How Do I Get My Spouse to Deal with ADD?

I gave a talk last night for about overcoming anger and frustration in ADHD relationships.  At the end of the session listeners asked two very important questions:  how do I get my spouse with ADHD to admit he has ADD and participate in improving our relationship? And, as an ADHD spouse, how do I get my non-ADD spouse to admit I have ADD and start to deal with it?

These questions are obviously two sides of the same coin.  In the first case, the most common reasons for resistance to admitting one has ADD are rooted in a lack of understanding about what ADD is (and isn’t) and in the climate that the non-ADD spouse has unwittingly created around the topic.  In most cases, you’ll find that calls for ADD treatment are charged with bad feelings – as in “you’re a mess and you need to fix yourself by dealing with your ADD” or “many of our problems could be solved if you would just deal with your ADD” (underlying theme here being that the ADD spouse is personally responsible for the marital issues the couple is having).  The ADD spouse feels under attack and resists responding in a positive way, or even acknowledging the possibility that one of his/her traits might be creating a problem.

The non-ADD spouse needs to take the first steps to change this scenario by depoliticizing the topic of ADD.  To do this, uncouple the symptoms of ADD from the person.  If distraction is your issue, tell your spouse that you love him, but that you don’t like feeling as if other things (computers, hobbies, etc) take precedence over you all the time and ask for help creating more special moments together.  If you do talk about ADD reassure your spouse that you are not trying to change him.  Rather, you are trying to figure out how to eliminate some of the specific patterns or symptoms that seem to plague your relationship – patterns that can be changed if both of you work to change them.

Another good way to encourage a person to figure out they might have ADD is to ask them to do some reading on the topic.  Gaining knowledge is non-threatening (vs. going to a doctor’s office for an evaluation, for example).  If you have a child with ADD you may want to try this approach “I’ve just read Driven to Distraction and found that it gave me a lot of insight into some of the issues that little Julie has to face.  I thought you might like to read it/ listen to it so that you can learn about the challenges she faces – and all the great things we can do to help her.”  A person with ADD may well “see” himself in those pages once he starts to read.

Admitting you have ADD, even knowing you have it through a full evaluation, does not mean that you will want to start the treatment that your spouse wishes you would start.  Non-ADD spouses need to be careful not to dictate what type of treatment an ADD spouse should undergo.  It should be the role of the non-ADD spouse to encourage some sort of treatment to address the symptoms that are at issue.  The person with the ADD should control the specifics.  After all – the bottom line issue here is the symptoms.  Whatever way the ADD person figures out to deal with the symptoms should be fine.  If standing on his head makes the symptoms go away, then do you care if that is what’s chosen?  In many cases, once the issue of treatment is depoliticized, the ADD spouse eventually gets to a treatment that works for both parties.  Critical to this process is continuing to separate the symptoms from the person.  It is a good rule of thumb to assume that the person with the ADD wants to have a better relationship and would prefer not to have bothersome symptoms…but doesn’t always know the best way to go about this on the first try.  Be patient with experimentation – and encouraging of all efforts.

What about the non-ADD spouse who won’t admit that their spouse has ADD?  In this case, it is almost always deeply held anger that is getting in the way.  The attitude is “ADD is just another excuse for why you can’t be a better spouse!  Stop making excuses and start performing!”  OUCH!  In this case, the ADD spouse needs to smooth the way by acknowledging the presence and validity of the anger and appealing to the reasonable side of the non-ADD spouse to better educate herself.

Try this as an approach:  “I know and understand why you are angry.  I do a lot of things that you don’t like.  But ADD isn’t a thing that you “believe in or don’t believe in” like a religion.  It is a set of symptoms that either I have or don’t have.  I’m asking you to learn more about it and hoping that you will do so simply because I am asking it.  Knowledge won’t hurt and I think you might find the topic pretty interesting.  Your refusal to just find out more hurts me a bit, because I’m sure that if I asked you to read a short story because I found it interesting you would do so simply because I suggested it.  So, refusing to learn about something that is this important to me seems odd.  If you don’t have time to read the book, I can get an abridged version on audiotape that you can listen to on your way to work or while you are exercising.”

Again, you want to depoliticize the issue of ADD.  By moving the conversation from “Read this because I think it will explain why I have behaved the way I do” to “I hope you’ll read this because it’s very important to me and I’m asking you to please read it” takes away some of the “you’re just trying to find another excuse” footing.

If that doesn’t work, then the next step is to simply start treatment for ADD and get your symptoms under control.  Once you feel confident that you are doing better (and treatment is definitely more than just taking meds - meds alone don't work!) you can sit down with your spouse and confront them.  “I have worked hard over the last year to change the following things that were interfering in our relationship and have improved X, Y and Z.  It’s time for you to start contributing, as well.  At this point I would really appreciate it if you would take the time to learn about my ADD, as my education about ADD symptoms is what has enabled me to make the changes I’ve made and I think your also learning about it could help us both.  In addition, we have the following symptoms still going on in our marriage that I would love to address with you.”  Dealing with your own ADD doesn’t require a spouse (single people do it just fine!) and learning to manage your symptoms is a net plus for you no matter what happens in your marriage.