How Learning to Listen Might Save Your Marriage
Whether you’re married, dating, or in a long-term romantic relationship, ADHD can take a serious toll on both partners’ communication skills. A new kind of couple’s therapy may be the solution.
If you have ADHD, and are married to someone without ADHD, no one needs to tell you how different the two of you are. Your brains process information differently, affecting attention, memory, task completion, and more.
Couples affected by ADHD have trouble connecting. They talk at each other, not with each other, and usually make conversational mistakes that put even more distance between them. For example:
“How come you never take me out on dates any more?” says the partner without ADHD.
“I would be happy to,” says the ADHD-affected spouse.
“Then how come you never do? It makes me feel unloved.”
“You know I love you, and we’ve been on dates…”
“I think we don’t go out because you really don’t care if we go out. You would rather just watch a movie at home.”
“Hey, I don’t like your tone of voice…”
Does this sound familiar? I hear such statements from many ADHD couples that I counsel. As a result, I have taken a new approach to helping my clients: We address the big challenges to their relationship while learning communication skills to bridge their differences and minimize resentment. During a session, the couple will practice new speaking and listening skills as they talk about their challenges; I monitor how they interact, showing them how they could have done it better. The method, called Conflict Intimacy (CI) therapy, is based on work done by The Relationship Institute, in La Jolla, California.
The goal of Conflict Intimacy is to maintain (or rediscover) the affection, relationship safety, and ease that couples want or once had. Most struggling couples do not have good CI skills, which contributes to their ongoing problems.
The therapy is easy to understand, but harder to implement. CI develops a person’s ability to discuss any topic without speaking aggressively or listening defensively. With good CI skills, you honor your partner’s opinion, and express your own feelings while avoiding blaming him or her.
Know How You Feel — and Convey It
The ability to speak non-aggressively and listen non-defensively is built on another, more basic intimacy skill — self-intimacy. This is knowing what you are feeling and being able to describe it in a way that is self-reflective, not by making statements that blame your partner. Saying to your spouse that you are feeling “miserable” or “sad” sends a different message than saying you are “unloved.” The first two words describe your feelings, and give you a path to continue the conversation. Saying that you are “unloved,” on the other hand, reflects on actions taken (or not taken) by your partner, blaming your feelings on him or her. That blame is likely to put your partner on the defensive, so that he is unable (or unwilling) to address your concern.
Using self-intimacy and conflict-intimacy skills balances the power in an ADHD relationship. Both partners’ opinions are respected. Further, good CI skills make it safe to discuss the emotionally charged topics that create the most trouble in a relationship or marriage.
CI therapy changes the tenor of the conversation, no matter how ADHD is distributed in the relationship. For example, one partner finally understood his wife’s distress about his drinking when she changed her comments from “You shouldn’t drink so much” to “I can’t help it, but I feel repulsed when you drink, and am horrified that the loving feelings I have for you disappear.” One husband communicated how small he felt as his partner corrected him when he did things around the house. His wife started thinking about what that might feel like and became more sensitive to his feelings. In both cases, each couple’s CI skills allowed them to continue these important conversations and to explore new ways to behave and interact.
CI works. In my practice, I see couples move from being unable to connect to being surprised and moved by the feelings their partners have felt uncomfortable about sharing before. Or, as one non-ADHD partner wrote me about her formerly taciturn husband, “He risked telling me his thoughts today — twice!” His thoughts were calm and insightful, reminding her of things she knew about, but hadn’t focused on until he mentioned them.
To help you put CI therapy into practice, here are some examples of non-aggressive speaking and non-defensive listening.
Tips for Non-Aggressive Speaking
When couples struggle with the effects of ADHD on their relationship, chronic resentment and anger affect their daily interactions. To manage these emotions, set aside an hour or two a week to focus on one or two big topics, such as the impact of anger on your relationship, who holds which responsibilities, or what makes you feel connected. One week you get to lead, the next week your partner gets to lead.
When you have the floor:
- Focus primarily on your own feelings.
- Make requests, rather than demands.
- Stay respectful, and accept your partner’s right to have an opinion or thought process different from your own.
Try not to:
- Blame or demean your partner.
- Tell your partner what he or she thinks or should be thinking.
- Correct your partner’s opinion or feelings (as differentiated from facts).
- Use “trouble” phrases like “you always,” “you never,” and “I need you to…”
He Said, She Said
Said in a calm voice, this sentence may sound innocuous: “Your lack of attention makes me feel lonely and unloved. You are distracted and distant, and you never want to be with me any more.” Yet this statement is about the speaker, blames her partner, tells her partner how he feels, and makes a devastating generalization with the word “never.”
A less-aggressive way to get across such feelings is to say, “I feel lonely and unhappy in our relationship. We don’t connect as often as I would like. I miss being with you more intimately, and fear that the love we had is disappearing.”
Think about being on the receiving end of these two statements. Which one would inspire you to empathize with the speaker and help solve the problem?
Chores are a common hot topic for couples affected by ADHD. Look at the two approaches an ADHD partner might use to talk about the problem:
“If you don’t insist on everything being done ‘just so,’ maybe we might all help you once in a while, and your life wouldn’t be so miserable!” (This is demeaning, blames the partner, and tells her how she feels.)
A better approach would be:
“Your expectations and mine don’t seem to match up well.”
A non-ADHD partner can discuss problems with unfinished chores in two ways:
“I’m just being honest and truthful here. You never follow up as you say you will — you don’t care enough to even try. That’s not being mean, that’s just looking at the facts!” (This statement lacks respect, tells a partner how he feels, and uses a “never” statement.)
A better approach would be:
“I admit that I don’t know what it is like to have ADHD, but I am concerned about how much of the work I take on. Could we talk about the challenges of getting things done, so we can find a better arrangement?” (This is a request, not a demand, and is respectful in tone.)
Tips for Non-Defensive Listening
After years of marital struggle, it is hard for either partner in a relationship affected by ADHD to listen non-defensively, particularly if the words are about you. We prefer the way our own brain works, and we assume that if we don’t understand the logic behind a statement or an action, it must be wrong.
My non-ADHD brain goes from point A to point B in a straightforward way. My husband’s ADHD brain pings around. If he states an opinion that seems to come out of the blue, I am prone to discount it. Yet it isn’t how he got to that opinion that matters, but rather that he holds it at all.
Non-defensive listening means remembering that your and your partner’s opinions and feelings are equally valid. The goal is not to prove who is right, but to understand each other better and to figure out a solution to the problem.
When you listen to your partner:
- Try to stay open and respond with respect and empathy.
- Consider responding with a question to learn more.
- Believe your partner’s words, even if you don’t understand his or her logic.
- Consider, without taking it personally, what you would want if you felt that way.
- Develop a plan to change the outcome next time.
- Remember that your partner has a right to his or her opinion.
- State opposing opinions as just that—opinions to be considered, not demands.
Try not to:
- Focus on proving your partner wrong.
- Deny your partner’s version of events; this is how he or she perceives what happened.
- Spend a lot of time rehashing or arguing about who has the correct version of past events.
- Justify your behavior to defend yourself.
- Correct your partner’s feelings or opinions.
A wife without ADHD, who never knows whether chores will get done by her husband, might say: “It’s really hard for me to never know when things will be completed. I feel stressed out and up in the air, waiting to see if tasks will get done.” A defensive response from the husband might be: “Relax. It’s not a big deal that the trash didn’t go out!”
The conversation will go better if he uses one of these non-defensive responses:
- “I know that you’re upset about the trash. I have to say I’m not so bothered by it, as there isn’t much there, and I feel it could wait until next week. But I understand you’re feeling up in the air, so perhaps we could talk about it.”
- “Is there a recent example that really bothered you?”
- “You’re right, I didn’t take the trash out as I had promised, so we missed the pickup. I’ll take it to the dump.”
- “I can see you are stressed and upset. Can we talk about general expectations and how we set tasks together?” (This statement conveys empathy, respect, and a plan for change.)
On the other hand, when your partner with ADHD tells you about his challenges with chores, he might say:
“I feel paralyzed when we start to argue about chores, as if I can’t do anything right. My brain just shuts down.” An aggressive response might be: “If you would just take over and lead, then I wouldn’t have to tell you what to do all the time” or “So what do I do? If I don’t remind you, it won’t get done.”
You might use these non-defensive responses instead, which take your spouse at his word, and don’t tell him why he shouldn’t feel that way:
- “I don’t want you to feel paralyzed! Can we talk about ways that might work better?” (The speaker stays open and plans for change.)
- “I didn’t know that. In my desire to get things done, I guess I do this without thinking. Can you tell me when you feel this way, as it’s happening, so I become more aware of my tone of voice and can approach you differently?” (The speaker validates her husband’s feeling, and thinks about what he might want in the same situation.)
- “I’m so sorry — I love you and want you to feel strong and whole.” (The speaker conveys empathy.
Will CI Save Your Relationship?
When I start my Conflict Intimacy skills work with couples, they are understandably impatient. “I have been dealing with this junk for years!” they say. “Why should I be so delicate?” I tell them that they both deserve to be treated with dignity, regardless of past challenges. By focusing on your own feelings, and treating your partner with respect, you get what you want from your partner — respect, affection, and a desire to improve. Practicing CI skills may seem stilted, but they are the fastest way to rebuild an unhealthy relationship. I urge you to spend the time to develop them. You, like many other couples who have learned to use this set of skills, won’t regret the effort!
It’s All About You
When talking with your partner, describe your feelings in words that focus only on you (self-reflective):
- Full of shame
…instead of words that blame your partner:
Kinder, Gentler Buds
Couples who engage in Conflict Intimacy use these strategies:
- Speak without aggression
- Listen non-defensively
- Respect their partner’s opinion
- Are gentle
- Use short statements (don’t lecture)
- Are honest, but not hurtful
Fight the Good Fight
If your Conflict Intimacy skills fall short, and you’re both raring for a fight, use these tips to minimize the damage:
Start your conversation with a complaint, not a criticism. “I’m concerned that the garbage isn’t getting taken out regularly” is a complaint. “You never take out the garbage as you promised you would” is a criticism.
Soft starts are the way to go. A soft start is when you ease into a topic without attack. If you are complaining that you don’t feel appreciated, a hard start might be: “You never pay attention to me.” A soft start would be: “I really miss you! We aren’t spending enough time together these days.”
Use verbal cues to de-escalate your interactions.
Be respectful. No matter how hard the topic, or how upset you are, your partner always deserves respect. Always!
Use clarifying phrases. It helps to clarify what you mean, particularly if your partner looks confused or doesn’t seem to be responding as you expect—for example, “So what I mean is that I’m really frustrated by our mutual inability to get the kids to school on time.”
Look for common ground. You are more likely to stay constructively engaged if you focus on similarities and shared concerns.