By Leslie Rouder, LCSW
The great Carl Jung once said that “Loneliness doesn’t come from having no one around you, but from being unable to communicate the things that are important to you.” Although this is a universal truth, in the case of those who have ADHD, communication can certainly be a bigger obstacle to intimacy than to those who do not. Not only for the person who has ADHD, but for the partner who may feel that they are never being heard.
Over the past 13 years of counseling couples in which one partner had ADHD, I have heard numerous complaints. Many of the challenges are quite common amongst individuals whose partners have ADHD, but the single biggest complaint I hear over and over again is that, “My ADHD partner does not appear to be listening to me.” Good communication is probably the single most important element that constitutes a healthy thriving relationship. When one partner in a relationship feels that they are not being heard (regardless of the reason) all kinds of resentment and anger can build. Often the non-ADHD spouse feels uncared for, or even disrespected because their ADHD partner may seem to zone out, pay them “lip service” or not respond at all. If they are aware of how their partner’s ADHD is affecting their ability to pay attention (and most of them are) they may be able to objectify it and even understand it, but at the end of the day, they are still not able to resolve the problem. Many of these couples have been through the diagnosis stage, the education stage and the medication stage, and still the same problems around communication persists. By the time they come to see me, many of these couples are feeling hopeless, exhausted, frustrated, beat up, misunderstood and angry. They just want solutions that will make it better or they want out.
Although re-learning old behavior patterns can be difficult, I am here to say that when both partners are willing to make changes and see it as a priority, communication can greatly improve. To this effort, I have outlined the most important areas to consider in moving communication forward.
- The use of ADHD Medication
Although medication is not for everyone, we do know that for about 80% of those with ADHD, medication is the single most important treatment in mitigating ADHD symptoms, especially in the area of distractibility. For some, more than others, medication can mean a huge difference in one’s ability to be present in a conversation, as well as one’s life in general. If your partner has been diagnosed with ADHD and is not on medication, this would be a worthwhile consideration. If your partner is already on medication, it would be a good idea to be sure that when you want to discuss something that is of a serious nature, that the medication is still effective and has not worn off (like at the end of the day)
- Get your partners attention.
Make sure to tell your partner that there is something important that you wish to discuss and find a time when he or she can devote time to the conversation. Don’t try to fit it in while your partner is running out the door for an appointment or has limited time. But an interesting fact that you should know is that 89% of men will assume that something is wrong if you say, “We need to talk”, as apposed to 61% of women. So be aware that this language may induce some form of anxiety or defensiveness before you even start the conversation. So perhaps you can let your partner know that you need some time to discuss something with in such a way that they don’t instantly feel that there is a problem. Ask them if they would mind giving you their attention for a few minutes, or perhaps you can gesture to them is some way that lets them know that you wish to talk and “they are not in trouble”. Unless of course, they are. (only kidding :))
- Write your communication to your partner.
In some cases, you may want to write a letter or e mail to your partner so that they have time to read it, process it and consider how they want to respond without any pressure. I would only do this in certain circumstances that are fairly straight forward and do not involve a lot of possible misinterpretation. Most communication is non-verbal in nature, so remember that when you write, the other person is not hearing voice inflection or seeing your body language. This can lead to miscommunication. So be careful when and how you choose to use written communication.
For the ADHD Partner
- Consider your partner’s communication as important.
Remember that your partner has probably experienced months or years of feeling hurt or frustrated because you have a long history of not giving them your attention when wanting to talk. He or she may have felt that you were not interested in what they had to say or that you do not value them as a partner. For this reason, you must
- Make the extra effort to recognize the importance of paying attention when your partner is speaking to you. This may mean that you need to set aside some activity that you may be involved in at the moment or even set aside some alone time for her/him so that there won’t be any distractions.
- Listen to understand. Wait until he or she is completely finished with what they are saying before you respond. Listen to understand first, rather than to take a position of being wrong or right. If you need some time to process what is being said, then ask for it. But make sure that you come back to your partner with a response. Don’t just leave them dangling.
- Use a note pad to jot down thoughts. Rather than interrupt your partner when speaking, you might want to jot down a word or 2 to remind you of something that you do not wish to forget when responding. But be careful not to lose the gist of the conversation while writing a note to yourself. Or ask your partner if he/ or she would give you a moment to take notes, so that you can turn your full attention to the conversation without being distracted.
- Mirror back. Before you respond to your partner, make sure you understand the meaning of what he or she has said. A good way to do this would be to mirror back to your partner what you believe he/she has said. So, “What I heard you say is ________.” If you are unsure of the meaning of what he/she is saying now is the time to get clarification. Then mirror back again. Once your partner agrees that you understanding is correct, you may then respond to what they are saying, having made sure that you understood the meaning of the communication accurately. If you do this consistently, it will become automatic and greatly enhance your all round communication skills in any circumstance.
In conclusion, not feeling heard by your partner leads to a rather unhappy relationship. Here are the main ideas you want to remember
- State your intentions before the conversation to avoid defensiveness.
- Listen to understand rather than respond.
- Listen without interrupting.
- Clarify your understanding of what your partner is saying (through mirroring).
- Avoid being demeaning or confrontational.
- And lastly, try using humor, love and/or empathy.
Leslie is a holistic therapist working in South Florida who specializes in working with adults with ADHD.