I call it the “Bad Old Days.” Those years when my husband and I were careening around what I came to call the ADHD Roller Coaster—but didn’t know it. Our learning curve was steep, and painful. The good news? We learned lessons the hard way so you don’t have to.
Recently, I wrote about some of the emotions involved in turning around some of these counter-productive patterns (“Breaking Old Relationship Patterns After Not Breaking a Fall”).
In this post, in honor of Valentine’s Day, here are three simple strategies that I wish we’d had 10 or 15 years ago. Ones we still call upon.
You see, once my husband was diagnosed with ADHD, at age 37, we read all the books available (there weren’t many; that’s why I had to write one!). And, my husband started taking medication. Both steps helped immensely. But they went only so far in helping us with one big problem: Reversing our entrenched patterns of pessimism that our life together could ever truly get better.
Here are just three of those patterns, summarized briefly, followed by suggestions for countering each pattern:
1. The Dreaded Downspiral of Despair
It’s that feeling of futility each time the roller coaster drops again—just when you were least expecting it. In the early days especially, post-diagnosis progress sometimes means two steps forward and one step (or even three steps!) backward. It’s tough to keep believing that things will progressively get better.
2. The Communication Stalemates
There is often difficulty around communicating—specifically with expressing three sentiments that can go a long way toward nurturing love and connection: gratitude, apology, and forgiveness.
I apologized a lot, expressed gratitude, and forgave a lot. My husband, not so much. Being a person, I took this personally.
The full reasons behind his lack of initiative in this area took years for me to understand—years of leading support groups (both for adults with ADHD and their partners; separate groups) and researching and writing two books and contributing the first chapter on couple-therapy to the leading clinical guide.
3. Forgetting to Have Fun Together
We would get so caught up in arguments over inequitable chore-sharing or his financial profligacy or [fill in the blank], the last thing either of us felt like doing was having fun. Of course this creates a vicious cycle.
Now for the counter-strategies. Will these tips solve all ADHD-related relationship problems? No. But I hope they help to smooth the drops and dips in your relationships (not just the romantic ones, either). Including your relationship with yourself.
BONUS: At the end of this post you’ll find a musical dance-number my husband and I created just for you. Happy Valentine’s Day!
1. Derail the Downspiral of Despair
with a “Hope” Chest of Positive Memories
When I spied this box at a local store, I knew I’d found the perfect gift for my husband Valentine’s Day: A Treasure Chest to store the hand-made cards and funny notes we have made for each other over the years, along with little mementos of good times together.
Why might you want to consider such an idea? I’ll tell you.
It is all too easy, when caught up in the heat of an argument or disappointment, to forget all that’s good in the relationship—and the other person. Of course, this is true for humans in general but it seems especially true in ADHD-challenged relationships, especially in the early days after diagnosis.
Reacting “in the moment” sometimes means forgetting the Big Picture. If a trove of positive remembrances sits prominently displayed, you needn’t go digging into drawers, folders, and envelopes to spark your memory. It’s right there.
It Helps You To Keep Your Eye On The Big Picture
Even single adults with ADHD often find themselves losing sight of the Big Picture in their lives. That old adage about there being two kinds of time for folks with ADHD, Now and Not Now, can leave them stuck in Now, with no conception that things might look different in Not Now.
When their string of successes is interrupted with one slip, they “hyperfocus” on the slip, giving it undue weight and forgetting all they achieved before it—and will go on to achieve after. If they don’t let themselves become preoccupied with the one slip. That’s where an active strategy to short-circuit this negative pattern comes in. So you don’t sink your mood and self-esteem, thus paving the way to an attitude of “why try?”
The same can be said for the partners of adults with ADHD, who after years of frustration can become highly sensitized to yet another another death-defying dip on the ADHD roller coaster. Even after steady progress has been made, the dip can too much remind them of all the past disappointments.
It Helps Avert The Tendency To Think The Worst
One way to avoid falling into either of these extreme negative positions is to build “environmental supports” for remembering the many good qualities about one’s relationship or oneself. That’s why I brought home this little Treasure Chest. But you can substitute a simpler method, such as a Memory Jar like this one:
Couples can write a little note to thank the other for a kind word or note a kind deed—or simply express an appreciation or brief memory of a lovely time together. Individuals can jot down successes large or small (“A student thanked me for understanding her” or “I completed a report in record time!”). And there the notes remain— colorfully visible, just waiting to be dipped into when the need arises.
2. Use Scaffolding To Communicate The Hard Stuff
What I would have given, years ago, to hear my husband offer a heartfelt apology.
Oh, how that would have dramatically cut short long-simmering hurts and resentments, instead of turning up the fire to the boiling point. Instead, I had to drag apologies out of him. Hardly satisfying.
As I discovered years into our relationship, he harbored a pragmatic bias against apologies, born of years living without benefit of ADHD diagnosis:
“Why apologize for a behavior that
I know full well I’ll probably do again?
An apology implies that I would correct the behavior.
My offering an apology would be a false promise.”
Okay, sometimes he does sound a bit like Commander Data on Star Trek. And, depending on your perspective, you could view his defense as either a pragmatic attitude or run-for-cover rationale. Call me gullible if you like, but I took him at his word.
His expressions of gratitude were as rare as apologies, and that was equally hurtful.
Then, I ran across a brilliant solution: Formal Notices, from the Bureau of Communications. Remember Mad Libs, that paper-and-pen game where you fill in the missing words of a story, then read aloud to uproarious laughter. They work sort of like that.
Check them out:
Here’s what I find so brilliant about these Formal Notices:
The Fun Approach is Non-threatening
My husband appreciates the forms’ practicality and cleverness. Given the undercurrent of humor, it also makes it less intimidating to convey the sentiments expressed therein.
Of course, some people might be put off by receiving a “form letter” of apology or praise. So, choose the recipients wisely.
Personally, I see no reason why heartfelt cannot sometimes also be hilarious.
Then again, a huge coping skill for my husband and I has been a mutually held keen appreciation of the absurd—and an ability to laugh at our sometimes over-the-top behaviors. (Not in the moment, of course. Later. Sometimes much later.)
The “Thinking and Planning” is Already Done
Schoolchildren who have ADHD often struggle mightily with composing essays. They’re not sure where to begin. They see an endless array of options in which to take the essay and can’t pick just one. They get lost in tangents. Maybe they’ll just go, um, watch TV until the ideas come to them. Which means it never happens without parental nagging.
There are many reasons why writing taxes the so-called Executive Functions, the brain-based processes around organization, planning, strategizing, and other “higher processes.” Another posts examines this topic in more depth: (Ease e-mail writing stress: 7 tips for adults with ADHD).
Adults with ADHD can experience similar struggles with writing down complex thoughts. Never mind the emotional overlay associated with “emotional” topics. What if their words further anger or hurt the partner? What if they leave out an important detail? Maybe it’s better to just hide and wait until it all blows over. (These are what we call “poor coping strategies,” and reversing these forms the bulk of healing ADHD-challenged relationships, especially when the diagnosis has been late in coming.)
Trust me: Avoidance might work as a short-term strategy. But over the long-term, the head-in-sand approach proves absolutely destructive.
How do we support Executive Functions? As Dr. Russell Barkley says, “by providing point-of-performance supports.”
In the case of wanting to express gratitude and ask for (or receive) forgiveness, I can’t think of a better support than these forms.
The Presentation is Impressive!
All “formal notices” are printed on glossy stock; just pull out of the book, fold, and deliver. You can even send through the mail.
Note: I have no business relationship with this company. I’ve never been in contact with them! But I love this book.
3. Schedule Fun and Intimacy
Yes, that’s Dr. Goat (my husband) and me, frolicking in the countryside. Okay, reality is not too far off the mark. We’ve made Sundays our day for unplugging (limited electronic device usage) and getting outside for a hike. The San Francisco Bay Area is loaded with beautiful spots; we share some photos here at Adult ADHD and Nature Sufficient Syndrome.
It is very easy for couples to get bogged down in performing—or arguing about—domestic tasks and child-raising responsibilities. Even as you work on collaborative solutions for all that, however, remember the fun and intimacy.
“Who has time for that?” you might say. I hear you. Still, the answer is: Make time. More specifically, schedule that time.
“Schedule time for fun and intimacy? Shouldn’t it just happen on its own?” Again, a reasonable question.
I’ll answer it by sharing with you an excerpt from my new book (with psychologist Arthur L. Robin), Adult ADHD-Focused Couple Therapy: Clinical Interventions.
This is from the chapter contributed by psychologist J. Russell Ramsay, PhD., who brings his ADHD expertise to bear in creating a CBT couple-therapy model for ADHD-challenged couples:
Some may bristle that, “It is unromantic to make an appointment. This should be important enough to remember without writing it down.” The point is then made: We all make appointments for that which is important, lest the time be lost to less valuable activities. The planning and scheduling emphasize the relationship’s importance, and these activities nurture relationship improvement.
I encourage you to explore more essays, tool, and strategies on the ADHD Roller Coaster blog.
And, I welcome your comments.