Remaining Empathetic When Your ADHD Spouse is “Stuck”

For a non-ADHD partner, it is SO frustrating to watch your spouse struggle without result.  You want her to do well.  You can see HOW she might improve things.  If you were doing them, it would be EASY.  Yet nothing changes.  How does a non-ADHD partner remain empathetic in this situation, rather than become angry? 

Frequently, part of the ADHD partner's flailing and struggle comes from feeling completely overwhelmed by the vast amount of work and change that lies before her.  This sense of overwhelm is made worse by low self esteem and a belief that her efforts may not be successful.  Regardless of the underlying feelings, though, the result is that the ADHD remains "stuck."  What's a non-ADHD partner to do?  I pulled a reader's post, as well as my response to it, to give you some ideas:

"Lately, my ADD wife (who is now all too familiar with some of the impact her ADD is having in her social relationships), is beginning to share her feelings of overwhelm and low self-esteem with me.  Things like "I just have SO many things to work on and I can't be working on these things all the time!" and "I can't believe anybody even likes me because I am so bad in conversations."  I know she is "trying hard" to change things.  She got diagnosed and she is on meds, and she has done some reading.  There have been some changes but not a lot.

I have suggested to her that from what I read on this forum "trying harder" is not what is going to work.  And I have suggested that maybe she could benefit from coaching.  I even sent her some links to coaching that I found from Melissa's recent post on the Telephone training on Shame - thinking she might be willing to try them because there are some self-coaching options and audio classes and she's always listening to podcasts on her i-phone.  But she hasn't given any indication that she is ready to check out coaching as an option.

At this point, I find myself wanting to be empathetic, but I am finding it difficult, since I am someone who is majorly affected by her behaviors and feeling frustrated by them.  So when she bemoans the fact that she has so much to work on or that she feels like she is a bad person, I have a hard time listening, and I find myself wanting to move into "solution mode."

Sometimes I am able to say something like "Honey, you are not a bad person.  You are so more than your ADD behaviors."  And then I give her a hug and tell her some of the things I love about her.  Sometimes when I do though, I think "How many times do I have to tell her this?"  Or I might think "If I keep comforting her when she feels bad about this, will she never get any help?"

But sometimes I don't want to listen to it.  Sometimes I even get angry that she is complaining but not taking any steps to change things.  Sometimes I just want to say "Honey, there are solutions out there.  If you would take some action and stop complaining maybe you would see some improvement and not feel so bad."  Or "Stop complaining to ME about this!"

So, how do I let go of my anger and be more empathetic when she complains?"

Here is my response to this post:

Your wife is probably in the stage in which she recognizes that she's having issues (rather than denying it, which she may have been doing before) and is able to accept that her complete sense of overwhelm is related to ADHD, but she has not moved on to believing that she can do anything about it (in the past she couldn't, so this is a logical assumption for her).  She needs to have some time to experience the difference that really good ADHD treatment can make - and get that treatment fully in place.  Treatment has three legs - physical changes that address physical issues in your brain (chemical changes from meds, nutrition, exercise); habit changes (she's not making much progress on this one it sounds like) and then connection/relationship changes (how you both interact together).

She needs to break it down a bit to get past her sense of overwhelm.  She should work with someone (doctor, you, therapist) to understand which specific symptoms are creating the most havoc in her life - and make those the "target" symptoms she needs to address first with her treatment.  Then she needs to create a plan (again, she'll likely need help with this, since developing hierarchies and workable plans isn't a strongpoint of folks with ADD) and start to experiment against the most meaningful issues in that plan.  The plan should include ADD-sensitive structural changes in the environment around her - new ways to organize chores, or connect with people, or whatever the issues are she is trying to address.  As she starts to see a larger proportion of successes, vs. failure, she can start to have a sense that she can control her own destiny with effort, and that the effort CAN pay off.  She may continue to feel overwhelmed, but begin to develop a sense that she can change that and know some "tricks" as to how.

While it is hard, I urge you to remain calm as best you can.  If she fears disappointing you or coming to you to talk about her ADHD issues, it will encourage her to "retreat" rather than "step out" to make the changes she needs to make (which, counter-intuitively, take courage to try - trying new ways to do things is definitely not the "logical" or "easy" choice we non-ADHD people think it should be).  You can both comfort her and tell her that you have her back, while also insisting that she take responsibility for her ADHD to get it under control.  The benefit is for her (no overwhelm, better social life, stronger marriage) as well as for you.

A coach is a good idea if you find a good one who specializes in ADHD and has lots of experience.  A really good ADHD therapist might help, too, since your wife has self image issues.  Also, I believe that Sari Solden's book "Journeys through ADDulthood" might help the two of you think about some of the issues of gaining back a stronger sense of self - something that sounds as if is a top priority for your spouse.

.As for your own question - how do I let go of my anger and be more empathetic?  People do this different ways:

  • stoke up your "reserves" of feeling good by doing things that bring you happiness.  Less internal stress and more self-satisfaction make it easier to be more "relaxed" and less critical with others
  • some people pray about it or meditate on remaining empathetic
  • learn more about ADHD and the troubles your partner faces.  Read some of the ADHD posts here - having ADHD is NO PICNIC, and the shame and feelings of overwhelm your wife feels are hard for her to bear, particularly when she doesn't imagine she can really affect change in her life (a feeling usually born out of the experience of living with untreated ADHD for many years)  When my book is finally published I have a section on what it's like to live with ADHD that is really eye-opening (and one on what it's like to live with a partner with ADHD that is equally moving).
  • Think about who you want to be as a person, and hold yourself to your own high standards.  You sound like someone who wishes to be compassionate and caring.  Remind yourself that the only way to remain the compassionate, caring person you want to be is to live your life that way.
  • Don't hide your feelings - just make sure you share them in a controlled and compassionate way.  Your wife needs to understand fully that you a.) love her and b.) don't wish to live with her ADHD symptoms.  The two things can go hand in hand, and she deserves to know where you stand so she doesn't feel blindsided - or so she doesn't imagine things are worse than they are ("he can't possibly love me as I am")
  • Request that she put a measurement system of some sort in place as part of her plan (an example - read X book by Y date, get ADHD symptom "impulsivity" under control as measured by fewer conversation interruptions, etc.)  This allows you to celebrate all of her steps forward (and please do so!), and also allows her to start measuring external "action" rather than internal "intent," which is an important distinction that can be hard to make when feeling overwhelmed.  When it is more clear what "progress" she is making, I think it will be easier for you to assess the amount of effort that was needed to make that progress, and feel reassured that she is moving ahead (and therefore be more empathetic).  If she's not making progress, the existence of a measurement system will point it out sooner, rather than later.

How do you remain empathetic when your ADHD spouse gets stuck?  We would like to hear your ideas.