ADHD and Marriage: Changing What Never Changes

One comment I hear over and over again from non-ADHD spouses is their frustration that "we go through the same problems over and over again.  Nothing ever seems to change!"  There is a reason for this, as well as a way to interrupt this pattern.

The reason is this:  People with ADHD have a "now and not now" approach to time - that is, they live mostly in the present.  One reader graphically described his sense of time like "looking through a paper towel roll.  Everything I can see through the end of the roll is very clear.  Nothing else (past or future) exists."  As a rule of thumb, everything they respond to is a response to the total stimulus of that moment.  What they often aren't responding to is learnings from the past or anticipation of consequences in the future.

You can think of every interaction you have as a "moment" in time.  Each time a person with ADHD comes to that moment (or a very similar one) they will likely respond similarly simply because they are responding to the present stimulus.

For a person who doesn't have ADHD "learning from past mistakes" means making the next similar moment different.  In other words you have "moment" plus "memory of learning" the next time you encounter this issue.For the person with ADHD, who has less short-term memory, and isn't wired to anticipate future consequences, the natural response to similar "moments" is pretty much the same response as last time around.  The memory of past mistakes sometimes makes an impact but often doesn't.  So his or her first "moment" translates the next time around to "moment plus nothing new".

So what do you do?  People with ADHD trying to get out of repetitive "moments" or exchanges need to physically (rather than mentally) alter them next time that similar moment happens.  That way, they are faced with a new moment the next time the situation in question comes up.  There are a number of ways of altering future moments so that they stay altered:

  • Start taking medications. This alters the brain function, often allowing for better focus or other changes. ("moment" + "better functioning brain" = different response)
  • Put a reminder system in place. For issues related to time (being late due to distraction, etc) beepers can work wonders. ("moment" + timer = reminder to act differently or sooner). Other reminder systems include key racks, bins for locating or storing items that frequently get misplaced, organizational systems, etc.
  • Change your ideas about appropriate interactions. Setting up "cues" with your partner is a good example. If the ADHD partner doesn't see when others are bored with his conversation, a cue from a partner can alert him to the need to move on - as long as the cue is agreed to in advance. ("moment" + previously agreed-to cue from partner = less social awkwardness)
  • Stepping away from angry interactions. Vow that the next time your partner blows up you won't engage in any way that isn't constructive. Keep your voice even, and insist on talking about content rather than style ("moment" + constructive response = no escalation of anger, potential for constructive negotiation)
  • Change who does what. If you argue over the speed at which the ADHD spouse drives, have the non-ADHD spouse drive instead. ("moment" + new driver = new outcome)

These are but a few examples.  The underlying concept is this:

People with ADHD live in the present.  The best way to change "moments" that don't work for you as a couple is to put into place physical changes that will make that next similar moment different (and better)!