ADHD and Marriage: “I’m Worn Out”, Round Two

Note:  This entry includes ideas for conversation-starting exercises to improve your understanding of yourself and your spouse.

There are some comments posted here that just make my heart ache.  This is one of them:
“My wife and I have been together for 9 years. As a professional in the behavioral health field, I recognized her ADHD right away. We talked about it but she didn't feel that it was that impactful in our life. In our fourth year I had grown tired of dealing with the daily symptoms of her ADHD without her acknowledgement and put my foot down that if she wanted our relationship to continue I needed her to get evaluated for ADHD and seek treatment if my presumptions were correct. She called that night for an appointment and has been on medication for the last 5 years. During that time she has met with life coaches, ADD counselors and psychologists. She even subscribed to the ADDitude mag, which is how I found you this morning. Aside from taking her meds daily she has been unwilling/unable to follow ANY of the instructions or advice given to her by these professionals. Now here we are in our 9th year together and I am as frustrated as ever. I have been as supportive and I am using all the training I have had to inspire, support, reward, encourage her. In the end I am feeling used up. Each time we have a "sit down" talk about this, she ends up crying and apologizing agreeing to start making small changes and I feel bad for making her cry but at the same time unswayed by her yet again unfulfilled promises. I don't know what to do at this point. I feel like I have tried everything and if she is unwilliing to try then there is nothing left for us. I am committed to my wife but, I don't want the rest of my life to be in a marriage with someone who won't even TRY to make things better. Please help.”

If you have read much of this blog, you have probably figured out that I am in the “try, try again” camp of finding marital bliss.  HOWEVER, there comes a time when you are simply too discouraged and used up to continue the effort.  It is one of the great truths of human nature that no matter how much you may wish to do so, you cannot change another person.  Only that person can change herself.

That said, it sounds as if your wife has, in fact, tried to make some of those changes.  She has found a medication she takes regularly (you don’t say whether or not it relieves some of her major symptoms, only that she’s taking it).  She has hired a string of professionals for help and looked for additional information.  These are not indications that she isn’t trying.  So the question becomes why is it hard for her to follow the instructions/suggestions she is receiving.  The first question I would ask is this - is she doing these things because she wants your relationship to improve, or simply to appease you when you confront her?

Before you call it quits for good, perhaps you can ask yourself some questions:

  1. Is the medication she is taking effective?  My personal definition of effective is that it relieves symptoms to the degree that she can start to follow through on accomplishing some of the things most important to her.  Is this the case?  If the medication does, in fact, “work” but she still isn’t doing the things that YOU think are important, then perhaps the two of you are in misalignment in your priorities.  There is some hint of this in your description of why she started taking meds in the first place.
  2. Though it sounds as if you have been very supportive, are you playing a role that might impede her progress?  For example, is she so afraid of disappointing you (or your reaction if she disappoints you) that she would rather not try than try and fail?  Or does she feel that your comments about her ADHD imply that you don’t really love her?  If so, is there a way to diminish this negative impact?  (Tip – look for signs of your own anger, frustration or belittling entering your relationship – these have ways of making people resistant to real change.)  You know from your own profession that difficult relationships often rest in the behaviors of both partners.
  3. How does she feel about her own progress?  Does she say that she wants change because she herself wants it, or only because you ask for it?  Does she see change?  What sort?  What has helped her most?  How might she get more of that?

Finally, for a brief moment at least, you might turn the conversation away from ADHD.  This may sound counterintuitive coming from someone who focuses on how ADHD affects relationships, but sometimes one gets really caught up in the “unfairness” of being affected by someone else’s ADHD and loses the forest for the trees.  One of the turning points for me when my own marriage was so troubled was the realization that I could make my own life happier – with or without my husband’s help - and that happier, not “fixing my husband’s behavior", should be my own goal.  The net result was that I started focusing on ME first, US second and him relatively little.  As I did so we both found that our relationship improved.  He had resented my interference in his life and felt that my comments were an indication that I didn't respect him.

So, consider trying this.  Sit down one quiet evening and create a list of the ten things or feelings that would make you happiest (stay away from “winning the lottery” and try to find things like “being unafraid of trying new things” and other items that are part of you).  If there was a particularly happy period sometime in your life, what did it look like?  What were the components?  Who were you?  What were the personality traits you had then that you cherish the most?  Find the ten most important, then give them ratings by allocating points to them.  Assume you have 100 points, and allocate those points to each item in order of priority – the more points, the stronger you feel about something.  Look at the results and reflect a bit…what have you learned?  What can YOU do, today, to start being happier?

If your wife is up for it, this is a good exercise to do as a couple as well (and if you’re really a glutton for punishment ask if she might like to do it just for herself first…the conversation this exercise can start can be really illuminating!)  What would make you really, really happy as a couple?  Who would you like to (jointly) be?  How would you like to feel?  How would you rate the items in your list?  Just having this discussion could be eye opening, but taking it to heart can provide you with a meaningful roadmap for setting priorities.  Maybe who takes out the trash will become less important, while making time for a special weekend together will become more so.  (Hint for this couples exercise – do it at a time when you have a number of hours and, perhaps, a hot cup of tea to keep you settled…!)

Ultimately, this is your life, and you have only one.  Remember that you married this woman even as she was showing signs of her ADD and you loved her in spite of it.  Try to get past your resentment for the uneven character of your relationship and see if any of the questions and ideas I’ve posed above help you move to a level where you are happier.  But at some point you must look at your life and figure out what you want to do with it and who you want to be.