When Both Spouses Have ADHD

Two people have commented that they are in couples where both spouses have ADHD and that they find this very difficult.  I would like to address this a bit here but will start by recounting two comments specific to this topic to make it easier for those of you on a blog feed who aren’t always referring back to the site itself:

From mhmarel:
What about if both spouses have ADHD? I find it much more difficult to set up routines and coping systems, because I know my partner will not help me maintain them, and may even undermine them (example -- I spend an entire day organizing our financial files, only to come home a couple of days later and find the entire contents of the file box strewn on the living room floor, because he was looking for something and it was " just easier to find it that way.") On the other hand, there are plenty of times when I am the saboteur: he has managed to get ready to go on time, but we are late anyway because *I* can't find my keys/wallet/glasses, etc. How do you cope when you BOTH need help?
Also, what if only one spouse has been officially diagnosed? How do you get the undiagnosed spouse to recognize their own ADD issues and get help(instead of blaming them on *your* ADD)?"

And from Lisa:
"My husband and I both have ADHD. We have had a constant struggle during our marriage and many non-resolved issues. We have all the issues brought up in the comment mentioned above, but we are both diagnosed. We are considering separation. We have the chore/gender issue, I act as the "non" adhd person and am responsible for 98% of everyting. He has been very resistant to marriage counseling. It is exhausting."

Let’s face it, until both parties in any marriage (ADHD or not) manage to find a balance where they have developed systems that let them live together in peace, the institution of marriage can be exhausting.  In an ADHD-affected marriage, this is an understatement.  Just getting out of bed in the morning feeling that you are going to face another day of disappointment, struggle, unresolved issues, and ugly surprises (like the undoing of that file box) is exhausting.  You can feel as if you are drowning.  I will admit (and remember, I have a very good relationship with my husband now) that there were times that I literally fantasized that he would get hit by a bus so that my misery would disappear.  That’s how hard it was to put one foot in front of the other and face each day.

While the prospect of separation may sound appealing (and may be the right solution for some), it doesn’t get at the heart of the matter.  You are neither of you bad people.  You are people who have not yet agreed that your ADHD is causing many problems in your relationship.  You can get separated, but you will both still have ADHD…which means that at some point you will STILL need to address how to make sure ADHD doesn’t affect your current marital relationship…or your next marital relationship…or the next one after that…You get the idea.

This is not to say that neither of you will ever be happy in marriage.  Quite the contrary.  You can both be very happy in marriage – even your current marriage …the question is, do you care enough about the person you are currently married to “relearn” some of what you have learned about them throughout the course of your past relationship and to both make the effort to do it?  (This idea of relearning is an important one – and I will post an entire entry on it.)  It can be hard, but one of the steps to improving your relationship is letting go of the perceptions you have both cemented into your minds about how the other will behave in the future.  A lot of the relearning is really “reapproaching” – that is approaching your spouse with a different point of view.

There is no doubt that having two spouses with ADHD can compound some of the organizational problems in your relationship.  But perhaps not as much as you think.  Because I can’t see that it’s any better that a person with ADHD “takes on the role of the non-ADHD person” and does all the chores than it is to simply BE a non-ADHD person who does all the chores.  It feels pretty much the same – terrible.  And both the ADHD person and the non-ADHD person resent their role.  Okay, it might be harder to get organized.  On the other hand, the organizer with ADHD might have more sympathy for just how hard it is for an ADHD person to get organized and be more likely to give his/her spouse a break now and then.

Here are some ideas that you might try out:

  • Try to inject humor into your lives.  This may seem hard at first because things don’t seem very humorous at this point.  But if you are late because you can’t find the keys, consider laughing and letting it go.  (Chances are that being late isn’t a real crisis, just a perceived one because it’s just irritating you within the broader context of your relationship.)  You want to reduce tension between the two of you at every opportunity so that you can be easy enough with each other to start to work together toward change.  Humor is a good way to work on this.
  • Aim for being “well enough organized”.  This means organized well enough that your mess doesn’t get in the way of living your life.  It doesn’t mean being as perfect as your parents or as the house beautiful magazines!  In my house, my daughter’s room looks like a tornado hit it – every day – and my kitchen is ALWAYS strewn with socks, shoes (the most irritating of which are actually on the counter), books, dirty dishes, etc.!
  • Consider getting outside help with your most intractable problems.  Don’t be ashamed to say that organization is your most intractable issue – it is frequently a key area of conflict in the ADHD marriage, even though that sounds silly!  Think creatively on who might be able to help you.  If your spouse can’t manage to bill the hours of his business promptly enough to provide a steady income and this is a bone of contention, get him to hire a part-time accountant to do it for him (the resulting income stream and efficiency will likely pay for itself).  If neither of you is good at creating systems because both of you are ADHD, hire an organizer to help you put a few systems in place that solve your most irritating issues.  Find a good book on organizing with ADHD and use that advice to put a couple of systems in place and try them out.  If you need ongoing input, consider a coach who can check in with you regularly.  If you can’t afford any of these, ask for assistance from a supportive family member (on a limited – and grateful – basis!)
  • DON’T fall into the trap of thinking that just because other people can organize you should be able to do so, as well.  You and your spouse are not like most other couples.  NEITHER of you is good at some of the things that other people take for granted.  THAT’S OKAY!!!  But the first step in dealing with it is recognizing this and accepting it.  Really, you don’t have to be like your parents or your friends.  You just have to find happiness!

Which brings me to the final topic of this blog – not being willing to admit that ADHD affects a relationship.  Mhmartel wrote “how do you get the undiagnosed spouse to recognize their own ADD issues and get help, instead of blaming them on “your” ADD?”  This, again, is a huge topic worthy of an entire entry (or more!).  Here is something quick to think about, though.  “Blame” doesn’t belong in ANY marital relationship - ADD or not.  Blame is accusatory and never constructive.  It causes hurt to both parties (the blamer feels resentment – hence the blaming.  The “blamee” feels attacked.)  Yet blame is prevalent in almost all ADHD relationships because it is so easy to target someone who doesn’t/can’t pick up his socks or who is always late.

It is easy to use blame as a weapon when you are feeling hurt, attacked, scared or frustrated.  Is it possible that mhmartel’s spouse is responding to being scared about possibly having ADHD?  And what is the tone of the conversations they are having together in which she suggests he “needs to get help”?  If they are like those that we used to have around our house, the “help” conversation may be one that is confrontational and accusatory.  (As in “I’m not the only one with problems here…what about YOUR problems?  You have this awful thing that you are accusing me of having, too.  You need help, too!")  It is easy and natural to respond in a defensive way to the suggestion that either spouse needs help if that suggestion is put forth in any but the most loving and helpful way.  And even if you think you are putting forward the suggestion in a loving way your spouse may not hear it that way because of his/her own issues.  At least not at first.

Aarrgghhh!  This is all so COMPLICATED!!  A couples’ responses to each other are intricately related and often subtle.  Clear, un-nuanced communication in a household where there is underlying hurt, resentment, frustration and, yes, exhaustion, seems almost impossible.  But it's not.  I hope as you continue to read this blog that you are provided with food for thought that will encourage insight into gradually improving your own situation.  It won't happen over night (though there will be some "eureka!" moments, I assure you) but the beginning of learning to trust and love each other and be happier is to start to understand your ADHD.

-Melissa Orlov