4 Tips for Bringing Up Problems to an ADHD Partner without ‘Parenting’

Non-ADHD partners are well-served to stop nagging, reminding or ‘educating’ their partners, all of which feel like criticism to the ADHD partner and drive you apart from each other.  ‘Parenting’ your partner with ADHD is corrosive to your respect for each other and almost always sends the ADHD partner into retreat.  (For more on this particular symptom/response/response cycle, see either of my books or this blog post…)

But here’s the hard part.  Your partner is doing something that bugs you – like not meeting deadlines she agreed to; being irritable on a regular basis, or something else that is likely rooted in ADHD symptoms.  How do you voice your desire for change without dropping into old, and unhealthy, habits?  Here are X tips:

Tip #1 - Focus on patterns, not incidents:  We all make mistakes, and those with ADHD are less consistent than those without.  Which means that even when things are going well there will be bumps in the road.  If your partner generally is doing something right – such as following through- but then has a failure (or even 2) – don’t bring it up.  Instead, watch and wait.  If you see a pattern developing over a number of weeks, then it’s time to talk.

Tip #2 - Focus on the truly  important stuff – trustworthiness and the right to autonomy:  Your ADHD partner won’t do things the way you do.  Don’t try to control how things get done or educate your partner to do things the same way you do.  Focus, instead, on the outcome.  For example, you might like to book a hotel the way I do - by choosing the first thing that seems to fit the criteria.  It’s efficient, and you get a good enough bed to sleep in.  Your partner might like to choose hotels the way my husband does – he carefully looks at all of the options, and chooses the absolute best value.  It takes him much longer, and he spends lots of time on multiple booking sites to compare prices, location, reviews and the like.

In this example, the ‘important stuff’ is that either of us ends up with a hotel AND that we each get to do it in the way that satisfies us and reflects who we are.  I don’t berate him for being inefficient (or tell him he should be doing other things with his time) and he doesn’t berate me for my ‘sloppy’ approach to finding a hotel.

So if you are upset about how something is getting done (or not getting done) assess whether your discomfort comes from your differences rather than an actual problem.  In the former case, it’s generally a good idea to let it go.

Tip #3 - Transition into your conversations with soft starts.  Do not launch into what is bothering you without warning.  It’s too hard for those with ADHD to ‘transition’ from whatever is going on in their head to what you are saying.  The abruptness of your approach is likely to feel like an attack.  Instead, start gently and give some warning to set the stage.  For example, rather than saying ‘You haven’t done the project you promised you would do’ you could say “I’ve been seeing a pattern (see tip #1) in your behavior in the last few weeks that is starting to impact me and I would like to talk with you about it.  Is this a good time, or should we speak later about it?”

It makes sense to ask if it’s a good time to discuss your issue.  You want your partner’s full attention.  So if she is in the middle of closing a client deal, then you don’t want to talk with her right then. Notice you aren’t giving her the option to not talk about it, only to find the right time.

If your partner is able to talk, then you’ve gotten her attention, she knows the topic is going to be serious, and you can thoughtfully proceed with your concerns.

Tip #4 - Focus primarily on your own issues:  This will lessen your partner’s defensiveness and keep the conversation going:  Even if your partner’s actions are what’s triggering you, your most fruitful discussion will be about your emotional or logistical response to those actions.  So, instead of saying ‘you didn’t do the dishes as you had promised’ (which is likely to shut your partner down) you might say something like ‘as you probably know by now, I’m a person who appreciates cleanliness in my home.  For the last few weeks you haven’t been cleaning up as you had promised and I’ve ended up feeling stressed out and uncomfortable as a result.  Can we talk about what’s going on and whether we’ve got the right chore distribution?’

Parenting and nagging is a habit – and one that can be broken.  These tips can help you communicate in more healthy ways.