Do you have an “ADHD spouse”? We counsel a lot of couples who are experiencing anger in their relationship. Interestingly enough, that anger could be an indicator that one spouse has ADHD. We asked Dr Melissa Orlov, an ADHD expert and author of The ADHD Effect on Marriage, for her input on the topic. We’ll include a link at the bottom of the article if you decide that you and your spouse could benefit from anger management counseling together or would like to try marriage counseling to help with the Anger/ADHD connection.
Q: Is my spouse’s anger a symptom of ADHD?
A: Anger is not a symptom that is used to diagnose ADHD. However, in adult relationships, there are some types of anger that are so commonly present in both ADHD and the non-ADHD partners that counselors may use their presence as an indicator to look for the possibility of ADHD in one or both spouses.
Q: How can married couples practice anger management together?
A: Couples can practice anger management techniques together by learning to communicate without blame, shame, or anger. We help couples practice anger management together using the imago dialogue method so they can both understand what the other is feeling and really listen to one another. Communicating without anger is the key.
The first is chronic anger typically found in the partners of people who have ADHD. This anger is usually chronic and strong, and the narrative that accompanies it is that the other partner is not contributing at all in a relationship with no obvious explanation for why that is. That partner often makes promises that he or she doesn’t keep and is ‘consistently inconsistent.’ This can indicate that the ‘underperforming’ partner may have ADHD.
In your search for ADHD and marriage resources know that there is a relatively unknown cause of ADHD that you can help. A colleague of mine posted an article from The Atlantic on our Listserv called “How Childhood Trauma Could Be Mistaken for ADHD”. I was intrigued by the title as well as its hypothesis, as we have found in our experience as marriage counselors, that marriage conflict tends to create this scenario.
The author shares the findings of various professionals who concluded that a lot of the behavior that is common with those who are diagnosed with ADHD is actually a result of childhood trauma. In one case, children were being medicated for ADHD but not responding positively to the medication. This led one pediatrician to question whether her patients were actually suffering from ADHD or something else.
I was pleased to see this article on childhood trauma because it plays a huge role in the way we act as adults. While it does not mean that the past should be used as an excuse for current behavior, it explains a lot of why we do what we do.
We can’t not be affected by our past.
Our adult lives do not exist in a vacuum; rather they are a composite of our experiences and our natural tendencies.
The article concludes by explaining the affect of trauma on the brain. Trauma puts us in survival mode. Sometimes that survival mode manifests itself as ADHD-like symptoms. It makes sense why kids who experienced trauma would feel like they are constantly on-guard.
Even for those of us who did not experience any major trauma like the children in the article, it is helpful to note that childhood can be a traumatic experience.
Events that may seem insignificant for an adult can have a huge impact on a young child. Thus, we all have our mini-traumas that when re-experienced as adults send us back to survival mode.
Most of the intense marriage conflict that couples experience is a power struggle to stay alive.
Both partners revert to their defenses to protect themselves.
Their behavior can become ugly, and they have the potential to do real emotional damage.
Once couples become more conscious of what is sending them into stress mode and what traumas are being triggered, they can come to a place of greater calm.
Manage Marriage Conflict with Counseling
When I work with couples trying to fix their marriage, the main work that we do is creating safety in the relationship.
This means stopping the knee-jerk reactivity and the stress, and learning how to work with each other in a calm and productive manner.
We owe it to our children to provide them with calm homes.
We wonder why we see so much ADHD being diagnosed in our times. Did we not know about this fifty years ago? Was it undetected?
Or are our lives so stressful that our kids are manifesting more and more of these behaviors?
While the findings of the studies depicted in these articles may mean that the solution is not just taking a pill but working on healing these old traumas, I hope, for the sake of these children, that it will provide for them a brighter future.
Deep Anger of Non ADHD Spouse
A variation on this type of partner anger is a deep-seated anger and feeling ‘duped in courtship’ and claims that a once extremely-attentive (possibly ADHD) partner is now completely disconnected in the relationship.
As you can imagine, faced with deep, chronic anger, the partner who stands ‘accused’ responds in kind, and the couple finds itself quickly moving into arguments or, conversely, completely disconnected from each other to avoid conflict.
Sudden Angry Outbursts
The second type of anger is one that adults who have ADHD sometimes exhibit – it comes across as surprising spurts of anger that ramp up quickly and unexpectedly – as if the person who is angry has trouble controlling his or her impulses. Many times it is defensive or very aggressive and bullying.
ADHD is undiagnosed in the vast majority of adults who have it – so the actions that lead to the first type of anger – chronic frustration and anger at a partner’s perceived under-performance usually stem from a history of that partner’s inconsistency and problems following through on agreed-upon tasks.
It starts to feel personal when your partner – over and over again – says “sure, I’ll do X” and then forgets or gets distracted. No amount of gentle reminding or requests to do better seems to make much difference. Over the long-term, the result is a chronic resentment and anger that the (possibly ADHD) partner is not reliable enough. Too many responsibilities end up on shoulders of the (typically non-ADHD) other partner as a result. Though this pattern of interactions is not diagnostic, it is very common when ADHD symptoms are present.
- Chronic Distraction
- Poor Time Management
- Poor Shor-Term Memory
Partners of ADHD spouses who feel completely duped – with claims that the other partner was completely different during courtship (with no obvious anger management issues) and then “a switch was turned off” – may be an indication of what is called “hyperfocus courtship.”
Q: What is Hyperfocus Courtship?
A: Hyperfocus courtship occurs when a partner has ADHD because the extra dopa-mine that infatuation adds to the brain disguises the ADHD symptoms during courtship, promoting extra-attentive behavior in the (ADHD) spouse. But when the infatuation fades into more normal feelings, the ADHD reasserts itself so that the once very attentive partner becomes chronically distracted. This can be a shock to the relationship, resulting in many angry interchanges that, while not diagnostic, can provide a clue that ADHD may be present.
“Quick to anger” episodes in adults are, again, not diagnostic in themselves. But they may indicate that investigating whether ADHD might exist in the quick-to-explode person. This type of anger is physiologically based – a quick, emotionally angry response that seems out of proportion to what most might expect. Some research suggests that those with ADHD experience greater “emotionality” than those without – in other words they respond more quickly and more dramatically to events than those without ADHD. This may have to do with poor impulse control. or, what Dr. Ned Hallowell would call “bad brakes.” Their anger gets expressed before they have a chance to consider its utility.
In general, couples impacted by ADHD respond to the presence of ADHD symptoms with specific patterns of individual and interactive behaviors – anger, parent/child dynamics, pursuit and retreat patterns, and more. Counselors and couples who observe the patterns specifically associated with ADHD relationships are given a clue that ADHD may be present. It is worth investigating further, because if ADHD actually is a factor that’s great news. Undiagnosed ADHD can be quite difficult to live with. But ADHD is manageable with the right treatment and couples can literally turn their lives around once they understand better what they are facing.
We’d like to know what you think. While we generally refrain from diagnosing one partner in a relationship, as we feel that both play a role in whatever disconnect they are experiencing, we do feel that this information on anger and anger management counseling is helpful. This anger/ADHD connection is a factor that in many cases when treated, could remove a lot of unnecessary conflict in a marriage.
If you feel your spouse has ADHD and you want to take your marriage back and get out from the clutches of ADHD, contact us to talk about our 2 Day Marriage Restoration Retreat. It’s the best way to take control of your life and your marriage without having to constantly suffer from ADHD symptoms. The structure that our retreat provides helps to give the spouse suffering from ADHD a system in place that sets them up for success.
We had no idea that ADHD was plaguing our own marriage for 19 years!
Listen to the podcast episode to find out what we are struggling with! We’re currently working on a program on this topic. If you think our struggle resembles your own and you wish to learn more, watch the video below to get further help!
How to Thrive as a Couple without Letting the Stress of Raising ADD/ADHD Kids (or an ADHD spouse!) Take Away from Your Sanity
More inspiration about adhd and marriage and when one spouse has a disorder:
- My spouse has Borderline Personality Disorder
- My spouse is a narcissist
- Readers Respond to our “Dangers of Diagnosis Article”
- Marriage conflict may create ADHD like symptoms
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