Relationships

Lighten Up! Your Quirky Spouse or Child May Be Happy Just The Way They Are

Maybe the problems you associate with their ADHD are really YOUR problems. Have you ever looked at the world through the ADHD lens? Would things still get done — just differently? Would everyone be happier?

control freak
control freak

Understanding ADHD in Adults

My client John wanted help with his ADHD; it was driving his wife crazy. On the weekends, he’d never get to the honey-do list she made. She hated how much time he spent on the computer, so he needed to find ways to reduce it. Could I recommend timers or reminders? She really didn’t want shoes in the house, and he could never manage to take them off by the door. Were there tricks to remind him about the shoes? He didn’t always do his laundry on Tuesday, sometimes putting it off until Thursday. Could I help him remember to do it earlier? Even though they were financially comfortable, he kept procrastinating on looking for work and it was making her angry.

He hoped I could help him find ways to motivate past his issues. I told him I could not. Because I didn’t think the issues were his. They were his wife’s.

Here’s the thing about ADHD and its interference with life’s functions: it’s only an impairment if the person with ADHD experiences it that way. Can someone be considered “disordered” if they function exactly how they want to be functioning?

As I dove into my client’s wants and needs, it became clear that he was actually very happy. His ADHD didn’t bother him; he liked being “quirky.” He’d retired at age 45 from a career he loved and had succeeded in. He didn’t particularly think the things on the honey-do list needed to be done and preferred to hire someone to do them if they did. He loved spending time on the computer. He thought the no-shoes-in-the-house rule was silly. He never had enough dirty clothes to warrant laundry on Tuesdays. Not needing the paycheck, he saw no reason to get a job. The only thing upsetting in his life was his wife’s constant nagging and her lack of affection toward him.

So, what was causing the dysfunction here? Was it ADHD or was it his partner’s controlling expectations? If she woke up one day and said, “Hey, I don’t care about Tuesday-laundry or shoes in the house,” she would still be living with a spouse with ADHD. But it wouldn’t cause an issue. So instead of working on his ADHD symptoms, we wound up working on his communication skills and tendency to avoid conflict. He eventually understood that a compromise in giving his wife what she needed sometimes would lead to him getting what he needed: more affection and freedom.

[Want to Learn More about the Differences Between the ADHD Brain and the Neurotypical Brain? Free Resource Here]

John is a fictitious compilation of numerous similar clients I’ve seen over the years. While this scenario depicts adults, as parents and teachers it may be equally important to look at our children with ADHD in this same manner. A criterion for diagnosing ADHD in the DSM-5 is “evidence that the symptoms interfere with, or reduce the quality of, social, academic, or occupational functioning.” As parent to two children with ADHD and wife to a man with ADHD myself, I can readily point to all the ways the symptoms reduce quality of functioning. But that is according to my definition of “quality of functioning” — not theirs.

Understanding ADHD in Children

While parenting a child with ADHD, I heard a constant nagging in the back of my brain: What if my children are perfectly happy the way they are, but the nagging, controlling expectations of me, school, and society are the things that reduce their quality of functioning? Are her temper tantrums erupting because I’m placing unreasonable expectations on a brain that works differently? Is his defiance a push-back against being asked repeatedly to do something he doesn’t understand or isn’t ready to do? Why is it bad to (DSM Hyperactive Criterion a.) fidget or tap or squirm often? Or (b.) leave seat unexpectedly? Or (c.) run and climb about inappropriately? Or (d.) be unable to play quietly? Or (e.) act as if driven by a motor? It’s only “bad” if you’re metaphorically married to my client’s controlling wife. Right?

Unfortunately, unless homeschooled or independently wealthy, our children basically are wedded to the expectations of the neurotypical world. We live in a society with rules, and our little kiddos have brains that don’t intuitively or physiologically play by those rules. Like I helped my client to develop a give and take with his wife, we have to help our kids understand how to compromise — not to turn off their brilliant, silly, energetic, emotional brains, but rather to balance them with everyone else’s idea of “quality function.” Why? Because maybe, just maybe, happiness lies somewhere in the middle for everyone.

[Want To Better Understand Your Child With ADHD? Read This]


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Updated on January 3, 2021

6 Comments & Reviews

  1. I was just popping through reading articles, and although I understand the general idea of what you are trying to say, I don’t agree with the dismissal of “the other”.

    The advice to this fictional client, encourages dismissing the partners also potentially valid feelings and immediately marks her as “controlling”. Yikes. I’d be curious if you, as the therapist, would encourage meeting with the wife as well to incorporate both partners perspectives? For example, the husband might not find his lack of work problematic because they are currently well off. However, might they already be dipping into a retirement fund that may become problematic later? Might he have been helping regularly at home and just stopped doing so to stay on the computer all day? Just because we are comfortable with something, doesn’t mean it isn’t a problematic behavior. Some things we can’t see or even recognize until another changes our “life glasses”. As you also pointed out, communication is key.

    As for the kiddos, there isn’t anything wrong with being fidgety or needing to move and get out of your seat by itself. However, when you are in a room full of other kiddos also trying to learn, the tapping can be distracting. My kiddo has ADHD and I understand her activity needs, but I’ve also seen her intense sadness when her peers are moved leagues away from her because her need to move and constantly talk, interfere with their learning. She is spirited, energetic, and an amazingly beautiful being. However, her beauty doesn’t need to be painted all over someone else’s wall to be accomplished.

    Thing is we don’t live on a planet by ourselves and those of us with learning differences also need to be aware of how our differences affect those around us. That’s not to say we should change everything we are to suit the needs of another, but I don’t feel that working on our weaknesses/areas of opportunity are a bad thing.

  2. But the problem is, we are NOT happy as we are. We know we are doing things wrong, since we are constantly told this from birth onward. Although it is very good if a spouse or family member can be understanding, the ADHD person needs to get help or eventually their life will fall apart. I speak as an adult with ADHD with a family of ADHD sufferers.

  3. My ADHD is showing here in my several comments, but I was just diagnosed at age 46. ADHD has ruined my life. I am divorced, have terrible finances, broken relationships, unfinished university (currently working on it now after 20 years of aimless wandering) and multiple job failures. (I have found a wonderful man who loves me despite my symptoms, thank God). If I had known about how to deal with this 20 or 30 years ago, I might have become a normal, productive adult. This is a huge issue with a lot of pain and stress. I feel like my life has been completely wasted and I am running out of time.

    Yes, others need to be understanding and somewhat accommodating. But the fact is, we are the minority who must try to conform to them as best we can.

  4. Finally, I have family members who are “happy as they are”. They cause CONSTANT stress and frustration (or worse, rage and distress, not to mention danger) to others in their daily lives even in cooking, shopping, driving, daily living. I feel it is completely selfish of them to not even consider getting some type of help, when it is there.

  5. I am on the fence with all of it. On one hand yes, ADHD is a diagnosible condition for a reason. People with the issue DO have struggles and limitations and work-arounds that aren’t perfect, and the people who intentionally choose to be in relationship with them will have to internalize some truths about that.

    However, it’s not appropriate to pretend adult partners shouldn’t be share responsiblity for creating a shared life plan with a glidepath that takes the ADHD person’s challenges into account. Excusing someone with ADHD from responsible adult participation in creating this life vision or brainstorming about ways they can have meaningful participation infantilizes the ADHD person, and lays the entire responsibility for shared team success on the other partner.

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