ADHD & Marriage: A Simple Approach to Help You Make Progress

One of the participants of my couples course recently asked me “You talk about how important it is the measure how you are both doing against your goals…but what does that look like, exactly?”  It’s a great question about a really important part of moving your relationship forward.  Here’s how our conversation started, with a specific example so you all know what I’m referring to:

Me:  Let’s talk about something very specific as an example.  Tell me what one of your own goals is.

Him:  Hmm…I would like to be less surprising to my wife.


Me:  Let’s define that.  Does that mean you want to be more dependable?  Able to have more coherent conversations with her?  Easier to predict?

Him:  Yes


Me:  So let’s take one specific area of it, then – I’ll pick one since this is just an example – conversations that are more coherent. Let’s assume that you’ve discovered that the issue with your conversations is impulsivity and distractibility, which lead you to go in surprising directions in your conversations.  This shows itself in a few ways:

  • You interrupt more than you want to
  • You lose track of the conversation, then have trouble getting back into it
  • Your wife has trouble following the path of the conversation because she doesn’t understand where your next ideas are coming from (a byproduct of the “flat” vs. hierarchical nature of your brain)


Continuing on... With those ideas in mind, let’s create some specific things that you could try that might change this situation for you, as well as figure out how we will measure success.  You will be experimenting and, like a scientist, measuring your success.  For impulsivity, I would consider some of these options: trying mindfulness training so you can develop the habit of thinking before you speak; creating some verbal cues to minimize the effect that interruptions might have on your conversations; having a pad of paper with you to jot down thoughts you are afraid of losing.  Let’s say you pick the mindfulness training and the verbal cue.  Your plan and measurement ideas might look like this:

1.     Research mindfulness training options by Monday of next week.

a.     Call health club Wednesday (put reminder in phone)
b.     Call doctor’s office Thursday (set reminder for 9:05am)
c.      Search internet Friday at lunch (reminder for 11:55 am)
d.     Go to Amazon and look at books about mindfulness training (Friday lunch)

2.     Create verbal cue with wife

a.     Conversation about what the cue will be Wednesday evening (Sue has agreed to remind me of meeting)
b.     Start using cue (both)


Because the ideas in the plan are finite, you can measure whether or not you did them successfully.  Did you call the health club on Wednesday or not?  Did you have the verbal cue conversation, or not?  Later, your plan and measurement might be something such as “Do mindfulness meditation at 9:45pm Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday.”  Your measurement, again, is whether or not the item happened.  Eventually, after the mindfulness training has happened consistently, you would then measure whether or not it was helping you interrupt less often.  Your wife could give you feedback on this.

Perhaps you were not able to meet your goals.  Let’s say you called the health club and they had no ideas for you, but you didn’t call the doctor’s office.  Take time to understand why you didn’t do it.  Did you forget to put a reminder alarm into your phone?  If so, write a note you keep at your desk (or wherever you are creating these plans) that says “put reminder in phone” and create the new habit of creating a reminder for EVERYTHING (once the habit is in place, you can take down the sign!)  If you put the reminder in, but ignored it, why?  Did you unrealistically schedule your call during work hours?  Did you not hear it?  What could you do better next time to increase your chances of not ignoring your next reminder?  Perhaps you need to “group” reminders into a specific 45 minute block of the day…if so, when would that be?

Be creative as you think of ideas, and work together as a couple to support the experimentation that goes along with this process.  But always remember to set your goals so they are measurable – that way you can get past the “I was thinking about it, so therefore that must be progress” syndrome that so many with ADHD seem to fall prey to.  “Thinking” and “doing” are not the same thing, neither for getting results nor for reassuring your spouse that you are committed to making changes.

In this example, there are other elements of “being less surprising to my wife” that eventually need to be addressed.  As a concept, “being less surprising” is confusing and provides no real direction – hence the process I’ve outlined here of defining the problem, narrowing it down, creating a plan, and measuring success.  As you gain success (and learning about what makes you most successful along the way) you’ll be able to back up and attack a different part of the issue (perhaps reliability or something).  Use the same method and attack one small part.  As you use this method over and over again you will find that you start to learn what works for you.  Perhaps NOTHING you assign yourself to do during work hours ever really gets done, so you decide to wake up half an hour earlier and spend that time on specific items you are working on.  Or perhaps you learn that the most effective reminder system is a pad of paper you carry with you, rather than a phone (easier to see everything at once).  You will get better and better at figuring out what an effective plan will be for you…and doing so will take less and less effort, while also making you more reliable.



Hi Melissa,


This is the first time I've ever posted a comment ever to any site.  I feel a little awkward.  I'm the non ADHD partner.  I'm exhausted.  I read your book and thought it would change my marriage.  We read it together, and read the chapters on understanding each other out loud to each other.  Counseling, meds, trying better and not harder, all followed.  Nothing changed.  I don't know what to do or where to turn.  I think I could handle all of the issues, and enjoy my marriage, and take all the real problems that come with ADHD, if it weren't for the financial stress.  I earn all the money; pay all the bills; hold everything in my name; have the bank accounts, vehicles and credit cards in my name; and am terrified of my husband's complete inability to be financially responsible.  I'm a lawyer and know I need to set up some way for my children to have assets available to them if I die.  But how do I take control of my own life, and separate from my husband's disastrous financial habits/inability to take care of himself?  We've talked and talked - and he knows he needs to change.  But he hasn't - what can I do short of divorce?  Even though I feel like the life has been sucked out of me, and that I am a sad imitation of the vibrant woman I was nine years ago when we met (and married after three months), I still love him - I'm not just staying with him for the children, I want to have a relationship, too.  But I can't continue being his keeper, and nothing has worked - nothing you've suggested, he just can't make the changes.  At what point do I say - ok, I understand you, I love you, but I can't live with the reality of you any longer?  This summer I've been unable to get out of bed in the morning for the first time in my life.  I am tired of having to continue to earn more and more money to pay for his expenditures, with my credit card and checking account, on things that I don't want.  Worst of all is when he buys me an expensive present because he loves me so much - I look at it and think, how am I going to pay for that?  Can I just cut him off financially?  Am I enabling him by allowing him to wreak havoc and pay his bills and rescue him?  But if I let him sink, that will have consequences for me.  I just don't know what to do.  I'm considering asking for a legal separation, and making him contribute half of our expenses.  But what if he doesn't?  Then what?


I would really appreciate any advice.  My counselor told me she can't help me anymore because all I talk about is money and my husband's inability to contribute.  I just don't know where to turn.



Finances and Boundaries

Finances are a tough issue. What I have read from Melissa's book is that we (Non-ADHD) need to focus on rebuilding our own happiness and joy, and work on destressing our own lives. Not to be personal, but have you tried taking his name off of accounts (checking, credit cards, etc.) And just giving him an allowance? Perhaps that way he could learn ways to better manage smaller amounts of money, without creating havoc for you financially? I have not personally experienced the financial issues with my husband, other than the fact that his "toys" are expensive, and the most hindrance for us financially. We recently separated (for reasons other than financial) and I struggled with the decision about what to do about money: do I continue to contribute the same amount I have throughout our marriage, take my income and run? I could not in good conscience do either, but I did sit down and go through all the bills and expenses and came up with a plan that I could live with (one that didn't involve me incurring all the debt and obligations, and didn't leave him destitute). I made the decision for me, and then once I felt comfortable with my plan, I told him what it would be. He absolutely did not like the plan one bit, but I have been firm. He hooted and hollered, but I did not budge. He does stress about it, but when he tries rope me in I don't engage in it - I tell him that I will not play the chicken little game anymore. If he thinks the sky is falling, then he needs to do something about that, not me. He actually started selling some of toys. Hmmm. I'm not saying separation is the right answer for you, but at least by establishing some firm boundaries for myself, it has enabled me to allow him to make his own decisions and deal with the consequences of his choices. Good luck and we will be cheering you on from the sidelines!

Could you give him a debit card?

These are not a good thing, usually, because there are fees associated. But you could give him a debit card with a set pre-loaded amount, enough to cover what he needs to spend or what you can afford to lose. When he tries to go over it, it won't work. He'll be embarrassed and maybe learn from that. It would give you peace that he couldn't overload the credit cards or checking account.

I feel like you do. We've done all the things you are supposed to do and my husband is still/again not working. Are there some cases of ADD that are just so severe they can't function? Should ADD be considered a disability in some cases? Or can all of them learn to function, they just choose not to?

Finances and boundaries

Would you feel comfortable telling me how you came up with a plan?  I am trying to do that.  I told him that I want to separate our finances, legally, and he is having a meltdown.  It does suck me in because I care about him and I feel like I'm hanging him out to dry - it feels cruel, because he has never, not once in his life, been financially responsible.  His own debt is overwhelming; he can't even open a checking account in his own name.  He doesn't bring in any money, so everything that we have I earn.  So, I'm going to close the accounts that have his name on them (there's only one checking account) and take back the credit card that he uses (its in my name and I pay all the bills).  That means he doesn't have any money.  When I told him I was going to do this he blamed me - said he wouldn't have done thus and such and all these other things that he's done if he'd known I was going to take this step (never mind the reality that he pays thousands of dollars in NSF fees and has had his account closed involuntarily in the past).  I want to get out of the blame game - I have the book on my lap like my bible and am following the "I am not my spouse's keeper" and "I am responsible for myself and only myself" and he still blames me for putting him into the position of not having a bank account.  I told him I wanted a legal separation and he said what's the reason for staying together if we're not going to share finances - which means, why be married if I'm not going to support him.  So - I guess I have to support him if I want to be married to him.  That's a raw deal for me.  Anyway - does this all sound crazy?  I feel crazy.

You're not crazy, but maybe your counselor is?


You're not crazy.  Finances are HUGE, HUGE, HUGE!  Your counselor says you talk about it too much?  Finances are the number 1 reason for divorce in this country!  It is a major cause of stress.  It is very serious.  For the sake of BOTH of your futures, you must be financially responsible.  If the counselor won't talk about this, maybe you can see a financial counselor.  Your husband may not listen, but you will have a starting point of discussion.

At the very least, cancel the credit card.  (For both of you.)  Instant credit has wreaked havoc on America's finances and I think it especially disastrous for ADHD'ers.  (personal experience with this) 

I suggest giving him a cash allowance each week.  Kind of old-school, but the gender roles are reversed.  :)  He can't say you're hanging him out to dry.

It's very hard, but keep the focus on finances.  There's no question you love him.  You're trying to save this marriage. 

Finances and Boundaries

I would be happy to share what my plan was, but since it may involves personal questions, we can do it in this forum or offline, your choice. If you want to do it offf-line then please use the private messaging feature and put the above subject matter in the subject line. I am an attorney too, so I get it (on all levels). If you prefer me to outline my plan and information for your considerationnon this forum just let me know and I would be happy to do so. kmh

Don't enable him.....

Is he disabled in any physical way? My heart breaks for you. Maybe if you cut him off and he has to feel the consequences of his own actions, or lack of actions, like working, then he might grow up. Sounds like a spoiled little rich kid. No one should have to buy a husband. My prayers are with you.....

I won't go into the history

I won't go into the history of what our lives have been like due to my husband's impulse control issues and money. I will just tell you what I have decided to do in order to relieve the stress it causes me. I do not have ADHD..and I do not work. However, I am expected to be 100% in charge of bills. He has no idea who we owe, what we owe, when it's due, for how long..NOTHING. He is the sole bread winner and has ADHD. We have been married for almost 14 years..I've tried everything.

I wanted to implement Dave Ramsey's program in February, but just as we got in a position to do it (had the money to put into savings for the $1000 'emergency fund' he says to set up) my husband stopped ADHD meds and came unraveled. His demands for money became greater and greater until I was promising him so much out of each paycheck that it was beyond even what we could afford. Bills were spiraling out of control and becoming more and more past due. It got to where I DREADED payday because I knew I couldn't pay what needed to be paid and the thoughts became so overwhelming to me that I just didn't do anything..didn't pay anything close to what I should have. Part of this was just my complete shut down and paralyzing fear of how I could pay everything that needed to be paid..and part of it was me knowing that he was demanding all of this money and taking more on top of that to boot. What if I paid a bill and he took out money..and the bill bounced!!??

I got the opportunity to get some bills caught up (extra money from school) and I decided to take a new approach. I sat down last Friday..on payday.. for the first time in MONTHS and I paid as many bills as I could. I got groceries Saturday a.m. and then I drained the bank account of the rest of the cash. I left appx $20 in our account...just to cover any math errors I might have made. He got $60 out on payday...I had asked him to please wait before taking out the usual $200/payday until we had a chance to talk about it. We agreed he would get $60.

By the time I got everything I needed to last us until next payday, I had $50 left. I gave him $20 more and told him that was all we had. He got mad (quiet) and defensive and is still in a foul mood about it 2 days later but I have to do what I have to do to protect our family from losing everything. He doesn't care that the mortgages were 2 months past due all he is able to relate to is what he has in his pocket. So, if I left it up to him, he would continue to take $500+ each month for his own personal use...never having anything to show for it...and if we lost everything we owned because of it, I am sure it would somehow be my fault. I will do this each and every payday...and we will survive as best we can. Bills will come first. I sent him a very detailed e-mail showing where every dime of the money went. I will show him what we owe each payday..what I need for groceries...and all of the other expenses and what we can afford for him to have. If it isn't pleasing to him, I cannot let it be my problem anymore. I have spent years and YEARS of my life stressing over money and bills and his spending..and admittedly my poor money management at times...but I'm not doing it anymore. I will pay the bills and drain the rest out of the account and give him what we can afford. If he wants more, he'll have to figure something out. Bills and feeding our kids comes first.

I'm So Exhausted's picture

I got tired of being the budget monger . . . . .

January 1st of 2011 we started - again - The Ramsey Financial cash budget.  Here we are in November and it has  fallen apart - again. 

We too, are self employed, and I run the administrative part of the business.  The new agreement was my husband and son would pack their lunch.  We budgeted $40 a week for my husband to have to spend as he wanted, including taking the option to use it for buying lunch.  I don't know if it just doesn't register in an ADHD brain, but he would send our son to buy their lunch - which my son put on his own debit card - which also comes out of the business funds.  Then my husband would be pleased with himself for still having $$$ left from the week.  Grrr....... 

Just yesterday, he said to me, "Why haven't you given me my $40.00 for the past few weeks?"  I tod him I was done with the cash budget.  He replied he thought it was working so well.  LOL!!!!!!! 

The budget only works if everyone agrees to be on board. 

My husband bases the progress of the business on how he "feels"    We are living on a $64,000 a year budget - with a $35,000 a year income.  It is NOT working.  Well, we ARE working towards being in deep debt again.  I know we can downsize and live within the amount of money we make  - but husband doesn't want to downsize.  I suggested selling off 2 or 3 of the top 5 most expensive possessions we own - RV, fancy pick-up truck - and he got mad and said I picked all HIS favorite stuff to sell.  I want to get a full-time job as much as my husband wants to give up being self employed.  We are crazy crazy people stuck in a crazy cycle of - of - well, of I don't know what to call it!!!!! I am 52 and my husband is 54.  This is not where I thought we'd be after 30 years in the same business.


Don't forget to...

It was almost two years ago when my son was diagnosed with an Attention Deficit Disorder.  I had no idea how much his diagnosis would change my life.  I've spent countless hours trying to find out everything I could about ADD - and what to do about it.  My husband, who works with people with disabilities, decided it would be best to try our son on Ritalin.  We did, and he became a completely different person - he became lethargic and unresponsive, and it scared me a great deal.  Our family Doctor closed his practice, so we've been without a prescription now for about 6 months.  He's himself again, and we have managed to find some tools that would help him gain more focus and get through his day as unscathed as possible, but he still struggles a great deal.  It is very painful.

Since the diagnosis, and my own erratic behaviors, my world has completely lapsed.  My husband and I have separated (a year and a half ago), my financial burden is astounding and I have gone through many losses in my life.

The reason I noted my sons' diagnosis, is because, through learning about his attention challenges, I've really come to a realization that much of what he encounters, I, too, encounter.  I don't have a diagnosis yet - won't be in to see a Doctor until January, but there is no question in my mind, based upon his results, that I have adult ADD.  This diagnosis makes so many problems in my life make sense - doesn't make it any easier to deal with - the problems are still there - very real - but at least their is some semblance of a rationale that can make this journey a little more bearable. 

Specific to finances, here's a little glimpse of what my life is like...

It's Wednesday afternoon, I run home for lunch and sitting in my mailbox is my overdue telephone bill.  I know that my monthly payment date is around the 23rd of the month.  I thought for sure I paid that last month, but when I go into my online account, there is no activity and when I cross-reference this with my bank account - nope - no transaction to show that I had paid this bill.  I'm annoyed...with myself...for forgetting once again to pay this bill.  I go online and try to make sense of the bill, but because my deficits include a math processing defect, I spend an hour reviewing a bill that makes absolutely no sense to me whatsoever.  In my attempt to deal with this in the "now", I realize that I'm now 15 minutes late for work.  I quickly freshen up and rush through the door, thinking I'll pay the bill when I get to my office. 

I arrive at the office, and realize I have an appointment in 10 minutes, thank God for task reminders and Outlook!  I had forgotten all about that - and I still have a few things left to do to prepare.  I know I printed off the agenda for everyone, but where did I put them?!?  Was it the green file, or the red file that I decided to go with for this project?  No, the red is for X and the green is for Y.  Ok, the green file it is...but my agenda's are missing - I was sure I put them in the green file!  Only 5 minutes to go...ok, think, think, where did I put them?!?  It's time to go...still no agenda's...I'll have to re-print them.  Ok, I'll print them off.  I run out to the printer and have my copies minute to go...I glance to my left, and realize that nestled underneath my project binder is the green file folder...with the agenda's sitting neatly inside.  (sigh!)  

I remember I have to pay my bill but there's no time right now - I'll do it when I get back the office, after the meeting. 

The afternoon is a whirlwind of activity.  Of course the meeting was painful - I realized I'd forgotten another important memo that was listed on the agenda and I needed to refer to it - making me look like an inept fool.  So, I gather the little bit of pride I have left, and resolve to put this experience where it belongs and just move I tend to do.

Fast forward to a few weeks down the is still hectic, I'm still not focused as I need to be...want to be...long to be, and this Wednesday afternoon, I run home for lunch.  Sitting in my mailbox is a bill.  A phone bill.  This time, it's three months in arrears.  But I'm sure I paid that bill!  I pull out my laptop, and take a look at my account... what?!?  There hasn't been any payment transactions for three months?!?  But how did this happen?  I'm sure I paid on this account just a few weeks ago!  So, I plan to make the payment, right now, before I forget again.  Where's my purse?  Oh, it's at work - I forgot to bring it with me and that's where my debit card is.  Ok, no problem.  I'll just pay it when I get back to my office. 

And on it goes. 

I never would, in a million years, expect my husband - or anyone who does not have the same brain makeup that I do - to understand what I go through daily because of these challenges.  It is quite simply stated, excruciating.  I don't think for a second that anyone with ADD purposely sets out to destroy their own life - their marriage - their finances - relationships with family and friends.  All of this can come crumbling down when dealing with ADD.  I could not manage money before my husband came in to my life, and I cannot manage money now that he is gone.  It takes me forever and a day to process information and although I'm an intelligent person, I am mis-represented because I need that extra time to "get it".  It is very humiliating.  People can often become patronizing, and some are just hateful, but the key to sanity is ensuring that you gain an understanding of ADD and what that means for "you". 

One of these days, I'm planning on bringing a financial planner/consultant into my life and hopefully this person will help me get out of the mess I'm in financially....I'll get on that right now...oh, wait, the phone is ringing...


My heart goes out to you

Living in this chaos, while simultaneously being half-unaware of the chaos, sounds awful.  But be encouraged by the stories of people who have identified the areas that have the biggest impact and the best tools that work most of the time.  Keep trying to find the "keys" (sorry for the bad joke if you are a loser-of-things) that work for you, and don't assume they aren't working until you've applied them consistently.  Celebrate your successes when you have them.  Then go back to the top of the page, pick something and just try it!  Yes, it's extra challenging for you -- but know that it isn't "easy" even for non ADHDers to keep it all together.  The thing they have that you are a little short on is that "now and not now" problem -- you can't keep things in your head on stand-by for the appropriate moment.  So you have to find someplace else to keep them.  Keep trying.  Yes, I hope you can get whatever help you need.  That ringing phone?  Guess what?  You can choose to stick with what you're doing right now, and let that call go to voice mail.  Best wishes!

Follow thru?

Ummmm, this sounds very logical, but does anyone have an ADHD spouse that would actually DO all that????? My husband would not even be able to LISTEN to all that planning, let alone follow through with anything like that. When we talked to a counselor about a porn problem, the counselor told me we should have porn blockers put on all his computers and monitor what he is looking at. When I said I was just too tired to research the different kinds of blockers and filters and that I didn't want to be his "porn mama" by keeping track of his websites, the counselor said, "No, HE needs to do all that!"  Fat chance. I told him what the counselor had said and he just looked the other way and walked off.

By the way, isn't it possible that ADHD people can have ADHD and ALSO be lazy??? Just like the rest of the population? I still think they tend to get off far to easily by avoiding what they don't want to do and blaming it on ADHD.

summerwine's picture

Yes of course we ca be lazy

Yes of course we ca be lazy ad we ca be hard working too because we are individuals. But making generalizations about a group of people with disabilities isn't very nice or constructive. Please don't use "they" phrases while accusing us of negative things because it implies all of us are a certain way. I work hard. I am not "they" I am a human being.