ADHD and Marriage - Giving Up Control

Control issues create one of the most common Catch-22s of ADHD-impacted marriages.  Take on what your partner isn’t doing and you are overwhelmed with what you have to do and resentful of the burden.  Don’t take on what your partner isn’t doing and you are overwhelmed by what isn’t getting done and resentful your partner isn’t pitching in more.  So how do you stop trying to control your partner, get his or her buy-in, and get out of this lose/lose situation?

Easier, But Not Better

We move into controlling behavior as a survival strategy when faced with the ADHD symptoms of procrastination, poor planning or organization, distraction and defensiveness.  Many of us “took control” at a time when neither we nor our partners knew about the ADHD or, if we knew, didn’t understand the full impact of ADHD on the relationship.  Taking control, and/or trying to get our partners to “do better” seemed like the right approach.

Unfortunately, controlling behavior is a coping strategy, and a bad one.  With few exceptions, the person who is being controlled resents it, and their response to you, the controller, becomes more and more negative and disconnected.  (“My partner is really unpleasant to be with – she always bosses me around.  Even if I have a good idea about something I keep it to myself so that I don’t need to listen to her harp at me.”)  Furthermore, when one partner is trying to control the other partner, they come to lose respect for each other. 

You Have No Choice

What enabled me to stop controlling my husband (after many years of trying to ask, cajole, entice and outright order him to do things differently,) was coming to the realization that having control over your spouse is an illusion.  If you want to be happily married, you need to internalize that not only is it undesirable to try to control your spouse, but it’s actually impossible.  The act of controlling always makes things worse, not better.

“But if I hand over control, nothing will get done!” is what I used to think – thus perpetuating my controlling behavior.  To get away from this mindset, think about handing over control in a way that’s not an abdication of responsibility, but rather transition of responsibility – done in a way that includes both partners.

Getting the ADHD Partner Involved in the Solution

In order to effectively give up control, the ADHD partner must agree to be part of the solution – committing to doing what it takes to be a full (or, more specifically, a “good enough”) partner in the relationship, not a “child” to be instructed or nagged in “parent/child” dynamics.  With a background of mistrust in your relationship, getting either one of you to open yourselves up again to be able to change the dynamics of control can be hard.  The ADHD partner assumes (because it’s happened before) that while the intentions of the non-ADHD partner may be good, the reality is that she will not be able to resist bossing him around or criticizing the first failure.   I call this the “wham/bam” – the ADHD partner tries something, does really well for a while, then loses focus and makes a misstep and “wham/bam” his non-ADHD partner comments, criticizes or loses hope.  It happens ALL the time unless you are specifically trying to prevent it from happening (if you’re a non-ADHD partner – be very self-critical and make sure you don’t perpetuate this pattern.  You can express disappointment, just don’t do it in a way that is critical or controlling.)

On the other side of things, the non-ADHD partner assumes that the ADHD partner may try something new but won’t have the ability to stick with it.  Again, the fear is well-founded – it takes a lot of effort - and the introduction of specific external structures that reinforce deadlines, task completion and the like - to permanently change procrastination behaviors.  It takes effort to set these up, and it is very common for an ADHD partner to not be able to sustain initial attempts at changing behaviors or completing tasks.  Watching your ADHD partner struggle – yet again – with completing what he/she committed to is terrifically frustrating and it’s really hard not to jump in with suggestions or assistance.  Nonetheless, it’s critical to find a balance between “holding the line” on insisting your partner contribute and being empathetic to the difficulty they will have to do so.

I suggest you have a learning conversation about control issues in your relationship and listen carefully (and humbly) to what your partner has to say.  I think you’ll hear some of these themes:

From the ADHD partner:

  • I hate it when you boss me around, and so I avoid interacting with you around potentially contentious issues.
  • I’m trying harder than you realize (note to ADHD folks here – if you are trying hard and still not reaching your goals take a new approach that is shown to be generally successful for people with ADHD.)
  • Your controlling behavior makes me feel unloved and like a child

From the non-ADHD partner:

  • It drives me crazy that you can’t/won’t carry more responsibility in this relationship – I’m getting to the point where I can’t take it any longer
  • I hate it when you are defensive or elusive when I ask you to help out – it makes me feel unloved
  • I’m working much harder than you realize – recognition of this fact would help ease the pain a little bit.

Internalizing the meaning and import of these themes is critical - controlling behavior hurts you both.  After many years of our struggling with my “wham/bam” and his being “consistently inconsistent,” George (my ADHD husband) was willing to step up and make the changes he needed to make ONLY AFTER I had convinced myself that I was no longer going to play the “try to control him” game.  Don’t tell me this is unfair – “look, yet another thing that I, the non-ADHD partner, have to do!”  If you understand the concept that you can’t control your partner, you also understand that the ONLY person in whom you can affect change is yourself.  It’s either change your own actions, or continue in controlling behaviors by nagging your partner to change his/hers.  To get out of the cycle you are in – the only option is to change yourself.

I describe the process of giving up control in my book, in the chapter on setting boundaries and refinding yourself.  I urge you to read it, as the process of understanding who you want to be again (after all this turmoil and bad feelings) provides a very important structure within which you can change in a consistent, satisfying way.  Giving up control is about taking care of yourself, not your partner, and creating clear expectations.

Once you have a better appreciation for the pressure that controlling behavior puts on your relationship, you can use these ideas to improve your situation:

  • Most important:  get treatment for ADHD symptoms – the ADHD partner needs specific structures in place to be a reliable partner (rather than inconsistent, which encourages controlling behavior in the non-ADHD spouse)
  • Find 1-2 specific tasks to hand over to the ADHD partner via a transition – remember, don’t abandon your partner, just insist on more reliability (the ADHD partner is then charged with figuring out how to be more reliable)
  • Vow to control yourself, not your partner.  Set up a verbal cue to identify controlling behavior so you can teach yourself to stop.
  • Refind yourself.  By clarifying who you want to be (generally that means not controlling!) you can create an environment for yourself which includes only your best behavior (see my book for more on this).  A very important step for stopping controlling your spouse is learning that you are better off when you are not in control mode.  In other words, when you love yourself you are also more likely to end up in a balanced relationship.
  • Read a good book on co-dependence. One good option is Melody Beattie’s classic, Codependent No More:  How to Stop Controlling Others and Start Caring for Yourself.

The Bottom Line

This is scary stuff – because if your ADHD partner doesn’t “come along” and take up the responsibility you hope he or she will take up, you will find yourself wondering whether or not your marriage can survive.  But I ask you – can it survive with one of you frustratingly and continuously in control, with building resentment and disconnection, with a lessening of respect over time as parent/child dynamics continue?  Will you like yourself 10 years from now if you are still the controller in your relationship?

The bottom line is this – the only way that the two of you can make your relationship happy again is to re-balance your partnership to a place that pleases you both.  In our household, the only way to do that was for me to internalize that I could not do anything but cede control of my husband’s life back to my husband – and take control only of myself.