Some marital problems may have a surprising cause: attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. But are the problems even bigger if the disorganized, inattentive one is the wife?
Tara Parker-Pope writes in the Times Well blog that "the idea that attention problems can take a toll on adult relationships is getting more attention from mental health experts. In a marriage, the common symptoms of the disorder - distraction, disorganization, forgetfulness - can easily be misinterpreted as laziness, selfishness, and a lack of love and concern." Parker-Pope writes of a wife who struggled with her husband's ADHD ("I could never count on him"), but perhaps more interesting is a 52-year-old man's account of his long-term marriage to a woman recently diagnosed with the disorder:
He described a life of "crushing responsibility," of working full time, caring for his children and his wife, and maintaining the household and finances. "After years of this, I felt I didn't have two children, I had three children and no one to help," he said. "I was always the one who said, ‘No, we can't do that,' or ‘Get this done.' I had to be sort of a nag."
His wife's distractedness was particularly challenging when the children were young. "She could be in the room but paying no attention to what was going on," he said.
While a husband who forgets tasks or "retreat[s] to a computer or a video game" is in some ways conforming to stereotype, a wife who ignores her kids is a Bad Mom — potentially making it even harder for her to get help. Commenter Patricia writes,
I've had attention/distraction problems my whole life. I was the kid who was constantly staring out the window and daydreaming at school, and have always been horrible at keeping to routines, setting and following schedules, and meeting deadlines. But it wasn't until this year, at the age of 39, that I finally decided to seek treatment for my ADHD, and this was in large part because of the trouble it has been causing in my marriage. We constantly fight about my inability to stick to a schedule, my poor housekeeping skills, my tendency to "zone out" when under a lot of stress, and especially my problems with money. I think ADHD takes an even greater toll on adult relationships when the wife is the one with ADHD, rather than the husband. As women, we're supposed to be the ones who keep the household running smoothly, the ones who nag their husbands about not leaving stuff all over the place, etc. etc.
As Patricia notes, women are expected to be the custodians of both homes and relationships — they're the ones who are supposed to know what chores need to be done, and who are supposed to develop the interpersonal and managerial skills to ensure not only that the chores are finished but that everyone in the home is relatively happy. If a man becomes forgetful or emotionally unavailable or retreats into video games, it certainly puts a strain on the relationship — but at least there's a wealth of literature and conventional wisdom about how to deal with it. For women, there's less precedent — and when a woman is the "problem person" in a couple, she tends to be judged a lot more harshly. To turn this around, we obviously need better ADHD treatment for everyone — several couples Parker-Pope talked to said it helped them. But more broadly, perhaps if we understood maintaining a relationship as a partnership rather than as women's work, both parties would have an easier time — especially if one has the added challenge of ADHD.
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