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.