What To Do If Your Boyfriend Plays Possum!

ADHD Relationships Less Likely Have Effective Communication?

Working as a relationship counselor, I see patterns, and one of the most common is avoidance.

Working as a relationship counselor, it's easy to see patterns, and one of the most common is for one partner to withdraw from the relationship emotionally yet to still play along as if everything is fine. It's like an emotional equivalent of 'playing possum,' and it is especially common in ADHD relationships.

While this experience is no walk in the park for the other person in the relationship who is trying to figure out what is going on, this behavior pattern is not necessarily intended to be hurtful. Just like the possum pretending to be dead until the danger is gone, this emotional withdrawal is also a self-defense mechanism for a vulnerable individual.

The basis for this relationship breakdown usually comes from two people who use different communication styles, especially when one is very opinionated, even critical, and the other is less talkative. In action, the clashing dynamic can be seen when something goes wrong in the relationship, and the first person would like to discuss what happened in detail, while the other person would rather forgive, forget, and let his or her changed behavior in the future do the talking.

The situation can become damaging when the talkative one wants to talk, a lot, about the relationship, and personal flaws, and analysis of how everything is going. For the less verbal person, all that talking starts to feel like a nightmare, especially when more and more of the conversation is devoted to personal criticism and nagging.

When the quieter person has ADHD, a sort of PTSD kicks in, recalling bad experiences from childhood and school of being scolded and always getting in trouble without meaning to. The ADHD person stops saying or doing anything—that way he or she can't get yelled at! Right? But the talkative person just analyzes and criticizes even more, because he or she can tell that the other is withdrawing, and that person's go-to problem solving technique is talking. It becomes a situation of, "I'm damned if I do and I'm damned if I don't."

So, what do you do when problem-solving discussions actually become the problem?

First, take a breather. It's no fun to be nagged, and it's no fun to become a nag. You need to call a truce and admit that both of you are feeling dissatisfied with the communication dynamics in the relationship right now. It's time for new rules about conversation, and it's time to incorporate non-verbal actions and activities that will heal your emotional bonds.

In terms of healthier discussion rules, it is very important for both of you to be able to say what you think, honestly, without the other person immediately going on the attack or twisting those words. A relationship counselor can make a huge difference in changing these conversation patterns for the better. Both people in this relationship have needs that aren't being met, and there is probably a lot of self-exploration to do. A relationship counselor will keep the discussion balanced and productive.

You both also need to develop a system of good listening. It's fair that the talker in the relationship gets to have his or her say, as long as the words aren't cruel, and the 'playing possum' person really listens. Likewise, the less-talkative person should be able to say, "I've reached my limit for today," and you both let the conversation stop there. You may also need ground rules, like no sarcasm or nagging, and both of you ask for rephrasing or more information before jumping to the wrong conclusion about the other person's words.

Outside of your word choices and communication techniques, you can rebuild your trust in and affection for each other by getting out in the world and doing things together. My clients have found success with activities like walking the neighborhood in the evening, joint exercising, going dancing, taking an art class, and cooking dinner together.

Remember, both people usually have the best intentions, and just want to get back to a place of having fun together. Be gentle with your loved one, and work together to make each other feel valued and heard.


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