An ADDitude reader recently wrote: “I am married to a man, age 49, who has driven me out of my mind for the last 10 years. He’s totaled two cars in four years, been fired from two jobs, and flies off the handle. He doesn’t take care of any household responsibilities, despite best intentions. He is finally taking medication and has started seeing a therapist. I applaud him for that. But I am to the point where I want to give up on him. How can I save our marriage? What should he do and what should I do?”
A successful marriage takes work. Two people blending their lives to support and accommodate each other is hard. And being married to a person with ADHD is harder. It is a roller coaster ride, often frightening, frustrating, and exhausting. Years ago, your relationship may have begun with excitement and energy, as your husband hyperfocused on you. You were the complete center of his attention and all that mattered to him. But things change dramatically.
You feel confused and unloved because your husband seems to have lost interest in you and his responsibilities to the family. You say that you are at the point of giving up on him. You cannot depend on him to contribute any leadership in your home. It sounds as if he has also caused your family financial hardships. Know that you are not alone. It is natural that you fear that things will stay the same. You have been so preoccupied with your spouse that your own desires and goals have been put aside. You need to address that.
To-Do List for Your Husband
The first step for your husband is to get an accurate diagnosis from a professional with experience in the treatment of ADHD. Does your husband meet the DSM-V criteria for ADHD? If your husband gets a confirmed diagnosis, he is on the right track. A cognitive behavioral therapist can be helpful, especially if there are other challenges, such as a mood disorder, poor self-esteem, substance abuse, aggressive anger, chronic anxiety, depression, or obsessive-compulsive behaviors.
An ADHD coach can help your husband gain insight into destructive behaviors that interfere with his marriage and family. A coach will explore ways of managing frustration and anger, decreasing self-blame and low self-esteem, reducing procrastination, and improving time management, social skills, and communication. A coach can also help your husband create a personal plan for success.
To-Do List for You
Fortunately, there are things you can do, too, to improve your relationship:
1. If you haven’t done so already, learn as much as you can about ADHD. Read articles and books, or attend a local support group or a national conference on attention deficit.
2. Don’t take your husband’s behaviors personally. Remember who has the disorder and don’t take the blame. It is not your job to “rescue” him. You can’t make his ADHD go away, no matter how much you try, and you are not responsible for his disorder. He needs to take ownership of his actions and seek the help that he needs to address ADHD symptoms.
You say that he “flies off the handle.” He must learn to deal with frustration and anger in an acceptable way. On the other hand, you are responsible for your reactions to his actions. Try getting away from him for a few minutes, and try to stay as calm as possible during those times. You probably know by now when he is in the throes of an “ADHD-charged moment.” This may occur when he is overwhelmed, frustrated, or running on stimulus overload. This is not the best time to bring up certain subjects. Learn to differentiate between facts and feelings. Even though your husband may have hurt your feelings by not listening to you, he may not be aware of how his actions and words affect you.
3. Remember that your husband is not defective or flawed. His brain is wired differently. He may seem unmotivated to change his behaviors, but he is not deliberately trying to annoy you. I can assure you that his actions are not due to lack of caring.
4. Learn to be patient. Change takes time. He has probably gotten a lot of negative comments and criticism, and he is sensitive to it. Find occasions to give good feedback. Be a cheerleader when you see positive change in him.
5. Do not enable him. You married an adult and you are not expected to do everything for him. Over time, you may have nagged him so much that you feel as if you are raising a child. It is natural to feel emotionally abused and unloved. Don’t become his mother or the janitor who picks up after him. You can be his helper, but you are not his personal slave. It is his responsibility to cope with the everyday challenges of life.
6. Never tolerate abuse — verbal or physical. If your husband cannot manage his anger/aggression on his own, he needs professional help. You must insist on being treated with respect! Likewise, you are responsible for not “tearing him down” when you don’t agree with his actions or when he forgets to do a task or a chore that you asked him to do several times.
7. Build better communication. Agree on a set time every week when you can talk without interruptions or distractions. Use this time to clarify what hasn’t been working in your marriage and what is important to both of you. Learn to listen more and talk less, but be honest about how his ADHD traits affect you. Ask open-ended questions and explore possibilities for change. Resolve misunderstandings by seeking clarifications of what you or your husband said or did. Be transparent about your thoughts and feelings, and encourage your husband to do the same.
People with ADHD don’t do a good job of recognizing social cues or appropriate boundaries. If your husband seems emotionally disconnected, be open and honest about your feelings out of love and concern for the relationship. If you feel that you can no longer communicate effectively together, it is time to seek professional help.
8. Give your husband unconditional love. This won’t be easy after years of feeling unloved and unimportant to him. Show him that you accept him, even though you don’t condone a lot of his behaviors and habits. Learn to show compassion and remember that your relationship is more important than being right.
9. Last and not least, keep a good sense of humor! It will help you survive the tough times.