Attacking Inconsistency of Focus in ADD Marriages

Are you angry that your ADD spouse is able to focus on something of great interest to him, and not to anything you want him to do (like the dishes, or childcare)?  If so, you would not be alone.  I’ve been reading a whole series of forum posts lately on this topic by women who are really frustrated by lack of attention to chores and to them.  I would like to address it, because I think the conversations are missing some important points.

Here’s what the forum writers are complaining about:

  • ADD spouse acts like a teenager – irresponsible about basic household chores
  • The non-ADD spouse feels obliged to complete tasks left unfinished by disinterested ADD spouse
  • Non-ADD spouse observes ADD spouse’s ability to focus on things like “finding a single bug in 1000 lines of code” and “cleaning and organizing an entire warehouse of tools” or “playing boring computer games for hours” while the same person can’t finish even half the dishes
  • The ADD spouse’s inability to do things for the non-ADD spouse can be interpreted as “he doesn’t love me or care enough about me to help”.  The spouse starts to feel like an unimportant, second-class citizen in the relationship

And here’s a typical comment on this topic:
“My husband always, ALWAYS seems to be able to find focus in what HE wants to do and when He wants to do it.  This adds to my hurt and frustration when he ignores me, forgets what is important to me, forgets to give me the respect and attention he seems to be able to give his friends.  Its so frustrating!  Talk about making me feel like second best,  a back up plan etc.  Why is this?  He wasn't like that until after we married.  Where is all the hyperfocused attention he lavished on me while dating???”

It’s a drag that the chores and distraction are becoming a battleground in these relationships, but nurturing bad feelings is really compounding the problems that these women are having.  I would like to talk a bit about what it is about ADD that makes it so hard for people to focus on uninteresting stuff, then provide some ideas about how to get around this.

It’s important to understand that ADD is best described as a dysregulation of the attention system…so it’s not that someone can never focus, it’s that he or she focuses in a dysregulated way – sometimes intensely, sometimes not at all.  You can see that this is a much more accurate way to assess what is troubling these women.

The hyperfocus present in courtship isn’t controllable at all.  It just happens, because there is a ton of emotional stimulation in courtship – it’s all new and wonderful and highly stimulating…boy, does courtship play right into what ADD people do best!

It would be great if that high interest translated into wanting to do the dishes for your wife because you love your wife, but that’s not how it works.  Dishes and household chores are never on the “10 most interesting things I know” list for anyone, and for folks with ADD that’s the kiss of death when it comes to getting chores done.  Furthermore, as the non-ADD spouse gets frustrated, the conflict that chores start to represent means that most men (again, forget ADD) won’t want to go near them.  Too much conflict, too much potential to let down your spouse.  I know, it doesn’t seem rational, but that’s the inside workings.

And it’s not so easy for an ADD person to just say “I must do this because if I don’t my wife will be mad at me tomorrow.”  There is a lot of research that shows that people with ADD live so much in the present that they often can’t force themselves to do something today that they hate in order to be able to have a better tomorrow (this has to do with the executive function parts of the brain).  Think about why you do chores – it’s not because you love them.  It’s either because you know that if you don’t do them for a while you’ll be even more unhappy in the future or because seeing things clean gives you pleasure.  Again, not a great fit with the ADD brain.

It would also be great if the focus on the relationship that is experienced in courtship lasted, but it doesn't (not even for non-ADD couples).  Eventually, (often right after the wedding) things return to a more "normal" state, which in the case of ADD means "distracted".  This feels like "I don't love you" to the non-ADD spouse.

Does this mean that a person with ADD can’t do chores or won't ever pay attention?  No!  There are plenty of folks with ADD who pull their weight around the house as well as doting ADD husbands.  But they need to train themselves to do so, literally.  And creating the right environment in which that training can take place is an important part of making it happen.  Which is one of the reasons why the frustration that these women are expressing is getting in the way of the goal of getting their spouse involved.  Their frustration tends to poison the environment and demotivate the spouse to make the changes needed.

Here are three examples of ADD spouses taking over things they hated:

  • Doing dishes:  An ADD spouse agrees to do the dishes in the evening, as well as unload the dishwasher any time it is clean and needs unloading, but keeps forgetting.  His wife does her share (morning and noon dishes) but none else.  As the dishes pile up, the ADD spouse sees them and cleans them up.  Clean dishes left in the dishwasher result in piles of (rinsed) dishes on the counter…again, eventually they disappear.  After a couple of months, the ADD spouse fully takes over his agreed-to responsibilities and the dishes get done regularly (but not always…and the non-ADD spouse never jumps in to do work that isn’t hers).  While dishes used to represent a huge area of conflict for the couple, the chore is completely off their radar screen now.
  • Picking up socks:  An ADD spouse leaves his very stinky socks all over the house.  After repeatedly requesting that this stop, his wife finally tires of it and starts throwing out any socks that she sees left around the house.  Her husband gets the point when he wakes up one morning with no socks.  He ruefully buys more and starts to pick them up.
  • Billing clients:  An ADD husband who works out of the home is consistently behind on his billing, which creates financial stress for his family.  His wife begs and pleads with him to do better, but he doesn’t.  Finally, with the help of a counselor who helps him see the stress this is causing, he hires help to do the billing.  He pays for her services in part with the money they save on finance charges on their credit cards.

There is a theme here.  Teenagers don’t take on responsibilities such as cleaning their room because they think it is fun.  They do so because it is what is expected of them.  This is also the case with adults with ADD…to a point, and the difference is important to understand.

The very important caveat here is that non-ADD spouses cannot simply say “you must do this” or “this is your chore” and enforce it the way parents can with their teens.  Rather, they need to be sensitive to the interplay of emotional environment, skillsets, ADD, and interests.  You can’t “expect” someone into not having ADD.  They have ADD, and it does affect what/how they function.  In the dishwashing case above, that couple chose that as the primary chore of the ADD spouse because it was a chore that he said he could deal with.  His success in doing it has encouraged him to take on other chores periodically when he sees something that needs doing.  As you can imagine, his volunteering to help out works very well for both members of the couple.  But it still took a couple of no-conflict months to get him fully to a point where he “owned” doing the dishes and six more before he started picking up other things.

In the billing example, the emotional issues surrounding the man’s ability to provide for his family were so sensitive that it took a counselor’s interference to get him to implement the fairly obvious solution of getting billing help.

When it comes to issues of showing affection through attention, a non-ADD spouse often needs to overcome a feeling that a man should be in charge of setting up their dates.  If you wait for him to be organized enough to plan a date when not hyperfocusing you may wait a long time.  Or, you can just make the date and then have fun.

Here are my specific recommendations:

  1. Stop nurturing resentment over inconsistent attention.  Accept it as the number one symptom of ADD and do yourself and your relationship a favor by not taking it personally.
  2. Agree together on what needs the most focus.  Think carefully about this – what will help you as a couple the most?  Is doing one chore important?  Spending time together?  Pick ONE thing, and then leave lots of time to gain momentum.
  3. Let the chore do the talking so you aren’t perceived to be an enforcer or nag.  Leaving the dishes undone simply says “I’m here…needing to be done”.  Creating a situation in which there are no socks presses the point home.  Be creative as you think of non-confrontational ways to encourage compliance (and, yes, some would interpret the socks as "passive/aggressive".  Since it worked, assume she knew her husband well enough to judge his potential response...remember creativity is important)
  4. Let the person doing the chore do it his way.  Want to be reminded of how annoying it is to be told you’re doing something the wrong way?  Find a manual for some really annoying project and have your husband stand over your shoulder and give you detailed instructions on how to do it…’nuf said!
  5. Set reasonable boundaries.  Can’t deal with the socks?  Give fair warning.  If they’re still around, do something about it.  But make sure what you are doing doesn’t include yelling or screaming.  And don’t turn yourself into a little Hitler.  And don't demand an ADD person become responsible for keeping the house neat.  That way lies madness!
  6. Be flexible except in some specific areas.  Your way is not the only way – make sure that your spouse has the freedom to do his stuff his way.  Areas to NOT be flexible:  finances, children’s health (medications), the need for connection, respectful communication.  But everything else…
  7. Make your need for attention known, then do something about it.  Schedule dates, set aside time for talking.  An almost surefire way to feel more connected is to take walks together.  The physical movement keeps the ADD spouse engaged so that he/she has the ability to focus on you (try it – it works!)  Don't sit around waiting for your spouse to become magically "not distracted" (i.e. not ADD)  Accept his distraction and compensate by insisting that you get good time together.
  8. Have some fun.  This will help diffuse defensiveness that develops in your household.