Sick of Arguing? It Might Be Time For a Smarter Compromise

If you’ve been talking with your partner about the same ADHD-related marriage problems for many years, it may be time to take a different approach and create a work-around.

A couple arguing about their ADHD-related marriage problems
Cartoon couple sitting back to back

When it comes to having good fights with your partner, it’s important to understand that more than half of your battles are unresolvable. They result from deep differences in opinion or approach. A common non-ADHD/ADHD difference, for example, has to do with what constitutes “adequately organized” — whether it relates to planning events, putting a household in order, or raising children.

Another is whether or not you should let things “just happen” (be spontaneous) or actively “make them happen” (plan ahead and pursue goals). Those with ADHD typically have a higher tolerance for spontaneity and disorganization, perhaps because they’ve had so much more experience with it.

If you’ve been talking about the same ADHD-related marriage problems for many years, it may be time to take a different approach and create a work-around. The reality is that there are two of you, and compromise is often necessary. Compromise does not mean give up or lower your standards. It means accepting that you are different and figuring out how to move forward with your lives while accommodating those differences. Here are some examples from our lives that illustrate this:

  • My husband, George, likes to hang on to stuff because it might be useful in the future, and he doesn’t worry too much about how it’s organized. I like things more tidy. After years of discussion, our work-around includes hiring someone to help clean the house every other week (so I don’t have to bear all of the burden of cleaning up) and delineating areas that are his and mine. I no longer worry about, nor do I comment on, what my husband keeps in his areas of our home — his office, closet, or bathroom area, his side of the garage or the basement. George does help keep the public spaces of our house tidy.

[Read: Can This Marriage Be Saved?]

  • Like many with ADHD, Nancie’s husband Steve is a late-night person who often comes to bed after 1 a.m. This used to drive Nancie crazy. For the longest time, she tried to impress on Steve how important it was that they be in bed at the same time. Many uncomfortable conversations led to Steve feeling controlled by his wife. Nancie felt hurt and baffled by his late-night habits.

Now Steve gets into bed a couple of nights a week at the same time as Nancie, and they almost daily spend some time together in the mornings when they awaken. This gives them “together” time, which is what Nancie wanted, while respecting Steve’s desires, too. Nancie has learned to enjoy her quiet reading time on the nights when Steve stays up later, so she has turned a negative into a positive.

Couples find that they sometimes slip into bad habits, such as being overly critical of each other or becoming more emotional than the situation warrants. Rather than engage negatively at these times, they’ve developed verbal cues that alert both partners to what is happening. These cues remind them to stop all conversation and regroup later. (See “OK, Got It!” below.)

Setting Boundaries

Work-arounds and effective compromises require conversation and engagement. But they also set some boundaries. There are, very rarely, times when compromise is not appropriate. In our relationship, we draw a bright, uncrossable line at all types of physical abuse or behavior that puts members of the household at unnecessary risk (particularly children). We also have very strong opinions that respectful behavior should be the default in our relationship.

Knowing what is non-negotiable can help you solve specific problems you face. For example, couples ask us with surprising frequency what to do when an ADHD partner can’t remember to put medications away in a household that includes young children. The ADHD partner says, “I’m trying…” and the non-ADHD partner says, “I know, but you left our child’s medication out again…you need to do better!” In this case, waiting to develop a new skill set is not as important as the potential catastrophe of an accidental overdose. The couple needs to immediately create a solution that eliminates the danger. This likely means that the non-ADHD partner needs to take over giving medication to the kids and accept that this is just one of those things.

[Read This Next: “What I Wish My Partner Knew About My ADHD”]

As you think about compromise, we urge you to discuss your values and boundaries. It’s important to understand what you are completely unwilling to compromise on. Make sure the list is short and genuinely important to you. This list should include “bright line” issues, such as not putting your children at physical risk or striking a partner, as well as those things you simply cannot give up, such as being treated with respect. Everything else in the relationship is negotiable.

Excerpted from The Couple’s Guide to Thriving with ADHD, by Melissa Orlov and Nancie Kohlenberger, LMFT. Copyright 2014. Specialty Press, Inc.

“OK, Got It!”

Verbal cues are a set of words that two partners agree to use to improve the direction of an interaction that they are having. Verbal cues, and their close cousins, physical cues, can be used for more than just stopping fights. You might use them for:

  • Gently “resetting” a conversation. Say, I get distracted during a conversation by something outside a nearby window. My husband notices and says, “Squirrel” (a reference to the lovable but easily distracted dog in the movie Up). We realize that I got distracted, and my husband is calling me on it. We have a good laugh and return to our conversation.
  • Stop a conversation from escalating out of control. A couple is talking about going to an extended family get-together, which is always a touchy subject for them. One of them starts to feel the conversation is getting too negative, and she uses a verbal cue to stop it. The pause enables them to regroup and to readdress the issue in a more positive way.

Verbal cues are a useful tool, but they must include these three elements:

  • Agreement that there is a repetitive problem that a cue can address. Verbal cues don’t work if they are imposed on a partner by the other — both must participate willingly.
  • Agreement on a set goal — what do you want to accomplish with the verbal cue?
  • A conversation about how the cue will work: What the cue is (specific words or actions); what it means; and what the response will be.

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