ADHD, Marriage, and The New York Times, Part 2: Alvin? Alvin??! ALVIIIN!!!!

The word “Deficit” in “Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder” is seriously misleading. As any parent of a kid with ADHD will tell you, such children often have an astounding capacity for paying attention to something that happens to be immediately exciting, such as a video game.

The problem is that they have trouble paying attention to anything that’s not immediately exciting. Many ADHD kids, if you call their name while they are doing something they find exciting, will not even hear you.   Many are mistakenly sent for hearing evaluations before the real problem is identified.

It’s all there in the original Alvin and the Chipmunks

“Simon?”  “Yes, Dave.” (Simon does not have ADHD)

“Theodore?”   “Yes, Dave.” (Theodore does not have ADHD)

“Alvin?”   “Alvin?!”   ALVIIIN!!!!!” (Alvin has ADHD, and was busy thinking about something else.  So busy that he never noticed his name being called).

The Alvins of the world get yelled at a lot

A parent may do their best to be kind.   But when everyone is hurrying to get out the door for an important family event, except little Alvin who has his shoes off in front of a video screen, completely unaware of the time or of what’s going on around him – you’re going to hear some yelling.

My favorite kids’ book on ADHDJumpin’ Johnny, Get Back to Work, begins with six words:  “I just got yelled at again.” This book had me from page one.

Curiously, ADHD kids often don’t seem much affected by all the yelling that gets directed at them.   You ever see Alvin upset?   It often hardly seems to touch these kids at all.   Like Alvin, they’re often naturally spunky and resilient.   They can’t understand why everyone around them is so sensitive.

But over the years, such kids build a protective wall around themselves.    Using their natural ability to tune things out, they learn to tune out criticism.

Alvin grows up and gets married.

By the time they grow to adulthood, people with ADHD have often developed a great ability to compartmentalize emotions.  This can make them outstanding battlefield generals, trauma surgeons, and captains of industry.  But compartmentalization of emotions sinks many marriages.

Remember it’s not attention “deficit” at all.   It’s difficulty paying attention to anything that’s not immediately exciting.   And long-term partnerships, despite their many attractions, are often not immediately exciting.  ADHD individuals naturally tune out if things aren’t exciting — then use their acquired capacity to disconnect, in order to avoid the criticism that naturally follows.

A wife can feel lonely when her husband is so absorbed with his iPad that he doesn’t even hear her calling his name.    As this week’s New York Times piece by Tara Parker-Pope discussed, it’s a particular kind of loneliness that spouses of ADHD men know intimately.    Sooner or later, she’s going to want to express something to him about it.

When she does, it will feel familiar to him from his growing up.  And he’ll do what he’s learned to do in such situations, which is to tune out the criticism, in order to protect himself.     He’ll withdraw further into himself, just as he did when his parents used to get upset with him.

And this of course will get her even more angry.   She’ll end up yelling things at him that she never thought she’d say to anyone.

As a sex therapist and relationship therapist, I see this drama in my office all the time.

So you recommend . . . what?

I do believe it’s possible for Alvin and his wife to find happiness together.   But their path to a workable partnership may be different from the conventional path.    In subsequent blogs in this series, we’ll go into the details.

stephen snyder md author photo Stephen Snyder, MD

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