ADD & Marriage: Non-ADD Spouses Who “Give Too Much”

It seems as if a lot of non-ADD spouses at this site have been bending over backwards to accommodate their ADD spouse’s issues, often finding that doing so is exhausting and making them angry and miserable.  I would like to suggest that while negotiating how to meet somewhere in the middle is a part of all marriages, many non-ADD spouses are giving (and giving in) way too much.  Let me explain –

Here’s the pattern:  You fall in love and everything is happy and energetic.  You get married and your ADD husband suddenly seems to lose interest.  He stops helping out, so you pick up the pieces – happily at first.  Perhaps he spends too much money.  Perhaps he doesn’t pay enough attention to you, your kids or what he’s supposed to be doing for the family (too distracted).  Whatever the trigger, you start to take on more and more of the responsibility.  After a while the burden of all that extra work and that extra responsibility makes you feel as if you can’t take it any more.

Worst of all, there seems no way out.  If you’re feeling completely overwhelmed either your ADD spouse is trying and making little progress, or he is not trying and telling you that it’s not his fault or he doesn’t wish to seek treatment.  Either way, you’ve come to realize that continuing in the same direction is unsustainable for you personally and for your marriage.

You secretly hope that if you “push” harder he’ll be inspired to try harder.  Or that if he would only start taking medications all will change for the better.  The first won’t work at all (at least not for the long-term – it might work temporarily for the short term).  The second could be a start for improvements, if it is accompanied by behavioral changes.  Medications alone don’t effectively treat ADHD issues.  But you can’t make those changes – only your spouse can.  Which means that you aren’t in control.

Part of the hopelessness that many non-ADD spouses feel is that it feels as if no matter what they do, they aren’t in control of their fates.  They push, they try, they give more, they give up things they care for…and still nothing changes!

I will argue that you ARE in control of your fate – and that one of the things that you need to do first is to stop giving too much.  Or, more accurately, start giving to your relationship in a way that is healthy for you.  And that means no more putting yourself into a position in which you just can’t take it anymore.  You need to take  care of yourself!  At an extreme, this means that if your spouse is truly incapable of change then you may choose to leave the marriage for the sake of your own health.

What do I mean by giving too much?  Read the forum at this site to see example after example of women (primarily) who are giving, and bending, and giving, and bending, and who are ready to tear their hair out.  They need protection, and the only person who can give them that protection is themselves.  They need to set up boundaries (see other blog post on this in favorites section) that let them live their life in a way that is satisfying to them – whatever that means.

But how, you might ask, can I detach myself from someone I love who is having so much trouble?  Shouldn’t I try to help him, particularly if I can see what he needs?  And how about those consequences which are so dire for me – like he’s financially irresponsible or not helpful with the kids?

Help comes in many forms, and one of the most loving forms of help is giving people the freedom to allow them to learn to care for themselves better.  Your spouse will never do this as long as you keep stepping in to fix whatever problem he may have created or finish the work he has left undone.  People with ADHD can take care of themselves, particularly if sufficiently internally motivated to do so.  How they do it might be a bit foreign to you, but that is part of how they are different.

I’m well aware that things that in marriage there are many things that, left undone, are potentially harmful to you.  Bill paying comes to mind, as do major home renovations, etc.  But in the long run, as difficult as it may seem, the only way to get your relationship in order is to leave your spouse to learn those skills that are necessary for the survival of your relationship (however the two of you define this).  If he can’t take responsibility for the really important items over the long haul, then your relationship simply won’t survive, no matter how much you wish it could.  And you’ll spend a whole lot of miserable years trying to patch up the holes before your realize this.

I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t cherry pick a few very important tasks to take over.  Your financial health, at least while you are married, is as much your personal concern as it is a joint one.  If you are worried he can’t pay bills or will ruin your credit rating, then you need to proactively take that over – for the results of not doing so are too damaging to you personally.  But for the most part, you need to do what’s most important to making you happy, and let him struggle with his demons.  You can’t “save” him.

I came across this topic in a book I was reading the other day called “Living with ADD When You’re Not the One Who Has It” by Mimi Handlin.  A guest author (Wayland Myers, Ph.D.) writes about the idea of “Loving Detachment”.  He says he considers himself lovingly detached when:  “I am willing and able to compassionately, and without judgment, allow others to be different from me, to be self-directed, and to be responsible for taking care of themselves.”

He goes on to say that one of the great benefits of “loving detachment” is actually the lifting of the strain of attempting the impossible – in this case lifting the strain of trying to change or control someone else’s behavior.  An additional benefit is that your energy and attention – previously spent on trying to improve the life of another – can now be turned towards yourself in a productive and satisfying way.

I am not suggesting that you abandon your spouse – far from it.  But I am strongly recommending that as you evaluate whether or not the actions you take to “help” are in your – and his - best interests in the long run.  If you are taking over responsibilities that ought to be his and you don’t like (or feel good about) doing this work, then the more loving approach for you both might well be letting your spouse experience the natural consequence of his behavior.  The mistake many non-ADD spouses make is to assume the only option they have is to take over these responsibilties (I made the same mistake for years - it leads only downhill if you're not happy with what you're doing).

Myers makes some interesting points about which you should be aware:

  • You should always choose a course of action which is the one which you feel YOU can live with best in the long run (remember that continuing in an unsustainable direction isn’t one of those).  Ultimately you are responsible for your life.  Again, think about where your boundaries are as you wrestle with what will sometimes be the difficult decisions you will need to make about where to stop helping.
  • The best consequences for your spouse to experience are those that are “natural” to a situation, not consequences that you create for him.  For example, if the consequence of not doing something is that you nag or pressure him, then that is not a natural consequence because nagging is an option in life, not a necessity.

My own experience was that I tried for many years to change my husband and try to get him to fit into a mold of what I thought would make a better husband.  It never worked, and the harder I try, the harder he resisted (becoming an even worse husband!).  I did nag and berate him, feeling as if it was the only option I had.  Except that it wasn't the "natural" option - thus my husband (correctly) honed in on my nagging him as being my "fault" and therefore something he could dismiss.  Finally, too burned out to do anything else and confronted with a marital crisis and the realization that we simply could not continue as we had been going, I detached myself in a loving but firm way.  I required that my husband start to take responsibility for the consequences of his actions, and simultaneously I started taking responsibility only for myself.  I stopped ALL nagging, berating and controlling actions.  We were both very caring during the process, and very open with each other, just simply unwilling to continue down the path we were on.  Within two weeks we had a road map for our marital recovery.

I am not suggesting that your turn around will be so quick, only that “loving detachment” is the only path I’ve seen so far that can get you out of that deep, hopeless black hole of “I can’t take it anymore”.  Your marriage may end up thriving, as mine did, end in divorce, or improve to a “tolerable” point.  Be assured, though, you’ll end up with greater peace and improved mental health because you will no longer be pursuing the impossible by “giving too much”.