Jump directly to the Content

Dearly Distracted

If your spouse seems impulsive, unfocused and forgetful, Rick and Jeri Fowler may have a perfectly good explanation

Two years ago, Rick Fowler was invited to speak at a major seminar on Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). He's a licensed professional counselor who loves working with groups, so naturally he accepted. On the day of the seminar, Rick was puttering around in his Dallas-area horse barn when the phone rang in the house. Rick's wife, Jeri, answered. "Is Rick all right?" the caller asked. "We're waiting for him to lead our ADD seminar. We were worried that something had happened."

Something had happened. Rick's ADD caused him to forget he'd been invited to speak to a group about ADD. The Fowlers can joke about the seminar that didn't happen. But Rick's ADD—undiagnosed until they'd been married 15 years—has caused periods of heartache. Regularly he'd forget Jeri's birthday and their anniversary, and his anger and impulsive words and actions led to frequent conflict.

The Fowlers are co-authors of "Honey, Are You Listening?" How Attention Deficit Disorder Could Be Affecting Your Marriage (Thomas Nelson). Here is some of what they've learned about dealing with ADD.

In the years before Rick's ADD was diagnosed, did you suspect something wasn't right in your marriage?

Jeri: It was clear that we were opposites. I've always been orderly and well-organ-ized, while Rick is a nonconformist and a risk-taker. If I see a wall, he'll find a door. When we met in college, Rick really impressed me. He never knew a stranger. Plus he had a great sense of humor that could defuse tense situations.

Did you sense that Rick was extreme in any of those characteristics?

Jeri: Not really. But he did have traits, such as being impulsive, that bothered me. When we'd been married about five years, we both wanted a ski boat, but we couldn't afford one.
Rick: I came up with a way to make it happen: sell the diamonds out of Jeri's wedding ring. To me, a ring was a ring; I figured we could buy another one. I didn't recognize what it symbolized to her.

Jeri, did you point out the flaws in Rick's plan?

Jeri: If it had happened years later, I would have. But back then I didn't. Rick said that was the only way we could get the boat, and he was persuasive. When he gets motivated, he's a steamroller.
Rick: Back then, Jeri thought, "If I placate him then everything will be okay"—which, of course, wasn't true. I'd say, "How about doing this?" and she'd say, "Okay." I took that as "Let's do it."

Other than Rick's impulsiveness, how else did his ADD show up?

Jeri: His temper could flare up without warning. He'd say hurtful things without thinking how they would affect me. If he had a bad day at work, or if I spent money on something without discussing it with him, who knew what would happen?
Rick: So much of an ADD person's world is out of control that we need to have things under control as much as possible. Having ADD is like being trapped in a corner with somebody beating on you. You're going to kick and scratch, whatever it takes to get away.
The littlest things would trigger that feeling. If I'd come home and find the furniture had been rearranged, I might explode. Jeri thought I was angry at her, but I was reacting to my world being out of control. I wanted to know, at least, where the chairs would be sitting when I came home.

It must have been frustrating, since you didn't know ADD was behind the conflict.

Jeri: It was frustrating, but God also was using it to work in my life. When we'd been married about ten years, I learned something from Ephesians 4:15: " … speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ." God was teaching me that I needed to grow up, to be more honest before God and with Rick about my feelings. I realized that someday I was going to stand before the Lord. And God wasn't going to say, "Well, what did Rick do?" God was going to say, "What did you do, Jeri?"
God laid it on my heart that if I couldn't speak the truth to Rick, at least I could write it in letters. When I started to write down my thoughts, I could take the time to say it in a way that would be respectful and build Rick up.
Rick: Those letters helped a lot, because I couldn't interrupt her. She could get her complete feelings across.

How did you find out Rick had ADD?

Jeri: When our son, Chip, was five, we had him tested and found out he had ADD. The description of the condition not only described Chip, it also described Rick.

How did Rick's diagnosis help you come up with relationship solutions?

Rick: One of the biggest things we did was to set aside predetermined times to talk about disagreements—two 45-minute times each week. We still do it. Now when we disagree and I'm not understanding her, Jeri will say, "Rick, let's stop and focus. I've got to talk to you. Let me share what's going on between the lines."
If there's not going to be an immediate win-win compromise, one of us will say, "Let's talk about this at our Thursday meeting." That gives us a chance to mull things over, and it gives the person with the problem time to come up with a solution. When the meeting takes place, the person with the problem has to propose a solution that will work for both of us.

Jeri, what adjustments have you made to the way Rick approaches life?

Jeri: The biggest deciding factor in our relationship is my attitude. I don't see ADD as a handicap, I see it as a different way of looking at the world—and a chance for me to expand my horizons. Sometimes, Rick is impulsive, but I love his spontaneity. He's bold in trying new things, which is wonderful for someone like me who wants to play it safe. Working on his need for control is ongoing, but I love his determination. God works through all of Rick's strengths and weaknesses.

In your counseling practice, Rick, how do you help others with ADD?

Rick: There are three elements to work on: the cognitive aspect—how you think; the behavioral aspect—how you respond to things; and the medical dimension.
The cognitive aspect involves reprogramming the mind to deal with the feeling that things are out of control and to use self-talk when anger is building. It includes reminding yourself that you do have options, that you're not as trapped as you feel.
Another way to reprogram the mind is to put a value on the circumstances that upset you. I used to put a thousand-dollar price tag on nickel events. Now if I start to get angry about something Jeri said, I'll ask myself, "Is this a thousand-dollar issue or a nickel one?" Most of the time it's just a nickel issue, and recognizing that makes my anger subside.
After I get the situation in perspective, I think through my options. I realize exploding in anger won't solve the problem. That gives me control because I'm choosing how I'll react. And maintaining that control is important to a person with ADD.

Is ADD Affecting Your Marriage?

Only a competent counselor can correctly identify Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). And while a formal diagnosis is an immense step forward, it's helpful to first assess signs and symptoms. This quiz will help you determine whether ADD or an ADD-like condition might be affecting your marriage.

  1. I have trouble sitting quietly for an extended length of time. I need to be on the move.
  2. It's easy for me to lose interest in games, books or conversations.
  3. Sometimes people get upset with me and I have no idea why.
  4. I hate schedules and routines. I want to eat when I'm hungry and sleep when I'm tired.
  5. I usually have several projects going at once. I thrive on constant variety.
  6. I remember faces but tend to forget names.
  7. I can follow people in leadership positions who have my respect, but I don't like to submit to people just because they're in a position of authority.
  8. When I get excited about something, I can't sit still and stay focused.
  9. I easily get the big picture, but I don't care much about details.
  10. I believe in saying what I think, without worrying much about what is "nice" or socially acceptable.
  11. To me, "relax" means shifting gears and doing something different, not drifting into neutral.
  12. I get more done sprawled in a chair or sitting on the floor than I can at a desk.
  13. I often forget things that will be important later—walking out the door without my coat or keys, for instance.
  14. I forget, or consider trivial, things that my mate considers important. Stopping to pick up groceries, for example.
  15. I've been accused of interrupting too much and asking too many questions.
  16. People say I'm too inconsistent. I think they're overstating it.
  17. Risks are where it's at. They make life vivid.
  18. Activity around me or other thoughts frequently draw me away from the task at hand.
  19. People say my desk or work area is usually a mess, but I can generally find what I need.
  20. When something cries out to be done, I go ahead and do it--and worry about the consequences later.

Five or fewer checks suggests that neither ADD nor an extreme right-brain orientation are significant factors in your life.
More than five checks suggests that you or your mate might have an impulsive personality, possibly with the presence of some ADD signs and symptoms.
If either of you scored 11 or more checks, impulsivity is probably causing problems in your marriage. If this is the case, the health of your marriage requires that each of you make some changes. If you feel ADD is affecting your life or the life of your spouse or child, professional assessment is necessary.

Reprinted from "Honey, Are You Listening?" 1995 by Dr. Richard Fowler and Jerilyn Fowler. Used by permission of Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville, Tennessee.

You also mentioned the behavioral aspect of coping with ADD. What's an example of that?

Rick: I think of it in terms of people having a set number of "focus chips" to use every day. Non-ADD people have 20 focus chips, but an ADD person only has ten. When a person with ADD tries to go beyond ten, he gets overwhelmed. So he has to learn how to use those ten.
I teach my ADD clients to conserve focus chips by operating at least 40 percent of their lives according to a predetermined system. For example, decide things the night before. Lay out the clothes you'll wear the next day, and decide whether you'll get up early to exercise. When the alarm goes off, you've already made some decisions that will conserve focus chips.
If you conserve your mental energy so it'll last through the day, you're less likely to feel overwhelmed and get stressed out.

How can a non-ADD spouse help?

Rick: A spouse can help a lot, but it has to be casual. You can't come across as a parent, because an ADD person resists being controlled. If Jeri says, "Rick, you're going to do this no matter what," of course I resent that. But it works if she says, "How is this going to affect us as a couple?" It has to be approached in the spirit of "we all have strengths and weaknesses, and we can coach each other."
Jeri: We keep a joint calendar, and we check each other's individual calendars. Rick used to forget my birthday and our anniversary, which hurt my feelings. Now about every three months we take a look at what's coming up. In May, I'll say, "These are the days I want you to take off this summer. Is that okay?" And I tell Rick, "By the way, this is my birthday." Then I remind him again the closer we get to it.

With you two having vastly different approaches to life, how does communication work?

Rick: If something comes up that's real important to Jeri, she'll say: "Rick, is this a good time to talk? I want to share something." Using a preface statement gives me a chance to refocus my attention. If I'm hyper-focusing on something else, Jeri knows it'll take a sentence or two before I can shift my focus back to her.

You mentioned that the third aspect of coping with ADD was the medical dimension. Were you referring to medication?

Rick: Using prescription drugs is really the treatment of last resort. First you need to accept that ADD is just a learning difference—nothing to be embarrassed about. If you wear glasses, are you embarrassed about it? For an ADD person to see the left-brained world clearly, he or she needs to use "glasses" in the form of adaptive strategies.
Unless you work on the cognitive and behavioral aspects first, the script of your life will never change. But if making changes in the way you think and how you respond to things isn't enough, we next try other nonmedical interventions—such as changing the persons's diet. And then if a client still can't reach his or her goals, we consider having a doctor prescribe Ritalin or one of the other ADD medications.

Does ADD have a marital upside?

Rick: Jeri and I do come from two different cultures, but I never use ADD as an excuse not to love and understand my wife. My having ADD forces us to work harder at being more in tune with each other. God has created strength through our weakness.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

Free CT Women Newsletter

Sign up for our Weekly newsletter: CT's weekly newsletter to help you make sense of how faith and family intersect with the world.

ADHD; Challenges; Marriage
Today's Christian Woman, Spring, 1999
Posted September 30, 2008

Read These Next


Join in the conversation on Facebook or Twitter

Follow Us

More Newsletters