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”!