ADHD Marriage: Do I Stay or Leave?

We had a long post (and follow-up email) from a woman who is at her wits end about how to resolve the “do I stay or leave?” question.  She cares for her husband, but he is driving her crazy and he impacts her life so negatively that she was depressed and on medications for a while.  A couple of people have already responded with supportive advice, so check out the comments, but here is the original message and our thoughts:

“What does the non-adhd spouse (me) do when I've already checked out the relationship??? My husband and my daughter both are adhd. I have been very active in learning and advocating on behalf of them and their adhd. Being married 18+ yrs. to this man and living with his adhd had eventually caused me to go on anti-depressants. I just couldn't take him or anything anymore. I didn't and don't want to "raise" another child who should be the adult and help raise the children too.  I think the thing that is most irritating me about him right now is that I feel like a parrot...I HAVE to repeat myself 2, 3, 4, 5 times or more the same statement, just because he can't/won't take the time to think on his own.

Now I'm at a crossroads in my life....I am having to decide, do I want to continue my marriage with this nice, wonderful, hardworking, caring man who simply irritates the crud out me or do I want to go and live my life in a way that is more conducive for me?

He understands he has adhd but doesn’t bother to take his medication regularly. 
The thing about most adhd people is that they are not great follow-throughers (if that's a word).  So even though he starts out with good intentions and wants to work things out in our marriage, I'm the one who has to work on it and follow up on him.  We were heading in a decent direction, but....he only takes his medicine to stay awake while he drives at night or if he's having withdrawal headaches.

If I tell him I'm leaving again he'll try his razzle dazzle I'll change speech.  I feel guilty because I know for the most part he wants to do right by me, but "fails" to do so.  That makes me feel horrible that it is put back on me again that I have to spare his feelings, etc....I have to be the role model, the leader, the everything again in the family, but at his pace.  I don't want to go back into depression and be on
anti-depressants again and I don't necessarily want to abandon my husband/family, but I don't want to go back where I was to where I didn't have any hope left and the only way out is to leave.

I hope you can understand my pain, agony and heartbreak in even feeling this way.  My husband isn't home long enough to be a part of any support groups or to attend counseling.”

Melissa's response:

If you have already truly “checked out of the relationship”, then you have answered your own question.  But I suspect that you haven’t really completely checked out both because of what you wrote and because you are asking the question in the first place.  I do think, though, that the situation you are in is a tough one.  You feel as if you have “checked out”, but also admit that you don’t want to “abandon” your husband and family and that he is basically a good guy whose habits drive you crazy.

The good news here is that you are able to separate the man from the habits.  It is also positive that he recognizes his ADHD and has gone to the effort of at least getting medication.  The bad news is that your husband has not made a consistent effort to get the habits that drive you crazy under control.  He shouldn’t have to be your puppet, but to be a good partner he needs to recognize that both people to work at staying together happily.  It is very, very common that the ADHD partner is truly unaware of the effect that their behaviors and habits have on others - even if you've talked about it.

ADHD can be an explanation for bad behavior, but it is not an excuse.  It sounds to me as if your husband has not internalized the impact that his actions have on you mentally and physically, nor has he come to terms with his responsibility, as part of your marriage, to make your relationship an easier one.

But it also sounds as if you may be unwittingly aiding and abetting his lack of effort by following up on whatever he isn’t doing.

Most certainly, you should not be a parent to your husband.  And, when a person has bad symptoms of ADHD, it is all too easy to fall into that trap.  Sometimes the help and picking up the pieces actually encourages the continuation of the behavior that you don’t want.  A small example might be picking up his clothes from the floor to wash them.  If he doesn’t put them in the laundry hamper, then they shouldn’t get washed.  Eventually, he’ll learn that if he wants clean underwear he either has to pick up, or do his own laundry.

That’s a small example, and not meant to trivialize your issues, which are significant.  Whether or not you stay should be dependent upon whether or not you and your husband are able to get to a place where you can live in harmony.  The current status quo is simply not working.  No one should be held hostage by another’s ADHD.  But no one should have to live with a person who has “checked out” of the relationship, either.  Your husband needs to fully internalize that there are ramifications for his continued inaction.  (The fact that he only takes his meds when it is convenient for him shows a disregard for your feelings and partnership.  But it also shows that he CAN do it, with sufficient self-interest.)  You need to internalize that you are NOT responsible for him.

So, if you haven’t checked out, it’s time for a serious conversation and some action on both of your parts.  Note that it is really important, if you are going to give it one more go, that you take your own biases out of your relationship at the same time that he starts to work on picking up his end of the bargain.  This means that you genuinely need to give him another chance...don't set him up to fail.  So…

  • Sit down and tell him that your relationship does not work for you, and that though you love him and think that he’s a really great guy in many significant ways, you find his current behavior towards you impossible to live with.  You will no longer be his parent – it’s time for him to start taking responsibility for his life.  You hope he can, so that you’ll be able to stay together, but life is too short to be this unhappy forever
  • Insist that he start to consider how his behavior affects you.  This means that he needs to take his medication because doing so is in everyone’s best interests.  It also means that he is now responsible for cleaning up after himself, both literally and figuratively.  He should expect that the outcomes of any decision he makes – big or small – will be followed up by him, not you.  You are not his parent, nor his slave.  (But make sure to hold up your end of the bargain - don't act like his parent, either!)
  • Promise him that you will support his efforts by telling him openly what you need in a non-judgmental and non-angry fashion (and then choose carefully what you focus on, particularly at first, so as not to overwhelm him).  Promise him that you will start living in the present with him so that you two can have some better times together right away and so he doesn’t have to deal with your anger any more.  Give him an opportunity to tell you what he needs.
  • Start living out your experiences with him in the TODAY – let go of what he wasn’t able to accomplish in the past (don’t hold past grudges and expectations against him…don’t assume he can’t do it)
  • Make sure that you are treating him respectfully and fairly – and as another adult, not a child.  Stop yourself immediately if you find yourself giving him advice or directions, or if you nag him.  For the next month, make your marriage a “nag-free zone”.  DON'T, under any circumstances, allow yourself to get back into parent mode.
  • Finally, and perhaps most importantly, give him a break sometimes.  This is not a punishment.  This is a re-defining of boundaries to see if you can find a place with which you are both comfortable.  Be empathetic – it’s not easy for anyone to make the kind of sea change that the two of you need to make.

Making these changes will not be easy for either of you.  Once you start thinking about it, you’ll find that his behaviors contribute to your relationship issues, but so, too, do your responses to his behaviors.  Wait until you see how much effort it takes to get yourself out of “nag”, “anger” and “I’ve shut you out” mode!

Don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself.  If he’s just goofing around and making you late for an appointment, explain nicely “It’s important for me to be on time for X.  I’m planning on leaving in about 10 minutes.  If you’re not ready to go, then I’ll leave you the directions so you can get there when you are ready.”  (Tone of voice is important in this communication, and trust that the new you is bound to make him mad sometimes.)

Eventually, you want to find a situation in which you are happy.  It might be with him, or it might not.  But you will probably feel better about whatever outcome you reach if you have tried once more to get his assistance in making your marriage work.