If you want to listen, be heard, and connect in your ADHD marriage, context matters — so try these tips for choosing a time to share what's on your mind.
by Stephanie Manes, LCSW
In ADHD couples, everyday domestic and childrearing challenges are sources for ongoing conflict. Improving communication is usually the first line of attack in an effort to fight less and cooperate more. But when it comes to successful communication in ADHD couples, when you talk matters as much as what you say.
This is true in all couples, but particularly true for ADHD spouses, whose capacity to listen and process information can vary, depending on circumstances. You could have the best intentions for clear communication, but if it’s not timed right, the ADHD spouse may never get the message. It’s like sending mail that never gets opened.
My client Bill and his wife are a great example of what can go wrong with poorly timed communication — and what can help it go right. Like many ADHD couples, Bill and his wife had been arguing about how things get done around their house and taking care of the children.
His wife complained that she bore most of the burden and couldn’t engage his help when she needed it. She threatened him with separation. Her new message was, “Help out or move out.”
For weeks, we had worked on helping Bill take on more domestic chores. Despite his best intentions, he failed to do the things she asked him to. Most of the time he didn’t remember hearing what she said and wrote it off to bad working memory. What he did remember hearing, he heard it incorrectly.
I asked Bill and his wife when they were having these conversations. They discussed domestic matters in the middle of the morning chaos, when they were racing to get three young kids off to school and themselves off to busy jobs. Or his wife would initiate conversations late at night, after long workdays and the nighttime routine of homework, dinner, cleanup, and wrangling the kids into bed. By this time, he was exhausted and his own stimulant medication had worn off.
No matter how well intentioned both spouses were, these conversations were doomed to fail. They tried to exchange important information when Bill’s executive functioning was at its lowest. Other than early in the morning and late at night, the only time he and his wife had quiet time alone were during the occasional date — something they desperately needed.
Instead of cutting into this important time, I suggested that they set up a weekly phone “date” during the day to tackle their domestic challenges. Bill was to make sure it was at a time when he could close his office door and ignore other phone calls. I suggested he have a pad of paper and pen to take notes.
For anything that cropped up in between these meetings, he asked her to email him. If it were a problem they needed to talk about more, they would agree on a time to discuss it in the evening, but would be careful to avoid a long conversation on email.
I am happy to report that, with a few small tweaks and some stops and starts, things improved rapidly once they made these simple changes in the way they communicated.
For ADHD couples struggling with communication about daily life, here are a few suggestions to clear the way:
> Ditch distraction. Pick a time to talk when distraction is at a minimum. These should be times when you both can stop whatever else you are doing and give each other your full attention.
> Find the right time. Save important conversations for when you have the energy to give them the right attention. Remember that these conversations, even if they appear mundane, can stir up tough emotions. You want to pick a time in the day when you are least likely to let your reactions get out of control. If the ADHD spouse takes stimulant medication, take this into account in your planning, since it affects both attention and mood.
> Consolidate communication. Save the bits and pieces of small problems for one larger conversation. Smaller exchanges are more likely to get lost in the shuffle. It is better to “collect” requests and updates, and discuss it at a time when the ADHDer’s attention has been cued and his receptivity is high.
> Speak out of the box. If you can’t find a suitable time window for a face-to-face meeting, have a video-chat. While I generally caution couples against using email for matters close to the heart, many ADHDers do much better sharing information and feelings that are written down. Not only can they choose the best time to open an email, they have a record of what was said.
> Don’t be afraid to get it wrong. Finding your groove, and staying there, takes experimentation and patience. Couples give up when something they try doesn’t work, or if they stop following their plan. Give yourself room to try communicating at different times or through different methods to find out what works for you.
Remember that slipping into old patterns is part of life. What matters is not that you veered off course, but how you bring yourselves back!