Take Care of Your Partnership, Not Your Partner’s ADHD!

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. 

6 Responses to Take Care of Your Partnership, Not Your Partner’s ADHD!

  • Not necessarily true that ” If your goal is to understand rather than be understood, your partner will reciprocate, and mutual understanding will result.”

    I have tried that tack and adhd husband would still get annoyed/make assumptions because I am asking questions to try to understand. Negative assumptions that I am never allowed to address without being verbally attacked abound.

  • Thanks for correcting me. I should have said “may reciprocate” instead of “will reciprocate.” You’re absolutely right. There is no guarantee. But I’m not proposing a strategy here, only a way of being a partner. We can only do our part in the partnership. Not being allowed to raise a concern about the partnership is something other than partnership. Sometimes our rejection sensitivity gets in the way. Thanks for your comment.

  • I’m glad I read this, it was very helpful! My significant other has ADHD, & I find myself unintentionally parenting him. Plus, we have 3 kids. So it can be difficult to turn off the mom mode. But we just seem to be stuck in this loop of fighting over the same things, all the time. & I feel like nothing ever changes. I don’t know what to do, & it’s impacting our relationship. I do know, I’m mentally drained from all of the stress, & frustration. I do my best to always support him, listen & be always patient.

    • Thanks for reading my blog. There’s nothing wrong with feeling impatient, even acting from it when nothing is moving forward. The feeling can motivate you, and your partner, to try something different…to try another way instead of trying harder at what’s not working. It’s normal to have limits. Mellissa Orlov’s classes and books, Gina Pera’s resources, and ADDA’s peer-led support groups (add.org) have helped many couples. ADDA has a support group just for non-ADHD partners. I wish you well.

  • Do you know of any support groups for non-ADHD partners who have decided to end relationships after years of suffering? TIA.

    • I suspect the spouses suppport group through ADDA (add.org) would allow your participation. Some participants there are on that threshold if not beyond. Also, I would suggest contacting Melissa Orlov (adhdmarriage.com). She leads support groups and does individual consultations. She has walked in your shoes. Thanks for visiting my blog.

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