Why Do You Do That? ADHD Marriage Comments by Ari Tuckman

Ari Tuckman, author of the recently released "More Attention, Less Deficit:  Success Strategies for Adults with ADHD" has generously written a blog post for this site about some of his take on ADHD and marriage.  I include the post below:

ADHD can be confusing. It’s all that inconsistency that makes romantic partners nuts—why can your partner do some things really well, but totally drop the ball on other things that are much easier? Why does it seem that talking about problems and getting commitments to change, just don’t stick? It doesn’t seem like people with ADHD intentionally aggravate their partners, but sometimes you may wonder. The bottom line is this: folks with ADHD are much smarter than their actions sometimes suggest. So why do they do that stuff, then?

Any relationship, even the good ones, will have its share of conflict. The key to happiness is to deal productively with those conflicts. The other key to happiness in an ADHD relationship is to understand why the person with ADHD does certain things and then sometimes doesn’t do others.

To answer this, we need to talk a little (just a little) about neurology. The fundamental glitch in the brain wiring of folks with ADHD involves that part of the brain that stops us from responding too quickly to the stimuli around us. When this part of the brain activates, it puts on the brakes for a split second and allows us to think through our various options before acting. It’s this crucial pause, this moment of reflection, that’s fundamental to doing the right thing at the right time. This is especially true in the hustle and bustle of daily life where we have all sorts of stimuli coming at us and we need to sort through them all to decide what’s the best thing to do next. Sometimes this means acting (e.g., picking up the ringing phone) and sometimes it means not acting (e.g., letting the phone go to voicemail so we can finish something more important).

Because people with ADHD are less able to reliably create this moment of reflection, they tend to not fully consider their options. As a result, they may make a decision that looks like a bad one when you look at the full picture; for example, picking up the phone right before walking out the door and as a result getting out late. Of course, if we look at only part of the picture, then it wasn’t such a bad decision; for example, it was good to talk to the person on the phone, as long as you don’t consider that it’s time to leave. Of course, once those missing pieces pop back into the picture (“Oh my God! I’m late!”) it becomes a crisis or a problem and the person has to scramble to catch up.

This is perhaps the most frustrating part of it for many spouses. The person with ADHD clearly knows what the right thing to do is, but doesn’t do it. At least not reliably enough. (And of course, the fact that he or she does do it sometimes only makes it more frustrating when he or she doesn’t do it.) This is the big disconnect in ADHD: the person doesn’t do what he knows he should. As a result, explaining why he should do certain things or why you are upset when he didn’t do them, doesn’t really get to the root of the problem or tell him anything he doesn’t already know. He knows it and he feels badly. You don’t need to beat a dead horse on these.

So what should you do? First, try to not take it personally when some other stimulus pulled him off track. That rarely makes anything better. Instead, try to prevent problems by simplifying how many stimuli hit the person with ADHD. For example, when having a conversation, turn off the TV and minimize the background noise in order to get his full attention. If you want him to remember something, make it stand out from the crowd, for example by taping up a reminder note or leaving a voicemail at work so he will get the reminder to call the bank at a time when the bank is actually open.

It isn’t your job to keep your spouse on track, but the two of you need to create a life together, so each person is part of the same team. Certain things need to get done, so you want to find a way to work together. It may be that it’s your job to do the reminding and your spouse’s job to take it graciously and actually act on the reminder. Or perhaps you work together on minimizing the amount of clutter that can pull the person with ADHD off track before he realizes it. The fewer stimuli someone with ADHD has to sort through, the more likely he is to respond to the best one.

The trick is to avoid becoming the traffic cop who is responsible for ensuring that the person with ADHD stops long enough to think through his options. In general, our spouses tend to take advice or suggestions better when it doesn’t seem to be entirely self-serving. This means keeping that collaborative spirit alive as you work together, with each of you bringing some different strengths to the table. Appreciate those differences and build on them.

Ari Tuckman, PsyD, MBA is the author of "More Attention, Less Deficit" published in 2009.  It's a great resource book that brings together vast amounts of information about ADHD in adults in an interesting, ADHD-friendly "short chapter" format that's easy to skip around in to pick out exactly what you need to learn about.