Six Valentine's Resolutions for Struggling Relationships

When we marry, we hope to remain happily married until death, yet that is not the experience that most of us have.  Yes, most of us who get married will stay married, but committed relationships generally include plenty of significant bumps and bruises.  Here are some statistics to ponder:

  • Information from the National Science Foundation suggests that in any given year about 12% of men and 7% of women say they have had sex outside of their marriage.
  • As many as one in three couples struggles because one partner has a low sex drive
  • Marriage research suggests that the first year of marriage includes a significant decrease in marital satisfaction and that in the years thereafter happiness continues to decline, though at a less steep rate
  • More than two dozen studies since the early 1980s have demonstrated that marital happiness and relationship quality fall precipitously once couples have children
  • New parents have eight times the number of arguments that non-parents have
  • The marital dysfunction rate for couples in which one partner has ADHD is almost 60%
  • Unemployment, one of the most stressful factors in a relationship, remains above 9%.

University of Texas sociologist, Norval Glenn, projects that about 24% of married couples will remain very happily married until death.  That leaves a lot of the rest of us struggling with how we might actually make things better when Valentine’s Day rolls around.  For a truly meaningful Valentine’s Day, don’t focus on a single romantic gesture.  Instead, consider making Valentine’s Day the ‘New Years’ of romance – a time for making resolutions that will create lasting change for your relationship.

The good news?  There is science behind how to do this.  Here are six resolutions that can make Valentine’s Day matter for a change:

We will teach ourselves to argue.  Significant marital research suggests that couples who argue using the right words, who are conscious of how to start and end a conversation, and who avoid accusatory, critical or harsh rhetoric in the middle can use disagreement to strengthen their marriage, rather than weaken it.  So forget about what you are fighting about and focus instead about how you disagree.  Healthy conflict puts you on a path to resolve your differences.  Unproductive conflict, or avoiding conflict all together, means that your problems don’t get solved, only aggravated.

We will eliminate ‘pursuit -retreat’ patterns in our relationship.  You know these patterns – one partner is eager to confront problems while the other dreads these conversations and retreats.  Research by Sarah Holley of Berkeley suggests that this is not gender-based behavior that might indicate that the problem is intractable, but rather an issue of who has power in the relationship.  So figure out who that is by observing who has conversational dominance, then seek ways to more evenly respect the needs and power of each member of the couple. 

We will change the proportion of positive interactions to negative ones.  University of Washington researchers, including John Gottman, have determined that healthy relationships include at least five times more positive interactions than negative ones.  So every time you create a negative reaction in your relationship, you need to self-consciously make up for it by creating five positive ones!  Saying ‘I’m sorry’ is a good start, but it’s only 1/5th of the work you need to do!

We will address ADHD in our relationship.  If you have a child with ADHD, patterns of significant inconsistency in at least one spouse, chronic nagging and anger, or egregiously disproportionate distribution of responsibilities in your relationship the ADHD may be creating serious problems for you.  Learning how ADHD impacts adult relationships will help you overcome the many challenges you currently face.

We will schedule time to connect.  In the age of connection our relationships suffer from too many distractions.  A good way to start to repair the disconnection and damage that this causes is to regularly schedule time to focus on each other.  It can be a weekly date night, spending every Saturday afternoon just banging around together, or creating a half-hour window of time to talk or be together every night at the time that the spouse who goes to bed earliest is ready to retire.  It may not sound romantic, but research suggests that creating time to connect will both improve your relationship and provide long-lasting health benefits to you both.

We vow to seek out challenging and new activities to do together.  Research by Arthur Aron of Stony Brook University suggests that the fastest way to reconnect romantically is to do things together that are both challenging and new.  Ever consider taking tango lessons?  Going on a road trip to a new place?  Learning a new sport?  All of these things could help the two of you reconnect and improve your relationship.


To Wait or Not to Wait?

Shortened version of my previous question, which I think was addressed briefly (still reading!) in Melissa's new book:  when your loved one is locked in a holding pattern despite your modifying your behavior in keeping with the approaches and information covered in Melissa's book, this blog, and innumberable books on the subject, what's next?  The waiting gets toxic at a certain point.  Ultimatums don't seem to have any place in a loving relationship, but does it come down to hastening (or at least taking steps in that direction) the inevitable dissolution that seems necessary to stay healthy if the other person is unwilling to change in the face of an ADD diagnosis?

clash of needs?

Dear Melissa,

My ADHD spouse enjoys meeting his female colleagues / friends in public and having personal conversations with them (that he won't have with me). He also makes a point of telling me that he's meeting them, and what they discuss. I feel hurt by this, but also know that for his ADHD stimulation he needs this excitement and self-stimulation, and that his need is greater than his ability to be considerate towards me - in fact, that if I make a fuss it will just increase the excitement value, and that he won't really be willing to stop.  I deal with it by distancing myself because I've worked hard to stop criticizing and nagging, but I know that I'm suppressing anger at the same time.  It's tempting to do the same thing - perhaps he'll only understand when the situation is reversed, since he isn't truly able to empathize with me, but this is childish and reactive. I wonder if it would take the fun out if I told him I don't want to hear about these meetings. He's completely averse to going to therapy - we've tried several times and he is most uncooperative.  I welcome some advice. 

Getting to the Bottom Line

Having been married since 1987 to a well educated professionally successful elementary school teacher recently diagnosed with severe ADHD, I occasionally monitor this website. We have struggled since the very beginning to keep our relationship afloat despite years of manic episodes of hyperactivity, distraction, workaholism and an inability for him to connect emotionally with me. I finally reached the breaking point 4 years ago and he realized he needed to seek help. He now takes high levels of medication, has read over 20 books (Melissa's among them) to educate himself and sees a therapist once a week. He has come a very long way however, even with all of this, the results have yet to trickle down to appreciably impact positively on our relationship. His ADHD is so strong it often overrides what the medication does and spills over to create problems and cause setbacks. We know meds are limited in what they can offer and habitual repetitive behaviors are often the cause of these kinds of problems. He knows there is an obsessive-compulsive component at work too. We are both in our early 60s now, retired, and find dealing with this an exhaustive effort. He recognizes that it takes constant vigilance on his part and it gets tiring. Sometimes he just wants to let go and live freely in the moment. I am weary from spending my 30s, 40s and 50s with this man, accommodating and reducing my expectations to where I am searching for my absolute bottom line now. We have never enjoyed a normal sexual life as he was either too distracted or each rare encounter had to have all the fancy bells and whistles to make it worthwhile. Not a pleasant experience for me so we ended up retreating to our safe places. This problem remains a dark taboo area he'd rather not explore. I should say that, underneath it all, there is love and loyalty and companionship. He has never strayed or looked for sex elsewhere. There is history and sharing life with a son (his step-child). There are common interests and there is full understanding now about what the reality of ADHD is. We must look at where to go from here because this condition still plays havoc with both of us. There is so much emphasis placed on ADHD as being a source of "special gifts" what is downplayed is the reality of how it grinds a couple down. There is a very dark side. After acquiring all the knowledge and understanding all the behavior (and attempting to integrate everything you have learned into daily interactions) there still comes a point where you must accept the chasm that exists between the brain of the ADHDer and the non-ADHD partner. It will never change. We find ourselves now looking at how to construct a non-traditional life that will suit us both as we go into our later years. Can it include still living together or is separating a better option? Is there a way to reconcile a celibate life against all the other positives? I have no answers but we are still looking. 

Gayle (last name removed by editor)