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!)