ADHD and Marriage: Trying Harder vs. Changing

You may be frustrated at the slow progress that seems to happen in your relationship.  You push and push, yet little seems to change.  You may have read about my comment that “If nothing changes, nothing changes” elsewhere on this blog – I woke up this morning wondering if we could use this idea to help couples make progress, and wondering if a few of you might like to join me in an experiment that might improve your marriage.  Read on, and you’ll find the experiment at the end.

My insight is this – people often equate “doing something” with making progress…you can easily think of examples at work, school and at home (“busy-work” vs. meaningful work, responding to time consuming but unproductive emails, etc.)  As you try to put your marriage to rights, though, non-productive work is a real problem because it fosters resentment.  You hate all the effort you put in that doesn’t seem to reward you with any benefits, right?

So, instead of asking “did I do something today?” or "did I try something today?" and measuring your effort against the yardstick of the amount of work you’ve done, measure it against the concept of “change”.  By this I mean physical, measurable change.  At the end of the day, you and your spouse ought to be able to list some number of things that you physically changed.  This gets to the issue of “trying” vs. “doing”.  I hear non-ADD spouses complain all the time that their spouse says “I tried” when, in fact, they see no measurable evidence that it’s true.  And I think that, often, ADD people don’t think in terms of physical changes because they are so used to hearing “try harder” and have come to accept “trying harder” as one measure of success.  It’s only success, though, if the trying brings actual results in specific positive change or movement.

So, what might it look like if you started measuring change, rather than doing something?

Some Examples of Change:

  • An intermittent taker of medications starts taking meds every day
  • A verbally abusive non-ADD spouse changes her tone of voice
  • An undiagnosed person suspecting he has ADD makes an appointment to get an evaluation
  • A woman who has forced her spouse to sleep on the sofa lets him return to their bedroom
  • A man who has an internet porn addiction goes to his first support group meeting
  • A woman suffering from chronic anger buys a book to learn how to start to control her anger…and shares her experience in reading it with her spouse to start their conversation about her needs
  • An ADD spouse who has refused to consider he might have ADD buys a book on the topic and reads it.

These are all ideas that people who have written on this site could use to make some measurable changes in their relationship.  Not one of these changes will “fix” their relationship…but it will start them on a positive path.  And adding more positive, measurable changes on top of that will soon cumulatively create a new environment.

The hardest changes of all are those that make you vulnerable and these are often peace symbols – like the woman who lets her husband back into the bedroom, or the man who buys the book on ADD.  Yet they are also the most important changes…for they have the potential to move a couple out of gridlock.

So here is my proposition:

I would like to start an experiment with some of the couples who participate at this site.  Is anyone willing to try to start measuring “change” and report back on what happens?  Both members of the couple need to participate, and would agree that at set intervals (day, week) they will talk with each other about the concrete changes they have made.  Here’s the script I propose for these check ins (in this case one change a day):

What change did I make today?

Can you see that I’ve made that change?

How will it help us in the long run?

That’s it – three simple questions, to be discussed by the couple for a maximum of five minutes.  If the other spouse can’t “see” the change, then perhaps it needs to be approached from a different direction.  For example, one spouse might say “I posted notes reminding me to be nice to you.  I bit my tongue on three nasty things I wanted to say to you.  I think this will help us in the long run because my being nicer to you will help you get along with me better”.  The note would be a physical change.  But if the next day or week shows no signs that the tactic was effective (i.e. the notes didn’t encourage the better behavior), then time to try a new tactic.  Also, the spouse might respond to clarify the goal, for example “I hope that posting the notes does help you remember to be nicer to me, but of course I would want you to feel better about me, not just act nicer but be seething inside.”

You can see how this might help open up the conversation about what is working and what isn’t working, and how measuring change can help push the conversation along.  But note that I've set the conversation for 5 minutes max.  That's so you don't get bogged down in bringing up other topics...and so that the couple will not avoid the exercise because it takes too much time (the changes are the important part...the discussing just serves the purpose of solidifying the improvement and the knowledge that things are moving forward.)

So – if you’re up for it, please try it out for a while…and let me know the results.  Feel free to post “status reports” along with this blog post.

And remember – “if nothing changes, nothing changes”….Good luck!