Dear Dr NerdLove,
You have written eloquently about the ways ADHD has affected your life and your relationships. I find myself feeling a great deal of anxiety and insecurity at a rather late stage in my relationship with my ADHD wife, whom I started dating 21 years ago and married 17 years ago. I’ve thought about some incidents which, if they involved anyone else, might indicate a lack of care for me, or even an attraction to someone else. I know you can’t say for sure what these things mean, but maybe you can help me frame them better, and not take them so personally.
First, the good part. When my wife and I met, it was virtually love at first sight. We were like heat seeking missiles. Within a short time, we were inseparable. We had a great sex life and were explicit about wanted to get married. 20 years later we are still in love, have children, and still have a very good sex. We have been faithful to each other and there has never been a time when we have come close to breaking up.
Here are the incidents that are bothering me:
1. The disappearing act. One Saturday a few months into our relationship I had plans to have dinner with my father. My then girlfriend made plans to see some friends. I learned that their plans were to go to a singles bar (friends were unattached and looking for hook-ups). This made me uncomfortable so I asked my girlfriend to go to dinner with me instead, but she refused. I pressed, saying that I would be done with dinner by 8:00, and didn’t want to miss spending the night with her. She insisted that she didn’t want to miss spending it with me either, and suggested that we meet at my place at 8:30, after dinner. I came home after dinner and waited, and waited and waited. At 9:00 I called her cell, but there was no answer. I called her all night, but she never picked up and never called me. She finally rolled in at 2:00 am, happy as a clam, unaware that she was even in trouble. She said she left her phone in her car, had forgotten to come home, and just didn’t think of calling me. Her story was that she really did just sit there talking to her friends for 6 hours. She apologized profusely. I raked her over the coals – she was in tears. In the end she acknowledged how bad this was and I forgave her. Now, 20 years later, she has no memory that this ever happened. That makes me even more suspicious.
2. Not getting the picture. 3 months into our relationship my wife found a box of old pictures at the bottom of my closet that included 15 years worth of pictures of my life with my first (ex) wife. The box had been moved from my former marital home- I never went through it and decided to keep or discard these pictures- they were just there. My then relatively new girlfriend flipped out. She demanded that I destroy all images of my ex, along with all pictures of trips I went on with her. She lectured me on how important to our relationship this was- especially if we were to marry and have kids- and the said that she had already destroyed all of her pictures of her ex-boyfriend- someone she had dated for 2 years- in a bonfire, no less! I complied, and destroyed the pictures while she watched over me.
Fast forward 20 years. While moving some books around, I came across some photo albums that I know my wife bought about a year after the incident with my pictures. I opened them to see what was in them and found dozens of pictures of her ex boyfriend, and a whole album of pictures from a trip she took with him. Most of these pictures were incidental- he just happened to be in them- but a few were extremely romantic, including a “lovebirds” picture of her wrapping herself around him and snuggling her cheek into his shoulder. I looked around some more (I was freaked out by the albums) and found a box in our basement with what appeared to be the pictures she chose not to put in the album, including about 8 couples pictures of her with her ex.
Finding these pictures shocked me and caused me to have a panic attack. I knew she wasn’t secretly in love with her ex, and I know that these albums and the box had been out, for me to look at at any time, not kept secretly in an underwear drawer. She obviously made the album without any thought of making me destroy my pictures a year before, and somehow without any recognition of the impact on me of seeing that use has put romantic pictures of her ex into an album she made over a year into our relationship. Not surprisingly, my wife has no memory whatsoever of making these albums or of putting the pictures in the box. She has no idea why she did this, or why she failed to destroy them. Hardest for me, she is angry at me for being upset about what she did, and hasn’t really shown any remorse about it at all, even though she effectively broke her word and a very important commitment. She acts as if her younger self who did this is a different person- not her now- and she isn’t accountable for what this young woman did. I had to make her destroy the picture of her ex. She didn’t offer to destroy the trip pictures; awhile later I made her destroy those too.
3. Nailed to the wall. My wife was a collector of ceramic tiles. She would pick them up whenever we traveled to places. When we bought our house, she out them up on our wall. They are like a travel montage – each from a different place. One day I noticed that one of the tiles was from the home country of my wife’s ex boyfriend (he was a foreigner), a place my wife has never been. I asked her what it was and she said it was a gift from him. Then it hit her what she had done. I blew up and made her throw out the tile. She had put it up with apparently no recognition that she was memorializing her ex-boyfriend on the wall of her marital home. It was a tile with the name of his country written on it. It may as well have been his name written on it. I can’t believe she could put a memento of her ex boyfriend on our wall without realizing how offensive to me and to our marriage it was.
There are many other examples of thoughtless, inconsiderate behavior, including instances where I swear she literally has forgot that I existed. My rational brain tells me that none of this is intentional and that none of it means she doesn’t love me, or that she isn’t over her ex. (She says she hasn’t even thought about him in 20 years.)
But I’ve entered a stage, triggered by finding those albums, where these things are getting to me. I’m worried that maybe she hooked up with me on the rebound. I’m worried that I misperceived her feelings for me. I’m worried that my ADHD girlfriend may have done something impulsive the night she disappeared and has chosen not to tell me the truth about it.
You can’t read her mind or know the facts about these situations, but you know what it feels like to have an ADHD brain. Can you give me some perspective? Could the disappearing night just be distraction? We’re the pictures and the tile just hyperfocus? I’m hurting right now and want a way to see these things in a less threatening way.
Coping with ADHD partner
Well I see we’re going to be having another day of “the problem you have is not the problem you think you have” here at NerdLove Industries.
OK, CWAP, strap in, this is going to be a rough one.
We’ll start by talking a little about how ADHD affects people and – importantly – its interaction with memory. One of the things that people often don’t realize is that there is more than one type of ADHD. We tend to think of ADHD as being a case of someone who’s so wound up they can’t sit still or who’s so easily distracted that the slightest thing will set them off, like the golden retriever from Up. While that’s one form of ADHD, another common form is what’s called inattentive-type ADHD, where people have a harder time focusing on tasks and forget seemingly important things. They’ll lose things frequently, have difficulty following or remembering instructions and will frequently seem to just… not pay attention.
Now, this sounds a lot like what your wife has. However, ADHD in general is tied to memory issues, especially short term and working memory. It helps to think of working memory as being a little RAM in a computer; data gets uploaded to RAM while in use, then returned to – or pasted into – long-term storage. People who have ADHD have issues with their working memory making the transfer to long-term storage. This is why people with ADHD seem so careless, absentminded or forgetful; the short-term memory simply doesn’t make the transfer to storage. This means that, among other things, folks with ADHD will frequently forget about instructions, dates, appointments, deadlines and so on. Sometimes this can even be immediate; someone will mention setting up a get together on a particular day and time and the person with ADHD may as well have just heard a dial tone for all that it got stored in long-term memory.
The short-term memory issues can also affect things like object permanence or even simply seeing things. One of the clues that someone has ADHD is often a tendency for items to fade into the background as soon as they put them down. Even if it’s in the most obvious and unmistakable place possible, if you have ADHD, it can be like you put the thing down and then it immediately glitched out of the universe for all that you can look directly at it and not see it.
Similarly, while the exact mechanism isn’t known yet, ADHD can affect things like long-term memory performance and even the sense of the passage of time. Speaking from my own experiences, not only do I have issues with remembering the exact dates (or even the year) that events happened – even seemingly momentous events – but friends can bring up stuff we did together years ago that I literally have no memory of. It can be supremely annoying under the best of circumstances. If you’re someone who doesn’t know they have ADHD or how that affects memory, it can be terrifying.
With this information in mind, much of your wife’s behavior makes sense. It’s completely understandable that she would’ve forgotten her phone, that she would’ve forgotten plans that she’d made – especially if she made them that day – and lost track of time because she was having a good time hanging with her friends. This isn’t a matter of not respecting you or your time or your relationship enough to remember; it’s that the mechanism in her brain that allows her to remember things is faulty. If she didn’t have a diagnosis at that point, wasn’t on medication yet or wasn’t on medication that actually worked for her, this is entirely understandable. It’s frustrating to be sure – believe me, it’s frustrating to experience – but it’s understandable. So is the fact that she doesn’t seem to remember this at all. This is a very common experience for folks with ADHD, myself included.
The same goes for things like the tile on the wall or her photo album; odds are good that shortly after those were put into place – on the wall or in the attic – she quite literally forgot they were there. She may well literally not see the tile or attach particular significance to it that would last beyond it leaving her eyeline. If you have ADHD, “out of sight, out of mind” is a very real and quite literal phenomena.
So yes, everything you describe – the forgetfulness, the object impermenence, the not having any memory of a particular event or time… those are all very typical of inattentive or combination-type ADHD.
All that having been said…
HOLY HOPPING SHEEP SHIT dude, I don’t know if you’ve realized what you wrote but you do not cover yourself in glory, here. Your girlfriend – now wife – definitely had issues that having ADHD have made worse but you have decidedly not helped things. Like, fucking hell dude, you’re pushing her to change her plans with her friends because you don’t like where they’re going? Demanding that she come spend time with you instead of her pals because going to a bar made you uncomfortable? Yelling at her afterwards for not following through with the thing that you shouldn’t have been pushing for in the first place? “Raking her over the coals” over your goddamn insecurity? What – and I can’t stress this enough – the actual fuck, my dude. That is a deeply, deeply shitty thing to do to someone you supposedly cared for and trusted. If you had no reason other than your own insecurity to believe that she was going to get up to sketchy shit at the bar with the girls, then that was very much a you problem, not a her problem and it was – and apparently still is – on you to sort out your trust issues.
Now, her flipping the fuck out over the photos of your ex-wife was also very not cool. I can understand what triggered that – rejection-sensitive dysphoria, where the fear of rejection is dialed up to 11 and then snaps the knob clean off is a comorbidity of ADHD and other disorders – but that shit isn’t acceptable either. I’ve had my own lifelong struggles with RSD symptoms, and I’ve managed to avoid demanding that people destroy all evidence that they had previous relationships. I can understand the trigger (now, anyway) but that doesn’t change the fact that behavior was unacceptable from her. It was disrespectful, it was unwarranted and deeply shitty of her and honestly, it would’ve been grounds for dumping her on the spot.
However, her shittiness there – and again, it was shitty and out of line of her – doesn’t make it acceptable when you turn around and do the exact same thing decades later. This isn’t really a case where turnabout is fair play; this is a sterling example of “two wrongs don’t make a right”. It was shitty of her to demand that you destroy those photos. However, I would’ve hoped that maybe that experience – the unfairness of it, the frustrating resentment of someone you care for not trusting or believing you – might trigger some empathy and understanding from you when you were on the other side of the experience. Instead, you freaked out again and were actively cruel for no goddamn good reason other than “she did it first”.
And seeing as both of you are grown-ass adults, that grade-school excuse doesn’t fly.
Same with your losing your shit about a tile on the wall from a trip she took with her ex. Fucking hell, man, get some goddamn perspective here. You had a past and an ex-wife. You, presumably, didn’t undergo some Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind treatment where you erased even the memory of having been with your ex-wife after your divorce. Having those photos from your relationship didn’t mean that you were “memorializing” your past relationship at the expense of your present one. The same goes for your wife. She had a past. She had lovers before you. She may well still have fond memories of them and of the time spent with him… or she may have kept that plate because while she may not have fond memories of him, she had fond memories of that trip and didn’t stuff those memories into an oubliette because she broke up with him or did some Stalinist rewriting of her own history.
But here’s the thing: you don’t want her to erase those memories. Everything she did with her ex, everything she experienced with him and felt while she was with him? Not only are those the things that ultimately lead to her being with you and not her ex, but all of those experiences are what made her who she was when you met her and fell in love with her.
People are allowed to have exes, my dude. People are allowed to have fond memories of exes, of things they did with those exes and the experiences they had with them. Those aren’t a threat to you, they don’t diminish her feelings for you, nor do they take away from the relationship you have now. It would be one thing if she had photos of her and her ex snuggled up together all over the house and was rubbing your nose in it or giving you reason to believe that she wasn’t over him. I could understand being upset or anxious if her ex were still in the picture and were actively interfering in your relationship. I could understand it if she’d cheated on you with him and kept souveniers from the times when she did.
But a fucking photo album tucked in with other books (that apparently hadn’t been touched in years), more photos forgotten and buried in other shit in the attic, and a goddamn commemorative plate? Your reaction isn’t just disproportionate to the offense, it’s fucking unreasonable and borderline abusive.
I don’t know what truama you may be dealing with our what hang-ups you may have. I don’t know if your ex wife utterly fucked you over and left scars or what… but in this letter, you have demonstrated some deep seated insecurities and you’ve apparently been taking them out on your wife. While I can understand how not realizing how much ADHD can affect memory and behavior could amplify the anxiety factor, you don’t seem to trust your wife or your relationship at all and fly off the handle at her at the slightest provocation.
You, my dude, need to deal with your jealousy and control issues here. Maybe there’s some lingering resentment and fear from early on when it’s a little more understandable that your trust in someone wouldn’t have been as strong as it should be after 20 years. But if that’s the case, then that’s something you need to work out with a therapist – possibly a couple’s counselor too, but definitely on your own. Demanding that your partner destroy their property because it makes you insecure is deeply fucked, controlling and toxic behavior. It wasn’t right when she did it and it sure as fuck wasn’t right when you did it.
So yeah, ADHD fucks with memory and if it’s untreated it can cause irrational fears to make you do stupid shit. It can be intensely frustrating for the partners of people with ADHD, especially when it’s undiagnosed or untreated. But none of it justifies being shitty back, nor does it justify taking out your insecurities on her.
Hopefully she’s on medication that works for her and has learned new ways to manage her memory issues. YOU, however, need to get your own shit under control if you want to be a good partner and husband… to her or anyone else.