ADHD can be frustrating for both partners in a marriage. Your spouse is frustrated because ADHD creates a lot of challenges — everything from forgetfulness to disorganization to a short and shaky attention span. And you’re frustrated because you feel like you’re doing the bulk of the household work, and your spouse doesn’t seem to care — and that’s just one example.
“Know that the behaviors that may irritate you are not done to hurt you nor are they done on purpose,” said Terry Matlen, MSW, ACSW, a psychotherapist and ADHD coach who also has ADHD.
Of course, in the moment, it totally feels like your spouse’s actions are intentional. When you don’t have ADHD, it’s hard to understand and appreciate what this means. Which is why it’s important to talk to your spouse about what ADHD really feels like and how it affects them — it gives you a deeper grasp of what they’re going through, and it helps them feel supported.
For instance, according to Psych Central blogger Kelly Babcock in this piece, having ADHD is “living with a brain that races past everything but secretly hopes that, in some warped holistic way, the important things will be noticed. But while that’s going on, this brain is also rocketing through thousands of random thoughts. It’s kind of like doing your taxes while watching a TV that someone else has the remote for and they can’t seem to make up their mind about what to watch.”
In a previous piece, we shared five ways you can support your spouse and work as a team. Below are five more tips to try.
1.Don’t hold grudges.
Focusing on the past only upsets you both. For instance, if your spouse is working hard on their tardiness, don’t hold it against them that they’ve been late for most of your marriage, said Nikki Kinzer, PCC, an ADHD coach, author and co-host of Taking Control: The ADHD Podcast. Instead, “be encouraging, and look into the future.”
2. Don’t enable your spouse.
“Enabling means giving in to unhealthy behaviors of others by taking over, or closing one’s eyes,” said Matlen, author of several books on ADHD, including The Queen of Distraction: How Women with ADHD Can Conquer Chaos, Find Focus and Get More Done. Which is very different from helping or supporting your spouse. “Adults with ADHD do struggle, but with the right supports, they can soar.”
What does enabling look like?
According to Matlen, it can be making excuses for why your spouse can’t hold a job; constantly cleaning up after them, instead of working together; and releasing expectations because they “have ADHD.” As she said, “Having ADHD is not an excuse to avoid unpleasant chores or to avoid conversations that may be unpleasant (or boring).” Also enabling (and unhealthy) is assuming your partner can’t help with hands-on parenting because it’s too hard for them, she said.
Help to keep your spouse accountable. “If he or she walks away from the dinner table without offering to help with clean-up because it’s hard to finish boring tasks, it’s time to have a conversation,” Matlen said.
During your conversation, you can mention that you understand certain chores are not easy for them. “Ask what you both can do to make it less deplorable for both of you, i.e., having [your spouse] clear the table instead of putting dishes in the dishwasher.”
3. Don’t criticize your spouse.
Many partners without ADHD try to be helpful, but they don’t know how to communicate in a non-critical way, Matlen said. She shared these examples: “Did you forget to put the clothes in the dryer again?” “Thanks for washing the car. Next time, could you remember to dry it?” “Thanks for shopping. I see the peanut butter and the grapes, but where is the bread? Did you forget to buy it again?”
Individuals with ADHD “have been judged and criticized their whole life and in my experience, they are harder on themselves than anyone else could ever possibly be,” Kinzer said. Matlen agreed, noting that it’s “important to remember that people with ADHD tend to be exquisitely sensitive.”
“A gentle touch goes a long way,” Matlen said. She also suggested asking your spouse how they’d prefer you request a task to get done.
4. Have more fun.
“ADHD can be a huge stressor within a relationship, so it’s essential to spend fun time together,” Matlen said. She suggested taking turns doing things each of you enjoys. This might be anything from hiking to watching a movie to traveling to taking a cooking class.
5. Have a sense of humor.
“Having a sense of humor takes the pressure off when things go awry, and they will,” Kinzer said.
“I’ve been fortunate in that my husband has a terrific sense of humor,” Matlen said. “When I’m having an ADHD ‘moment,’ he will make a joke that puts me into a fit of laughter.” For instance, Matlen often “loses” her sunglasses without realizing they’re sitting on top of her head. Her husband once asked her, “What’s growing out of your head?”
“Now, had he said, ‘Geez, honey, don’t you know they’re right there on your head?’ well, that would probably have made me feel a bit self-conscious or irritated.”
In summary, supporting a spouse with ADHD means leaving the past in the past, emphasizing accountability, not being critical and having fun. Because play and humor go a long way. And it’s likely that your spouse’s playful manner is precisely what made you fall for them in the first place.