Finding Emotional and Physical Space When You Are Confined Together

You’ve always been different and, if your relationship is like mine, that has been part of the attraction.  Relationships can benefit from good energy when partners have contrasting or complementary ways of being in the world.  But part of why it works has been because you could also get time - and space - to revive yourself in your own way.

Today, there are new and difficult pressures.  Stress of the unknown is huge, and any stress can increase ADHD symptoms.  Lack of structure as many of your activities (including work) are not available.  For some, an inability to get outside.  You can’t hang out with family or friends easily, so you feel more isolated from those we care about.  A constant drumbeat of anxiety-producing news.  And the ‘little’ differences are now magnified by proximity and a greater reliance just on each other.  Two women recently wrote me about some of these issues:

My husband and I are getting on each other’s nerves. I need communication and that is a struggle for my husband. We are together a lot. So, I am more irritated and critical of the questions he asks. Especially when the question relates to something I just discussed with him. Also, sharing common space is difficult. I like organization. He is more carefree in that area. I get frustrated when I am constantly asking him to pick up/sort through the same pile of papers everyday.”


I am someone who needs space - ADHD partner NEEDS to socialize. Also - is very distracted so can't focus on important things like preventing the spread of the virus and hand washing. ADHD spouse who is on ADHD meds has turned to drinking and smoking for coping, which has been hard for me, as this makes them more distracted and more room for silly mistakes that we cannot afford right now. We are currently in therapy and have been since before the isolation began - we are continuing to have at home therapy sessions once a week - the tools that are being provided are amazing, however, the follow through after the session has ended that is a problem. It's in one ear and out the other and I cry way more than I have ever cried this past week. My stress levels are through the roof and causing migraines which isn't helping the situation. Long walks outside and taking time in other rooms of the house to have alone time is the only thing keeping me sane right now and when we work on something as a team…”

We don't have much choice about whether or not we have to deal with our partners right now.  We can’t just head out to see our friends for commiseration.  So it’s important to have a tool box of strategies to help get through this period.  Here are some useful tips:

Stay away from each other for ‘blocks’ of time.  That could mean agreeing that you won’t interact with each other between breakfast or lunch.  Or that you have different workspaces and that you won’t interrupt each other during the work day.  For some, it might mean sleeping in separate bedrooms some nights of the week.  The concept is ‘set aside time that is just your own.’ 

Create a structure for requests and housework.  The structure isn’t specifically for assuring completion of tasks.  Rather, it is so that there is more to your lives together than focusing on what needs to get done.  By confining the conversation about tasks to set times (daily, weekly, whatever works for you) you make space for the less enthusiastic chore doer to feel free to engage with you in a positive way.  (Put another way, if every time your partner interacts with you you ask her to do a task, she’s likely to stop interacting with you pretty quickly!)  You might use the same strategy for actually doing tasks, too.  Though you are home all the time, you might confine chores to a specific time so they don’t bleed into everything.

Acknowledge that having different ways is great…and create space for those differences.  The partner who LOVES to talk should do so – with others who love to talk.  Zoom, Skype, FaceTime and many other online platforms can enable virtual parties, calls, and more.  The partner who needs quiet can create a special reading or writing nook, or spend time out in the garden if weather permits.

Focus on bringing your own feelings under control rather than on your partner's issues.  Irritation that your partner isn’t doing exactly what you asked isn’t productive right now.  Sometimes, mistakes are made with excellent intentions…

“I asked my partner to go to the grocery and gave him a list.  He came home without many of the things I requested, and with things we have no need for.  For example, I asked for yeast.  He came home with 5 loaves of white bread, which I don’t even eat!  He said he was just trying to be helpful, though to me, helpful is about doing what I asked him to do…I was really mad!”

This man was feeling helpless, as many of us are.  His execution – bringing home tons of bread that only he will eat – was far from perfect.  But underlying his actions was a need to feel helpful.  Empathy with his fear and helplessness will help soften the blow that this woman still doesn’t have yeast, and will have to be creative with her cooking for a bit.

There are some people who are regularly irritable.  With ADHD, this can be part of the ADHD.  If you're one of those people, make it your task to do all you can to bring down the irritability factor.  Set a verbal cue with your partner to let him or her know when you are starting to feel out of control so the conversation can stop.  Focus on exercise and sleep (both of which help decrease irritability.  Set some time of every day aside to do things that make you feel grounded.  Learn mindfulness.  With all the other pressures, it's really important that you be in better control right now than usual.

Seek perspective - annoying is not the same as life threatening.  The woman above will certainly be inconvenienced, but extra bread will not make her sick.  On the other hand, the person who doesn’t wash his hands, could.  (See my Psychology Today blog post on ADHD and hygiene for more on this topic.)   When your partner does something that upsets you, ask yourself “Is this annoying, or life threatening?”  If it’s just annoying, try to let it go for the moment.  When you calm down, you can talk with your partner about what could help more in the future.  The woman whose husband brought home the bread, for example, could later say “I know you were trying to help out, and I appreciate that, but what would really be a help is if you could buy what’s on the list because I’m working really hard to plan meals to minimize grocery trips and stay in budget.”

Resist poor coping strategies.  Smoking marijuana and drinking may alleviate anxiety, but they compound the problems in your household by making you either absent, slow-witted or, possibly, aggressive.  (News reports are beginning to report places where alcohol sales have been banned due to an increase in domestic abuse, for example.)  Staying up really late to watch movies rather than going to bed will make you both irritable and increase ADHD symptoms.

Acknowledge your emotions and fears.  It’s one of the most important ways we can support each other.  Our lives are upside down.  The way the federal government is handling it is not reassuring.  People we know or love may die.  Many are losing their jobs or fear they will.  No one knows how long it will take the country – and our individual lives – to recover.  That’s a recipe for fear…or at least lots of anxiety.  As human beings, when we feel anxious, we wish to be soothed.  It makes sense to acknowledge that you are afraid, or anxious, or depressed, or grieving for the abrupt change in your lives.  If you have a partner who is quiet and doesn’t love to talk, ask him or her to sit with you and listen.  Hold hands (after you’ve washed them!).  Look into each other’s eyes.  Cry.  Your partner may not be able to say the words you long to hear, but just having him or her listen will help.  (A note to partners here – you’re NOT being asked to FIX the issue – you can’t.  Only listen.  It is the listening that heals.)

Seek purpose.  You will get on each other’s nerves much less if you have a sense of purpose shaping your days.  If you’ve just lost your job, create a job search prep plan (I will write more on this soon).  If you have financial issues, make yourself the chief investigator for figuring out how to address those (ex:  learning about changing unemployment rules; figuring out which bills don’t need to be paid on time at the moment, etc.)  If you have the ability to help those on the medical front lines – for example by sewing face masks requested by a local hospital – do so.

Practice gratitude.  At least once a day, stop and consider what you are grateful for.  You might do this before bed or at dinner with your partner.

Get exercise and good sleep.  Whether you are dancing in your living room, running or biking outside, walking with your kids every morning to explore…exercise is a critical mood stabilizer and both energy builder and releaser.  And sleep is critical for good functioning and mood.  (Here are some great tips for improving your sleep.)  At these times, neither one is really optional.