We received this question from a reader:
"How can an ADHD affected spouse get a job and hold it to earn a living if he cannot find his keys/wallet/cellphone etc? How can a spouse NOT be tired out by repeated same scenarios of disorder and chaos repeatedly discussed and never changing?"
These are questions that cut to the heart of the long-term ADHD relationship. I would like to address the non-ADHD spouse first, then circle back to the ADHD spouse.
There is no doubt that living with a person with chronic symptoms of ADHD can be exhausting and difficult. You want for your spouse to do well and live a life that is not plagued by things that hurt him. You also want to be in a position where you are not always in charge of cleaning up the mess. If he can’t get a job, you feel greater pressure to support the two of you. If he can’t find his car keys, you feel the need to help him so he can get out the door for his next appointment. If your house is in constant disarray, you may be bothered by the overwhelming nature of the clutter. You didn’t think, when you married him, that this is what you had signed on for.
What would happen if you thought about your relationship somewhat differently? Presumably, he had these same tendencies before you were married, and the two of you loved being with each other enough that you decided to get married. How did you (and, more importantly, he) deal with the issues then? How did he find his car keys then? How did you manage the piles everywhere? Was he employed? In what sort of job? What was your attitude towards his inconsistencies way back when?
Let me give you some ideas that come from my own relationship. As the spouse of an ADHD person, I found that during our marriage my expectations changed about how we should “be together”. Perhaps it was the long-term nature of the marriage commitment that did it, perhaps it was that my husband had been on his best behavior while we were dating and first living together (aren’t we all?!), perhaps it was the addition of children to the mix. In any event, I found that I was more frustrated with his behavior once the knot was tied than I had been before. It took me many, many years to identify that change and determine that this wasn’t really fair and was destructive to our relationship. By focusing on my husband’s shortcomings, rather than on his strengths, I was creating an environment in which he “failed” to meet my expectations more and more often. This created a downward spiral for our relationship – he did something irritating, I respond negatively, he resented my response and therefore had no incentive to stop the behavior and did it again, I responded again.
I do not know if you are in this cycle or not, but if you are, please take a hard look at whether or not you are able to lovingly accept him as he is. He is behaving in a way that is not in the best interests of your relationship right now, but there is a person under that behavior that was someone you fell in love with. See if you can get back in touch with the positives you loved so dearly before.
Note that I am NOT saying that you are responsible for your husband’s inability to organize himself. But it is easier for him to TALK about change than to try to DO change when he is, somewhere inside, a bit afraid of failing again in the eyes of someone he loves.
That said, let’s address the ADHD spouse. It is very important for you to learn more and more about his ADHD and about how you (the ADD spouse) might manage it. The learning and talking is exciting! BUT, talking is NOT the same thing as doing, for either you or your partner. People with ADHD CAN AND DO learn how to organize themselves. Sometimes their solutions are very creative, sometimes they involve outside people, lots of post-it notes or other tools. For some couples, the solution is to separate out their assets (and sometimes even living arrangements) so that they are not so entangled. Often solutions to ADHD problems include medications that help with memory and focus.
You need to internalize the fact that if you want your relationship with your wife to last, it is your responsibility to take some action – sooner rather than later. Small signs of real progress are extremely encouraging to a non-ADD spouse. These signs don’t have to be big things, but they do have to happen in order for her to not become overwhelmed by her frustration. Talk with her about this: If you two had to focus on changing one thing first, what would that thing be? How could you do it? What kind of support and encouragement would you like to see from her? How will you know when you’ve reached your goal and can start on something else? What is it that you must DO (not talk about or learn about)? Try to take as little time as possible talking - perhaps 10 minutes if you can manage it - to discuss these questions with your spouse. THEN, DO some of the changes. It is just simply not enough to talk.
It is important that you continue to learn about ADHD and about yourself, and the learning points you on the road to being better able to manage your ADHD. But, for your spouse, it is the DOING, not the learning, that is the help. She is living everyday with what you DO, not what you THINK. If you can figure out the tactics that work for you to meet her a bit more in the middle, you will provide her the hope that she needs to be able to start to accept you and your progress more actively. Her sense of hope is just as critical to your success as a couple as your ability to manage your ADD. Without action, you crush her hope and she then becomes an additional part of your problem.
I get the impression that you love each other, and are trying to move ahead. The non-ADD spouse needs to remind herself of the positive (perhaps thinking back to the beginnings of the relationship) and try to put herself into a mindset to let go of the irritations as much as possible in an effort to smooth out the day-to-day. The ADD husband needs to start narrowing his focus to make some small victories that the two of you can celebrate together. Perhaps then you’ll both be able to gain some much-needed hope that will point you in the direction you wish to travel together.
As for the job issue, not all jobs need one to be super-organized. If you can afford to do so, consider trying to get some small victories at home first that will provide you both with a more optimistic outlook, then think creatively about his field of expertise to see if there are previously unexplored options that you can add to your job search that might better match his skill set. A career counselor could probably help you with this, as well as polishing his resume in a way that downplays the number of jobs he may already have held.
Readers, do you have these issues? What are your experiences? How have you managed? We enjoy hearing from you - feel free to post your comments and questions.