Is your spouse forgetful? Maddeningly disorganized? The last one to leave the office each night? So distracted that you sometimes feel like waving your arms in the air and shouting, "I'm here! Notice me!"
You may be married to someone with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. ADHD is a term often applied to children who bounce around in the classroom and struggle to pay attention to the teacher. But the disorder exists in adults as well: About 4% of the U.S. adult population has it, according to the National Institute for Mental Health. And it can put profound strain on a marriage.
Only a qualified mental health professional can accurately diagnose ADHD. There are, however, some common symptoms that might send up red flags. Adults with ADHD may exhibit one or more of these behaviors:
-- Chronic distraction. "If you are trying to get your partner's attention and they seem unable to give it to you, that's a big indicator," said Melissa Orlov, a marriage consultant who specializes in working with couples with ADHD, and author of the book "The ADHD Effect on Marriage."
-- Lacking emotional self-regulation. "They might get really excited about something and their partner will say, 'Wait, let's look into the details. Is this really a good idea?'" said Gina Pera, author of "Is It You, Me, Or Adult A.D.D.?" Conversely, the same person might anger quickly, she said.
-- Broken promises surrounding household tasks. "You'll say, 'Honey, will you do X?' and he'll say, 'Sure, no problem,' and then X does not get done," Orlov said.
-- General disorganization. An adult with ADHD might struggle to make deadlines, prioritize tasks and get easily overwhelmed by demands, both at work and at home.
It's not the kind of relationship either partner originally imagined. "The partner says, 'You are lazy and selfish,'" Pera says. "The adult with ADHD says, 'You're controlling.' Both become resentful."
Steps a couple can take to help a relationship strained by ADHD
There are steps a couple can take to begin to restore a union damaged by ADHD, experts say. Here are some of them.
-- Declare a truce. "Acknowledge both of you were working in the dark and both of you were being undermined by this force," said Gina Pera, author of "Is It You, Me, Or Adult A.D.D.?"
-- Seek treatment and support. Look for a couples therapist who understands ADHD. Check out your local chapter of Children and Adults With ADHD, or CHADD. Find a psychiatrist who can effectively prescribe medication for ADHD. That may seem like a last-ditch, dramatic step, but Pera said it can actually be a critical first one. Kevin Ward, who works for a regulatory agency in New Jersey, saw a marked improvement in his life after he started taking medication for his ADHD. "Let's say we go to see a movie I'm interested in," he said. "Without meds, within hours I might struggle to recall many aspects of the movie. With meds, I could probably quote the script." His wife, Pat, said he arrives places on time and is markedly less forgetful now that he takes medication.
-- Write it down. Bill, who asked not to use his last name, is a real estate broker who's been diagnosed with severe ADHD. Although he's been taking medication for five years, he still drove his wife, Linda, crazy by putting off, or starting and not finishing, projects. He'd head to the grocery store and return with only impulse buys, not the milk she needed. Since they started meeting weekly with Melissa Orlov, a marriage consultant who specializes in working with couples with ADHD, they've agreed to create and keep to a schedule for household and business projects. And now he shops with a list in hand. "Things are getting done in a more harmonious way," he said.
-- Focus on fixing yourself, not your partner. "Contribute your own best self to your relationship," Orlov said. "You can start on that immediately."
-- Focus on today and tomorrow, not on yesterday. "It's a lot more relevant than stomping around in the undiagnosed ADHD portion of your relationship," Orlov said. Yes, some resentments may linger. You may not have all the pieces sorted out. But that's no reason to stop moving forward. "You don't have to meet a certain goal," Orlov said, "but you have to try your hardest."