My Fellow Distractoids,*

Are you and a loved one living too much (or all) of the time in a negative feedback loop of reactivity and anger? Are you living in a relationship where there is chronic anger and stress?

Today I want to talk about a common pattern found in relationships between ADHD and non-ADHD partners. Call it the ACTION (or NON-ACTION) – REACTION – REACTION – REACTION rut.

MASTERS OF DISTRACTION see the miscommunication likely present in this pattern, and they take steps to end the cycle. DISTRACTOIDS stay in the pattern, digging deeper and deeper ruts.

Let’s break down an example —

  1. Action — I impulsively blurt something insensitive while my spouse is speaking.
  2. Reaction — He/She takes offense and angrily tells me that I am a rude, nasty person.
  3. Reaction — Under attack and ashamed of myself, I shut down and clam up.
  4. Reaction — Feeling unheard, my spouse turns up the volume and yells at me that I amnot only rude but clueless and unapologetic. Maybe she asks me if I am an adult or a 5-year old (and I shut down even more, etc.).

Sound familiar? So what the hell is really going on?

ACTION — Yes, I blurted something out, but that’s part of impulsivity aspect of my ADHD. Sometimes, despite not wanting to, I get excited and talk over people. I didn’t mean to say anything rude; it just came out the wrong way. And I really am sorry. In truth, though I might have had an awkward moment, I am not a rude, nasty person. (Note: this could also be a non-action, like …. Ummmm … failure to take out the trash.)

REACTION — Instead of looking at my blurting for what it is, a symptom of ADHD, my spouse judges me harshly and attributes my ADHD symptom to a negative character trait, i.e. that I am rude and nasty. The judgment, though seemingly logical, is based on misunderstanding my behavior.

REACTION — I want to take back what I said. I want to apologize. But now I physically can’t do that. Why? Suddenly my brain is no longer working. I am super-anxious and at a loss for words. The reason is that I’ve had a shame reaction and my brain has been flooded with fight/flight/freeze neurotransmitters. I can no longer communicate effectively because my thoughts and memory are locked up.

REACTION — My spouse misinterprets my involuntary sudden shut-down and withdrawal as willful avoidance, not caring, maybe even not loving her/him. Again, the reaction looks and seems logical, but is based on the misperception that I still have control of all my faculties when in reality I do not. As I retreat and withdraw in an effort to overwhelmed, emotionally flooded-out system, my spouse more aggressively pursues in order to connect and be heard.

As you can see, the pattern is reactive and self-reinforcing. It’s a pattern of pursuit on the part of the non-ADHD partner and retreat by the ADDer. It very often can take on the characteristics of parent-child type dynamics.

So what do you do?
1. Recognize that you and your partner have very different brains that perceive things and communicate in very different ways.

2. Wipe the slate clean. Know that ADHD-related miscommunication, not character flaws and incompatible personalities, is the culprit here. (I will say more about this in another post.

3. Make a firm resolution to engage and try to communicate when either of you is triggered and upset. This will likely go nowhere.

4. Make a firm resolution to set up a regular time and place to talk when both of you are feeling calm and relatively free of conflict. Make sure these conversations are focused and free of distractions. And that they are a time when both of you can “speak from the heart.”

5. When you talk, do so in a mindful, respectful, non-judgmental fashion. Ask questions that will lead you to a full understanding of what your significant other is going through. (I will have more to say about communication in another post.)

The idea is to replace dysfunctional, damaging, and hurtful communication with effective, respectful, useful communication and to raise the level of empathy and understanding on both sides. It’s a lot easier for two good people to fall into this destructive pattern than it is for them to get out of it. But it will be worth it.

-Coach Drew

*NOTE: I am greatly indebted to the writing of Melissa Orlov for the ideas and information in this post. I highly recommend her books.