Stress Highlights Our Differences – For Better or Worse

I don’t know about you, but when I’m feeling stressed out, my normal ‘tendencies’ get magnified.  I’m more likely to want to ‘get organized.’  I’m rarin’ to go on that project I’ve put off for a while.  I cook more.  In normal times I’m a ‘doer.’  Under stress I’m really a doer.

This magnification of one’s way of being happens to most people though, of course, how it manifests varies widely.  One woman wrote to me recently:

Stress is making me want to plan, make lists, know what my/our day will look like. My ADHD partner can barely tolerate planning.  Wants to stop talking and get things done!”

The good news is that this partner is ready to work hard.  Differences in approach don’t have to be an issue, but when the pressure is up, it’s easier to get annoyed or frustrated at inconvenience that you might normally not pay much attention to.

"For ten days I've been obsessing about making lists of groceries, etc for friends to bring us because due to medical issues we are vulnerable if we get COVID-19. This morning, brushing my teeth, I realized we were about to run out of toothpaste, an item that never made it onto a list. My immediate thought was ‘why am I the one who has to think and plan?  Couldn't my partner notice we were running out of toothpaste and get it on the list?  Nope, not in a million years, was my thought.’”

How to handle this

Acknowledge what is going on.  Recognize that this exaggeration of our normal tendencies is part of the stress that has been added to our lives.  For those with ADHD it may be even worse, as stress is known to increase the severity of ADHD symptoms.  But, really, you are both having this issue, as is the woman above and as am I.

The urgency of this situation doesn’t change one’s ability to manage ADHD.  If your partner with ADHD wasn’t a planner before, that partner isn’t going to be a planner now.  It takes time and significant work to change habits.  Yes, you may benefit from some short-term hyperfocus, but we are in for a long haul with COVID-19 and that hyperfocus is unlikely to last the whole time.  So patience and hard work to improve habits are still critical skills.

Create transparency.  Being careful not to blame either partner, talk about what the stress means to you.  My husband and I had one of these conversations last night.  I shared my fears and depression for our children and their futures as their lives are being so turned upside down.  He shared his fear that the runny nose and tiredness he has been feeling lately could be COVID-19 (it’s likely a cold he caught from me and some friends.)  If planning is a burden, let your partner know.  (See my Psychology Today post on What You Need to Know About Me Today Is…)

Set high enough standards for yourself.  Some, under the stress of the COVID-19 outbreak are: becoming mean; easier to trigger; and using poor coping strategies such as smoking marijuana and drinking, which leads to even worse behavior.  This time is stressful, but that means it’s more important to be aware of who we are in our relationship, not less.  If you’re drinking to feel more comfortable, for example, seek alternative coping strategies.  Consider exercise, meditation, mindfulness, or listening to calming music.  All of these will help you feel more relaxed, but in a healthy way that won’t injure your relationship.

Remember the positives.  Laugh.  The woman who wrote me said that later she and her husband laughed about her experience because it turned out that there was, in fact, another tube of toothpaste in the partner’s cabinet.  He had just forgotten it was there.  The ability to laugh – and to remember that your partner has many positive qualities – is a great coping skill that serves you well when under particular stress.  As another example, in our own household my husband is delighted that I’m so organized right now (we have wipes, lots of food, etc.)  I’m happy that he’s a 'go with the flow' guy, which helps me relax a bit even though we are both inundated with bad news daily.  We are both thankful to have a bit more time to just hang out together in a variety of different ways.

Reflect on your own quirks for perspective.  Yes, your partner’s tendencies are getting magnified…but so are your own.  Reflecting on what you, yourself, are doing that could be particularly annoying to your partner will help you remember that you are both in this together.  I have often found that in spite of my husband’s symptomatic behaviors, it’s always a good thing to seek my own humility.  I’m far from perfect, and remembering that helps me balance any annoyance I may feel with remembering he does even more that is right.

Do fun things together.  Here are some things that people are doing now that they are spending more time together that bring calm and happiness to their days:

  • Puzzles
  • Cooking together
  • Longer bike rides
  • Hikes, running, walking
  • Card games
  • More time with kids
  • Gardening with the family
  • Competitive video games
  • Taking extra time to attend to each other
  • Family reading-out-loud time at night
  • Catching up with family online

Feel free to add your own ideas for what you and your partner are doing to create some joy together.