ADHD & Marriage: When Doing "Well Enough" Can Help

What happens when an ADHD partner takes responsibility for ADHD issues, but still struggles to make things go smoothly?  Here's a good example of the process that couples go through to find a balance that can work for them.

In this couple, the husband has ADHD and the wife does not.  He admits his ADHD is an issue in their relationship, and is willing to experiment to try to get their lives to flow more smoothly.  His wife is also willing to work hard, though she is discouraged by how slowly (if at all) things change.  He is experimenting with lists, maps, alarms and the like, but they have not yet developed an overall system that helps them both relax a bit.  They'll get there, I'm convinced, but it takes time.

One common area of conflict for them has to do with his ability to do things as she asks him to.  She's great at explaining what she wants, and even giving him specific directions.  He's willing to take her directions in good humor.  He's put some coping strategies in place to try to make things go more smoothly (and on time) but still doesn't always "get it right".  Here's the most recent example - she sent him to the grocery store to pick up some supplies she needed for holiday cooking.  He willingly agreed, reviewed her written list with her and went to the store.  As part of her list review, she made sure to point out that she needed regular jam, not sugar-free.  But he came home with sugar-free jam rather than regular jam, and somewhere between the checkout and home misplaced the lemon juice.  She couldn't use the sugar-free (aspartame breaks down in cooking, so it would have tasted sour) and she needed the lemon juice to complete the recipe.

When he got home they both realized that she still didn't have exactly what she needed.  He knew he had done it wrong and was mad at himself, so he went back to the store and exchanged the jam and picked up the lemon juice again.  But she was disappointed at his inability to do it right the first time even though she had expended extra effort to help him succeed (list, review).  She complained about it for a while afterwards, even after he had exchanged the jam and gotten the lemon juice and the second run.

I watch out for interactions like these.  Over time, they need to become "neutral".  In this case, they weren't.  The husband took responsibility for doing the project and making things right - albeit not in the optimally efficient way.  Yet in spite of this, his wife was still upset.  To her, it was just another example of how he can't do things right.  His ADHD got in the way of his completing the task optimally.  Her response to his ADHD meant neither of them derived any satisfaction from all of his effort.  And he did expend a lot of effort!

There are lots of examples of issues like this - where a non-ADHD spouse complains that a chore isn't done right because it wasn't done a certain way, in a certain order, or at a certain time.  Sometimes doing things "just right" is really important.  But many times, it's not as important as one might think.  Doing them "well enough" can be fine.

The long-term problem with this shopping interaction and others like it is that over time, the husband in this couple will finally decide that he "can't ever satisfy her" and stop trying so hard.  Just like his wife, he doesn't really understand why he gets it wrong so often, but he is trying to compensate.  He takes a list and checks items off the list.  He reviews the list with his wife to make sure he understands exactly what she's looking for.  He sometimes calls her from the store with questions.  And when he gets it wrong, he goes back again.  He's doing the best he can to do it right, and is open to any other ideas people might give him to do it even better.

Yes, he messed up, but a neutral or positive response from his wife would really help here.  The husband doesn't need to be told he messed up.  He's perfectly aware that he messed up - the evidence that it is so is right in front of him.  In fact, he's just as distressed as she is (he doesn't want to go back to that store again - it's a pain in the neck to do so!)  So complaining focuses on the negative - his mess up - rather than the positive - his willingness to assume full responsibility for this task until it's done.  And complaining also takes away his accomplishment - he didn't do it right the first time, but he did persevere and eventually he did complete the task...well enough.

"Well enough" is an important concept in ADHD relationships.  Would it be easier in this instance if the husband didn't have ADHD?  Sure!  But this man is never going to be "non-ADHD", no matter how much either of them might wish he were.  She can accept - even appreciate - his continued attempts to do better (and encourage experimentation) even while she mourns that he has to jump through these hoops in the first place and that life for her (and him) isn't as smooth as it could be.  He comes as a whole package - the things she appreciates about him, as well as the fact that he can't find the right jar of jam at the store.  Patience and good humor, even in the face of a cooking deadline, can go a long way towards supporting him as he continues to find ways to improve how their lives go.

Another approach for this couple would be to sometimes change roles.  He happens to cook, too.  Sometimes she can't leave the kitchen for some reason.  But sometimes it might work to have him do the dicing and prepping work while she goes to the store for supplies.  Is it optimal for her to change chores midstream?  Probably not, but it might be one way to improve their overall success rate on these types of interactions.  I would suggest that she consider going to the store on those occasions when it's critically important that she get the right ingredients the very first time.

In this case, the husband is going to continue to experiment with ways to be more successful on these types of errands.  I've encouraged the wife to try to be more neutral in her responses when she can.  I've also suggested some ways she can start to think of her glass as "half full" rather than "half empty".  (Her husband suggests that ¾ full might be better!)  He is taking responsibility, after all, and making a real effort to get past these hard-to-understand lapses.  For that, she can be thankful.

While I'm on the topic of "well enough", here's another example:  My daughter left the ice cream on the counter last night and it started to melt.  I found it just before it got to the completely runny and gross stage and put it back in the freezer, saying to her nicely "Hey, you left the ice cream out...I'm putting it back."  She apologized, and I vowed to myself not to eat that ice cream again (it would taste bad).  I could have nagged her about it, but it wouldn't have made a difference, really, for the next time.  So, instead, I will work around her inattention to details.  If I want ice cream soon I'll just have to open a new container, which I will then put at the back of the fridge where she'll be less likely to use it.  Ideal?  No, but it's "good enough".

P.S.  I know that some of you will ask the question "but why should I have to "lower" my standards to "good enough" simply because I live with a person with ADHD?"  I answer that it is a side-effect of living with ADHD that on some things doing it "well enough" is as good as it gets.  You can either rage about that or work around it.  In the meantime, accepting "well enough" when appropriate will go a long way towards encouraging your spouse to continue to seek improvement just as it does with this couple.

And sometimes, even people without ADHD appreciate "well enough".  My daughter pointed out to me (with great hilarity) that she found scotch tape in my refrigerator the other day (yes, I inadvertently put it there!)  Three nights ago I miscalculated the time dinner would be on the table for some guests by two hours!  We made due and played cards until dinner was ready.  If I had ADHD people might have tried to pin the blame for my less than stellar performance on that.  But I don't, I just lapsed.  So be it.  We still ate.  We still had fun.  I did "well enough" even if it wasn't optimal.  And I was thankful that no one gave me a hard time about it.