Anger and ADHD Relationships: There Are Options

I was reminded the other day of one of the most frustrating things about relationships where one spouse is ADHD and the other is not – that is the feeling that you are experiencing the same problems over and over and over again (and again)!  Breaking out of this cycle – which is very exasperating for all – is critical to building a better relationship.  Attitude, believe it or not, and specific communication skills, are the key to moving forward.

The couple I was speaking with who reminded me about this frustration (I’ll call them Bill and Angie), have been together 5 years.  She has ADHD, he does not.  They run a business together and are having some very significant issues around time management, organization and general frustration.

Bill is a large man, for whom keeping his business and life organized is important.  Angie is much more relaxed with her sense of time and, it seems, a very messy person.  Lately, as they have become more mired in his dissatisfaction with her ability to organize herself, they have had some major, repeated arguments.  When Bill starts yelling and throwing things to express his complete frustration, Angie describes it as “standing in front of a freight train”.  She doesn’t feel she has any ability to stop his momentum.

Angie has been trying to become better organized.  She recently invited a friend to help her clean up her house (which Bill had declared he would no longer set foot in because it was too messy and dangerous to do so) and, by both his and her account, she has made strides in cleaning up her office space.  But she is also frustrated by the fact that Bill “sees only the things that I haven’t done, not what I have done.”  In other words, if she has made a big effort and improved an area, he doesn’t see that…only the remaining mess.  And the other day Bill cleaned up a joint sleeping space that they have in their office in order to prepare for a guest.  As part of doing this, he moved a number of boxes into a closet.  Angie brought one of the boxes back into the bedroom because in her mind, that is where it belonged.  She thought she was helping out.  He thought she was purposefully creating more mess.  He lost control of his anger…when he did, she felt completely, and unfairly, put down.

I asked Angie whether or not Bill was physically hurting her.  Her response is educational in that it shows the depth of destructiveness that verbal anger can have on the recipient.  She said “No, he is not hitting me.  But I’ve been hit before and I kind of wish he was because the bruises can go away…but the words don’t.”  Put yourself in Angie’s shoes for a moment and imagine what it would be like to try to change how you manage your organizational skills (or any other part of your life) feeling the depth of hurt and confusion she has received from his anger.

At this point, this couple is in a very negative cycle – one that is quite common in ADHD-affected relationships.  Angie has a long track record of not meeting Bill’s standards for cleanliness.  Even though she is trying, his frustration is so intense that he doesn’t really believe that she will succeed.  The effort she is making is hard for her and she feels underappreciated for her efforts and waits for his next explosion.  And there are other issues:

  • Neither one is giving the other person the benefit of the doubt.  They are stuck in the frustrations they have experienced in the past and bringing those frustrations to impact their present situation.  Even positive comments are made grudgingly.
  • They have lost their sense of humor.  Bill is unable to see the humor in the fact that Angie’s help in bringing back the box to “put it in its right place” was the opposite of what he had just worked on.
  • They have lost their ability to communicate clearly.  Angie is afraid to talk about her very real accomplishments with Bill so that he can share in them because she is afraid that he will further criticize her, and deflate her sense of accomplishment.  Bill isn’t talking with Angie about why he is cleaning up and putting boxes out of sight.  Communications have become solely focused around the negative.
  • Both are waiting for his next fit of anger.  His built up frustration colors every interaction they now have.

Bill, who has lost patience with Angie's inability to "do better", finally said to me, “Well, I guess I have two choices here.  I can either lower my standards, or I can stop seeing Angie.”  But this isn’t actually the case!  Any couple in this situation has a third (and far better) choice – that of beginning to work together again as a couple to help solve the problem.  To do this, Bill and Angie need to create a system to get past their mutual frustration.

Let me digress briefly to address an issue that comes up again and again when people talk about anger in ADHD relationships.  When one person gets very angry, it is not uncommon for the recipient of this anger to say something like “I don’t want to discuss this/deal with you when you are this angry!”  The angry person then says “You’re just trying to change the topic.  The topic isn’t my anger, it’s what you just did!”

This response misses the point.  While the original topic was probably not the anger, the anger most definitely gets in the way of dealing with the core topic. So at this point, BOTH the core issue AND the anger are problems.  It is not possible to concretely and constructively address the real issue until the anger (or frustration) in the conversation is effectively put aside.  And by this I don't mean boxed up.  I mean "let go of".  The anger needs to be recognized for what it is - destructive to the improvement of the relationship, not a tool for making change.

Remember when you were first dating?  Your partner did something a bit strange or outside of what you expected and you took it in stride.  You didn’t break into a cold sweat and yell or start throwing things (if you had, you wouldn’t still be together is my guess!)  It is only after we have accumulated a number of years of frustration that we start to feel that we are justified in holding those frustrations dear and begin building them into our relationships.  It is when we are looking at the long-term that we start to make every moment, and every move, “count”.  We can’t afford to let our partner’s misstep pass because then we will have to live with it for a very long time…or so the thinking goes.  Yet, while it is easy to fall into that logic, it is just the opposite of reality.  It is BECAUSE you are planning to be together for a long time that it is particularly important to defuse the anger and give your spouse the respect and benefit of the doubt he/she deserves.  By doing so, you’ll create pathways for open communication that will create a stronger bond between you.

Back to Angie and Bill.   They really do seem to love each other, and are both frustrated – and perhaps a bit scared - by the direction that their relationship has taken.  They are seeking help, yet still find themselves mired in anger and frustration.  Here are some ideas that could help them:

  • Bill does need to internalize that it is very, very hard for Angie to organize herself.  With his support and good humor she will be able to find the internal motivation and external systems to organize herself well enough.  As long as Angie is in a relationship with Bill, she will only be able to improve her organizational skills with his support and understanding.  Without his support and understanding, he is setting her up for failure.  He can’t do it for her – and can’t push her into change - but he can create an environment that is safe enough for her to be able to experiment with how she can effectively change.  These experiments won’t always work, but some will, and as time goes on she’ll figure out what works best for her.
  • Bill may need to assess whether his standards are reasonable for their situation.  This doesn’t mean he needs to lower his expectations, just assess – what’s most important?  In a business, for example, safety is critical.  What else is critical?  What’s just “nice to have”?
  • Both partners need to agree to start living in the present for a while.  That will mean that they need to forgive each other for their past disrespectful behavior – Bill’s fits of anger and Angie’s rolled eyes and heavy sighs included – then agree that they will not allow something that has happened in the past intrude upon today.  A pre-agreed to “cue”, such as “let’s stay in the present” may help them if they start to slip into past frustrations.
  • They should agree that taking time to collect one’s thoughts (or “time outs”) are okay for either partner to take should he/she feel that he/she need time to collect himself/herself to avoid fits of anger or frustration.
  • They should agree to think creatively - and together - about how to identify and start addressing their core issues.  Then, set up small, achievable goals that they can reach together to set them on a positive course.  So, for example, they might agree that the two of them will keep their joint bedroom area clean.  They would then need to discuss openly what that means to both of them (i.e. figure out if that box stays out or gets put into a closet – or perhaps agree that it can stay out unless guests are coming) and also figure out when/who will do what.  Can they/should they hire outside help to lessen their loads?
  • They should take time to discuss at regular intervals what they have each done to help reach the goals they have set.  If one partner doesn’t do what has been agreed upon this should not be a reason to criticize.  Rather, they should talk about why the goal wasn’t reached and figure out how to make it easier in the future.  No accusations or frustration allowed!
  • It is very important that they take some time each day to set a positive tone for their relationship.  For some, a good way to do this is to take 10 minutes in the morning or at night to hold each other and tell you how much you mean to each other.  For others this might mean a few minutes sitting together in a quiet place before dinner to just talk about the day and reaffirm the positive things that have happened.  When a couple is in a long-term negative period, insisting EVERY DAY that there will be some positive time together is better than any medication they could take.  They’ll need some positive words to maintain the optimism and effort needed to start them heading in a different, better, direction.

The bottom line is that both people need to be thinking as partners.  They are inextricably linked by the simple fact that they are together.  Any unsupportive actions that one takes leaves a mark on the other and then, by doing so, boomerangs back to the original partner in a negative way.  The only way to get out of a downward spiral like the one into which Angie and Bill have gotten is to start thinking, and acting, like a team again.  Only by solving the issues together, without the burden of anger and frustration, will they feel happy together again.