Tuesday, December 15, 2009


Maintaining and sustaining an intimate relationship is difficult for anyone. It can be more challenging if one or both partners have ADHD. When a spouse is constantly distracted or can’t slow down enough to pay attention to his or her partner’s needs, it often leads to relationship meltdowns.

The majority of my clients have marital problems. Clients wind up at my coaching door because their significant other has given them an ultimatum: “Get help for your ADHD or else!” At this stage, uncontrolled ADHD symptoms are not only jeopardizing their relationship but also their job and sometimes their health.

As I’ve said many times before, a client must want to be coached in order to be helped by the process. He or she can’t be forced to change. Frankly, though, I’ve never had a client with relationship problems who doesn’t want to make changes to improve his or her marriage.

When one spouse has ADHD and the other doesn’t, I often invite the non-ADHD partner, with the permission of my client, to give me feedback about how ADHD plays out in their life. When both have ADHD, problems can be compounded. Impulsivity and distractibility can cause fights and tear couples apart. Each person feels angry, humiliated, frustrated, and misunderstood. Partners can end up not trusting one another and, as a result, they feel disconnected and resentful.

No matter who has the ADHD, here are a few simple principles that couples can use to promote understanding and healthy relationships.

Nurturing the Marriage

Each person must take responsibility for his or her own actions—or lack thereof. In other words, the person with ADHD can’t use the condition as an excuse, and the non-ADHD partner must learn as much as he or she can about ADHD to understand how it affects his or her spouse. A relationship can’t survive—never mind thrive—if one partner blames another for things that are out of his control. The better option is to look for ways to nurture the relationship. Like choosing your fights. Each partner should ask, Does X, Y, or Z contribute to the growth of our relationship, or does it tear it down? If it doesn’t nurture it, agree to let it go.

Cathy felt like she was married to a ghost. When she tried to talk with her husband, Roger, about her needs, he would walk away, interrupt, or check his iPhone. Cathy, feeling alone and isolated, would stomp out of the room in frustration. When she confronted her husband about tuning her out when she wanted to talk, he would yell back, “Why does it always have to be about you?”

Through coaching, they came to understand that it wasn’t about Cathy or Roger, but about their relationship. By viewing their marriage as a third entity—as something that needs love and care to grow—they were able to slow down and listen to one another. They also realized that blaming one another and fighting over small stuff was only tearing down themselves and their 15-year marriage.

Reinforce with Praise

I remember getting a call from Sally, the wife of one of my clients, Bob. She was at her wit’s end and told me she was going to leave Bob. The trigger for such an extreme move? The Sunday newspaper. After reading it, her husband continually left the sections scattered all over the living room floor.

Bob and I developed strategies to help him to remember to pick up the paper and throw it away, instead of leaving it strewn in the living room and kitchen. Wanting to please Sally, he also decided, for the first time in their 20-year marriage, to pick up his clothes off the bedroom floor. He did this for a month without a syllable of praise from her. Yet the minute he blew it and left the newspaper on the floor again, she started yelling at him. He felt defeated, as if all his efforts were for nothing.

I found it hard to bite my tongue when Sally didn’t acknowledge Bob’s efforts. Looking at the relationship from her perspective, she was waiting for “the other shoe to drop.” She was so used to Bob reverting to old behaviors that she could focus only on his mistakes. Meanwhile, Bob became more discouraged.

ADHD is not an excuse, but if your partner is trying to change his behaviors, acknowledge it and encourage him or her. Praise is a tonic for persons with ADHD, who often have had a lifetime of shame and blame. Look for instances when your spouse is doing something right versus something wrong. Non-ADHD spouses should try to remember that change and progress might take a lot longer due to the wiring of the ADHD brain.

Plan Time Together

Schedule date nights and don’t skip them—no matter what. Make that commitment and stick to it. Time away will help you not only distance yourself from the day-to-day madness, but will also allow you to remember what you loved about each other when you first met. Always keep the door open for intimacy.

Eliminate Toxic Interactions

When one partner has ADHD, taking care of the details of daily living can often be the source of tension between a couple. It typically goes like this: The non-ADHD spouse asks the ADHD person to do something—pick up a few things at the grocery or change a light bulb. But because of ADHD symptoms, the request is never fulfilled. This type of dynamic almost led Craig and Beth to get divorced. Craig would tell Beth that he was going to fix something around the house, but he didn’t do it. After weeks of frustration, Beth’s anger would start to build and inevitably she would blow up.

I worked with them to create new strategies of communication, because it was clear to me that they couldn’t talk without hidden resentments emerging. I suggested that they use a notebook to list and check off tasks that needed to be done. Other suggestions included hanging up a white board or using Google Calendar, which allowed them to communicate without bitterness or anger.

Have a Sense of Humor!

I’ve had many clients say to me, “I feel that my partner just tolerates me these days. I wish he would embrace me for who I am—all of me—like he used to. He used to think my quirks were cute! Now I feel ashamed and demeaned.”

While it’s important not to use ADHD as an excuse, it’s equally important to see the humor in some of the behaviors it causes. For instance, I would avoid doing work by moving furniture. Thank goodness my husband never cared. He said it felt like he was coming home to a new house each day! It might have driven someone else nuts, but we still laugh about it.

Happy holidays and have a wonderful New Year!

Talk to you all soon!



P.S. I’ve invited my dear friend and colleague, Ose Schwab, to be a guest blogger next month. She will blog about how to start out the New Year right. I know for one, I will be excited to read her post!