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 — and it comes in many forms.
One woman with ADHD recently wrote this to me about her partner, who also has ADHD, and the challenges they are facing are not uncommon:
“Being together at home during this crisis is a day-to-day emotional rollercoaster ride. 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, 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 like those I’m seeing in many households today:
“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.”
Key Stressors on Couples That Are Social Distancing
It certainly is a difficult time. 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. What’s more, heightened stress often exacerbates ADHD symptoms.
Emotional Regulation and ADHD
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.
So how can ADHD couples navigate these emotions and emerge stronger from this crisis? By adopting these healthy, restorative habits and coping strategies.
Handling the Emotional Roller Coaster of the Pandemic
Manage Your Mindset – Try Not to Catastrophize
The stories we create around our experiences are important. It’s easy to feel hopeless if you think present struggles in your relationship will go on forever. You can think that problems now are a sign that “things will never work,” or you can adapt a different mindset.
One woman in a support group I run said her husband, let go from his job due to the pandemic, was playing video games for multiple hours a day and not doing a whole lot around the house or with her. She grew resentful toward him, worrying that he would “never get off his video games.” Through our work together, she managed to reframe her thoughts, instead viewing his gaming as a mini-vacation. Once she developed a more positive attitude about the situation, she was able to better communicate to her husband what she actually wanted: to spend more time with him.
This reframing is especially helpful for the reward-focused ADHD brain because it’s easier to engage with things that feel good. Try to transform “I don’t like my partner now,” into “My partner is this way right now because of stress.” That adds a qualifier, which suggests that the stress is the issue to tackle.
You can manage your mindset by writing down your thoughts when a situation arises. Think about the story you’re telling yourself, and question whether it’s “real.” See if there’s a better way to look at it, and dwell on how that new thought feels. Keeping ‘anti-annoyance’ reminders around you. Post-It notes that say “This will pass — stay steady” on the bathroom mirror, can also help emphasize that this is a temporary, unusual time.
Question Your Urgency and Manage Expectations
The heightened stress and anxiety brought about by the crisis also inadvertently creates a sense of urgency around anything and everything. Some people react to this by getting stuff arbitrarily done to regain a sense of control, setting agendas for others along the way, and expecting them to fall in line. This is almost always a recipe for fights, resentment, and misunderstandings.
One partner, for example, might (mentally) assign more chores to the other, now that both have switched to working from home. The other partner, however, was never let in on these expectations, and may not be on board with the changes.
To avoid problems caused by undue urgency, ask yourself: Is the thing you’re seeking to get done actually urgent, or something that just feels good for you? There’s a stark difference between the two. Also consider who is “setting the agenda” at home, and think about whether equality is being maintained between both partners. Knowing what triggers your sense of urgency is also key. For many, that happens to be the news cycle – a good reason to consider limiting your news consumption. Though things are moving quickly, the gist of the news remains the same each day, and pretty grim: the disease is spreading; the economy is tanking; people need to stay home.
At the same time, we must acknowledge the legitimacy of increased anxiety. These are, logically, anxiety-inducing times. We don’t really know what is going on, not everyone agrees on the severity of the situation, and a significant portion of the population is at risk of illness or death. 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 statement is invalidating and will be guaranteed to add to your partner’s anxiety.
More Helpful Habits and Strategies for ADHD Partners
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 sure 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. 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. 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.
2. 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, so focus on deepening meaningful friendships using other means.
Couples should also set time aside to attend to one another. Love is about connection, and time must be allocated to that. That can be shown through affectionate ways like holding hands while walking and cuddling.
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. 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, 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!
6. Limit interruptions during certain times of the day. More people are working at home — without any of the normal boundaries in place. 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.
7. 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.
8. 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.
9. 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.
10. 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.
11. 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.”
12. 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.
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.
The content for this article came, in part, from the ADDitude ADHD Experts Webinar, “Relationship Rehab for ADHD Couples Challenged by the Pandemic” with Melissa Orlov, which was broadcast live on June 16, 2020.
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Updated on May 5, 2021