Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Love Means Saying You're Sorry

This month's insights on Adult ADHD and relationships come from psychologist Ari Tuckman, with two excerpts from his book More Attention, Less Deficit: Success Strategies for Adults with ADHD. Enjoy, and please join in with your comments on these topics!  -- Gina Pera

By Ari  Tuckman, Ph.D.
It's been said that if one person in a relationship has ADHD, then the other person kind of has it, too. The one person’s ADHD affects not only how he interacts with his romantic partner, but also his ability to meet his practical obligations in the relationship, like getting to dinner on time and picking up after himself. This can lead to some predictable and interesting dynamics between the two people as they work to find a better way. Every couple faces their own challenges, but a relationship where one person has ADHD will tend to face certain kinds of challenges—and benefit from certain kinds of strategies.
          It’s important to remember that when it comes to improving your relationships and friendships or reducing the effect that your ADHD has on them, you don’t need to strive for perfection. Often, some partial improvements are enough to make things much better and create a situation where your positive qualities outweigh the negative feelings the other person has about your ADHD-based behaviors. Of course, you may also decide that you’re tired of trying to be something you aren’t and make some choices about who you interact with. Some other people may be much more appreciative of your good qualities and much more tolerant of your negative ones.
          I use the word relationship broadly to refer to interactions of all kinds: family member, friend, coworker, boss, for example, so it doesn’t apply just to romantic relationships. Besides, a lot of the same rules apply to all of these. Usually romantic relationships intensify feelings and thoughts that we can keep simpler in other relationships.
         Below are two excerpts from my book
More Attention, Less Deficit: Success Strategies for Adults with ADHD:, drawn from Chapter 15: Relationships and Friendships: Strive for Balance

  1. True Intimacy Means Hearing the Bad News, Too: Intimate relationships require us to deal with both the good as well as the bad. This makes them more difficult, but ideally also makes us better people for it.
  2. The Value of a Good Apology: Since everyone blows it sometimes, we could all benefit from knowing how to give a really good apology. It may not change what happened, but it can change how the other person feels about it.
True Intimacy Means Hearing the Bad News, Too

For better or worse. Ideally, relationships have more good moments than bad, but conflict, anger, frustration, and disappointment are an inherent part of relationships and life. It’s only in the movies that we see just the good parts of romance (if we got enough of that in our real lives, we wouldn’t have to go to the movies). So the challenge is to find a way to deal with these other emotions in a manner that doesn’t interfere too much with enjoying the good parts of the relationship.

          If you’re the one with ADHD, it’s easy to focus on the troubles that you contribute to the relationship, but you’re still only half of it. Your partner also plays a part and contributes both to the problems and the potential solutions.
          If your goal is to have a strong relationship that lasts over time, then you need to be able to be honest with each other. This means not just the good news, compliments, and things that you agree on, but also the bad news, criticisms, and disagreements. Every relationship will have them—even the ones where neither person has ADHD. If one person does have ADHD, then it’s easy to make that look like the biggest problem. It’s a great smoke screen that hides all the other problems.
          Psychologist and relationship expert David Schnarch, Ph.D., has a saying that I use a lot—the sign of a good relationship is that it forces you to become a better person. That is, our partners push us to deal with our issues and bad habits and hopefully rise above them. By contrast, being overly tolerant of our partner’s issues is actually a disservice—being an enabler, in AA lingo. So being forced to deal with your ADHD is a favor. So is forcing your partner to deal with her reaction to your ADHD. We may not always like what we hear, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t good for us to hear it.
          Of course, working on your delivery is a way to make it more likely that your message will be received by your partner the way you intend it. This is another place where we can all work on becoming a better person—not just dealing with our own issues, but also in sharing our perceptions about our partners’ issues in a constructive way. If there’s too much anger behind your delivery, it distracts from the real point and makes it too easy for your partner to justify not hearing what you’re saying.

"Being forced to deal with your ADHD is a favor. So is forcing your partner to deal with her reaction to your ADHD. We may not always like what we hear, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t good for us to hear it."
          Your or your partner’s ADHD may be the thing that starts you really looking at the relationship, but it won’t be where it ends. No relationship is so simple that the only problem is someone’s ADHD. No one is that lucky.
          Of course, if we want people to be honest with us, then it’s our responsibility to be sure that we handle their honest comments appropriately. Truth is earned—that is, if you want people to continue to be honest with you, then you need to react well when they tell you what you don’t want to hear.
          If you react badly or use the information against them later, they have no reason to be good enough to be honest next time. Everybody loses then. So strive for something better. Work on really hearing what these other people are saying. It doesn’t mean that you have to agree with it all (you won’t), but you at least should listen. This becomes a matter of integrity—I want to be the kind of person who can handle bad news. I also want to be able to say that I’ve done my best to make this a better relationship.

The Value of a Good Apology
We all blow it sometimes. If you have untreated ADHD, it probably feels as if you blow it a lot. Treatment can improve your batting average, but you’ll still never attain perfection. The ability to give a good apology is a great skill to have, regardless of who you are, so let’s talk about it. It isn’t as simple as saying you’re sorry. In fact, a lousy apology can actually make things worse.
         In order to apologize for something, you first need to be aware that you’ve done something wrong. It’s possible that something happened that you weren’t aware of. Or perhaps the other person interpreted events differently than you did and feels hurt by it. You may not know what exactly happened, but you may get a sense from the other person’s mood or actions that something happened.
          This is the time to show concern and start asking questions—it isn’t your responsibility to make the other person tell you, but it is your responsibility to ask. At least if you ask, you can’t be faulted for not trying to make the situation better. Of course, if you want to increase the odds that the other person will tell you, you need to be known as someone who handles these sorts of things well, rather than getting defensive, flipping out, or making things worse.
          Once we’re aware of what we did, we need to deal with it within ourselves before we can say anything to the other person. It feels bad to make a mistake or realize that we hurt someone.
          If it feels as if this happens too often or we keep making the same mistakes, it’s easy to get down on ourselves and either put up defenses or crumble into embarrassment. At these times, we may be so overwhelmed with our own feelings that we can’t possibly deal productively with the other person’s feelings. So the first step in an apology is to calm our own reaction so we can see beyond our own needs. It may take some time to do this, so we may need to come back afterward to clean things up—better late than never.
          Since ADHD behaviors are so easily misinterpreted by other people, part of the apology may also involve reinterpreting the behavior—“I really do value your time, but it’s really hard for me to run on time. It always has been.” It’s important that the other person not personalize the ADHD behavior—as in, you did this to her because you don’t care enough. That just adds fuel to the fire. Others will be much more forgiving if you come across as genuinely concerned and well intentioned. They may still not be thrilled with you all the time, but they won’t get as angry about it.When you do blow it and need to apologize, remember to take the following steps:
  1. Admit what you did wrong. Be honest and thorough; minimizing it will probably only make things worse.
  2. Recognize the impact on the other person. Helping the other person feel understood will go a long way.
  3. Say what you will (try to) do differently in the future. I feel that an apology inherently contains a promise to not repeat the problematic behavior. Otherwise, it can come across as something of a free pass. Of course, you shouldn’t promise what you can’t deliver, so you may need to acknowledge that it will probably happen again, but you will do your best to minimize it. No one can ask you to do more than that.
  4. Make amends, if necessary. There are times when it’s best if you fix whatever the problem is, such as replacing something you lost. Other times, a token gesture can soothe ruffled feelings, such as doing someone a small favor or buying someone a drink.
          There are times when someone else feels hurt but we don’t feel that we’re responsible for it or we didn’t do what she is accusing us of. Generally the best approach to take in these situations is to acknowledge her feelings and say that you’re sorry that she feels bad. You shouldn’t accept responsibility for something you don’t think you did, because that’s potentially as problematic as denying what you did do. You might say something along the lines of, “I’m sorry that messed up your day, since that really wasn’t my intention. I’m pretty sure that I left you that message, but if I didn’t, I’m sorry.
          You may not have tons of control over your ability to do all the right things at the right times, but you do have the ability to fix things afterward. Remember that the hallmark of a good relationship is resilience—the ability to rebound from trouble spots. In fact, it’s that ability that gives us real confidence in the relationship and the other person. We’re judged only partly by our actions, but mostly by our intentions—a good apology may not change the action, but it can reveal the intention.

Your comments are welcome and appreciated. 
Ari Tuckman, Ph.D., MBA, is a psychologist in private practice in West Chester, Pennsylvania.  He has written two books on Adult ADHD: More Attention, Less Deficit: Success Strategies for Adults with ADHD  and Integrative Treatment for Adult ADHD: A Practical, Easy-to-Use Guide for Clinicians. To learn more about Dr. Tuckman's books and listen to his podcast, visit http://adultadhdbook.com/


  1. For me, finding peace in my relationship involves saying sorry before it becomes a bigger issue. I interrupt and change topics a lot. My partner used to get frustrated easily with me. But now, I'm more likely to notice when I've derailed a conversation and apologize even before he can complain. As a result, he's less likely to feel helpless and frustrated, and now I have more leeway.

  2. As you mentioned, an apology implies that you intend to do something differently. Is it best to delay the apology until you think of a strategy you haven't tried? If so, what should you say in the moment (e.g. when you're arriving late to a friend's dinner)?

  3. Hi Glen,

    I think it's always best to get to the apology sooner than later. :-)

    For one thing, you might forget. For another, it will prevent simmering resentment on your friend's part. And finally, it will remind you that it's all about progress, not perfection. That is, you don't have to wait until your late arrivals are a thing of the past in order to acknowledge and apologize.

    If it's a tardy arrival to a dinner, I'd say apologize on the spot and, if this a chronic issue with you, acknowledge that and say you are working on a strategy.

  4. I live with two ADHDers. Since ADHDers know what they are supposed to do but don't always do what they know, I would hope that anyone with this level of understanding of the condition will also know that the ADHDer will already feel ashamed, guilty and sorry for the slights. No reason to make someone feel even more guilty by expecting an apology. We all need more tolerance, patience, love and understanding in all relationships!

  5. I saw "Now What?!" tonight -- the live production by the makers of "ADD and Loving It?!" There's a segment where, among other things, they say the most important thing is "Never apologize!" Their next bit of advice is -- "apologize". Their point is: never apologize for WHO you are, but always apologize for poor behavior that affects others. Not only is it wonderful for all the good reasons described by Dr Ari Tuckman, i.e. for improving relationships, but taking ownership of one's mistakes is empowering.

  6. Hi Steve,

    Thanks for reporting in from "Now What?!" -- the live production from the Totally ADD folks, in collaboration with CHADD. You are so lucky to have had the show in your backyard!

    Succinct summary, and I completely agree.

  7. I had to be reminded (a LOT) as a child to apologize. Now that I am an adult I tend to apologize "too much." My thinking is so abstract that I apologize for things that *I* believe slighted someone but in reality bruised no feelings. I've started a "sorry jar" that I put money into when I've apologized for something ridiculous. It helps to visually illustrate to me exactly how many times I am silly and as a result I have started apologizing more for the things I should and less for the things I shouldn't. The result: my apologies are seen as more sincere which has made my relationships that much better. Woo!

  8. Hi CEJ,

    I love that. Your experience is no doubt very common.

    In fact, a female friend with ADHD was worried that she had offended me because I hadn't responded right away to an e-mail. Nothing she'd said was offensive, but living for 40 years not knowing that she had ADHD must have taught her to be hypervigilant about the ways in which she was unintentionally offending.

    On the other extreme was my late-diagnosis husband, who would NEVER apologize. For anything. (This was pre-diagnosis as well as post-diagnosis but pre-treatment.). When I'd tell him how much that X behavior/comment hurt me and how aberrant it was not to apologize, he finally explained, "Look, if I apologized for everything I do wrong or that upsets people, I would spend all of my day apologizing, and that's just a waste of time."

    That sounded honest to me, and it was. He had developed the coping strategy of not apologizing.

    As treatment progressed, he could start discerning when to apologize and when it was unnecessary. Mostly though. he did fewer things that required apologies!

    Thanks for sharing your story.


  9. 4 me, whenever i apologize or offer a most sincere effort to correct any wrongs i've done - real or imagined by her - after the damage 15+ years ago that i did, NOTHING i say is accepted as sincere or real. ALL apologies are wasted efforts. she neither forgives nor believes any newly concerted efforts or progress on my part. so Y bother anymore???

    too darned depressed for all my efforts & sincerity for the past 5+ years to B shot down all the time & called nothing or empty...

  10. I'm sorry to hear you're in that situation.

    One thing I've learned about ADHD and relationships, it requires a great deal of empathy, compassion, and intelligence to forgive past hurts and develop new, more positive ways of relating.

    Not everyone has these qualities in the necessary abundance, sad to say. And, for some, the hurts run so deep and the damage so extensive (lost houses or retirement funds, constant feelings of being unloved or blamed), it can take a concerted effort to move through.

    I hope you can continue your progress on your own, seeking encouragement from a therapist or Adult ADHD group.

  11. Being very new to the thought of ADD/ADHD my marriage is severe jeopardy. My question is after 20 years together and 16 of them married, your significant other says she just can't take it anymore and wants out. I have brought up the topic of ADD/ADHD several times but it always seemed to me that she thought is was just a cop out. Since she asked me to leave this last time (2 weeks ago) I decided to go on my own to a doctor and am meeting with another next week for a second opinion because I don't want this to be a scape goat for me. However the original doctor says he is positive and prescribed me 20mg of Ritalin. My wife says she is so done and doesn't think she can be there to help me through as a partner. She thinks I am putting too many eggs in this cop out basket. Is there any advice on how I can save this marriage? I will start therapy on Tuesday and my next appointment with a doc is Thursday. I have asked her to come with me to the second and she hesitantly said she doesn't know if she can do that.

    1. To Anonymous and Ronnie-
      Thank you for your apologies, you both sound very sincere to me. I'm thanking you on behalf of all the spouses of ADHD partners who have never heard any apologies, and never will. Instead, their partners choose to remain in denial and focus the blame on the non-ADHD partner. Those wives of yours dont know how lucky they are- no matter what the outcome of the marriage. They have healing that I will never experience. Instead,after 32 yrs, my husband chose divorce and heartache for the family, including four children. I apologized to HIM because I did not realize what he was dealing with all these years. I had just read Gina's book. And this was after 30 years of trying to keep it all together while enduring his cruelty and derision. But i never heard one "I'm Sorry" for the pain caused by his ADD, or even an acknowledgement that he had it. I'm thinking it's not ADD that has brought this tragedy about, but the denial of it. And a lack of courage, the kind that makes a person look within rather than blame someone they used to cherish and love. It's only been a year and the pain is so deep. If there was only the tiniest acknowledgement of his role in what has happened. Especially his refusal to seize the opportunity that Gina offered through her book. I cried for days after reading it.

  12. Hi Ronnie,

    I responded to your similar question on another post.


  13. I think behavioral understanding is very important when we are living with an ADHD life partner. I think it’s not a big deal to make a good relationship with an ADHD life partner. My friend Jack is an ADHD patient and he is still living with his wife, just only because of that his wife understands the situation of his. We have many expert and professional who are giving us medication for ADHD in adults, like: Gina Pera.

  14. You really make it seemm so eаsy ԝith your presеntation but
    I finbd this topic to be realⅼy something that I hink I would never ᥙnderstand.
    It seems too ϲomplicated and extremely broad for me. I am loοkіng foгward for your neѕt post, I'll tryy to gеt the
    hang of it!

  15. My brother recommended I might like this web site. He was totally right.
    This post truly made my day. You can not imagine simply how much time I had spent
    for this info! Thanks!

  16. Touche. Sound arguments. Keep up the great spirit.

  17. This is really interesting, You are a very skilled blogger.
    I have joined your rss feed and look forward to seeking more of your great post.
    Also, I've shared your site in my social networks!


Thank you for your comment. To receive any responses by e-mail, click the "subscribe" link just below this box.