The Importance of "Now and Not Now" in ADHD Marriages

Dr. Hallowell often states in his speeches that people with ADHD have only two concepts of  time – “now” and “not now”.  How true that is!  If a project or idea is in front of a person with ADHD it gets done now…or, if not now, then perhaps never!  This trait has plusses and minuses in the ADHD marriage.

Starting with the negatives (so that I may end on a positive note!) it means that people with ADHD have trouble planning to do something

Dr. Hallowell often states in his speeches that people with ADHD have only two concepts of  time – “now” and “not now”.  How true that is!  If a project or idea is in front of a person with ADHD it gets done now…or, if not now, then perhaps never!

This trait has plusses and minuses in the ADHD marriage.

Starting with the negatives (so that I may end on a positive note!) it means that people with ADHD have trouble planning to do something in the future.  Notes, lists and other physical reminders can help, but it is a challenge to think ahead.  In addition, they can have trouble anticipating what might happen as a result of their actions.  Think about it – if you are genuinely positioned in the “now” when you are doing something, it is easy to see how you wouldn’t be considering what implications your actions might have for the future.

For a non-ADHD spouse, there are emotional implications to “now and not now”.  I was distraught when my husband suddenly stopped paying attention to me after we got married.  I couldn’t figure out why I was no longer interesting to him after our vows had been spoken.  I felt hurt and confused.  It took me years to realize that he didn’t love me any less.  It was simply that while we were dating I was his “now”.  After we got married I tended to fall into his “not now”.  During those periods when he “resurfaced” and I was back on his radar screen we had fun.  When he got distracted by other parts of life (his job, hobbies, computer) I felt hurt and alone.  If this seems like complaining, it’s not.  Because of the extreme distractibility of people with ADHD, spouses can be in the “not now” the vast majority of the time.

On the plus side, people with ADHD are often very heavily invested in whatever is currently their “now”, so when they get going on a project or an idea they do it to the max, with high energy and enthusiasm (sometimes called “hyperfocusing”).  Because of this, they can be lots of fun to be with, and they can have an intensity which can be appealing and exciting.  It’s fair to say that many who fall in love with those with ADHD do so in large part because of the ADHD and its attendant positives like high energy, a good sense of humor, and high intelligence.

Couples can use the “now and not now” to their advantage as they work through how they will relate to each other in the most positive way.  The first step to doing this is to acknowledge that “now and not now” is a very strong element of how ADHD people live in the world.  This approach is different from the “past, present, future” way that non-ADHD people live, but it is no better or worse – just different.  So use your knowledge of this difference to your advantage.

For example, if you decide to go to marriage counseling, be careful to work with someone who works with you in the present and the future.  Yes, you may need to dig around in the past, but try to do so when it is relevant to what is going on today.  This will make your counseling much more relevant to the ADHD spouse.  While a non-ADHD spouse may be still stumbling over an event that happened two months ago, discussing that 2-month old event will likely be of little interest to the ADHD spouse – it will be irrelevant for them now.  Instead, take what you learned from that event and discuss it as it relates to something that has happened today or yesterday.  If you keep your conversations as non-accusatory as possible you will find that this approach will help tremendously.

Around the house, “now and not now” plays strongly into the household chore dilemmas you face.  If you ask an ADHD spouse to do a boring task, he may well say “sure”.  But if he doesn’t do it quickly – or write a big reminder note immediately – the task moves from the “now” (relevant) to the “not now” (forgotten).  The reason big notes tacked to the front of computers, refrigerators or bathroom mirrors work as reminders is that they physically bring what has been quickly put into the “not now” back into the “now”.  At the opposite side of the spectrum, simply asking for something to get done and hoping it happen almost never seems to work for there is little chance that the project stays in the “now” for the ADHD spouse.  So life is easier all around if you don’t rely on just asking someone to do something and then expecting it to get done.

Once you start thinking in the “now and not now” it will be easier to think of things that can support an ADHD spouse.  Here are some ideas:

  • Set an alarm to remind an ADHD person to do something at a specific time (when absorbed by a task it is all too easy to not look at a watch).  The alarm brings the “forgotten” task back into the now.  Cell phones, computers and microwave timers work great for this.
    Now that you are both thinking about the “now and not now”, make an agreement that a non-ADHD spouse won’t nag in order to get something done.  Nagging is a way to bring something back into the “now”, but it is so unpleasant to be on the receiving end of it that the natural response of the ADHD person is to resist.  This resistance then builds resentment in the non-ADHD spouse.  Instead of falling into this destructive communication pattern, both spouses can work together, companionably, to recognize that something in the future needs to be brought into the “now” at a future point and figure out together the most palatable way to do this.  (Soon enough, the ADHD person can set up systems without the help of the non-ADHD spouse, once he sees what a benefit this is in terms of emotionally positive reinforcement!)
  • Make an effort to live your relationship in the present and the future, rather than lingering on the worst part of the past.  This can take some real willpower, because there are often deep, difficult hurts that build up over the course of tough relationships, but you may well find that when you stay in the present you are in better synch with each other, and therefore some of the hurts fall away from your lives together.

The ADHD “now and not now” approach to time is something that is built into how the ADHD brain tends to work.  It is a recognizably different approach to organizing time than that used by most people who do not have ADHD.  Understanding that ADHD people are this way is very helpful in improving ADHD marriages.  (Note, it should not be an excuse for not getting things done – with recognition should also come responsibility to use the information constructively for the sake of both spouses.)  Perhaps thinking about “now and not now” will help ADHD spouses be creative about how to bring things they need in the future back into the “now” at the right time.  And perhaps “now and not now” will help non-ADHD spouses be more tolerant of unexpected surprises resulting from “not now”!


confused60's picture

Posting for the ADHD Audience

I would like to thank all of the members who post their comments in a clear, concise way that makes it possible and even enjoyable to read the post.  Not sure if it is my ADHD or simple communications etiquette, but I find I cannot read large blocks of text.  Posts that are a single stream of text are impossible for me to follow.  I've tried putting a ruler up to my screen to allow my eyes to read but my mind keeps forgetting what came before or where the poster is going.

There is a large body of knowledge about presenting information to your audience.  One proposal I embraced many years ago is called "Information Mapping".  It recommends a "chunking factor" of 7 lines per paragraph in printed text and 5 lines per paragraph on the screen.  I don't see anything wrong with 7 lines on the screen when it is needed to complete a thought or point.

This makes it easy to read the post and even invites me to read it.  I avoid posts that are a single large block because it is frustrating to try and plow through it.

Thanks for your consideration of this suggestion.  Does anyone else share this experience, or is it just me?

I tend to have this thing

I tend to have this thing that I don't want to change paragraphs if I'm still on one subject...and since I can tend to go on and on when on one subject, this happens a lot. I will definitely keep this in mind when posting from now on.

I did notice that when I posted from my daughter's iPad the other day that it shoved all of my paragraphs together as one...not sure why.

It's not just you

My husband (ADHD) also says that large blocks of text are hard for him to read (so he too, avoids them).  When I email him, I try to make sure that my paragraphs are short and I don't have more than two thoughts in the entire email.  I hadn't heard about "Information Mapping" before.  I'll have to keep that in mind.  Thanks for sharing.  

This is very good. Some

This is very good.

Some spaces, not too much info and using bold, italic and sometimes color if possible is really good. If you're handwriting something, highlight pens are really good. It's just easier to remember with color.

confused60's picture

Addendum to Posting Etiquette

Don't know why this didn't occur to me sooner but there's a fairly easy way to get around my "large blocks of text" hurdle: posts which are a continuous stream of thought, if you will.  I just keep a MS Word document open and copy/paste the block into it.  Then as I read, I break up the block into paragraphs as I see fit. 

- helps me to stay focused since I have a job to do other than just read,
- increases comprehension of the material since I am in it and not just on it,
- improves my ability to find where I was when i get lost,
- makes it easy to go back up when I forget what came before,
- enables a clean re-read when I get interrupted.

I only do this for enormous posts that I really want to read and possibly contribute to.  Mentioning just in case I'm not unique and others have a similar issue.
PS - apologies to the webmaster for dirtying up the site, my post does not belong in this blog subcategory.  Feel free to prune it.  I thought I was posting to the major category instead of "now and not now" :)

re: The Importance of "Now and Not Now" in ADHD Marriages

Great article! My wife just sent me to this site, VERY HELPFUL. Thanks so much and please keep up the great work. I'm ADD and my poor wife is so very patient with me (thank God). I view my ADD as my personal mountain to climb every day. I choose not to waste time on wishing things were different, they aren't. I figure God made me this way for a reason, I just accept it and go on with life. Now, for Amy. Amy, ADD is no excuse for being irresponsible. I understand that everyone struggles with different aspects of ADD, but I believe responsibility is an entirely separate thing. Sounds like your husband needs to start with setting some priorities. For me, providing for my wife and our future is near the top of my list. When in a store and tempted by something, I ask myself, "can I live without this? is it really worth the X hours it took to earn XXX amount of money to pay for it? Will this really be useful to me next week/next year? Is this really a NEED, or just a temporary want?" I try to make sure I don't buy anything on impulse. But, if your husband can't control his impulse, then take all the cards and take over management of the budget. Have him direct deposit his checks and then give him an appropriate amount of $ each week. Try to help him learn how to handle money and then slowly give him more and more control over time and see if that helps. With me, I'm more apt to spend a little extra on my wife than I am on myself. Since we bought our house, I avoid letting her buy anything for me, but I still get things for her sometimes. This is because she is before me in my priorities. Quick marriage tip, if both people put their partner's interest above their own in a marriage, it really helps in a lot of areas. Talk with him about that concept for your marriage. As his wife, you and your kids should be way above his wants on the priority list. Now, I do "splurge" occasionally. But, I'm EXTREMELY conservative when I do. Anyhow, maybe something written above will help. -MattMAN!

re: The Importance of "Now and Not Now" in ADHD Marriages

I feel like giving up. I know that I am also at fault, but I feel like my life is never going to amount to anything more than bill collectors calling, a disatrous house, and complete chaos all around me. I am already taking anti-anxiety medication to help me deal with my adhd husband, but I feel the effects are diminishing. I'm snapping all the time, and work is my escape. I teach first grade and I would rather be around 20 6 year olds than home in my own house! At least my classroom is clean and orderly and I have some element of control there. I have grown very resentful of my husband and his irresponsible ways. If we are going to survive financially I am going to have to take away all of his bank cards- even the grocery card, because he can charge on that too! Can someone please advise me- I'm at the end of my rope. I have 2 children (one with adhd) and I don't want things to end, but I can't imagine continuing like this.

re: The Importance of "Now and Not Now" in ADHD Marriages

Great post! I'm the ADD spouse. Knowing that I will not remember, and many times won't even remember to look at my lists or notes, if something can be done NOW I stop and do it NOW. It just avoids so much stress. The task is done, so I don't have to go around thinking "what was it I was supposed to do?" And I don't have to deal with my wife's reaction when she realizes that, again, I have not taken care of something that she asked me to, or that I was supposed to do. Sometimes a task can't be done NOW. It may take too long to do right then. Something else may be much more important at that moment. Etc. In that case, I make a note. And I keep my list of To Dos on my Palm handheld. I used to make my lists on separate pieces of paper. Too often, I lost them. I've recently started carrying a 4.5 by 3.25 inch bound composition book in my pocket. I got it at Staples. It's just like the larger ones most of us used in school, only small enough to carry in your pants pocket. Since the binding is glued, instead of bound by a wire spiral, it won't tear up my pants. By writing my notes in it, I won't lose loose slips of paper. Hopefully, I won't lose the whole book! I like the idea of coming up with a system that both spouses can agree on instead of the non-ADD spouse having to "nag." My wife is not a "nag," so she hates that she feels like she has no choice but to "nag." Not to mention that nagging is extremely hard on me emotionally. I can only speak for myself, but unlike heyshippy I can't do several things at the same time. I can do them serially, in rapid succession, but usually one or more of them will be left undone. I wouldn't trade my mind for any other, but I would trade that part which makes it ADHD for normal function in a split second. For 46 years I had no idea what was wrong with me. I've known now for 4. The pain ADD has caused me is 20 times greater than the positives. It has made everything in my life more difficult. But I do refuse to call it a disability. It is a challenge, and I have accepted that there is nothing I can do to make it go away. I have come up with a lot of little things that help me to live with it, and the more I learn and adapt, the better my life is getting.

re: The Importance of "Now and Not Now" in ADHD Marriages

My ADHD husband is really screwing up his new great job due to his not keeping business appointments. Time just goes by and he won't pay attention to a clock nor a calendar. I try sometimes to help by reminding him but he still just stays on his own schedule even when he knows he is extremely late. Even getting in trouble with clients doesn't make a difference to him. He just makes excuses. I really don't know what to do about this at all. It is so difficult to just watch him fail time and again and him thinking that he can cover himself over and over. He is sabotaging himself. It affects my life too because we need his paycheck so I will suffer when this fails like his other businesses have failed. He flat refuses to work for someone else ever again because he couldn't work on their schedule. It is very frustrating for me. It is also very difficult to have a serious conversation with him. He avoids anything stressful to the point that often nothing gets done and our long term planning isn't getting taken care of and I worry about our long term needs and security. I feel like I am married to a big needy child instead of a mature man that I need for a partner. And I am less organized and less productive the longer I live with him. I use to be extremely organized and together. This life with an ADHD spouse is taking a big toll on me. The Now or Not Now information will help in understanding how his mind is working. I know that he often will do next what he sees next instead of what he knows he should be doing. He tells me that he doesn't have control over his mind to decide what he needs to do when....and quite frankly, that sounds scary to me. And I have to agree, it isn't just different, it is worse. I watch him struggle with it everyday and it is painful for him trying to deal with it and painful for me to watch. I look forward to reading more in this site to hopefully get some much needed answers for us both.

re: The Importance of "Now and Not Now" in ADHD Marriages

WHOA! While there are some things I hate about the way my brain works, I wouldn't want to trade it. A "normal" person can't listen to three conversations at once, type a resume and make 4 phone calls all at once.....I'd say that makes me better than "normal" people. Also, I'm a hoot at Trivial Pursuit parties!!!!

re: The Importance of "Now and Not Now" in ADHD Marriages

How can you say that the way the ADHD brain functions is just different, not worse, than the non-ADHD brain. It's a disability, right? Most people would choose not to have it if they had a choice. Most spouses of people with ADHD wish--whether they admit it or not--that their spouses didn't struggle with it. It seems to me that an individual with ADHD would be more accepting of all the tips you recommend to help him function better in daily life if he first accepted that the way his brain is wired is not doing him any favors.

re: The Importance of "Now and Not Now" in ADHD Marriages

This is a very helpful way of looking at and doing things. In my experience at home and abroad (at the office), I have seen so many people effectively take up the reins of self management when concepts like this are explained. "Oh, so that's the problem!" If children can make their own lists, set a watch for medication time, or quitting-on-the-computer time, surely their parents can. I hate to be the reminder for others: it sets up an unbalanced relationship we don't want or need in my family. and most of us truly prefer the experience of effectiveness. Similarly, when there's a job to be done, it would be so much better for the one not doing it if the one who is, would just do it NOW. If it isn't, the likelihood dimished by about 50% with each passing day. Then what? The person with ADD has to do it NOW, be sufficiently interested that tomorrow will provide the same inspiration (if there was any, and there often simply isn't any) or have a sudden burst of energy and being "with-it," and it gets done. Without that, pfffft. Other peopls would rather think their own thoughts than keep things in mind for others. It the end, it's a favor both to oneself and to others when a person can take care of things.

living in chaos

Amy -

I haven't read all of your post, so I hope I'm not misfiring but I'd like to help if I can.

I feel so sad to read about how your home is out of control and you miss your clean orderly classroom.  If you haven't already, go to and just try it.  I know that it doesn't make sense,  or look like it can work, but it has helped me so very much.  I believe that even under very stressful conditions, you can fight anxiety '15 minutes at a time.'