If you have both a spouse and a child with ADD, there are some important differences between how you will naturally want to interact with them – differences that can really hurt your relationship with your spouse if you aren’t aware of them.
Like many parents, my firsts experience with a diagnosis with ADD came through my child. My approach was to help her, in any way I could. I learned everything I could about ADD, talked with her (very good) doctor, worked with her school to make sure she got the assistance she needed there. At her doctor’s recommendation, we let her make the decision about whether or not to take medications (she didn’t want to for about 2 years, until school got harder). I spent lots of time sitting with her while she did homework, trying to keep her focused, and even more time directing her life.
One of the benefits of a childhood diagnosis of ADD is that you and your child often feel as if you are “making progress” – in part because kids naturally change and move forward as they grow up. This provides positive reinforcement for the parent who helps the child. “Okay, it was a struggle, but look what she can do now!” you think. Another benefit is that kids naturally listen to what their parents have to say (at least when they are younger). For the most part, they are interested in being in your good graces. One of your jobs, as parent, is to set structure for your child, and ADD kids in particular need that structure – welcoming it.
When your child struggles with the symptoms of ADD, your heart goes out to her. You ache for her, and wish that she would have an easier time of it. You are also ready to celebrate every victory that comes her way in obvious and noisy fashion. In short, you “parent” your child – overtly and protectively.
But, the things that you do to support your child are usually not good for your marital relationship. Your spouse does not generally want you to run his life, nor does he look to you for wisdom and, after a while, if you’ve been fighting over ADD symptoms, he’ll be so mad he won’t give a fig about what you think of him!
There are some pretty important differences between parenting a child with ADD and being married to a spouse with ADD that you should be aware of. First, adults don’t have the same forward growth momentum that helps enable changes in your child. Your spouse is already pretty fully developed and change comes from hard work, not getting a year older. This means that your ADD spouse seems more prone to get “stuck” and do things over and over again than your child (which is just the opposite of what you would expect – you expect the adult to be able to progress, and the child to get stuck). Non-ADD spouses tend not to take into account just how hard it is to make big changes as an adult, particularly when they are simultaneously observing the progress a child is making.
Second, it is your job to “parent” your child. Your child expects this, and so do you. This makes both of you in tune with your role. However, it is your job to “romantically support” your spouse. He does not expect you to parent him, and will likely resent it if you do. Furthermore, if you parent your spouse you will lose the romance of your marriage, as it’s almost impossible to be sexually attracted to a parent figure. Instead of being in tune, you'll find that accusations of "you've changed" will ring out if you start trying to "manage" your husband's ADD.
Third, while you “ache” for your child’s failures, frustration with lack of “progress” in your spouse more quickly leads to anger that your full grown spouse can’t do better. This not-so-subtle difference is communicated clearly through your actions and tone of voice to your spouse, who comes to think that you don’t like him. For a non-ADD spouse, it’s much harder not to take the ADD symptoms personally when they are exhibited by an adult “who should know better” than by a child who is “still learning”.
So here’s what I want you to do:
- Recognize that you can’t “parent” your spouse’s ADD in the same way you do your child’s
- Make sure you keep romance alive, or if it’s already dying, make it a top priority to put some special, lighthearted moments back into your love life
- Recognize that change is harder for your spouse than your child, and applaud all forward progress
- Resist all and every temptation to run your spouses’ life. If you are upset with how you are relating to each other, clarify your expectations and then act on them without controlling your spouse (more on this in my next post)
- In spite of the natural tendency to want to smooth life out for your child first and foremost, put your spouse’s needs and struggles first. This is critical for the stability of your family, and will ultimately be far more helpful for your child than just about anything else you could do for her.