“I Can’t Get My Partner to Stay at Home!”

From a reader:

This has popped up this week now that a stay-at-home order is in effect. My husband, who has ADHD, keeps finding reasons to go out. They are all “legitimate” reasons, but they violate the spirit of the order. He does IT at a medical manufacturer, so I know he does sometimes have to go in, though he can do most of his work from home. He had to go in Monday. Monday night he went to the grocery store to pick up a few things (even though I had shopped on Saturday). Tuesday, he told me he was going to go jogging (good) and then stop by the grocery store. I asked him if he really needed to go, and he said, “Oh. I guess I don’t.” Last night he saw that someone was giving away free firewood, so he went out to get that. Then after dinner he said he was going for a jog. He was gone for a long time and came home with some groceries. Hopefully he is having little actual contact with people or the virus on surfaces, but it is driving me nuts that he can’t seem to limit his going out. I’m not sure what to do.

How ADHD fits in

I read the quote above as demonstrating a combination of traits of ADHD – impulsivity, a lessened ability to see potential future outcomes (a part of executive function that can be weak for those with ADHD) and distractibility.  In addition, it’s possible that this person has a higher tolerance for risk than his wife, though that’s not explicit in what she writes.

The husband goes out for a jog.  He sees something that reminds him of the grocery and thinks “I’ll just be helpful and go pick up the things we seem to need.”  Or he is reading the paper and sees a great deal on firewood.  "That would be helpful," he thinks.  Off he goes.  Without stopping to think about the possible consequences.

What to do

Clarify what help looks like.  Many of us feel a little bit helpless these days – the ‘invader’ is invisible and we may or may not personally know someone who is sick.  So the desire to ‘help out’ can be strong, if sometimes misguided.  The first thing to do, then, is to clarify what’s really helpful.  “What would be absolutely the most helpful thing you can do right now is not leave the house for anything but a run.”  Gently confirm that going to the store or finding firewood is NOT so helpful in this new world, even though it was in the old one.  Don’t demand.  Request assistance in staying safe.

Use other sources for expertise.  The news gets worse and as world leaders become sick, it’s easier to say that even COVID-19 naysayers and non-believers get sick.  You can, too.  Don’t make it your opinion against his, but rather position being careful as insurance against a potentially horrible downside (long-term injury or even death.)  We do a lot to stay alive…this is just shorter-term.

Create a check, or brakes, in the process of going out of the house.  Agree that before anyone leaves the house they check in with the other person to make sure that they are coordinated about leaving as little as possible.  For everything, including runs, going to the store or going to the post box.  Since memory is an issue for those with ADHD, put an obvious sign on all exits – “Coordinate before leaving!” or some such.   Make this a positive thing – you’re not trying to hurt your partner, but rather to make sure that all trips out are well coordinated and efficient, to minimize their number and make everyone safer.  It might make sense to stop at the store on the way home for work, for example, or you might have enough food for another 5 days, in which case stopping at the store goes into the ‘non helpful’ category.

Gamify it.  Challenge yourselves to see how creative you can be at minimizing trips out.  We are currently creating a long list for a Costco run, and seeing how creative we can be about meal prep and using existing supplies before we absolutely, positively, have to go.  The stores will have something when we finally do go out, so this doesn’t put us in jeopardy of not being able to find food.  Think of it as the COVID-19 Challenge.

Connect in other ways.  Set up video or phone calls with friends or kids.  Write letters or emails.  Spend time hanging out together.  My husband and I just hung out on our porch yesterday afternoon – me doing a project and him surfing the internet (and our talking about it) and it was terrific.  The need for connection to others is very real…but there are lots of ways to do it.

The bottom line

The worst approach is to tell another adult what they must do.  That sets up resistance and a fight.  Instead, use current news to reinforce the seriousness of what’s going on, and calmly request a partnership around staying healthy together.  Listen to your partner’s opinion, treat it respectfully, and try to dig underneath for why you might not agree.  You can’t force your partner to stay home, so acknowledging that fact makes sense.  What I see is that most adults are willing to acquiesce to their partner’s desire if it feels reasonable and not too much of a hardship.  So, for most couples, the approach outlined here should work.