ADHD and Marriage: Using "Action and Reaction" to Turn Your Relationship Around

There are a number of posts in our forum from non-ADD spouses who would like to blame their ADD spouses for the troubles in their marriages.  I personally think “blame” should be considered a 4-letter word that is banned from all marriages.  The fact of the matter is that we are all responsible for the state of our relationships.  Or, to paraphrase Newton’s laws of motion, “for every action, there is a reaction”.

Action, reaction.  Non-ADD spouses have difficulty seeing the role that their reactions play in the day-do-day health of their relationships.  To get a better feel for it, think about this (somewhat) hypothetical situation:

For the third time this week, your spouse comes home later from the office than he had told you he would.  Dinner is soggy, and you finally decided to sit down and eat with the kids without him.  When he walks through the door you…

  1. Smile and give him a hug
  2. Give him a few minutes to decompress, because you feel he must be stressed out from the long day
  3. Offer to warm up his meal and sit with him while he eats
  4. Tell him you were just about to put the kids to bed and nicely invite him to join you if he would like
  5. Tell him his meal is cold and stomp upstairs to put the kids to bed
  6. Complain that he is always late and you hate that
  7. Ignore him, and keep washing the dishes

Any of these responses is possible.  But the first four show affection and compassion for the late spouse’s situation, and give him (or her) the benefit of the doubt when it comes to his reasons for being late.  The last three do not.

When a non-ADD spouse acts in ways consistent with affection and compassion, the ADD spouse feels accepted and safe.  In that type of safe environment, ADD symptoms (which are often emotionally painful to both spouses, not just the non-ADD spouse) are easier to both laugh at and, also, to address.  Safety is a critical element of treating ADD.  It's hard work to work to manage many of these symptoms, and a safe, loving environment makes all that effort feel worthwhile.  At the opposite end of the spectrum, when an ADD spouse feels consistently attacked or punished, it is all too easy to fall into the pattern of feeling as if it isn’t even worth making the effort to improve things because he’ll never be good enough in any event.

I would argue that, in fact, the response to the late homecoming is MORE important than the late homecoming itself.  Those last three responses can be seen as forms of punishment – and “punishment” should not be an element of any relationship between two loving adults.  If you have an issue (such as frequently coming home later than expected) there are many constructive ways to address it – but punishment isn’t one of them.

Here’s another example:
Your ADD spouse is starting another project that you fear will not get completed, just as the last three did not.  You are frustrated by the mess these projects leave behind.  You:

  1. Move your stuff out of the spare bedroom and help him move his tools and projects in there, promising to close the door on his mess and stop bugging him about it
  2. Talk with him about your growing frustration with his ADD symptom, disorganization, and offer to find some books on organization for ADD adults that might help him work on this symptom
  3. Offer to help with the project (or encourage a teenage child to do so)
  4. Clean up, laughing it off as part of what makes your spouse who he is
  5. Tell him he can’t do any more projects until he finishes the ones he has not yet completed
  6. Complain that he never cleans up after himself
  7. Fume, in silence

It takes patience to respond in the first four ways, as well as a “can do” kind of attitude.  These responses demonstrate an underlying respect for the spouse and who he is.  They also show a willingness to roll up your sleeves and pitch in to help the household run more smoothly.  In other words, these four solutions acknowledge that disorganization is part of the fabric of having ADD, and provide specific actions to take that into account in your relationship.  Contrast that with the last three responses.  They are inactive (no help or constructive ideas offered), negative, and demeaning.

Here’s the good news.  A non-ADD spouse can change his or her response to their ADD spouse at will.  Well, I say “at will” which may make it sound easy.  It’s not easy, but it is possible.  To do so, a non-ADD spouse needs to:

  • Acknowledge that “for every (ADD) action there is a reaction” and that choosing the right reaction is critical to the success of your relationship
  • Forgive the ADD spouse for past “infractions” and let go of any anger of frustration these past actions might have induced (this step is CRITICAL.  Without it you will not succeed in changing your responses.)
  • Share responsibility for where you are today, and stop blaming
  • Set a goal of finding an active, positive response to actions that create conflict or frustration today and in the future (notice – setting a goal is not the same thing as immediately doing something.  It means that you are going to work to figure out how to do it effectively…ie. not fake it…and stick with the goal over the long term)
  • As you start to do this, you won’t always get it right on the first try.  Talk with your spouse about your new goal, and set up times (at least at first) to brainstorm better responses with him/her (he’s likely to immediately see that it’s in his best interests to participate in this activity)
  • Ask the ADD spouse for assistance in implementing any plans that the two of you might create as you discuss responses (because for every non-ADD spouse response, there is then the ADD spouse response…it goes both ways!)
  • Consider including a therapist in these activities as a therapist may be able to “mediate” and/or come up with good ideas for positive responses that can help you gain momentum.
  • Give each other positive reinforcement every time you get it right, such as “I really liked the way you responded to my being late tonight” and “thanks for creating that new work space.  I feel much better now that we can just close the door on your mess.”

Action and reaction.  It really is a matter of willpower.  You can’t “fake” it.  Marriage research shows that spouses can tell when their significant other says “it’s okay” and really means “it’s not okay”.  Couples who “fake” it make no improvement at all.  No, while they may take work, these responses need to be real.  But recognizing the overarching importance of the non-ADD spouse’s responses in improving the health of the relationship can be the turning point that starts a relationship back towards the loving partnership you deserve.  It was for me.


Thank You, Melissa!

I just have to thank you so much for your insightful, intelligent posts. By sharing your personal, sometimes painful, journey as the spouse of an ADD-er, you are helping so many of us in relationships affected by ADD. I feel my relationship with my husband and three kids is on such an upswing, due largely in part to reading your story and following your constructive advice. I have an appointment with my counselor today and I am passing along this website's address. I need to have my sister read your postings as well. Thank you again for having such a positive impact on so many lives!

Why I Do This

Fran - thanks for your lovely words.  I'm delighted to hear you sound so hopeful.  The kind of improvements you are experiencing is exactly why I devote so much time to this blog (and why my husband is okay with me sharing our story so publicly, as he feels it's important to help others, too). 

Melissa Orlov

Thank You Melissa

Your comments apply so well to any marriage or relationship with another person, and especially to those involving ADD. If this were eight years ago, when I began an intimate relationship with a gentleman, now my husband, with ADD, OCD and Tourette Syndrome, perhaps I wouldn't have made so many mistakes, and would be less stressed than I am now. I keep trying and continue to learn everyday. Thanks for this blog.


I think the desire to blame is not usually related to the action. In many cases the frustration grows because the non-ADD spouse feels disrespected. This can be difficult thing to overcome because in most of our relationships we judge the level of respect by someone actions. The ADD spouse is also frustrated because the non-ADD spouse is not respecting them for behavior where they have limited control over. I could not change my reaction to her (action or inaction) until I understood how difficult it was for her to change or control certain behaviors.

I have tried so many of the

I have tried so many of the suggestions you have made with absolutely no results. Making a plan never works, because when I try to talk about ways to implement the plan, he either says he thought we were just discussing & never actually made a plan, or he forgot the plan, or he's too tired or frustrated to go back & start to make a plan again. He forgets every new goal and never seems to make the slightest improvement. We've been for therapy & psychologist made all kinds of suggestions, but Ken never took any of them. We've been to classes & lectures. My husband complimented the teacher/doctor on how well he hit the nail on the head of what the problem was, but he never would implement any of the suggestions. He just says he is doing the best he can & to leave him alone. I tried being very pleasant about his being late every single night, not just occasionally, but he doesn't consider it's any big deal anyway. He doesn't care if I always eat alone & have to reheat for him & clean up so late. He's says that just the way he is. We are so far back behind these items that are mentioned in your articles, that I don't see how we could even get to the situation you are describing & to trying your methods of resolving them.

Not Effectively Changing

Your husband needs to meet you somewhere in the middle - and at least to recognize that "thinking" is not the same as "doing".  "Leave me alone" and "never implementing any of the suggestions" plus a couple of bucks will get you a cup of coffee...and that's it (used to be a dime, but inflation...)

I would make sure that he really doesn't care that you eat alone, and make sure that you aren't just interpreting it that way because you're frustrated.  If he doesn't care, then you have a problem - your idea of a relationship and his don't match.  If he does care, and he just can't pull himself together, I think it's time to get into a position where you aren't the person to whom he is (feeling) responsible.  That may sound odd to you, since you don't think that he is feeling responsible to you at all, but sometimes there is an odd dynamic that develops in these relationships, where the ADD person starts to resent the constant reminders of the non-ADD person, even if they are nicely delivered.  Once that sets in, all sorts of avoidance starts...often under the guise of "I'm trying, but just can't"

This may not be your case, but I can't see the downside of hiring a coach at this point.  Get someone else to hound him and to help him find EFFECTIVE strategies for change, versus the ineffective ones he has used to date.

If that doesn't work, you may want to start thinking about whether this relationship is the right one for you.  At some point he has to either take control of his symptoms or suffer the consequences of not doing so.  That sounds harsh in writing, but he wouldn't keep his job if he were this ineffective at why should he be unconcerned about his marriage (arguably even more important)?

The good news is that at least he has been trying, and has been open to going to the therapist, etc.  This suggests that he may be able to make good progress with a coach.

Melissa Orlov

Sounds good on paper

I, too, have tried every suggestion I have read, about dealing with my ADD husband of 35 years. Because of his laid back personality and his lack of consistency, I was forced to be the disciplinarian and to keep up with the routine of life. The main difficulty for me is seldom being able to count on him. His word in seldom honored and there is always an excuse as to why (add passive aggressive to the mix). He has his own business in part because he is aware that he is so scattered that he is difficult to work with. Interestingly enough he does detailed finance work and is very successful. I worked with him for a few years doing the billing - the least important part of the business in his eyes. If I had not billed his clients, they would not have been billed. Because I have worked for him, I witnessed him accomplishing tasks at work, but once he walks in our home he goes into full fledged ADD mode. I have taken about as much as I can. I left him a few years ago, but I love him and let myself belief his promises that it would be different. I can't see a compromise. If a friend let me down as often as he does, I would end the friendship. It would not be worth the frustration. For interest sake, he is ENFP and I am ISTJ. Please help.


It sounds as if your husband has the discipline to do at least some things that are important to him - that is the business stuff.  Is it possible that he thinks that the business is more important to him than you are?  Or, at least more interesting?  Or, conversely, that because you are so competent he doesn't really need to help out much around the house?

In our old days, my husband found it far easier to rely on me to do the things he wasn't interested in doing (and then shut out my nagging him about his inconsistency) than to make the effort to figure out how to create the discipline to accomplish those things that helped smooth out our relationship because they were important to me.  It took him a long time to connect that as long as I was unhappy, so was he (by default).  That it was in his best interests to invest some time in working with me to determine what sort of middle ground we could find together. (Far better than always being told what to do by someone with different priorities than you!)

Your husband made your promises that things would be different.  How did he tell you he would measure that difference?  Did you put a plan into place for making sure the goals that you jointly set to define "success" were attainable, measurable, and not likely to get moved? Did you agree on what needed to be different, exactly?

Though this sounds unromantic, perhaps you can try a contract.  Working through the details of the contract may help you sort through what's really important, and what's not so important as well as what seems fair to both of you.  Consider delineating things such as:

  • what things are the most important to both of you in terms of a successful relationship?  (Make sure to take both of your needs into account - this shouldn't be just what he can do to please you...he has needs, too)
  • how do you define "success" in these areas of importance?
  • how will you measure progress towards success in a way that you can reasonably track?
  • what rules of communication will there be about changing the list of items on which you are both working?
  • Since you are opposites, what fun things can you do together that will bridge some of your differences and/or highlight areas of compatibility?

It's not unusual for a spouse to treat their partner differently than the rest of the world, but it is often unfair that this happens (the theory goes "if I can't let my hair down when I'm at home, when can I?"  While this is true, it is hard when letting go means abdicating responsibility, rather than just relaxing.  No partner wants to be a maid.)

I would also explore the topic of how he feels (and you feel) about your own role in your not getting along.  Sometimes being with a disciplinarian can be a turn off as well as a demotivator.  Or, another way to look at it is what my husband used to say to me when I was a disciplanarian in our family "I can never be good enough for why should I try?"  Happily, we've gotten through that phase by deciding that the "disciplinarian/bad boy" combo was not how we wanted to live our lives.  When both people come to an agreement about this it means that the disciplinarian has to have restraint, while the "bad boy" has to start taking back his responsibilities...and it can work, with lots of conversation and true commitment.

In this case, I would posit that passive/aggressive is just part of "being laid back" as you put it.  I am guessing that your husband ACTS laid back, but inside he resents the demands you are making on him (and probably the tone of voice that you are using to make them, as you say that you "have taken about as much as you can").  His way of responding to your domination (and the inherent criticism of him as a person that that domination betrays) is to store it up inside (MAYBE it will go away!) until it bursts out in some aggressive comment or action.  Then he retreats again (easier to be passive than face the fury!) until it builds up again...  He probably won't admit that he's doing this if you confront him about it, but if you start talking with him about how he feels, you may be able to get some of that bad stuff that is building up out of him before he whacks you with it by surprise some day...

So, in the short term, are there ways to get around whatever symptoms he is showing when he is in "full-fledged ADD mode"?  Can you hire someone to pick up the slack for you around the house?  Give him some small things to do that will start him on the road to participating more?  Change the tone of your home so that he doesn't feel as if he's not needed?

Melissa Orlov

How can I avoid the parent/child trap while trying this advice?

This is another excellent post with more great advice. Thank you for all the words of wisdom you provide. I am a non-ADHD spouse struggling to make my marriage work and support my recently diagnosed wife. This article has helped punctuate the fact that my reactions have powerfully influenced the course of my relationship. I worry, though, that some of the strategies set out in this article will reinforce the parent/child dynamic that often surfaces in a relationship with an adder. Both spouses often resent this outcome. How can this be avoided given the strategies you propose (I will assume that they are not mutually exclusive)? Thanks.

Avoiding Parent/Child

One good way to avoid parent/child is to let someone else be the bad guy for a while.  Perhaps a coach would be of use to your spouse, and then you can detach a bit and bite your tongue for a while as new patterns get put into place.

I would pair this with some good spouse-to-spouse time together - romance or fun or new adventures that remind you both that all is not a struggle.

Melissa Orlov

Reactive Behaviors....

The more I read this site, the more I can relate! This is an awesome blog, and I think it is 100% accurate. My relationship has had its ups and downs, and in the beginning, I blamed my ADD partner. Once I began to learn about ADD and how the mind of an ADD person worked, I was intrigued and very irritated with myself. I realized that alot of my reactions and actions towards him were negative in every sense of the word. I used to get so frustrated that tasks weren't completed, or they were forgotten, or they took too long to be accomplished. One day I thought to myself, in the end, being frustrated over a task, is it really worth it?? To me, even though I felt I was taken on more responsibility, I still felt that it wasn't worth the daily battles, let alone the aggravation. Strangely coming to this realization brought me some internal peace. I stopped caring about what wasn't done, and started noticing the things that were done. I also acknowledge that ADD or not, he can't read my mind. I also started giving him more positive reinforcement to encourage the good habits rather than the not so good habits. I felt that this has been a more constructive way to approaching him, then constantly complaining. The more I complained, the worse things got, it was demotivating. It was AND IS VERY difficult to find the patience within myself to understand where he was coming from, but I feel now that I learned that I was just as wrong, I feel more postiive about the frustrations slowly dwindling in the future. I think the hardest part, is loving someone and knowing that these small changes to the ADD habits could take years to improve, and I looked at the situation in a whole. At face value, I love him, and he is worth every minute. That makes it all more enjoyable when things slowly reach middle ground. Recently, we are reaching new frustrations in our relationship, and to better understand why we felt the way we did; we exchanged notes. Things we dislike in the relationship and things that we liked in the relationship. I think it opened our eyes alot and it helped make alot of sense out of our current frustrations. Now, we are working towards brainstorming better approaches. I am so thankful for this sight, just being able to vent and talk to those who understand has already made a dramatic impact for me. It has made me appreciate him more.