ADHD and Marriage: Six Ideas to Strengthen Your Relationship Today

For those of you who now see that ADHD might be hurting your marriage there is a lot of information to digest.  So here are six important, easy-to-remember ideas to focus on first so you can start improving your marriage right now.

1.) Think relationship, not marriage.  You’ve probably been thinking a lot about saving your marriage.  Don’t.  What you really want to do is improve your relationship.  For many, “marriages” are the territory of who does what, when and how.  “Relationships” are all about interactions and connections.  Improve your connections, and the “who does what” will follow.  Next time you run into a problem with your spouse, ask yourself “what could I do right now that would most improve my relationship with my partner?”

2.)  Put respect and validation at the top of your “to do” list.  As your relationship has worsened, you’ve both developed some habits that really hurt you.  These probably include nagging, avoiding, yelling, and invalidating your partner.  Along the lines of “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” it’s time to take a hard look at your own role in these dynamics and vow to respect your partner, or at least to stop nagging and yelling.  This can be hard – you both feel angry for a reason, and nagging usually enters a relationship when one spouse feels the other isn’t responsible enough.  But if you vow to not nag, then that makes it necessary to find other ways to make sure things get done…and these other ways will end up being more productive in the long run.  (Note here:  that does not mean putting all tasks on the shoulders of the non-ADHD spouse – it means finding creative ways to help the ADHD spouse take responsibility for figuring out how to hold up his or her end of the relationship.)  For more about getting past anger and how to stop nagging, see my book, The ADHD Effect on Marriage.

3.)  Stay in the present and the future.  The past was painful, and full of broken promises.  But don’t let it drag down your future.  You didn’t know then what you know now – that ADHD symptoms and responses to those symptoms were getting in your way.  You did the best you could do, but now you have new insight into how to do better.  So next time something happens that gives you that “pit of the stomach” bad feeling, think about your response.  What can you do right now to make the situation (and your relationship) better?  What can you learn?  How can you positively move forward?  Don’t keep bringing yourself back to a negative place (“this feels just like what has happened before.  It’s further proof that we’ll never be able to work it out”)  Start dreaming of your better future and acting in ways that will get you there.  Mistakes don’t have to be proof of incompetence or ill will.  Sometimes they are an indication that a person is willing to take risks to make changes.

4.)  Make it a priority to set time aside to “attend” to each other.  Don’t just work on the organizational stuff or on correcting problems.  Yes, getting better organized and correcting problems are important.  But what will really give you the hope you need to be able to move forward are the little, emotional connections you start making as you start to see change.  One ADHD man who has started to see results from his ADHD treatment recently told me “my wife is warming up!  It’s amazing and wonderful.”  Needless to say, he’s motivated to keep trying to improve things because he sees the tangible benefit of his work so far.  Another couple “forced” themselves to go on some dates and, after a few disasters, found that they actually were having a good time together again.  It was something of a revelation for them to understand that underneath it all they really did like each other.  So while you are struggling to work out the “unfun” stuff, make sure you also get some time to see if, and how, you can enjoy each other.

5.)  Aggressively treat the ADHD.  You haven’t optimized your ADHD treatment if you aren’t working through all three “legs” of treatment

  • changing the physiology of the brain to address chemical issues
  • making behavioral and habit changes and
  • improving your spousal interactions

If you genuinely want to be in a happy relationship again, you must optimize your treatment.  You’ll be amazed at the difference it makes.  (For a more complete description of this, see my book.)

6.)  Applaud your progress.  It’s hard to make lasting changes when you have ADHD, which is why it’s so important that non-ADHD partners recognize improvements.  Yet non-ADHD partners are often afraid to acknowledge improvement.  “If I tell him he’s doing a good job then he’ll stop trying so hard and we’ll be back where we were.”  Don’t fall into this trap.  Good treatment means that what has happened in the past doesn't need to continue happening in your future.  So put aside your apprehension.  You both need to be applauded for your progress.  Celebrate things that please you to encourage further growth.  (So when your non-ADHD spouse stops nagging, don’t hold your tongue…say thank you!)



How do you get passed the argument on communication?  What, who, when, how,  body language, tone of voice. Trying to get passed this argument before we even get to the real problem. I am so tired of this cycle. I don't have the energy. I just want to discuss the problem without having to discuss all the semantics first.


My husband used to do the drill down into semantics when he felt it was more important to "win" than it was to discuss.  In retrospect I realize that this time period was one of extreme defensiveness for him.  To change this cycle you'll need to get him to understand that you as a person aren't attacking him, but that his symptoms are causing the same issues for you that they would cause for anyone.  In otherwords, you need to de-personalize the attack.  (I use the word "attack" here from his perspective, not yours.  You may feel as if you are just voicing your opinion while to him it might feel like an attack.)

I wrote a blog post for ADHD men, in particular (you don't mention gender here) that is in the favorite posts area that a number of women gave to their husbands and it helped them realize that it wasn't that their spouse was unreasonable, but that their ADHD were getting in the way.  Once that realization hits, the desire to listen and try harder improves.  You can find the post at this link.

still nothing!

I have tried the being nice and working on the relationship side of it before.  I would feel like I was at least getting somewhere, but within a blink of an eye somehow someway I have managed to tick her off.  I trully feel like it doesn't not matter what I do because it feels like my every action frustrates her.  How do get over that type of problem? and the semantics part of it, for me, is the main reason a lot of us with adhd get upset.  I know for me, if my spouse would just word her questions and/or comments just a little different(or even a different tone) I would not get near as mad. 

Ignoring the past and what example that presents to children

One of the biggest things that concerns me as my husband and I negotiate wreckage of the last couple of years is the impact on the kids. While things are considerably better--- my husband engaged in a series of affairs, blamed everything wrong with his life on me, and behaved irresponsibly in an effort to "feel alive again." Combo of mid-life crisis, untreated ADHD, and a little borderline personality disorder = just a soup of unpredictability and emotional chaos for the whole family----but he has become more self-aware and begun rebuilding a good relationship with us again. We are what he wants, most days.  And those are usually good days, family-wise.

However, there are days when he drops out without warning.  He acknowledges that this is unfair to the family, but he's *compelled* to do it.  I respond with hurt, and yes, yes, yes, anger. I know I need to just go on with my life as if his behavior did not affect me, but it just does.  As episodes become fewer, the ones that he has become more painful. I start to believe things are better, and then bang! He's MIA again.

I recognize this is something I'll have to deal with in my relationship with him, and thanks to your words above, Melissa, about remembering it's a relationship, not just a marriage. 

But what about the kids? I worry constantly about the message he is sending, and I am sending to my teenaged sons about how to behave. They see their father lying to me, dropping out without notice, treating me with disrespect, ignoring them or yelling at them about their perceived imperfections.  They see me angry, depressed, and yet allowing him to stay in our lives, time after time. They harbor vast resentments against their dad for his irresponsible behavior, and me for my rage, and yet I see them begin to mimic it. They recognize how little respect he has for me some days--- or for anyone--- and they can't help but say, "well, that's how my mom/dad behaves, so I guess I can, too."  Teenagers don't have the full picture yet; it's hard enough for me to change my behavior from the deep, deep anger I feel at all of this to a calm exterior.  How can I expect them to do so?

What can I do to minimize this destructive influence on their lives, to help them see this isn't the best way to live, and they must find more positive ways or repeat our pattern of misery?  To believe that somewhere underneath all this suffering and self-indulgence, their father truly loves them, and really doesn't want them to act the way he does? And I don't think my self-righteous anger is an appropriate response, either.  I can tell them all I want, try to buffer everything and explain in a loving way what's going on--- but his actions--- my son told me deepest cut I ever gave him was once when I spat out in frustration, "You're acting just like your father!"  At which point, he slammed his fist into something in unbridled anger.  He absolutely reflected the worst of both of us in that moment.

How do I help them? Yes, I get that I need to calm down and pretend that my husband's behavior means nothing. I get that I have to be the responsible one and set a good example. But what happens when I fail at that? How do I help them, if I'm barely hanging on myself? I don't want them to grow up and be "us" with the people they love, and I'm so afraid it's just too late.