When Opposites Attract and Your Spouse has AD/HD
by Nancy Ratey, Ed.M., ABDA, MCC
Mary was at her wits’ end. She didn’t know what had become of her marriage. Her husband Sam felt the same way. When they first met 10 years ago, Mary was attracted to Sam’s spontaneity and spirited-nature. Sam adored the way Mary was so structured and organized. Truly opposites, they were drawn together by their differences.
Now, 10 years and two children later, life was different. Mary resented Sam’s lack of direction and his inability to see what needed to be done around the house. She couldn’t understand how he could possibly be so successful at work, yet couldn’t be bothered to change a single light bulb at home! Sam was sick of being nagged all the time and felt that Mary had become over-bearingly rigid. He felt criticized, misunderstood, and inept and dreaded returning home from work. It felt as though nothing he did was ever good enough.
It wasn’t that Sam was a bad father. He loved nothing more than to play with the kids. He and Mary shared the same family values and agreed on how to bring up the kids. If only Sam would remember to enforce the rules! Mary felt like she had become the single parent of not only her two kids, but of Sam as well.
Even after Sam was diagnosed with ADHD, nothing changed. Sam took his medications for awhile, but consistently missed his doctor’s appointments or forgot to order a refill. Their finances were a mess. Sam would forget to deposit checks, or somehow, manage to lose them. They never took vacations anymore, and intimacy was a thing of the past.
What was happening to their marriage? Is Sam completely irresponsible? Is Mary asking too much of Sam? Variations of this scenario often lead to the same result: the ADHD spouse feels diminished and misunderstood, and the non-ADHD spouse feels neglected and dismissed.
We always hear that opposites like Sam and Mary attract one another, but as life gets more complicated, what seemed “cute” and “endear-ing” in the past becomes “burden-some” and “irresponsible.”
Why does this happen? What are some things that Sam and Mary can do to improve their situation and get back to loving each other?
There are other steps that Mary and Sam can take (see tips below), but here is a start.
Understand the causes.
Why was Sam able to perform well at work and yet not help out at home? Why couldn’t he complete the simplest of tasks? There can be many reasons, but in Sam’s case, it was the environment. At work, his environment was highly structured. He didn’t have to think about what was next. He had an administrative assistant who handled his schedule, gave him reminders and took care of details.
Mary was used to taking care of things herself. She liked the fact that Sam let her handle a lot of things in the house when they were first married. But after they had kids, her time was more limited. She needed Sam to help out with the little jobs around the home that she used to do. She felt that Sam should be able to “see” what needed to be done and just do it on his own without her persistent reminders.
Inevitably, they wound up at each other’s throats about the details of mere daily life. They had lost sight of the pleasures of life: taking breaks, going on vacations, and socializing with friends.
Mary and Sam need to verbalize what their needs are in non-toxic ways, without assigning blame. Once the root of the problem, which is the need for more structure in the home, is understood, together they need to brainstorm ways to solve the problem. For example, Mary could help by making lists of duties and posting them. She also might establish more rituals and routines for the family: Wednesday night is laundry night, Saturday morning is for groceries, etc.
Make vacations and spending time together a priority.
Mary and Sam had completely lost touch with one another. All interactions between them were about house issues. Getting time away to reconnect is essential to building and maintaining a solid relationship. Because neither one is good at making these plans, they should delegate the details to a travel agent.
However, taking vacations isn’t enough. Simply going out to a movie on a Saturday night or making every Monday night “date night” may be very powerful in alleviating tension and rekindling their marriage.
Amanda was always a bit scatter-brained and disorganized, but it never got in the way of her successes. Growing up, her mom always cleaned up after her. In college, Amanda was called “space cadet” because she was constantly losing her dorm keys and forgetting engagements she made to hang out with friends. Despite all that, it seemed as though people accepted her for who she was. None of her quirky habits ever interfered with her personal or professional life.
It all changed when she said “I do.”
When Amanda married and had kids, her disorganization took a toll on the family and eroded her self-esteem. Her husband, Dan, was at his wits’ end trying to be the “damage-controller,” constantly making up for her forgetfulness and lack of attention to detail. He couldn’t tolerate the messy house and her chronic tardiness. It was affecting the kids. Amanda would put off doing laundry until morning, making the kids late for school and resulting in her having to bring their clean soccer uniforms to them just before practice started in the afternoons. The children were embarrassed that their mom never seemed to get them to games on time and she would sometimes even forget that it was her turn to carpool!
Dinners were yet another battleground. No matter how hard she tried, Amanda just couldn’t manage to coordinate meals. She’d have to go back to the grocery store two and three times for essentials like milk that she’d forgotten on her first trip and it was beyond her to get everything cooked and on the table at the same time.
Dan couldn’t understand how a mother could let these things slide. Wasn’t there such a thing as “motherly instinct”? Where was Amanda’s? Their fights became more and more frequent, and Amanda ran out of excuses. She became depressed, believing she had failed both as a wife and as a mother. She had tried medication, but constantly forgot to take it, and thus saw no long-term results. Amanda’s attempts to correct her “bad habits” failed. Why should she bother trying again?
Is Amanda a bad mother? What can she do? What can Dan do to help her?
The shame-and-blame game is not useful when it comes to ADHD. ADHD is not a character flaw. It must be understood for what it is: a neurobiological disorder. How-ever, this doesn’t mean that all behaviors should be excused. It means that the first step for both parties is acceptance of this fact‹the ADHD is a neurobiological disorder. Each person needs to learn as much as possible about ADHD and identify its effects on daily life. In addition, the spouse with ADHD needs to verbalize what gets in his or her way and ask for help as well as get proper treatment.
When one member of the family has ADHD, all are affected. Thus, all must share in creating and implementing the solutions. Family schedules nowadays are complex. It’s difficult for any one person to be accountable for all the schedules and activities of a household. Post a large calendar in a common area and make it a part of the family’s weekly routine to go over each others’ schedules. Not only does this help with organizational issues, but it provides a time for family mem-bers to share their experiences and accomplishments.
Amanda needs to understand the impact of her ADHD and take action, instead of labeling herself “lazy” or “careless.” Asking trusted friends and her family to help her implement organizational systems in the house would make her feel less isolated and more empowered. She’s not alone. Her struggles become a time to work with others.
Dan can help by understanding Amanda’s need for reminders. He could also share some of the household duties, like occasionally getting the groceries or cooking. Simply learning to support Amanda in a constructive way would bring the greatest benefit in Amanda’s progress.
Some more tips
1. Create Rituals
Know the power of structures and rituals. Do all you can to establish and honor set times for different activities of your life together. For instance, make Saturday morning “trash time.” Set remin-ders for each other, and link chores with already established habits. If you go out for a cup of coffee to start off your weekend on Saturday morning, why not place a note that says “take out the trash” with your car keys? Soon enough, the chore will be become as routine as your morning coffee.
2. Make expectations crystal clear
You don’t want to constantly nag your partner to do something. It makes him or her feel ambushed, and you become the “bad guy.” Instead, create a “To-Do” note-book. Get a notebook and agree on a permanent place to keep it. Have the person who is requesting you to do things, write them down instead of saying them over and over to you. It will be your job to check the notebook on a regular basis for your list of “to-do” items. It’ll also enable you to keep a physical log of their status. Instead of “that’s another thing I’m dreading to do,” every chore is “another thing I can knock off my list!”
3. Communicate in non-toxic ways
Instead of blowing up to each other, try taking a relaxing walk and speaking to each other in a calm and encouraging manner. Begin suggestions with “I need” or “I feel that,” not phrases like “you don’t” or “you always.” Attempt to maintain eye contact when you’re speaking to each other. This way you both have a better chance of staying focused on the situation under discussion.
4. Take responsibility
Learn as much as you can about ADHD. Don’t assign character flaws. Instead, think realistically and delegate tasks for you and your spouse. Get your groceries delivered if you or your spouse cannot remember to pick them up. Why not have your paychecks direct deposited? Know the ins and outs of ADHD. Inconsistency in behavior, mood swings, and over-promising or under-delivering can lead to issues with trust. It’s important to be able to explain the neurobiology of ADHD and realize that certain “traits” of you or your spouse are directly connected to ADHD.
5. Work together for the good of the entire family
Acknowledge the challenges each person has, but make the commitment to work together to solve issues. Agree that you will help each other in a patient, loving manner. Make your relationship come first in your lives.
6. Don’t just re-live good times; create better ones
Keep in touch with what drew you together in the first place. Remember and discuss what you love about each other. Have a designated “date night” each week! Make the commitment to develo-ping your relationship. Agree upfront what would be an accept-able excuse to break the date: emergencies, last-minute business trips, etc. Have a backup night to go out on.
Specifically for the ADHD spouse
Here are some other strategies that have worked well for my clients with ADHD who struggle with relationships.
Oops! I forgot!
Forgetting things like anniversaries or your son’s birthday are not minor things when it comes to a relationship. These are the details that truly count. Create a reminder system that will work for you. Be sure to leave plenty of time to make plans (planning a party, buying a gift or a cards, etc.)
Beware of flexing your “intuition muscle” too often. Some people with ADHD have an over-developed sense of intuition that serves them well in business settings. However, on a more personal level, it can cause serious problems if not kept in check. Don’t assume that you know what your partner is thinking and jump to conclusions. Be open to what your partner is saying, and be genuinely interested. Breathe and take a minute to ask questions to verify what your feelings are before jumping off the deep end.
Don’t let the “Casper effect” take over
How often do you see your significant other? How present are you in his or her life? Are you like Casper? People with ADHD tend to get into an “all or nothing” mind frame: they never get around to taking a break from work to have fun in their lives. How can you expect to maintain a solid relationship with someone if you’re never around? If you make the effort to PLAN dates with your significant other, your relationship will be better for it. Have a travel agent book a bi-annual trip for the two of you. Make it a ritual so you don’t have to think about it. And don’t even think about skipping it. Spending time together shouldn’t be just a promise you make. It should be reality.
Who is left “waiting for Godot?”
Do you ever leave your spouse hanging for hours on end? “Why can’t you ever be on time? I told you about these reservations! Forget it. You’re never here.” Sound familiar? If it does, you need to analyze what it is that makesyou late. For example, don’t start working on a complicated project when you have only 30 minutes until your dinner date. Don’t convince yourself that making that one call you have avoided all day will “just take a second.” That “one second” can lead to a very exasperated and hurt partner.
Regardless of your symptoms, make the effort to reduce their impact on your personal life. Continue to explore and address those areas that are impacting your family life. Neither accept nor assign blame for your marital problems. There is always hope. One small step at a time, you have to make “healing the relationship” a priority.