. I am sorry I had missed that...and it was a reminder to me that I need to stay on top of such matters.
But even when I feel overwhelmed and frustrated by the downsides of my husband’s ADHD, I need only remember that God is so much bigger than ADHD and my frustration with it. Who knows what he will have done with all this by the end of our lives?