Of all the symptoms exhibited by men with ADD/ADHD, their inability to deal with distractions may be the most frustrating for their wives. To be fair, it may not be the husband’s fault. In fact, a growing body of research shows that distractibility is linked to how the brain functions. Nevertheless, for the wives of these men, research studies do little to change the day-to-day reality of living with someone who cannot stay focused or on task.
Ann S., a graduate student living outside Bethesda, Maryland, knows that the instant she starts talking to her ADD/ADHD husband, his “distraction clock” is already ticking.
“Forget about trying to have a real discussion about how my day was, our relationship, or ANY topic that takes more than 60 seconds to complete,” she said. “He completely loses focus and tune s me out. He’ll fidget, play with the dog, switch the channels on the television. It’s like our living room becomes an activity center for him. It’s like living with a three-year old in a 30 year-old’s body.”
Most men with ADD/ADHD know they suffer from an overabundance of distraction. In extreme cases, the slightest outside input takes them off track. If they go upstairs to find a book, for example, they may not return for a long time. The reason? They have just entered a whole new room, replete with items to occupy their time. This inability to filter their environment wreaks havoc throughout their time in school and follows them through their (often may, short-lived) jobs and into their marriage.
Douglas Scootey is the author of the blog The Splintered Mind, which describes his experiences dealing with ADD/ADHD. In one particularly enlightening post, he recalls what it was like for him to sit for an exam during college.
The difficulty in filtering unwanted distractions, he noted, is that “the foreground and background noise tend to switch places within my addled brain.”
“This is one reason I despised taking exams [during college],” he wrote. “When my mind grew accustomed to the quiet [or the testing room], the real fun began. The room filled with sniffles and coughs, like bird calls in an aviary. The sniffles evolved into snuffles, which were eventually replaced by pencil tapping. Seemingly harmless to those with normal brains, the gentle strikes of No. 2 pencils hammered my ADHD brain like blows in a steel foundry.”
The notion that men with ADD/ADHD experience “all noise as equal” rings true with many wives, who watch in amazement and frustration as their ADD/ADHD husbands careen through a life in a constant state of distraction. Sometimes it seems as if there is only “now.” Everything begins but never finishes, whether it is a conversation, a project, an errand or any task.
Jenny K. is an emergency room nurse in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She is well acquainted with the frantic pace of events and the need to shift focus that makes up life in an emergency room. However, when it comes to her colleagues in the ER, they know how to stay on task. At home with her husband, it’s a different story.
“Ninety-five percent of our fights begin with me saying something like, ‘Hey, did you get a chance to do X yet?’” she said. “But forget it. I literally feel like I am talking to a wall. His is simply not present.
“He will go off on an errand and leave me with the kids and disappear for hours and never come back with the original thing – and then he has to head out all over again. Or he will decide to start a new project instead of the one he’s already started and leave me with the kids, and then he’ll lose interest and I’ll catch him play video games or something instead.”
Problems with distractibility tend to affect sleep hygiene as well, which bleeds into job performance and other life-coping mechanisms. Research suggests that 80 percent of adults with ADD/ADHD suffer from some form of poor sleep hygiene. This may include difficulty going to sleep, staying asleep, getting restful sleep, or being able to get up in the morning.
Combining sleep issues with ADD/ADHD creates a perfect storm of distractibility at the office. The result often leads to missed deadlines, unfinished tasks, and gaining a reputation for being unreliable. The workplace stress creates additional stress for their wives, who live in constant fear that their husbands will lose their job. Medication does not always provide a good solution, either. Many wives report that while medication may help their husbands function better at work, it wears off soon after they come home.
Tracey C., a children’s agent in Hollywood, described her husband’s nighttime routine, as she watches her husband revert to his “normal” ADD/ADHD self.
“When he gets home from work during the week, all I want him to do is to take 30 minutes or so with the kids while I make dinner,” she said. “But he’s always got a list of two hundred projects he’s started that he thinks he needs to get done right then. He rarely spends more than 10 or 20 minutes with our kids during the week.”
Winning Back Ground – a Three-Pronged Approach
Given the all-encompassing nature of the challenge, wives who want to help their husbands gain a handle on their distracted nature face an uphill battle. However, as therapists gain more understanding of ADD/ADHD and how to work with it, three distinct strategies appear to produce positive results.
First, certain behaviors can be adopted that help ADD/ADHD men function more efficiently. Second, both partners can agree to adopt new attitudes with regard to ADD/ADHD and what its implications. Third, life choices can be crafted in a way that works with the husband’s situation, rather than trying to change his core being. The wife of an ADD/ADHD man should understand that this is a lifelong condition. It does not go away. However, learning to channel it productively can mean the difference between a marriage beset by problems and frustration and one that thrives on the acceptance of each other’s limitations – and unique talents.
With regard to helpful behaviors, researchers and coaches suggest a number of simple coping strategies. For example, when conversing with others, men with ADD/ADHD should remain aware that their tendency to blurt out unrelated comments or allow their thoughts to wander is a problem.
One way to deal with this is simply to let the other person know that there is another participant in the conversation, namely the ADD/ADHD. This allows both parties need to adjust to this reality. For example, simply taking the time to write down the topics to be covered will help both parties redirect their focus to the subject at hand.
Men with ADD/ADHD should keep a notebook handy to jot down distracting thoughts instead of speaking them out loud. Maintaining eye contact also helps improve focus.
At work, men with ADD/ADHD should institute certain practices to reduce the amount of distractionsthat interfere with their workflow during the day. Phone calls can be routed to voice mail. Email can be blocked until certain hours of the day. In addition, the work day can be arranged into efficient blocks of time that allow projects to be completed, or divided into discrete units.
Beyond the behavioral strategies, husbands and wives should take time to think about ADD/ADHD from the 30,000-foot level, as opposed to constantly occupying their thoughts with the details. In other words, viewing the distractibility associated with ADD/ADHD in a new light may play a significant role in reducing the amount of stress and tension caused by the condition.
Timothy Wilson is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia and the author of Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change. In this book, he argues that people have the power to change their lives by creating new narratives about their experiences and behavior. Professor Wilson refers to this practice as “story editing,” and it holds out a lot of hope for couples whose relationships are affected by ADD/ADHD.
One way in which wives whose husbands have ADD/ADHD can “edit” the story is to focus on the fact that distractibility does not mean their husbands do not love them or do not care. Instead, focusing on the idea that ADD/ADHD is the result of neurobiological differences in the brain can help diffuse many of the strong emotions associated with certain behaviors. It helps to create an atmosphere of acceptance and solution-seeking, rather than blaming and finger-pointing.
A word of caution, crafting a new narrative takes time and guidance. It has to ring true to all parties. As such, it pays to approach a counselor who focuses on narrative therapy in order to gain the most out of this strategy.
Finally, both wives and husbands should understand that life with ADD/ADHD represents the ultimate flex-time experience. Men with ADD/ADHD will most likely never fit into the traditional 9 – 5 role. The good news is that the world of work appears to be permanently shifting away from that model in favor of a much more flexible arrangement. Furthermore, men with ADD/ADHD offer a number of positive qualities, often overlooked but useful and nevertheless necessary to many career choices.
One of those positive qualities is creativity. Others include the desire for action, change, speed and fun. Properly channeled, these qualities can result in any number of positive outlets, such as art, music, computers and even extreme sports. Scott L., who lives outside Albany, New York, spent his entire childhood being told he was somehow abnormal because his ADD/ADHD made it impossible for him to sit still in the classroom. However, he channeled his energy into mountain biking and today owns a specialty bike store and frequently sponsors racing competitions.
In the end, wives who help their husbands discover and tap into and channel their inner passion will often find that the distractibility diminishes once these men have found their true path. In its place, they just may find themselves married to the happy, passionate and successful man of their dreams.
Posted by David Ordan