The Power of "Could" vs. "Should"

This guest blog post has been provided by Hal Meyer and Susan Lasky of the ADD Resource Center.

You fell in love with his boyish enthusiasm, adventuresome spirit and easy-going charm.  Now you are frustrated that he decides to go skiing instead of shoveling the snow off the walkway, or forgets to take the children to the dentist.  You were fascinated by her many interests, creativity and “enjoy the moment” approach to life.  Now you are fed up with the clutter of her incomplete projects, and annoyed by her indifference to planning meals and shopping.  It is easier to love someone with ADHD than it is to live with them.

Equal Partners or Parent/Child?

You began your relationship as lovers, partners and equals.  But, over time, if the non-ADHD partner feels the ADHD partner fails to carry their fair share of daily responsibility, the balance shifts.  The non-ADHD partner may become frustrated, disappointed, angry or detached.   It is ironic that those character traits that initially attracted you are often those that create the most conflict as a relationship matures.

The non-ADHD partner may turn into an Enabler or a Nag, shifting the relationship from equal partners to one that more closely resembles that of a Parent-Child.   It is not unusual to hear the spouse of a person with ADHD saying that their first child is really their second child (their ADHD wife or husband being their first child). When this occurs, resentment builds and the relationship suffers.
The Enabler tries to keep the peace by making excuses and allowances for their ADHD partner’s failures and omissions.  When something isn’t done, they’ll either do it themselves or live without it.  They treat their spouse with the martyred indulgence of a parent with a wayward child.  The person with ADHD might, on one level, like it when their mate does an inordinate amount of things for them (the parent taking care of the child).  Although, on another level, they will often resent or feel guilty about being treated like a child.

The Nag will keep reminding their partner that they aren’t living up to expectations – to the point where the ‘wayward’ spouse will begin doing anything possible to avoid confrontation, including avoiding contact or being dishonest.  This is a pattern often seen with parents and teens.  It also destroys intimacy. The person with ADHD is probably a master at rationalizing and may not even realize the toll this is taking on the relationship.

So how do you keep the romance alive?

Focus On Strengths

Accept the current reality, even if you don’t like it.  Most people with ADHD tend to have difficulty completing tasks they find difficult or boring.  They forget things when preoccupied, have problems with time commitments and are frequently organizationally-challenged.   Their priorities are often determined by interest, rather than necessity.  When the pressure gets too great, instead of getting going on things they should do, they may just go, or become overwhelmed and less productive.  These are not qualities that work well in a relationship, where another person has to share the consequences.

It makes sense for partners to play to their strengths.  Consider how to best use your talents, rather than divide work by category or by a perceived notion of what a man’s or woman’s role is in within a relationship.  The non-ADHD spouse might agree to take on the bill paying and balance the checkbook, but in return she may ask the ADHD partner to be responsible for mowing the lawn, which would allow him to be outside and move around.  An apparently reasonable sharing of responsibilities.

However, it would be a mistake to assume that a logical division of responsibilities will work.  So instead of proceeding as if it will happen just because it makes sense, then being disappointed when it doesn’t, be open and honest when you agree to something. Does the ADHD partner really buy-in to taking over lawn care, or is he just saying yes to keep the peace?  How will he schedule lawn care into his week?  How does he want to be reminded if he forgets? His intentions may be there but that doesn’t mean performance will follow. It is a good idea to anticipate and discuss possible stumbling blocks in advance, with the attitude of wanting things to work, instead of in anger or accusation, when they don’t.

When you divide chores, be specific.  What does “keep the bathroom in order” mean?  Very little to most people, and even less to the person with ADHD.  Clarify tasks, expectations and frequency.  Check that you are in agreement.  Put it in writing.  Not as a way to point the finger, but as a clarification tool.  That way no one has to rely on memory.   Keep in mind you are looking to share chores, but not necessarily do things equally.  Don’t balance who does what on a scale.  Consider some horse trading:  “I’ll do the dishes; can you make the bed?”

Have a Plan B

What do you do when one partner isn’t getting what they need from the other?   What if one person’s stuff is all over the place and their mate is uncomfortable living with the chaos?  The neat spouse can constantly pick up after their partner (The Enabler).  Or they can constantly complain (The Nag).   Or, they can avoid the Parent-Child role by accepting their partner’s challenges (which existed when the couple fell in love, but weren’t enough to keep them apart), yet still get what they need.  How?  With ‘Plan B,’ which is where, when understanding and a logical division of responsibilities don’t work , the couple removes themselves from the conflict and calls in an expert who can make things work.   There’s a book by Kathy Fitzgerald Sherman called, “A Housekeeper is Cheaper Than a Divorce.”  That may apply to your situation.  Or perhaps it is worth trading off a restaurant dinner to hire a lawn service.  (Although it is critical to schedule some fun, couples-only time out, to keep romance alive.)
Perhaps the underlying problems relate more to a lack of time management or organizational skills, or an inability to prioritize or communicate effectively.

Working with an ADHD Coach or a Professional Organizer can provide compensatory strategies and accountability, while leaving the spouse or partner out of it.  And consider a therapist or marriage counselor if the conflicts or negative behaviors have so eroded your relationship that you are having a hard time remembering why you fell in love.

Let go of the “Shoulds” (I/he/she/we ‘should’ be able to do something ourselves, rather than pay someone else).  “Shoulds” and “Have-Tos” rarely work.  The only feelings they inspire are those of guilt and often, “But I Don’t Want To.” Instead, focus on the “Coulds” and “Want-Tos.”  People with ADHD usually know what they ‘should’ do.  The problem is with the doing.  Change the motivation to something they “Want To” do, and the behavior often follows.  Consider your reaction to “I have to water the plants” versus “I love seeing these plants and want them to be healthy.”  It is a question of taking ownership, which makes follow-through so much easier!

You want a happy, healthy and loving relationship.  Remember that your original attraction wasn’t based on who would do the cooking, cleaning, bill paying, laundry, lawnwork, etc.  So look towards what you can do to regain the feelings that originally brought you together. When asked how she maintains a happy marriage after 30 years with a very ADHD husband, his wife replied that, when need be, she just reminds herself that their relationship is more important than whether or not her husband forgets to take out the garbage.  She knows what is important to her, and her priorities follow.

Harold Meyer has been a professional ADHD and Life Coach for 20 years.  He is a co-founder of CHADD of New York City and very active in helping adults with ADHD learn more about what they can do to improve their lives.  He can be reached at

(c) The ADD Resource Center



I found this website today - ordered the book - and have felt a tremendous burden

lifted from my shoulders knowing that there are others who are going through what I go through - and have for 6 yrs. I didn't know it was

ADHD that was causing problems.  But this is a 60 yr old man who I married last year.  What I find helpful in this article is good for anyone

in a marriage.  Focus on the positive - the strong points - the good things your spouse does instead of pointing out faults and being

critical. None of us is perfect.  And we know the ADHD person struggles with every day life.  We can be that supporter.  We can be the

organizer - the time keeper - etc.  And we know that spouse with the child-like attitude will always be your ray of Sunshine and so much

fun to be around. ( That is one thing that attracted me to my husband).  Yes, he's immature - but he also keeps me young.  So the next

time I feel frustrated that he's not doing what he SHOULD do or COULD DO ( by my perspective).. I am going to remember this article

and celebrate what he DOES bring to our marriage. Yes, he does things I ask - in HIS TIME -- not as quickly as I'd like - but looking back,

I've been so hard on him, expecting him to be perfect and that's not fair.  Wouldn't we learn to compensate if the spouse had some kind of

other "noticeable" disability - challenge??  This challenge is not so obvious unless you interact with this person day to day.  I noticed little

things that seemed odd in the past -- and now they all make sense.  THANK YOU for this wonderful site.  I feel so relieved and will try

to be a better, more understanding, partner.  I know he loves me -- now I have to show him I love him.

Where I'm at.

I haven't read through all of the blogs here, but this one in particular stuck out for me. The first half I feel like I wrote - or maybe my therapist, reminding me of why I fell in love with my husband and acknowledging the dynamic that ADD has created in our family.

The second part, sounded like it was written by my husband.  Explaining to me that this is just the way it is, and that he can't change.

Maybe it's where I am at in this process that I feel this way, but I think it's unfair to ask someone dealing with an ADD spouse to just "focus on the strengths and let it go."  I wish it were that easy. In my life, I've been such a forgiving person. Stuff happens to me all the time and I just forget. I really don't hold on to things. But the resentment and upset that I feel towards my husband is deep. So deep. And painful. And though ADD is a disease I also think every person struggles with something in life, that is difficult for them, and because there is no label for that challenge, there is no excuse for it.  

I've had to make sacrifice after sacrifice for my own happiness and the happiness of our children "for the greater good of our (my husband and my) relationship." Congratulations to the woman who has been married 30 years and says that she remembers the relationship is more important than taking out the garbage. I think most of us with ADD husbands could agree with that... if that's all it was.

But I'm guessing for many of us it's not.

Is your relationship more important than you going back to work full time because your husband lost his job and can't seem to find or keep one? And is it more important than you hiring a babysitter to raise your children because your husband doesn't manage the household well enough on his own and the kids start falling apart? 

Focus on the strengths?  Who wouldn't want to look at a chore list and choose only the chores that seemed fun to them? 

I appreciate what you are saying about reframing for the ADD spouse to help them to want to do the chores.  However, whether or not that works, isn't that how most good parent reframes for their children? By creating a dynamic where it is the non-ADD spouses responsibility to make life fun and interesting for the ADD spouse, don't you think that sets up a bad dynamic for intimacy and partnership? No one wants to get intimate with a child in the house (don't we think this dynamic sets up a parent child dynamic btw husband and wife?) And when exactly is the ADD spouse looking out for and taking care of the non-ADD spouse?  I tell my therapist all the time, if my husband would just PROVIDE for me, instead of being so selfish, I think I could start to move forward.  Provide love, attention, care for our children, our house, our bills, our income - any of those things on a regular basis.

I appreciate this blog and all the thoughts.  I'm assuming most people who are reading here are spouses like me that are frustrated, and hurting. I would recommend starting and ending each blog with an acknowledgement of how hard it is to be in this situation.  Till death do us part is brutal in this grey area where there is no obvious abuse but life is still so damn hard.

I completely agree with your

I completely agree with your comment--it is just not that easy. In fact, some days, it is just too hard. It is true that many of the qualities that were attractive were ADD related, but when we met, more than 30 years ago, we were young and I didn't know anything about ADD. If anyone had asked me then, I would have said that I expected that he would mature and become more responsible--except that never happened. And now, after almost 30 years of marriage and three children, I am worn out and worn down. I have stayed because of my children but any love I may have had for him has been replaced by bitterness and resentment. We tried Melissa's course two years ago and although it was very helpful at the time, he would not follow through with it. He had just started a new job (after 3 years out of work) and was too "busy". Now, he has lost that job too so I'm not sure what his excuse is now. And honestly, I don't really care anymore. I just want to get my children through school and then I'm done. Other than having them, I will always regret that I didn't know what I was dealing with and spent all these years just banging my head against a wall--listening to all those promises to change and be more engaged in my life and our children's lives. He never did it and now none of us really care all that much about him. He's basically a nice person, but whether you have ADD or not, you can only get back what you put in. I feel like I've put everything I can into this "relationship" and received nothing in return. I look forward to leaving in a few years and having some happiness.


In response to jerseygirl and workingtohard,

      I empathize. I was completely depleted emotionally after about year 7 of my 9 year "partnership" to a person with ADHD.  I figured out pretty early on that he couldn't (wouldn't?) meet my needs.  But I was in love.  That was during the first year.  I believed that I had to make it work for the sake of love.  By year four our sexual relationship was, basically over as I got tired of the one sided ness.  by year 6 it was glaringly obvious that I was just a convenience for him and that my wants/needs were annoyances.  During the last two years, he actually suggested counseling and I went to a couple of sessions with him, but I didn't care anymore.  By that point, I had decided that I would stay for practical reasons and only until the most pressing practical matter was no longer an issue. 

    Well, during the last of about three counseling sessions,  I went ahead and told the therapist exactly where my head was.  I was completely depleted emotionally by this person who had no emotional resources to address anything outside of his own enormous needs.  He continuously demanded from others and was constantly alienating people because of his low standards for his own behavior. It was solely out of desperation at the thought of losing the resource he had been able to use and abuse with contempt and few repercussions (to himself) that led to the farce of counseling.

   The reason I know that it was a farce is because of my ex's reaction to what I vented to the therapist.  His head just sank lower and lower as it began to dawn on him that he had finally depleted me. Then, as we left the therapists office, good old denial sank in. He told me he thought we each needed (MORE) time in individual therapy to deal with our own issues before we did more therapy as a couple.  In other words, he had taken me to the therapists office because he thought that he could buy himself more time.  Once the truth about my current assessment of the relationship, personal depletion and how his actions/inaction over the course of the relationship were brought to light, he couldn't handle it and wanted to bury his head back in the sand.  I quickly agreed, however.  I hadn't cared walking into that office and I cared even less walking out. 

    Having said that, I believe that each person with this diagnosis is different.  I sure hope so, since I am currently pursuing a relationship with someone with ADHD who, in most ways, seems to be much higher functioning than my ex on both practical and emotional levels. 

    I am so sorry that your love was wasted on these "partners".  I wasted 9 years.  I can't imagine what would've happened if we had had kids.  I can understand why someone would consider drastic and tragic action under such circumstances.