“I Realized Our Marriage Was In Trouble.”

Forgetfulness, lack of focus, and other ADHD symptoms can take a toll on a marriage. Discover how one couple found solutions from an ADHD coach.

Addressing problems in an ADHD marriage

The life of 31-year-old Chris White hasn’t been an easy one. During late adolescence and in his early 20s, he suffered from a mood disorder and debilitating stomach problems due to an undetected ulcer. But it was his untreated attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Chris admits, that eventually threatened his career and his marriage.

Growing up in a large suburban town 20 miles outside of Chicago, Chris felt that he didn’t measure up to his classmates in high school. He struggled academically and didn’t fit in with his peers, although he did excel at springboard diving. At 20, he attempted suicide by taking an overdose of antidepressants. The psychiatrist he started seeing concluded that his poor grades, lack of focus, and social awkwardness were indeed caused by ADHD.

Chris didn’t take the diagnosis seriously, and rarely stuck to his medication regimen. He attended four different colleges, but he didn’t stay long enough at any of them to earn a degree. Once he entered the work force, attendance problems caused him to be fired from his first two jobs and demoted in his third. He decided to quit before he could be dismissed from the fourth.

Between jobs, he met Patty, a legal secretary, and within 18 months they were married. But when the honeymoon ended, Patty discovered that living with someone with untreated ADHD was a daily struggle. “Everyone says that ‘the first year is the hardest,’ says Patty, “but I knew we had bigger issues.”

Several sessions with a family therapist only heightened the friction between them. So when Chris’s mom suggested they see a certified ADHD coach, they were skeptical. But it became a turning point in their marriage. Two-and-a-half years later, Chris and Patty are still married and happy. Here is how the couple overcame their challenges.

[Self-Test: Could You Have Adult ADHD/ADD?]

Ken Zaretsky (a life coach in Chicago): When I met Chris and Patty, their marriage was in trouble. Patty was ready to give up on her husband, and he wasn’t aware of how upset she was with his behavior. They fought a lot. They needed to sit down and talk about their issues and needs.

Patty had to learn that people with ADHD behave differently than those without the condition. She didn’t have to excuse Chris’s behavior, but she needed to understand ADHD in order to realize that Chris wasn’t deliberately trying to upset her.

After some discussion, I discovered that Patty and Chris didn’t spend much time together. Patty told me that they said almost nothing to one another when they were relaxing at home. She would watch TV, while he worked at the computer on the other side of the room. My goal was to educate both Patty and Chris about ADHD, devise some solutions that would let them manage their life together, and, in the process, help them rediscover their love.

Patty: We met with Ken twice a month at our house, sitting in the living room and talking. Chris also called Ken to coach him through any issues that arose during the day.

[“Free Resource: Manage ADHD’s Impact on Your Relationship”]

When Ken discussed the symptoms and patterns of ADHD, Chris’s actions started to make sense to me. Ken asked me about our last big fight. Chris was in the middle of refinishing our dining room table, when he went to the mall to buy more sandpaper. He didn’t come home for three hours. I was livid. But Chris didn’t understand why I was angry.

Ken explained to me that Chris, or anyone with ADHD, lacks an internal clock to give him cues about the passing of time. When Chris got involved in something – like shopping at the mall – he simply lost track of time. Then Ken asked why Chris’s tardiness made me so angry. I said, “I shouldn’t have to tell a grown man when he has to be back from the mall. I always have to be the responsible person. I would like to spend three hours at the mall as well, but there are things that need to get done at home.” To be honest, my feelings were hurt, too. It felt like Chris would rather be out shopping by himself than spending time at home with me.

Chris: I’d forget about our fights five minutes later. But I eventually started to realize that our marriage was in trouble; it seemed that Patty was always upset with me about something. I had no idea how we had gotten to this point.

Patty: Our finances were so dire that we couldn’t pay our bills. Combined with everything else, the money shortage seemed too much to manage.

Chris: Ken pointed out that impulse buying is common to people with ADHD. I know it was a problem for me. I bought things without thinking and ran up large credit card bills. Ken came up with ideas to help me cut back on my spending. I drew up a re-payment plan, paid off my credit cards, and then canceled them. I learned to take out less money at the ATM, so I wouldn’t overspend.

In addition to spending too much money, I had trouble getting to appointments on time. Instead of allowing me to use my ADHD as an excuse, Ken coached me to make small adjustments to avoid being late. Now when I need to be at work by 8 a.m., I no longer tell myself that I can sleep just five minutes more. I set my alarm and make sure I get up.

Patty: Ken counseled us to break down our large problems into smaller ones that we could solve. He said, “OK, the bills are a mess – what are you going to do about it?” We swallowed our pride and asked Chris’s parents for financial help. When it came to clutter in our apartment – wedding gifts and moving boxes filled the rooms – we set deadlines for putting things away. And when we wanted to spend time together, we made sure to write down those “dates” on the calendar.

The weekly schedule of one-on-one time lent an element of romance to our relationship that had been missing. If Ken hadn’t asked us to slot in some personal time, I doubt if Chris would have given it a second thought.

Chris: Ken convinced me that my ADHD doesn’t make me less of a person. It’s common for people to say, “Oh, you have ADHD,” as if I just said I have cancer. The coaching sessions made me realize that I’m just as good as anyone. This condition is just a small part of who I am.

Most importantly, Ken made me realize that my life with Patty is about more than just satisfying my needs. I have a wife and a baby, and I have to hold down a job in order to support them. That means I need to get to work on time. Everything isn’t perfect. I still have some trouble keeping track of appointments, so I write them down on cards and carry them in my wallet. I also use a Personal Digital Assistant, which I can plug into my computer to view my day’s schedule.

When it comes to personal time, our pre-planned “date nights” have been good for us. Once the baby arrived, it seemed like we never had time to go out. Now my mom watches the baby, and we go out and get something to eat or see a movie. This has helped Patty and me to reconnect.

Patty: Ken showed me that there isn’t anything wrong with Chris – his thought processes are just different. Now I make sure to talk with him about my expectations. I used to get angry when Chris didn’t get up in time to get to work. I’d think, “I’m not his mother – if he wants to screw up his job, that’s fine. I’m going to get to my job on time.” Now I encourage him to set his alarm. And on the days he doesn’t get up, I wake him.

My biggest fear was that I was going to turn into Chris’s mother instead of his wife, always barking out orders and making demands of him. But we’ve learned to negotiate. If he’s going out, for instance, I’ll say, “Can you be back in an hour?” Chris might tell me he needs two hours. Agreed.

Negotiation doesn’t take much effort. I want to help Chris, which, in turn, lowers my stress levels. That’s why I don’t complain about making the to-do list for the week. I know it’s going help our days go a little smoother.

Chris: Patty knows that I’m different from other people and that I don’t do things in a “normal” way. For instance, I overlooked her first Mother’s Day, which was a big mistake. For some reason, I thought that the holiday was for my mother, not Patty. When I realized how important it was to her, Ken suggested I make it up to her by celebrating later that month. I haven’t been overly romantic through the years. I’ve given Patty flowers only three times during the five years we’ve been together. But on the other hand, I do things for her that other people wouldn’t think of doing. This past Valentine’s Day, for instance, I bought Patty a real star. I paid to have an actual star in the galaxy officially named after her.

Patty: That was so romantic. When he does that sort of thing, I know that he loves me, that he’s genuine. It makes me realize that love doesn’t have to be about chocolate and roses. Sometimes love looks more like one special star in the sky.

[“What I Wish My Partner Knew About My ADHD”]