Any relationship advice expert will tell you that it's natural for married couples to have occasional arguments. But when one spouse has adult attention deficit disorder (ADHD), traditional advice doesn't always apply. Fortunately, there are plenty of strategies to get your ADHD marriage back on track.
Patricia White's ADHD marriage had her at her wit’s end. She had supported her husband, Chris, through multiple job changes, depression, and other ADHD-related problems — and she still considered him “the most kind-hearted person” she had ever met. But Chris’s trouble with time management, organization and cleaning the home was driving her batty.
She wondered: Could adult ADHD be to blame? The writing was apparently on the wall.
“We would be late for an appointment, and he would be leisurely doing things when we should have been rushing out the door,” recalls Patricia, who lives with Chris and their three-year-old, Gabriella, in West Chicago, Illinois. “He could walk right by a pair of dirty socks on the floor and not notice them, even if the laundry basket was just a foot away. If the house was a mess, he’d say, ‘Write me a list, and I’ll do everything.’ But I resisted. Why should I have to write a list? He should know what needs to be done.”
It wasn’t until the couple began working with an ADHD coach that Patricia came to understand why Chris was so clueless. He wasn’t lazy or passive-aggressive. He wasn’t inconsiderate, at least not on purpose. He was just too scattered to pay attention to clocks, socks, and other “little” things.
Once Patricia and Chris made a few small changes in their daily routines, their relationship quickly improved. She agreed to prepare lists of chores, and he began to do more around the house. “Now we have a dry-erase board in our kitchen,” says Patricia. “We write down our schedules for each month, and pin invitations, appointment cards, and other reminders to the board. We check it every morning and talk with each other during the day to make sure we do everything we have to do.”
The Whites, it turns out, are typical of couples in which at least one partner has ADHD. In a survey of such couples, conducted recently by Wayne State University in Detroit, respondents indicated that their spouses “don’t remember being told things,” “zone out in conversations,” “have trouble getting started on a task,” “underestimate the time needed to complete a task,” “don’t finish projects,” and “leave a mess.”
Disagreements over money are common among these couples; many ADHDers spend impulsively, racking up big credit card bills while ignoring long-term financial goals, like saving for retirement or a child’s college education. Similarly, infidelity can be a problem, as their novelty-seeking and impulsive ways can cause ADHDers to become bored with married life.
Yet it’s the lack of communication and the day-to-day disagreements over time management that drive couples apart. But, says J. Matthew Orr, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Mercer University School of Medicine in Macon, Georgia, “Things can be turned around when the partners realize that there are good explanations for the lack of follow-through and the poor communication, and that there are strategies to overcome them.”
The most effective communication-building strategies are reassuringly simple—like the Whites’ dry-erase board and to-do lists. Other helpful strategies include speaking in short sentences and asking the ADHD partner to repeat what has been said, to avoid misunderstandings.
“Don’t be afraid to say, ‘What do you mean?’ to each other,” says Ken Zaretzky, an ADHD coach in Wheeling, Illinois. “I counseled a couple who told me that one day the husband, who has ADHD, said he was going out to the movies. When he returned after 11 hours, his wife said, ‘Where have you been? You said you were going to a movie!’ He said, ‘No I didn’t, I said I was going to the movies, and I saw four movies today.’ He felt that he had been perfectly clear and couldn’t understand why she was mad.”
Writing things down may be the most useful strategy of all. “Make the house Post-It heaven,” says Dr. Orr. “A good rule of thumb is two notes for every request or instruction—one for the bathroom mirror and another for the refrigerator.”