ADHD Marriages: Lowering Expectations vs. Improving Them

I often hear the comment that non-ADHD spouses need to lower their expectations in order to be happy in their relationships.  I would disagree.  I think that all spouses need to improve their expectations.  Let me explain my thinking, and how this might work in the real world.

Marriages are most successful when the partners adjust to living with each other – accommodating each other, and shifting their expectations in ways that recognize that they are no longer single.  The act of saying “til death do us part” sometimes makes the stakes in these negotiations seem very high.

In ADHD marriages, I think the gap between what you expected and what you are faced with seems even larger than in non-ADHD marriages.  This is because the ADHD spouse is relatively worse at doing household chores, managing the schedules and routines that sharing a life together requires, and often also worse at the financial security side of marriage (difficulty holding a job is not uncommon, nor is difficulty managing finances).  Instead of the normal “whoa!  This isn’t what I expected!” that many feel after having been together for a while, a person married to someone with ADHD gets a bigger shock. “Holy cow!  This person doesn’t seem to be able to DO many of the basic things that make a household function!!!”

Typically, the way a non-ADHD spouse will deal with this is to first take on the extra work, then later tire of the burden this places upon her (or him, but let me continue with a “her” example for now) and starts to feel and act resentful.  Finally, after begging for improvement, she decides that one practical way to deal with the situation is to “lower her standards”.

Insomuch as lowering her standards means letting things flow off her a bit better then I think this is healthy (though I will argue that “lowering” is still the wrong word to choose).  But an even better path is to “improve” her expectations.  To do this, she needs to determine what expectations she holds that are really part of a core value system.  She can pare away or change expectations that are peripheral to who she is and actually feel good about the process of doing so while defending those expectations that are core to who she is.

Let me give you some examples.  I have done a lot of paring and now have a total of 4 core relationship values.  They are:

  1. Receiving/giving love by connecting physically and personally
  2. Practicing mutual respect
  3. Supporting each other’s personal goals
  4. Supporting our family (primarily emotionally, but some financial)

But wait, you say!  You only have FOUR expectations for your marriage?!  And the answer is, globally, yes.  I used to have a whole lot more expectations than that…but I found that many of my expectations were extraneous to what was really, really important.  By pruning and focusing, I improved my expectations.  Does anyone reading that list think I have lowered them?

There are certain actions that communicate these core relationship values more clearly than others.  My spouse, if he is smart (and efficient) will work with me to learn how I best receive these messages.  So, for example, though this might not be true for everyone, good ways to connect with me personally (value #1) are:

  • Sharing time together at reasonable intervals
  • Good sex at reasonable intervals
  • Holding hands / cuddling, particularly at night
  • Positive verbal comments
  • Having some fun times
  • Some sort of responsiveness to my requests (“can’t do that now” and “would you do that instead?” are fine responses, silence isn’t)

He doesn't have to do all of these things.  But if he doesn't do any of them, then he will have trouble communicating to me that he is trying to connect with me.

Let me tell you some of the expectations I used to have of my husband I don’t any more.  I expected he would:

  • share equally in housework
  • show his interest in the kids and in exactly the same fashion that I did
  • do things when I asked
  • do what I asked
  • financially support us (I am financially stable…don’t need his support)
  • do things similarly to how I do them
  • share my priorities
  • communicate with me in the same kinds of ways that women do (talking things out)
  • would like to help out in ways similar to my father (role model)
  • would be as social as I am, including setting up dates
  • would be well organized in areas that I care about

Notice that there are a lot of “I” things in this list.  In retrospect, my expectations were actually about me, not him or us.  They were things that I expected would happen my way.  Why?  Because, that’s how I was used to getting things done or that was the way I saw my parents do them.

I would posit, in my new position as a happier spouse, that my expectations often ignored his right to be autonomous – to be him.  Happily, or unhappily, “him” includes things that were totally foreign to me.  Things like not being good at cleaning up or chores.  Not doing the things my dad used to do, like mow the lawn or help shovel the drive.  Not having an interest in sitting down and talking about his feelings in a deep and interesting way (like my girlfriends).  Not following through on scheduling dates for us.  I could expect those things all I want, but they weren’t “him”.

So back to my core relationship list.  The things that separate my core list from my “old expectations” list is that the core relationship list is those things that are critically important to making “him” and “me” into an “us”.  They respect the fact that the two of us are, and always will be, different – that we are autonomous, but choose to share together.  They understand that I am good at some things (and TERRIBLE at others) and that he has a strength/weakness profile that is just as skewed (though towards different things).  I have learned to accept (and even appreciate) that he is a man, and not prone to deep conversations about his feelings.  My previous expectation about that just weren’t very realistic.

Let me tell you how this works in real life.  Now, if he doesn’t show any inclination to plan a date, I accept this without negative feelings and set one up myself.  If he chooses to live amongst piles of books and boxes that would drive me crazy, I encourage him to find an area of the house in which he can do this (his office and the basement seem to be enough to satisfy him) and I make sure that our bills don't get lost in his junk.  If he doesn’t want to shovel or clean, I hire a service to do it.  Those are all things on my “non-core” list.  But if he stops paying attention to me, I take him aside at a good time, and have a serious conversation about how we can attend to the problem.

Have I lowered my standards?  No, I think that by differentiating between truly important and not so important, I have improved them.

But what if we didn’t agree that we both wanted to respect my most important core values and expectations?  Then I would start wondering whether or not we made a very good couple.  Because there are some things that you simply should never give up.

Let me reassure you, though, that even though we were literally at war at one point over whether or not we met each other’s expectations, we didn’t end up having that problem.  Once I stopped “expecting” that my husband should be a certain way (MY way under my rules) in other words once I started accepting him as him, and focusing on core issues of connection – our lives suddenly simplified.  A lot.  It turns out that at least some of our wars had been over my expectations.  Once I showed him that I was willing to love him for him, he became much more motivated to help “us” become a stronger “us”.  He no longer needed to prove his autonomy (since I was now respecting it) and, therefore, was able to take steps towards fulfilling my needs without worrying about whether or not he would lose himself in the process.  He didn’t think about this consciously, it just happened.  And, as it happened, fulfilling my needs for connection included addressing some of his ADHD symptoms.

I think often about the man who recently complained on this site about the fact that his wife leaves her clothes in the dryer rather than take them out and put them away.  In the morning she goes to the dryer to get dressed.  He’s a neat person, and this indifference to protocol drives him nuts.  He expects that she will maintain the house in a certain way – a way that he feels justified pushing because 99% of adults put their clean clothes away.  But does it really matter?  She’s not going to work nude, and she’s not wearing dirty, stinky clothes  – she finds her clean clothes, just not where he “expects”.  Does it matter if she conforms to his idea of how she ought to do it?

Now that you’ve read my thoughts about expectations, I think you can guess my answer to that question.