Cooped Up with ADHD? Relationship Advice for Couples Strained by Social Distancing
Relationships are straining under the weight of pandemic stress and anxiety, not to mention the days (going on weeks) cooped up with ADHD, kids, work, and each other. Here, an ADHD relationship expert offers advice for building stronger bonds while social distancing or sheltering in place.
Navigating a world closed down by a pandemic — most notably, working from home with a spouse and/or children sharing the same space most hours of the day while also feeling unusually worried and uncertain — is adding more than a normal amount of stress to our lives. For couples impacted by ADHD, that stress may be especially severe.
Key Stressors on Couples That Are Social Distancing
The key emotional stressors for relationships in social isolation include:
- Higher than normal emotional tension, particularly in the areas of fear and anxiety
- Extra stress due to upended schedules and additional family commitments
- Too much time together
- Fewer and fewer ways to ‘recharge’
Many of these stressors are aggravated by ADHD. We’re seeing their impact already on relationships, and couples are wondering what they can you do to emerge from this crisis stronger.
Emotions Run High During the Pandemic
It’s a difficult time. One woman with ADHD recently wrote this to me about her partner, who also has ADHD:
“Being together at home during this crisis is a day-to-day emotional rollercoaster ride. Some of my partner’s ADHD symptoms include high emotionality and anxiety that some days can mean a lot of frustration and outbursts over little annoyances. I am trying to remain upbeat and positive as much as possible… However, my partner’s outbursts can take their toll on me, especially when they come throughout the day and evening — and on several days in a row. I find myself getting sad and anxious and on edge waiting for the next outburst to come.”
I also heard recently from a partner without ADHD who wrote of heightened emotions in her household:
“My kids are home. I am exhausted and want to do nothing by the time they need to be put to bed. My husband, who has ADHD, is experiencing extreme anxiety… He is staying up late, sleeping in, not going to the gym, and has little left for me and the kids. Tonight, I just wanted to be alone, but instead of saying that clearly, I just felt annoyed by everything he did and I was prickly and rude to him.”
It’s not only the partners with ADHD whose emotions are heightened – I’ve heard from several neurotypical partners who are terrified that their partner will thoughtlessly or unintentionally expose them to illness. In addition, some families will face significant stress around financial issues. I am not dealing with these two concerns in this article, as they deserve separate, full attention.
How to Handle the Emotional Roller Coaster of the Pandemic
Difficulty managing emotions is a core characteristic of ADHD – so much so it was a focus of the 2019 CHADD International Conference on ADHD. Like all symptoms of ADHD, runaway emotionality is worsened by stress and less sleep, so it’s no surprise that many couples find their households emotionally difficult these days. What you want in a time of crisis is a partner who will reassure you and ‘be there for you;’ many ADHD relationships, instead, have two partners struggling to manage their emotions. Here are some suggestions that may help you:
1. Time to recharge is an absolute necessity. Explain to your partner (and kids) that you need some time each day just for yourself to make sure you have the energy and patience they all require. Make you are obvious about when you are taking this time – use a closed door with a sign on it; set a specific time of day for no interruptions; wear a set of big earphones; leave the house for a walk (if you can, safely). Tell family members that this is a gift they are giving to you. Others will need that recharge time, too, so let them choose what they find most energizing and help to enable it.
2. Make your recharge time safe for your family. As you take time for you, make sure you still keep everyone you love safe by staying away from others – even your closest friends, religious groups, and others whom you ‘trust.’ These days, trust has nothing to do with transmission.
3. Time to connect is also critical. It is easy to feel isolated when we are all asked to stay at home because humans thrive on connection. My daughter hosted her first Zoom party Saturday night with friends; a girlfriend is hosting her own birthday party online tonight. Call family and have that long chat you haven’t had for a while. Join a support group. Consider connecting with old friends you haven’t contacted for a while. We all need connection! That said, social media connections can be superficial, upsetting, confusing, angering, and possibly addicting. I suggest you focus on deepening meaningful friendships using other means.
4. Get sleep. Call a family meeting to explain that, in this time of stress, it is even more important that everyone go to bed on time and get enough sleep. Even half an hour less sleep a night may make you more irritable and less able to perform your daily responsibilities.
5. Keep taking your ADHD medications. It may be tempting to stop taking meds since you are home. Don’t do it! Added stress may worsen ADHD symptoms, so meds are even more important than usual.
6. Exercise. Physical activity is a known and effective mood stabilizer. If you are able to go outside, then run, walk, bike, garden, shovel snow… anything that allows you to break a sweat while not being with other people. If you can only stay inside…
7. Dance. Get some really fun music, and dance to get some indoor exercise. Create a dance routine with the kids or start an indoor ‘boot camp’ game where each family member gets to be the drill sergeant for 3 minutes (set a timer). Turn it into a game. Do whatever it takes to get some energy out!
8. Create some ‘anti-annoyance’ reminders. That might mean decorating your bathroom mirror with Post-Its that say something like “this will pass — stay steady” or a similar reminder that your patience really will help everyone… and this is a temporary, unusual time.
9. Limit interruptions during certain times of the day. More people are working at home, and I’m hearing about many irritating interruptions, particularly from partners with ADHD who want to act on their latest thought ‘now!’ But if you’re working from home, this creates real problems. Agree to some rules about when and how you can be interrupted. For example, “no interruptions for anything other than impending death between 9 and Noon, and then check in at lunch.” If your partner forgets about the rule, a gentle reminder rather than a rebuke will be your best approach.
10. Be a peacekeeper. Remember that this crisis will span a short part of your life. So offer repairs rather than fights or run ins. Apologize for your edginess; reassure your partner that you love him or her. Be generous with your compliments. These repairs will help keep your home life stable while everyone is under unusual pressure.
11. Create a family gratitude practice. Perhaps at dinner, ask everyone to share one thing for which they are grateful that day. This practice is great for emotional stability.
12. Create some fun special moments. If you have kids, change up reading time; make up stories together where one person says two sentences, then the next person has to invent the next two sentences, and so on. (This can be hilarious, and kids love to try to make the story as weird as possible!) Consider creating a family journal of this time (everyone can draw a picture or write a paragraph about each day). If you don’t have kids, have a picnic with take-out food; dance around the kitchen; plan and prepare for a special summer garden. The more positive emotions you experience, the less likely the negative ones will bother you.
13. If possible, set a daily emotional check in time. One couple with whom I worked found great success by taking 5 to 7 minutes at the end of each day to complete this sentence: “The thing you most need to know about me today is…” Then each would share an important thought, emotion, or highlight of their day. This could be a great way to stay in touch in a difficult time. Make it short and sweet so you actually keep it up.
14. Create new routines. The old routines have been upended, but you can create new ones. One woman recently wrote to me:
“I have already noticed that we are falling into a rhythm of going outside after breakfast — for walks, runs, or bike rides. Along our way, we do some mindfulness exercises — listening to the sounds (birds, dogs, etc), looking at all the shades of green in lawns and plants, and feeling the temperature in the air. When we find our way back, then we do some gardening. Right now I have lots of fallen oak acorns that are starting to populate the yard and my kids love helping me pull out the little seedlings. Afterward, they seem ready to come inside and get started on schoolwork.”
15. Create change inside the home to keep ADHD minds interested. The same woman wrote to me, “We alternate locations while doing schoolwork and usually there’s some running around in between. We go from dining table to kids’ table to outside to laying on the bedroom floor. I’ve noticed that changing rooms helps to add novelty.” With creativity, you may also be able to use this ‘novelty’ strategy in an adult-only home, too.
16. Consider limiting your news consumption. Though things are moving quickly, the gist of the news remains the same each day, and pretty grim: the virus is spreading; the economy is tanking; people need to stay home. You can check in once a day and get what you need to know without adding more to your emotional load.
17. Acknowledge the legitimacy of increased anxiety. These are anxiety-inducing times. We don’t really know what is going on, not everyone agrees on the severity of the situation, and a large portion of the population is at risk of illness or death. It’s logical that people are feeling anxious, fearful, and more. Validate that anxiety by saying “It’s totally reasonable to feel anxious… can I do anything to help alleviate that somewhat?” rather than “Hey, stop being so anxious; it will be fine.” That last is invalidating and will be guaranteed to add to your partner’s anxiety.
These are tough times for couples and families, and brand new challenges arise every day. Toward that end, I will be writing about how to keep your relationship healthy during this crisis. I hope you’ll join me at www.ADHDmarriage.com.
Melissa Orlov is the founder of ADHDmarriage.com and author of two award-winning books on the impact of ADHD on marriage.
Updated on April 8, 2020