Respect and Personal Boundaries in ADHD Relationships

It has been my observation that people with in ADD marriages violate each other’s personal boundaries quite frequently, and in both directions.  This becomes a huge issue for the relationship, as both partners become locked in an unwitting struggle for control, lose respect for each other, and often lose a sense of themselves as unique individuals in a way that diminishes them individually and as a couple.

At first, an ADD spouse (I’m going to use the male here, but this could also be a woman) might violate his partner’s boundaries (or personal rules, if you will) without knowledge that he is doing so.  Examples of typical behavior include:

  • Assuming that a non-ADD spouse will take over key responsibilities, such as housework, chores, finances, and child rearing without her consent
  • Refusing to address specific personal issues relating to ADD symptoms, essentially forcing his spouse to “take it or leave it”
  • Using/abusing the personal property of others in destructive, thoughtless or messy ways
  • Not acknowledging that his actions directly impact others in his immediate circle, even when confronted with that fact from others
  • Forgetting to celebrate his spouse’s unique strengths and individuality (often due to being too distracted to focus on her) thus aiding in a loss of her individuality

The non-ADD spouse is also guilty of treading across her spouse’s boundaries.  Examples include:

  • Taking over his responsibilities, often under the assumption that he’s incompetent
  • Telling him how to live his life and/or control him
  • Repeatedly trying to change him (sometimes into a non-ADD person)
  • Interfering in work, personal and health issues

Unlike with the non-ADD spouse, these excursions into her partner’s “space” are thought out in advance – responses to what she sees as a currently untenable set of circumstances.  Sometimes her rationale is that she is only supporting her spouse, but soon she resents what she “must” do and that support turns into anger.  Sometimes the rationale is a different one – she doesn’t “want” to take on his responsibilities, but she sees no alternative as she perceives him as surprisingly (and annoyingly) incompetent.

The reasons these behaviors become such a big issue in the relationship are as follows:

  • They express in action, (and also often in words), a lack of respect for the partner
  • They encourage a growing lack of respect for yourself – that is by accepting repeated assaults on his/her own boundaries, each partner gives up part of who they are
  • They actually change each partner

In other words, you end up not liking who you are becoming at the same time that you feel dislike for your partner.

What to do, then?  I suggest a basic 5 step approach:

  1. Think about where your personal boundaries or rules used to be, and where they should be in the future (this process includes differentiating between good and bad boundaries, as well as thinking carefully about who you are and want to be).  Inspirational reading, keeping a journal and talking with a therapist are all good ways to go through this process.
  2. Assess where you think your partner’s boundaries are so that you can respect them better.  Talk with your partner about his/her thoughts on this.  Assume at a minimum that any boundaries you set for yourself you should also hold for him (i.e. if you wish to be spoken to with respect because you feel that is a minimum requirement for a good relationship, you must do the same for your partner).  Consider keeping a journal that tracks your changing thinking about how you are violating your spouse's boundaries (and your thinking will change!)
  3. Identify areas of struggle in your relationship related specifically to important personal boundaries.  You might decide that you don’t think that messiness is an issue, but you do think that tone of voice in conversations is core to who you are, for example, because to you it represents “respect” you can't do without
  4. Once you’ve identified your most important areas, work with your spouse to make a plan to better respect your boundaries and his.  Be open with him about what you are thinking and why, and solicit ideas.  What will you do if your spouse ignores your need for respect?  Can you agree that you can walk away from a disrespectful conversation without adding to bad feelings?  Can you agree to go to a communications course?  How will you change your lives so that you can respect each other’s unique spaces again?
  5. Watch how you both do.  In practice, do the rules you've made suggest you've made “good” or “bad” boundaries (see below)?  If the latter, reassess and reshape you approach.

Here’s how I go about the difficult task of differentiating between truly necessary boundaries, and “things I would like to have happen”.  I think of desirable, or “good” boundaries as those that:

  • protect and respect the autonomy and uniqueness (good and bad) of each partner
  • allow positive growth for those who seek it
  • are flexible, recognizing that a partnership of two is inherently different from a unique individual
  • are focused around people issues rather than “thing” issues

I think of undesirable boundaries as those that:

  • are created in response to an argument
  • are intended to punish or hurt another person
  • inhibit the growth of either partner
  • do not recognize a partner’s autonomy

Upon reflection, you may wish to add to these lists of what makes a good or bad boundary.

When I finally got around to doing this exercise, I determined that my personal "rules to live by" (or boundaries) would be:

  1. Treat each other with respect, even in the most difficult times
  2. Take responsibility for living a life that lets me express my true self, as relates to optimism, willingness to experience new things, intelligence, happiness, honesty (the things that are most important to me personally)
  3. Let my husband express his true self without trying to change him
  4. Be willing to listen, negotiate and compromise (both directions)
  5. Be able to show and receive love without question or deceit

You’ll notice that all of these “rules” are standards to which I hold both of us, not just him or just me.  It is through the expression of these things that I feel I show who I am in both giving and what I wish to receive.  While my husband has not yet seen this particular list, he would not be surprised by it, for this is how I now live my life and he can clearly see it.

I came to the resetting of my own boundaries through desperation.  I knew that I didn’t like how I was living my life and finally was so desperate that I simply decided to move on without input from my husband.  In other words, I decided that it was time to be “me” – not some portion of an “us”.  Once I had reflected on my most important needs, it was actually quite easy to start living my life as I wished to live it.  My husband was free to join my journey or not, but chose to do so because these basic rules (or values) are why he fell in love with me in the first place.  By rediscovering my boundaries I rediscovered (and reasserted) myself.  And once I reasserted myself, he rediscovered the me he loved.

What are the most important rules by which you would like to live?