By Linda Swanson
Courage doesn't always roar, sometimes it's the quiet voice at the end of the day whispering, ‘I will try again tomorrow.’
― Mary Anne Radmacher
Marriage with ADHD is challenging! The divorce rate of couples with at least one ADHD partner is double that of non-ADHD couples. Every marriage has its challenges, but ADHD ensures there will be times when it seems impossible to keep things together.
Neil and I have been married nearly forty-six years. We’ve had wonderful times together, but we’ve also been through some rough patches and times when all that held us together was our love for each other and our determination to make it work for the sake of our children.
Our generation didn’t know about ADHD. Neil and I were married thirty-five years before we discovered that ADHD was behind many of our struggles.
Today, Neil and I are both ADHD coaches. Neil’s coaching is powerful because of his experience as one who has ADHD himself. My coaching benefits from my having experienced life with Neil before and after learning about ADHD. Our life together has taught us many lessons we now share with others.
ADHDer Lesson: If life hands you a lemon, find the recipe for lemonade.
Non-ADHD Partner Lesson: Your struggles and victories can make life easier for others.
Before Neil’s diagnosis, I was pretty much alone in my search for answers. With the poor memory characteristic of many ADHDers, Neil didn’t readily see patterns in his behavior. For him, every incident was unique, an exception. Since I worked hard to hold things together, both in our family life and in our business, Neil rarely felt the full impact of his behavior.
I couldn’t understand why Neil, who is the kindest, most big-hearted guy I know, was always late, forgot to do things he promised to do, rarely put things back where they belonged and so was frequently looking for lost items, had no idea how long it would take for him to do a task, rarely completed a project, rarely read, never finished a book and took forever to write a simple paragraph, despite having earned a master’s degree!
It was confusing! How could this smart man, so likeable, funny and kind, fall short in so many areas of life? He would tell me he couldn’t believe so many hours had passed while he was working on a project. (I learned to multiply every time estimate by at least three.) Or he explained his failure to do something he had promised to do by saying, “It just didn’t register.” Or he’d say he needed to talk so much because he couldn’t sort his thoughts until he started talking. At that time, neither of us knew anything about working memory, executive functions, verbal processing, time blindness or any of the other challenges of ADHD.
ADHDer Lesson: Find a safe place with a supportive partner to look with clear eyes at where you are challenged and where you are strong.
Non-ADHD Partner Lesson: Your partner is much more than ADHD; look for the strengths and uniqueness.
We sought help from counselors, for both of us, but we never found an explanation for the behaviors, and the behaviors never changed. We had Neil tested for learning disabilities, but we learned only that Neil was exceptionally bright, something we already knew.
Then one evening about twelve years ago when we were eating at a restaurant near our home, the conversation turned, as it so often did, to some aspect of Neil’s behavior. For some reason, I mentioned the word “attention,” describing something he’d done. It was a light bulb moment. We’d heard of something called “attention deficit disorder,” but we knew nothing about it. We were so excited that we finished eating as fast as possible and dashed home to look up those words on the computer.
We found an online screening checklist of symptoms of “attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.” I read each item aloud, and one by one we checked off every single trait. We looked at each other as we felt (or rather, I felt, since at that time Neil had trouble identifying his emotions) surprise, shock, relief and amazement that after all these years perhaps we had discovered an explanation for why our lives were so challenging. I was sure that with this self-diagnosis everything would quickly change for the better.
ADHDer Lesson: Discovering that you are not alone can be a huge relief.
Non-ADHD Partner Lesson: Patterns of decades don’t usually change overnight.
We found a psychiatrist who specialized in working with adults with ADHD and after a session or two he diagnosed Neil and prescribed medication. I was anticipating instant change. Nothing changed. This pattern repeated itself through at least three different medications. Sometimes side effects were unpleasant, and there was never any clear positive effect. Eventually Neil gave up on drugs for his ADHD.
ADHDer Lesson: Drugs help about 80% of ADHDers to varying degrees, but about 20% of people are not helped by them.
Non-ADHD Partner Lesson: Even if medication does “work,” there will still be work to do; there is no quick fix, but there can be steady progress.
Neil and I now knew ADHD was in our lives, but given his lack of success with medications, Neil began to work with a counselor to consider alternative psychological explanations for his behavior. Through this work, Neil discovered a way of looking at life that was very meaningful to him and helped him to better identify his emotions, but he readily admits he was in denial about his ADHD.
I was happy he’d found something meaningful, but the challenges of ADHD were still with us. I continued to search in books and online for something to help me. I came upon some podcasts about ADHD and listened to a few of them. One morning, I asked Neil if I could play one of those podcasts for him. Since it was short, he agreed; it was a pivotal moment for Neil. Something about the way the material was presented got through to him and broke through his denial.
ADHDer Lesson: When you embrace your ADHD, you open to strategies to deal with the challenges and you also begin to see ways your brain wiring is a gift.
Non-ADHD Partner Lesson: Your partner must own ADHD as part of his/her life. When that happens, your relationship can start to become more balanced.
Neil was already in a training program to be a life coach, an outgrowth of his work with the counselor and group he had been meeting with. Once he began to embrace his ADHD, we learned of a school for ADHD coaches – the ADD Coach Academy (ADDCA). We felt we were naturals for such a program, so we applied and were accepted.
We expected the training at ADDCA to prepare us to be good coaches. What we didn’t expect was the impact the learning and the coaching would have on us personally and on our relationship. I can’t say we don’t still have our rocky moments. We do. But we aren’t adrift in a sea of confusion any longer. We understand Neil’s brain works in a unique way; he needs to find accommodations and strategies to make his and our life together more harmonious.
More is being learned every day about how the brain works, with and without ADHD. Neil and I are now on a path, together, of real continuing education about living successfully with ADHD. We learn from reading the experts, from conferring with our coaching colleagues and our own personal coaches, and from working with our clients. Life is an unfolding adventure!
ADHDer Lesson: Knowledge is power.
Non-ADHD Partner Lesson: More knowledge is more power. Be a life-long learner. Linda Williams Swanson is an ADHD coach in partnership with her husband, Neil, at Free to Be Coaching, LLC, where they work with adults, young adults, and older students with ADHD. Linda and Neil are both graduates of the ADD Coach Academy