The ADHD Marriage Balancing Act

Ned Hallowell likes to say that while ADHD can be a reason you did something in the past, it shouldn’t be used as an excuse to do it over and over again.  But before the non-ADD of you start to say “see, this is exactly what I mean!” let me clarify.  Both ADHD and non-ADHD spouses sometimes use ADHD as an excuse for their behavior…just in different ways.  So where do you draw the line?  What’s an excuse, and what’s real?  How much does either partner accommodate ADHD, and when do you draw a line and say “enough!”?  It’s a delicate balancing act.

First, let’s look at the difference between ADHD as a “reason” something is done and an “excuse” by looking at examples:

Reason:  Previously undiagnosed ADHD led a man to be distracted so regularly that his spouse felt unloved.
Excuse:  The same man, now diagnosed, refuses to work on diminishing the distraction he experiences even though in conversations about their marriage his wife has indicated that this is one of the main sources of pain for her in their marriage.

Reason:  Woman with ADHD cannot make it out the door to important monthly office parties with her husband as she has no sense of time and gets lost in the act of getting ready.  She says she tries hard but her efforts aren’t paying off.
Excuse:  Same woman continues to be late, and makes no effort to try other strategies for getting out the door.  She also gets angry when her husband decides that he’ll leave ahead of her and meet her there.

In both of these examples, the ADHD symptom (distraction, inability to track the passing of time) explains the initial behavior.  It is the unwillingness of the spouse to take responsibility for finding a suitable “middle ground” with his/her spouse that turns the symptom from “reason” to “excuse”.  Most people with ADHD are able, with perseverance, to find a way to manage at least some of their most problematic symptoms.  From a healthy relationship standpoint, it’s important for the ADHD spouse to make this effort.

The ADHD version of using ADHD as an excuse is “you know I can’t do that because I have ADHD.  I’m done trying (or don’t need to try).”  The non-ADHD spouse’s version of using ADHD as an excuse is “You’ll never be able to do that because you have ADHD.  There is no reason to keep hoping that things will get better because you prove time and time again you can’t succeed.”

Neither is accurate.  The best ADHD marriages are those that find a middle ground.  Put another way, it is NOT the responsibility of the ADHD spouse to become “non-ADHD”.  Nor is it the responsibility of an ADHD spouse to meet every whim and expectation of an ultra-demanding non-ADD partner.  On the other side of things, it is not the responsibility of the non-ADHD spouse to constantly have to pick up after the disasters of an ADHD spouse who is not treating his or her ADHD.  The idea here is to acknowledge the needs of BOTH partners, and find a working middle ground that works well enough for both to become happy with their relationship again.  In the worst case scenario, a couple will find that there are “deal breakers” – things that are incredibly important to one spouse that simply can’t be accommodated by the other.  This is where divorce comes in…but that is, of course, a last resort for most.  It’s much more desirable to find that middle ground.

You might think that finding this middle ground would be easy, but in ADHD-affected relationships, there is a complicating factor – the ADD spouse is often out of touch with how their ADHD affects other people.  In addition, after a lifetime of listening to people tell them they could do better “if they would only try harder”, people with ADHD are understandably sensitive to criticism that their spouse might make of their role in the decline of their relationship.

Couple this with an almost uncanny ADHD ability to create their own happy little zone that doesn’t relate to the world (and people) around them, and you have the makings of a great deal of miscommunication, misunderstanding, and hard feelings.

My husband will still tell you that the hardest part of dealing with his ADHD wasn’t learning about what ADHD, or experimenting with ways to deal with it.  The hardest part was seeing – and internalizing - what effect ADHD had on me and the people around him.  He was pretty happy doing his work and being on his computer (and having the house and family organized by his spouse).  Even though I told him repeatedly how miserable I was, he still didn’t comprehend what I was saying.  The eye-opener for him was that he started working for someone with ADHD and got to experience first hand what it was like to be with someone who was completely unaware of how his answering a cell phone interrupted a meeting, or how the impossible requests and always late timetables he imposed kept everyone running without purpose.  George tried to “talk some sense” into this man, only to be rebuffed.  Soon he began to see parallels between how his ADHD symptoms affected our relationship and what he was seeing in the office.

You can’t replicate this experience, though you can ask your spouse to trust others who have had it (i.e. us and others like us).  It simply takes a willingness to suspend the ADD spouse’s disbelief in what his unhappy spouse is telling him for a while, and replace it with an openness to deciding that ADHD can, and is, affecting everyone around him as much as it is affecting him.

Once an ADHD spouse is willing to admit that those whom they love are affected in a negative way by his behaviors, the logical next step is to ask for input on figuring out what needs to change.  Or, put another way, if your motivation is to change what hurts your spouse and your relationship most, don’t waste energy and effort changing just any thing.  Target what needs changing the most.  As people with ADHD are notoriously bad at creating hierarchies (i.e. most in need of change at one end of the list to least in need of change at the other) and because the issue isn’t how one person is acting, but how two people are interacting, it makes sense to do this together.

You can’t change everything that makes you unhappy.  My personal rule of thumb is to “let go” of at least 50% of the things that bother me (the non-ADHD spouse) and ask my husband to let go of half of what is bothering him.  As a couple, focus on only those symptoms that you identify as being most destructive.  If you can’t tease out which these are from a rather long list, get a therapist to help you.  (For us, the first two things we chose to focus on were diminishing my anger, and having him spend more time with me when he was focused just on me and us.)

This may sound as if you are giving up a lot.  "Let go of 50%?" you say!  But what we found is that the stuff at the bottom of the list wasn't as important as we had thought.  It only seemed important because we were at such odds with each other.  Once we focused on the important things, our increasing happiness with each other and with our relationship helped those smaller things disappear.

If the relationship is to be repaired, neither partner can use ADHD as an excuse.  Somewhere deep inside the ADHD spouse has to find the energy to attack important ADHD symptoms from every angle until he finds an approach that resolves the issues those symptoms were creating.  And somewhere deep inside the non-ADHD spouse has to find hope, forgiveness and generosity of spirit.

It takes immense effort (and usually improved communication), but the rewards – a relationship which is more balanced and respectful – can lead to the next step, falling back in love again.