ADD & Marriage: How Do I Get Him To Listen?

One of the most frequent questions that comes up is one of frustration – “how do I get my ADD spouse to listen to me about our problems?”  The short answer is that you can’t if he doesn’t want to, but let me elaborate, as this is clearly at the heart of many struggling marriages.

I asked my husband for his input on this one, as engaging each other in serious conversations used to be one of our biggest issues (I wanted desperately to talk about and work out our/his issues.  He didn’t.)  His response?  “I think the person asking the question needs to look at how, and what, they are asking.”

This may seem like non-advice, but consider this:  When I most wanted to engage with George, I pressed my points rather emphatically.  I was desperate to solve, or at least discuss, the issues that were bringing us both such pain.  Because I felt I had gotten along in the world so well, I thought I had many great ideas about how to fix things.  (He, on the other hand, had a failed first marriage to his credit.)  Yet fairly soon after we got married he didn’t want to hear my ideas.  Every time he refused to engage me I became more frustrated and angry.  My frustration was clear in how I talked with him about getting together to talk…(“look, we’ve got problems here that we need to fix” – as in YOU have problems that need fixing.  He knew well enough that if I thought that they were MY problems I would already have fixed them.)  So, yes, I was hopeless, mad, frustrated…and after a while he had plenty of anger himself, which he also didn’t want to deal with.  Retreat from dealing with these thorny issues was the easiest response.  His retreat spurred me on even more to push for engagement.  You can see how this would get to be a nasty downward spiral - fast.

We tried everything for the sake of trying it – to be able to say that we were working on things in our own ways – “I’ll be really nice to you for a few weeks and see if that changes things” was one approach, for example.  That didn’t work - the underlying animosity comes through non-verbally anyway.  We were still trying to change each other.  I wanted to fix him.  He wanted to punish me for my aggressiveness.  Another approach we tried?  Leave each other alone for a while (this is a bad way to resolve issues around not connecting, as you might imagine).

The reality is that you CANNOT engage someone who doesn’t wish to be engaged…and no one – ADD or not – wants to engage in difficult discussions in which they anticipate they are going to be roundly brought to task for bad behavior.  The question shouldn’t be “how do I get my ADD spouse to listen to me?”  The question needs be to “how do I entice participation?”  This means coming fully to grips with the idea that you are not in control - at least not of him.

I found this out the hard way when I discovered my husband was seeing someone else.  Even though I understood completely why he was seeing her (you can only take so much misery) it hurt like hell.  (I should add here for fairness that the reason that I understood why he was seeing her was because I had had an affair earlier in our marriage for the same reason – being miserable and needing positive reinforcement.)  He happened to be in Europe when I found out, and in two weeks the girlfriend was scheduled to join him for a romantic week in France.  In this situation I was finally FORCED to understand that I did not, and never would, control my husband’s actions.  I had no say over what he would choose to do, who he would be, or what his behavior would be.  I realized, too, that I would never have a say about whether he chooses to address any of his ADD symptoms that might bother me.  The only control I had ever had was over my response to him - I just had never realized it.

This was a revelation.  It’s easy to “say” you have no control over someone else.  It’s a completely different thing to KNOW you have no control, and accept it.  You behave differently –  a whole lot better.  Not only could my husband leave, he had a lonely, never-married 40-year old who was madly in love with him waiting in the wings.  He had alternatives.  I, now, was looking at my sphere of influence in a completely different way.  Yes, I was to have a relationship with this man forever (we have 2 kids), but it wasn’t going to be on just my terms.  And it might not be as a couple.  Suddenly, all that bitching seemed pretty stupid and short-sighted.

I wonder whether, when people ask the question “how do I get my husband to work on our problems?” they aren’t really asking “how do I get my husband to sit down and start doing what I want him to do?”  The answer is you don't if he doesn’t want to.  And he won’t want to if he feels as if you are going to beat him up.  You can argue that “being married” means you have an “obligation”.  Maybe on the surface this is true.  But my own experience is that talking to a man who doesn’t wish to be there talking to you is not only a waste of time, it is counterproductive in every possible way.  Put enough counter-productive time together and first thing you find is that the romance is gone…second thing you find is that it’s gone somewhere else.

This is not to say that no man will ever sit down and talk to you.  Quite the contrary – a husband worth his salt will do so when you request it – simply because you request it - and sometimes will also initiate the conversation when needed.  What I’m saying is that he does it because he chooses to do it.  Because he thinks that he has something to gain from sitting down with you.  Because he feels warmly enough about how you are going to interact that he thinks that the discussion is going to be productive.  Sometimes because he thinks that not sitting down with you is going to be so counterproductive that it’s not worth resisting.

My own story?  We had only two weeks to work out whether our marriage was over or not.  My revelation about my own lack of power ended up being a turning point for me, as was the advice from Dr. Hallowell that I’ve related here before – stop thinking about fixing your marriage and start thinking about creating a happy life for yourself.  My focus shifted away from “what my husband needs to do” to “what I needed to do to take control of my own happiness”.

Though superficially it might seem that my husband was holding all the power here, my revelation, and my shift in focus, actually put us on more equal footing.  I realized that I not only didn’t need my husband to be happy but probably wasn’t going to have any say in whether we continued to be married.  This was very liberating.  It allowed me to shift my focus from our marriage (and all that bad stuff) to re-finding the person I had been (good stuff) – the optimistic, thoughtful, creative, outgoing and more confident person I remembered.  Worrying about our marriage had turned me into a nag, in fact a real bitch.  I had pushed so hard that I had created a living nightmare – all in the name of “fixing things” when in fact the dynamic was just the opposite.  The harder I pushed, the worse things got.  And I don’t know about you, but while I’m capable of being really, really mean, I don’t like myself when I am.  No wonder he didn’t like me, either!

So I just stopped pushing, right then and there.  For good (this is true - you can ask him!).  Yes, we had some weepy conversations on the phone about our plight and about how hard it was that we had gotten where we had gotten.  We grieved separately and alone.  But I was no longer accusing him – I was just trying to understand and let it all go.  We actually laughed…and then flirted.  Things felt different – at last.  And I was finally humbled enough to realize that every good partnership is a partnership of choice, not coercion.  The change in me – and how I was treating him - was so pronounced that the night before his girlfriend was to board the plane he called her and asked her to stay home.  I went over, instead, and we began – finally - to forget about our marriage, and repair our friendship and partnership. 

The bottom line is this – a husband who will never, ever, engage with you to work on your relationship is not a great husband.  But usually by the time you are reading this blog his lack of engagement is as much a reflection of how the two of you are interacting as anything else.  (I assume you used to interact satisfactorily or you wouldn’t have gotten married.)  It’s neither fair nor realistic to expect him to engage when your agenda is to “fix things”, and specifically, “fix him”.  That’s not a conversation.  That’s forcing him to be a certain way – your way.

I’m not trying to depress you here.  Just the opposite.  I’m trying to provide a positive alternative to hitting your head against the proverbial wall over and over again.

Yes, he has issues.  His anger hurts you and the kids.  He spends money frivolously.  He is not focused on you enough.  He can’t hold down a job….insert your painful issue here.  As long as he feels you are trying to coerce him, he’s not going to make the effort to change.  In fact, if he’s like my husband, he’ll start to work against what you want (subtly) just to prove that he’s independent.

Good relationships are about lots of hard work…but they are also about carrots rather than sticks.  So be your best. If he doesn’t want you when you are at your best, then he doesn’t deserve you in any case.  You want to be your best for your own mental and physical health (which declines when you are in turmoil over not being able to change him).  To be cynical about it –you may as well be the best that you can be now before you get divorced, rather than wait to be forced into it by dating again.  Being thoughtful, kind and caring may not solve your problems, but it sure won’t add to them!  So, if he irritates you, put it aside.  If he is angry, move out of the line of fire.  Provide opportunities to connect in happy ways.  Don’t stop communicating – just don’t insist on a specific solution.  Be humble.  Benefit from what I learned without having to go through the pain first hand.

This will end up a win/win for you.  Either you will stop your own downward spiral that you are currently in with your husband and your husband will move out of his defensive posture and start to engage with you again, or you will find he isn’t able to appreciate the real you and won't respond.  Either way, you are true to yourself and creating your own happiness.  You will be a better place than now.