Loving Someone with ADHD Is Easy…
…but living with them is often another matter. The good news: With a few dry erase boards and a sense of humor, you can make it work. Here’s how.
Any relationship advice expert will tell you that it’s natural for married couples to have occasional arguments. But when one spouse has adult attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), traditional advice doesn’t always apply. Loving someone with ADHD has it’s own special set of challenges. Fortunately, there are plenty of strategies to get your ADHD marriage back on track.
Patricia White’s ADHD marriage had her at her wit’s end. She had supported her husband, Chris, through multiple job changes, a mood disorder, and other ADHD-related problems — and she still considered him “the most kind-hearted person” she had ever met. But Chris’s trouble with time management, organization and cleaning the home was driving her batty.
She wondered: Could adult ADHD be to blame? The writing was apparently on the wall.
“We would be late for an appointment, and he would be leisurely doing things when we should have been rushing out the door,” recalls Patricia, who lives with Chris and their three-year-old, Gabriella, in West Chicago, Illinois. “He could walk right by a pair of dirty socks on the floor and not notice them, even if the laundry basket was just a foot away. If the house was a mess, he’d say, ‘Write me a list, and I’ll do everything.’ But I resisted. Why should I have to write a list? He should know what needs to be done.”
It wasn’t until the couple began working with an ADHD coach that Patricia came to understand why Chris was so clueless. He wasn’t lazy or passive-aggressive. He wasn’t inconsiderate, at least not on purpose. He was just too scattered to pay attention to clocks, socks, and other “little” things.
Once Patricia and Chris made a few small changes in their daily routines, their relationship quickly improved. She agreed to prepare lists of chores, and he began to do more around the house. “Now we have a dry-erase board in our kitchen,” says Patricia. “We write down our schedules for each month, and pin invitations, appointment cards, and other reminders to the board. We check it every morning and talk with each other during the day to make sure we do everything we have to do.”
The Whites, it turns out, are typical of couples in which at least one partner has ADHD. In a survey of such couples, conducted recently by Wayne State University in Detroit, respondents indicated that their spouses “don’t remember being told things,” “zone out in conversations,” “have trouble getting started on a task,” “underestimate the time needed to complete a task,” “don’t finish projects,” and “leave a mess.”
Disagreements over money are common among these couples; many people with ADHD spend impulsively, racking up big credit card bills while ignoring long-term financial goals, like saving for retirement or a child’s college education. Similarly, infidelity can be a problem, as their novelty-seeking and impulsive ways can cause individuals with ADHD to become bored with married life.
Yet it’s the lack of communication and the day-to-day disagreements over time management that drive couples apart. But, says J. Matthew Orr, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Mercer University School of Medicine in Macon, Georgia, “Things can be turned around when the partners realize that there are good explanations for the lack of follow-through and the poor communication, and that there are strategies to overcome them.”
The most effective communication-building strategies are reassuringly simple — like the Whites’ dry-erase board and to-do lists. Other helpful strategies include speaking in short sentences and asking the ADHD partner to repeat what has been said, to avoid misunderstandings.
“Don’t be afraid to say, ‘What do you mean?’ to each other,” says Ken Zaretzky, an ADHD coach in Wheeling, Illinois. “I counseled a couple who told me that one day the husband, who has ADHD, said he was going out to the movies. When he returned after 11 hours, his wife said, ‘Where have you been? You said you were going to a movie!’ He said, ‘No I didn’t, I said I was going to the movies, and I saw four movies today.’ He felt that he had been perfectly clear and couldn’t understand why she was mad.”
Writing things down may be the most useful strategy of all. “Make the house Post-It heaven,” says Dr. Orr. “A good rule of thumb is two notes for every request or instruction — one for the bathroom mirror and another for the refrigerator.”
This strategy has worked for Darcy and Eric Abarbanell of South Bend, Indiana. “I’ve posted notes all over the house to remind us both to bring down the dirty dishes to the kitchen, to clean out the cat litter box, to empty the dishwasher,” says Darcy. “I attach cartoons to them, so it doesn’t seem like I’m giving orders all the time.”
Shared Goals, Different Approaches
Both Darcy and Eric have ADHD. Given their shared diagnosis, you might assume they would think alike. In some ways, they do. “People with ADHD speak a subtly different language,” says Darcy. “Their thoughts are scattered around them, not in a straight line. Eric and I communicate on a level that people around us don’t, or can’t, always understand.”
But when it comes to big projects, their approaches couldn’t be more different. Darcy likes to break projects into small steps, following a schedule until everything is done. Eric prefers to plunge in with little planning, figuring things out as he goes along.
“We’re in the middle of redoing our bathroom,” says Darcy. “Eric’s approach was to start ripping down the wallpaper. Mine would have been to Google ‘wallpaper removal,’ write down all the steps, get the proper tools, line them up, and then strip the wallpaper. I admire Eric’s gumption and his willingness to plunge in, but often he gets in over his head.”
That’s exactly what happened last year, when Eric took charge of another remodeling project — this one involving his home office. “The room became so cluttered that he couldn’t work in there,” recalls Darcy. “I told him that once a week I would straighten up the room, then help him decide what he needed to do next to get the job done.”
Though grateful for Darcy’s help, Eric recognizes a downside to his wife’s meticulousness. “If she loses or forgets her lists,” he laughs, “watch out. She panics and feels like she can’t do anything without them.”
Darcy has learned not to impose her approach in every situation. Now that Eric’s office is finished, for example, she doesn’t nag him about his clutter. “That’s his space, where he works,” she says. “When clutter builds up, I shut the door.”
Clutter, Clutter Everywhere
Having separate spaces has been helpful for another couple who share an ADHD diagnosis, Lori and Scott Shattuck, of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Lori habitually left her clothes lying on the bedroom floor. That bothered Scott, who is a bit of a neatnik. Now she keeps her clothes in a separate dressing room. “This way, Scott doesn’t have to see them,” she says.
The best way for couples to avoid clashing over clutter may be to avoid clutter altogether. To do that, Zaretzky urges “pack rats” to ponder three questions when considering whether to keep an item: One, does the item have sentimental value? Two, does it have monetary value? Three, is it irreplaceable? “If you answer ‘yes’ to any of these questions,” says Zaretzky, “keep the item. If not, toss it.”
What else can couples do to reduce clutter? Stop subscribing to magazines you don’t have time to read. Take your name off mailing lists. Position a wastebasket near the front door, so you can toss junk mail immediately. To cut down on paper bills, set up automatic payments, and have no more than two credit cards. Maintain two in-boxes — one for bills, one for everything else — and sort through both boxes at least once a week.
“Controlling finances and controlling clutter go together,” says Dr. Orr. “Couples who have the greatest success in overcoming financial disagreements are those who are good about logging their expenses and checking their log at least once a week.”
Dr. Orr offers a simple strategy: Keep all bills and receipts in a notebook. Once a week, the partner who is more diligent about money goes through the book, reviews the expenses, and pays the bills.
This strategy has worked well for the Shattucks. “I used to buy without thinking,” Lori confesses. “And I’d sometimes forget to pay the bills. Scott taught me to be more conscious of what I buy, and we switched the bills I handle to be paid automatically. Scott pays the rest of our bills, balances our checkbook, and generally makes sure our finances are under control.”
Strategies for communicating, controlling clutter, and managing finances work best when they become routine. Yes, routines can be boring — especially to people with ADHD— but they’re necessary in order to meet daily responsibilities, at work and at home.
In the case of Darcy and Eric Abarbanell, routines extend to taking care of one another. “I tend to stay up too late and become really hyper,” says Darcy. “Eric can get so hyperfocused on projects that he forgets to eat. He makes sure that I get to bed at a normal time. I make him a smoothie first thing every morning and check in to see that he’s eating throughout the day, so that he stays healthy.”
Routines have enabled Bob Ball, of Farmers Branch, Texas, to enjoy career success for the first time in his life. After years of watching her husband hop from job to job, Bob’s wife, Julia, finally helped him get organized. “Every Sunday night,” she says, “I make him his lunches for the week. We set his cell phone to buzz twice a day, when he needs to take his medication. Once each weekend, he gets out his calendar and his practice schedule for the Dallas Symphony choir, I get out my calendar, and we write out a schedule for the week. Talking about what to expect ahead of time really helps.”
No matter what strategies they choose or how well they establish routines, ADHD couples need a sense of humor. That’s not always easy. “Marriages in which one or both partners have ADHD often involve years of disappointment and built-up resentment,” says Dr. Orr. “The non-ADHD spouse will say, ‘I feel like I have another child rather than a partner.’ And the spouse with ADHD may feel like she’s being nagged.”
Julia Ball is able to laugh about the dual role she plays in Bob’s life. “I’ll say to him, ‘Honey, this is your coach talking to you now: Don’t forget your doctor’s appointment today.’ At other times I’ll say, ‘Your wife would like you to throw some chicken breasts on the grill.'”
Julia appreciates Bob’s strong points. “My husband brings the fun into our marriage,” she says. “He’s the reason we have so many friends. He’s the one who says, ‘Let’s get season tickets to the opera,’ and he’s the one with the energy to run around with our grandchildren. I’m good on paper — he’s good in real life.”
Perhaps more than “normal” marriages, those in which ADHD plays a role require compassion, patience, understanding, and unconditional love. But then again, isn’t that the recipe for success in any marriage?
Updated on July 1, 2020