The One Ground Rule for Fighting Fair in an ADHD Marriage
A harmless quarrel can go from 0 to 100 in a matter of moments when ADHD is part of your relationship. To keep run-away emotions under control, follow these five expert tips and learn to keep the peace while communicating productively.
When one or both “halves” of a couple have ADHD, anger, resentment, and quarreling can be all too common.
But don’t take it from me. Consider these statements made to me recently by some of my clients in ADHD marriages:
“Tom can go from zero to 100 in 10 seconds,” says Tom’s wife. Unfortunately, she isn’t talking about driving. She’s talking about his anger.
“There’s just no reasoning with her when she gets upset,” John says of his wife. “It’s like quicksand. The more I struggle to escape, the deeper I sink.”
“I don’t understand why she gets so upset,” says Bob. “Out of the clear blue, my wife gets mad and stomps out of the room, slamming the door behind her.”
If people with ADHD are to minimize strife in their relationships, they must “fight fair” and be willing to compromise. After all, in most disagreements neither partner is entirely right or entirely wrong.
When it seems like ADHD and relationships can’t mesh, here are some strategies to keep the peace:
Understand Each Other’s Values
What matters most to you? What matters most to your partner? If you take the time to find out where your values coincide — and where they diverge — your disagreements will be less likely to take a nasty turn.
Imagine a couple having a discussion about housekeeping. One partner (who values time above money) wants to hire someone to clean the house once a week. The other partner (who values money above time) considers that an extravagance. There’s no right or wrong here — just a clash of values. So, rather than argue their positions, the partners talk about the values that underlie them. They compromise, and hire a cleaning person to come in once every two weeks.
Establish Ground Rules
These should govern how, when, and where arguments will proceed. If you or your partner takes ADHD medication, for example, it’s probably a good idea to limit potentially explosive conversations to times when impulsivity and other symptoms are fully controlled. If you have a hard time controlling your temper in conversations, perhaps you could agree to hold conversations via e-mail.
One couple I’ve worked with decided to discuss difficult issues only after the children had gone to bed.
Another couple agreed to wait until the weekend to have difficult discussions — because during the week they’re simply too tired to think clearly.
One ground rule, above all others, is especially important: Stop any discussion right away if you or your partner becomes angry. Take a breather and return to the discussion 30 minutes later, after the anger has dissipated. Go for a walk, visit a neighbor, or play with a pet. You might consider this a time-out for grown-ups.
It’s not always easy to delay discussions — especially if you or your partner tends to be impulsive. But it’s a skill worth cultivating, for the sake of your relationship.
Restate Your Partner’s Words
If your partner says something with which you violently disagree, stifle the urge to pounce. Consider the possibility that you have missed — or misinterpreted — something. The best way to do this is to restate, in your own words, what you think your partner said — and how your partner feels. Then ask your partner if you’ve gotten it right.
Don’t continue the discussion until you’re certain that you understand your partner’s position.
Look for Anger Cues
In many instances, it’s possible to sidestep disagreements altogether if each partner watches for signs that the other is becoming annoyed.
Consider my client Bob and his wife, who always seemed to get angry at him “out of the blue.” Once the three of us talked things over, Bob had an important realization: Long before she blew up at him, his wife showed many signs of anger — clenched fists, crossed arms, facial flushing, and changes in her tone of voice. Things got better between them once he started paying closer attention to these non-verbal cues — and once she agreed to try to express herself more directly.
Keep Things in Perspective
Arguments take a heavy physical and mental toll. Is it really worth the time and emotional stress? Often it’s better to be like Teflon — and let things slide — than to be like Velcro, quickly grabbing on to every annoyance or perceived slight.
Michele Novotni, Ph.D., is a member of the ADDitude ADHD Medical Review Panel.
Updated on May 5, 2021