“Can We Save Our Marriage? Should We?” ADHD Marital Problems Compounded by the Pandemic

Marital problems have multiplied during — and been amplified by — the pandemic for many couples touched by ADHD. If your relationship has suffered, read these marriage-rescuing strategies from an ADHD coach. Hint: It’s all about letting the positives outweigh the negatives.

“I have been married to my partner for 15 years. I have ADHD and he doesn’t. Spending 24 hours a day together during the pandemic has damaged our relationship. I’m not sure we are truly compatible now that we’ve gotten to know each other better than ever. He seems to dislike me. My symptoms — forgetfulness, losing my keys, losing focus — bother him. His neurotypical symptoms — lack of empathy, making me feel bad about forgetting things — bother me. I have recently thought hard about divorce. Is there any way to save this relationship?”

I have coached hundreds of adults with ADHD, many of whom work from home with a partner present during the pandemic. Without a doubt, I’ve seen an increase in breakups, divorces, and negative feelings between partners in this time.

You write that you have “thought hard about divorce.” As adults with ADHD, we ruminate on our negative thoughts, which can cause “analysis paralysis” to kick in. This makes it hard to make decisions about many things — including our relationships.

Before reading on, ask yourself, “Have I already made up my mind? Do I know the right course for me is divorce?” If your answer is “yes,” stop reading. If, however, you believe your marriage is salvageable, and you are ready to make changes, read on.

Marital Problems: How to Revive the Relationship

Turn Negativity on Its Head

According to Rick Hanson, Ph.D., a neuropsychologist and author of the book Resilient (#CommissionsEarned), humans have an inherent negativity bias. “The more an individual’s thought patterns trend negative and slip into rumination — continually turning over a situation in one’s mind and focusing on its negative aspects — the easier it becomes to return automatically to these thought patterns.” Ruminating can damage the neural structures that regulate emotions, memory, and feelings. Our bad events loom larger than positive events.

Research also shows that it takes at least five positive marital actions to offset one critical or destructive action. One way to strengthen a marriage is to make sure that the positive outweighs the negative. Think of a cookie jar: The more cookies (positive actions) there are to begin, the less it matters when one is eaten (negative marital action). Boost positive marital actions with these steps:

  • Notice traits you like about your partner and the positive things he does over a week. Write down those traits. Then answer the following questions: “Why did I fall in love with my partner in the first place?” and “How do I feel when he shows those positive traits?” Review the answers to these questions daily to strengthen positive thinking.
  • Say “thank you” for all of the things your partner does for which you are grateful.
  • Display pictures around your house, on your phone, or computer, of happy memories shared with your spouse. Many adults with ADHD have poor working memory; seeing pictures will remind you of happier times.
  • Consider joining a support group or coaching, trying cognitive behavioral therapy, or seeking counseling.

Other Ways to Ensure the Positives Outweigh the Negatives

Several of my clients have, at least temporarily, put aside negative feelings toward their partners by attempting the following tips and tools for creating a happier marriage:

  • Educate each other about ADHD symptoms — what they look like and how the non-ADHD partner reacts to them. Lots of books, articles, and podcasts address this topic. Try imagining the roles that the ADHD partner and the non-ADHD partner might assume in the marriage to maximize each other’s strengths. This can also help each partner identify feelings of resentment or annoyance. I recommend reading When an Adult You Love Has ADHD (#CommissionsEarned), by Russell Barkley, Ph.D.
  • Know your own emotions, and work on controlling your behaviors. This may be challenging since a major symptom of adult ADHD is poor impulse control. However, being proactive will give you time to think through your response to his behaviors rather than to instantly react to them. Try some of the following suggestions:
    • Notice when you feel your emotions building and identify what sets them off. If your ADHD medication wears off at a certain time every day, don’t have arguments with your partner after that time.
    • Apologize when you catch yourself reacting in a non-constructive way and change this behavior. Practice this daily. Your mind is a muscle that needs to be exercised every day like your body.
  • Discover yours and your partner’s love language. Everyone receives and gives love differently. By discovering each other’s love languages, you can communicate better. Take the quiz (and see if your partner is open to taking the quiz) “The 5 Love Languages,” from Gary Chapman. Determine your partner’s love language, and find ways to communicate to your spouse using this language.
  • Hug it out! Research shows that 20 seconds of hugging is the minimum time necessary to promote the flow of oxytocin and serotonin, mood-boosting chemicals that promote bonding. Do not be the first one to let go of the hug.
  • Do date nights. Make them about the two of you. Remove social media, phones, and other distractions, so you can focus on your love. Plan a date night with your partner (even if it’s at home). After date night is over, plan for the next one. Some ideas for date nights are:
  • Cook a special dinner, bake a special dessert, play a card or board game, learn a new game together, or work on a puzzle.
  • Hold weekly meetings. Check in with each other to gauge each partner’s feelings. Maybe you can share what you both learned from reading about ADHD and non-ADHD partners. Discuss only one difficult topic at a time. Avoid saying “never” and “always.”
  • Engage in social calls with good friends and family members that will bring you pleasure.
  • Fill up your emotional tank. The following strategies will improve your mood:
    • Practice mindfulness.
    • Watch what you eat and make sure you’re giving your body the best fuel.
    • Get enough sleep.Work at hobbies that you enjoy.
    • Incorporate at least 20 minutes of daily exercise to increase your endorphin levels and improve your mood.
    • Reward yourself.
    • Go to sleep at the same time as your partner — something good might come out of it.
    • Before falling asleep, tell your partner things you love about him.

Marital Problems and ADHD: Next Steps

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