Spouses of adults with ADHD grow tired of repairing messes that their partners make. Examples of messes include forgetting special occasions, being late to events, interrupting others, being angry when others interrupt, blurting out what should be private, getting lost in solitary activity, neglecting priorities, losing track of time, misplacing important items, cluttering shared space, postponing tasks, driving too fast, drinking too much, talking too much, changing jobs too often, paying bills and taxes late. And perhaps the worst…ignoring one’s relationship partner.
You may be dealing with these or other messes if you are married to someone with ADHD. It is not easy. Adults with the disorder may ask their spouses to cut them some slack. After all, they can’t help how their brains are wired, and they’re not making messes on purpose…right? That may be correct, but it is unfair for the ADHD partner to start there. The first order of business is acceptance, which includes accepting that ADHD has an effect on others. Caring enough to listen respectfully to reasonable complaints is one way to live well with ADHD. If your partner doesn’t do that, he is not being a partner and will miss the benefits of skillful partnership.
Non-ADHD spouses who have had an excessive dose of “co-dependency” therapy often say something like this to me: “I’ve done my work; he needs to do his. I’m done with fixing the problems he creates.” Who wants the job of cleaning up a partner’s messes? Being an effective partner is something else, something that can’t be done alone. Resenting takes just one person. Denial takes only one person. Blaming takes only one, but it creates a blamer in response. Both partners lose in the blame game.
The solution is simple, but often uncomfortable. Years of feeling judged may contribute to the ADHD partner’s shame and defensiveness. I can be defensive when I feel shamed, and my defensive response takes my wife’s complaint off the table. My complaint supplants hers. For example, I might not like her tone when she tells me how my behavior has affected her. My mindless reactivity takes over when I fail to tolerate my hurt feelings with grace. If I get angry at her for being angry at me, or shut down to avoid uncomfortable feelings, we both lose.
The non-ADHD spouse must differentiate between taking care her partner’s ADHD and taking care of herself in relation to it. The former is burdensome, the latter practical. My wife is the bill payer. To make sure we had adequate funds in our joint account. she once put a deposit slip on the seat of my car when it was my turn to make a deposit. She was not taking responsibility for my bad memory, but taking care of her needs. She once asked me what I could do to assure her I would be on time for an important meeting that evening. Her question prompted me to think of a strategy. She avoided assuming the burden of telling me what to do.
Partners in a business are mutually responsible for the success of the business. If either stops doing his job, the business fails. Successful partners put the partnership first, prioritizing it over individual desires, differences, and personal comfort. Partnership doubles the power of individuals in dealing with life’s challenges. Life situations don’t cause divorce; treating a partner as an enemy does. Blaming generates more problems and solves none.
If you get stuck in conflict, listen more and speak less. If your goal is to understand rather than be understood, your partner will reciprocate, and mutual understanding will result. When you remain respectfully engaged with your partner in a conflict, you will solve problems. When you react aggressively, or retreat to avoid uncomfortable feelings, you will create problems. If you don’t find solutions immediately, you can still maintain respectful dialogue and enhance your partnership. To “win” an argument is to create a loser in your partnership. That is not what competent partners do.