Overcoming Nagging

When you're trying repeatedly to get an ADHD spouse to "respond" to your requests it's hard not to get into nagging mode.  But non-ADHD spouses need to avoid chronic nagging patterns if they are to be successful, happy partners.  This is much harder than it sounds.  It's scary to think back to your past and all of the times that you weren't nagging and things - sometimes really critical things like bill paying and picking up kids and getting jobs - didn't happen.  You suppose that if you stop nagging now, those same patterns will emerge (and you are probably right, at least short term).

The downside of nagging is that it gets the attention of the person with ADHD in the short-term, but engenders resentment and resistance in the medium and long-term.  Since long-term is what marriage is all about, this isn't a good trade off!  A more insidious side-effect of nagging is that it makes not only the person being nagged feel bad, but it also makes the nagger start to dislike him or herself.

If your spouse has untreated, or incompletely treated, ADHD then that's the reason he or she has trouble initiating and completing tasks.  It's not an issue of willpower.  The long-term solution to "getting things done better" isn't to nag until things get done, it's to treat the ADHD.

To get on the path to stop nagging, first convince yourself that nagging is ineffective.  Long term it hurts you both - time to replace it with a better solution.  You can't "control" your spouse's behavior effectively at any time, but particularly when you nag.  So detach from feeling responsible for "creating a response" (the underlying concept in nagging).  Try to stay positive towards your spouse, while "attacking" the specific intractable problems (and symptoms) that have led to the chronic nagging.

That sounds pretty theoretical, so let me make it more concrete.

A Plan for Stopping Nagging

If you or someone you care about is currently in nagging mode then you are probably dealing with resentment, resistance and anger as well as nagging.  Long-term, you want to replace nagging with something far more effective:  ADHD treatment plus a good "couples working plan" for more positive interactions around getting things done.  The treatment side of things is self explanatory.

Here are some ideas that will get you started on creating a working plan that replaces nagging interactions with more positive problem solving:

  • Talk with your spouse about the nagging that is going on. The non-ADD spouse needs to communicate that the nagging is simply a way of getting attention from a person who is normally distracted due to ADHD.  He or she should also apologize for past nagging and take full responsibility for it.  (Too many people say "I must nag you to get work done."  This isn't true...it's simply the option that has been chosen up to this point.)  Work out other ways to get attention - agreeing to verbal cues, setting specific meeting times, and setting specific chore times can all help you. The ability to pay attention to each other in a positive way is the very heart of a relationship. Keep pushing this theme until your spouse hears you and agrees that more attention (or more positive attention) is desirable.
  • Identify that distraction is an ADHD symptom that is currently hurting your relationship. As such, you both need to take it seriously and "treat" it more effectively. Explore different options that hit both the physical and behavioral sides of treatment for distraction.
  • Set up a "de-stress" routine for yourself. This might include 10 minutes a day of quiet time, meditation, book reading, exercise, yoga or some other activity that calms stress levels (exercise has been scientifically shown to be one of the most effective ways to reduce stress). Lowering your stress will help you combat the desire to nag.
  • Identify nagging patterns. You should both work on this together and both be able to say "hey - that sounds like nagging to me!" in a lighthearted way. Keep a journal for two weeks to record nagging so you can find any patterns that might exist. For example, there might be specific "trigger events", such as the time that you go to bed at night, certain chores or interactions with kids. Also, note when distraction or some other ADHD symptom seems to be a key element in the process.
  • Once you've identified some trigger events, work on them one at a time. Talk through why the trigger is so meaningful to one or both of you. Create a plan for better meeting the needs of each spouse around this trigger event. For example, if a non-ADHD spouse nags many nights because she wants her ADHD spouse to come to bed and he's too engaged with his computer to do so, talk about why this is an issue. It might be he can't disengage (ADHD symptom); he might be feeling angry (doesn't want to go to bed because it's stressful). It might be an issue of not getting enough sleep for one spouse, or that the tardiness represents an overall lack of intimacy. Explore it carefully so you know what problems you are trying to solve. THEN, talk about potential solutions. One trap that spouses fall into is solving the superficial problem (coming to bed) without understanding the more important underlying dynamics. In this example, the various underlying issues to the nagging get solved differently. They might include: Putting a flashlight outside the door when the earlier spouse goes to bed so that she isn't woken up by the later spouse (sleep); setting a time limit on computer time in the evening (inability to disengage); scheduling more dates together (intimacy), etc.
  • If some of your trigger events have to do with labor - housecleaning, babysitting, chores - explore whether you can afford to hire some of these things out to take them off of both of your plates.
  • As you go through this process, you will identify specific ADHD symptoms that are likely getting in your way. Typical of these are:
    • Distraction
    • Poor memory
    • Inability to engage or disengage from tasks
    • Poor organizational skills
    • Impulsiveness (particularly financial)
    • Unexpected spurts of anger
    • Tendency to put things off or avoid them, then do them all at once at the last minute
    • Tardiness

All of these are ADHD symptoms and can, and should, be addressed with improved ADHD treatment (not just meds).  You can change some of the nagging by more overtly addressing the underlying emotional issues the two of you share, but as a couple you still will need effective management of ADHD symptoms before the underlying issues can go away.  Or, as I like to say, "if nothing changes, nothing changes".

If you have ADHD, I can pretty much guarantee you that your spouse will welcome and support any hard work you embark upon to better manage ADHD symptoms that leading to the nagging.  So, now that you've identified key patterns, what are you waiting for?  Together, you have the power to eliminate all that nagging.  Wouldn't peace be wonderful?!