Love, Heartbreak

ADHD Relationships: Dealing With The Silent Treatment

Relationships: Dealing with the Silent Treatment of ADHD

It's a fact of romance that after a while, the mystery fades away. Well, when you're dating someone with ADHD, it might last longer than you think. This can be a good thing, enjoying the endless creativity and spontaneity of people with the ADHD brain type, which includes about 15 million Americans according to the CDC.

Then there's the bad kind of mystery. After the honeymoon period, right around the time of the first or second real argument in the relationship, things can change — fast. To put it plainly, there may come a point when your significant other with ADHD simply stops speaking. This can be totally painful and confusing, and no matter what you try, you probably won't have any luck dragging an explanation out of your loved one. The relationship will just implode.

So, what's really going on? Believe it or not, it is a pretty predictable cycle of communication. To understand it, you have to step back and consider the whole lifelong experience of living with ADHD. Since kindergarten, this person has been scolded, yelled at, punished and mocked, just for doing the things that feel natural to him or her. Without being clued in to what was happening, why the behavior was wrong, or why he or she was different from the other kids. Most ADHD'ers simply got slapped with labels like "bad" or "hyper" or "dumb," and knew the route to the principal's office by heart.

Flash forward a couple of decades and those scars run deep. As soon as someone they care about expresses anger or frustration, ADHD'ers overreact. Mentally, they go right back to elementary school, feeling confused and embarrassed as they're punished yet again. Instead of dealing with relationship issues through healthy, open discussion, ADHD'ers will go into self-protection mode, basically clamming up and playing dead. They know from experience when a relationship is starting to sour, and that's when they shut down.

It also bears noting that this communication pattern of closing down during confrontation is not unique to men or to people with ADHD. I've found it to be common for anyone who was repeatedly over-disciplined or publicly humiliated growing up.

To get past this hurdle in a relationship, the communication patterns need to change. You will need to work together, and the non-ADHD partner in particular should try to be extra understanding and patient. Follow these steps:

  1. The non-ADHD partner must put themselves in the ADHD partner's shoes. Understand that this is happening because of a painful pattern from his/her personal history. It may sound counterintuitive, but this behavior really isn't personally aimed at you.
  2. The non-ADHD partner must resist the urge to make assumptions about what the ADHD-partner is thinking. It's very frustrating that he or she has stopped talking, but don't put words in his or her mouth. Your imagination will jump to the worst conclusions, which isn't fair to either of you, and the disagreement will get way more tense.
  3. Acknowledge the situation for what it is. Tell your ADHD partner that you guys need to talk about your disagreement, but in a way that makes him or her feel safe. Nobody is getting punished or vilified. Calmly, and as neutrally as possible, explain where your head is at.
  4. Then — and this step is very important — explain what you assume your partner thinks, and ask if you're wrong or right. Give your partner the chance to explain his or her side of things. He or she will be relieved to get a glimpse into your train of thought and to correct any misconceptions.
  5. Once you've both given your honest opinions, find a way to compromise on the issue, so you both get what you want. Then do something fun to celebrate a new beginning, one of much healthier communication.

Once both of you get into a habit of explaining your motivations as soon as a confrontation begins, you will be amazed at how much easier it is to resolve disputes.

Best of all, your loved one will go back to being his or her usual, amazing self.