Divorcing an already high-conflict ADHD spouse risks ratcheting up the conflict—unless you have a strategy. In this post, I offer valuable advice from an expert, Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.
Over the years, I’ve witnessed many painful cases where this high-conflict divorce scenario played out to an expensive and emotionally exhausting extreme.
That is, one spouse refuses to acknowledge ADHD-related challenges in mood regulation, cooperation, reciprocity, and empathy. Typically, the spouse refuses an evaluation. But even if there is a diagnosis, treatment is often non-existent or misguided—often despite best intentions. The “professionals” fail us every day when it comes to navigating ADHD.
In fact, provocation and love of argument can be biological in nature rather than intentional or conscious. To learn more about this phenomenon, read When ADHD Leads to Self-Medicating with Arguments.
The truly tragic part? Many of these couples have endured rounds of therapy — couple therapy and individual therapy. In my first book, I entitled an entire chapter “Why the Wrong Therapy Is Worse Than No Therapy.” (Is It You, Me, or. Adult ADHD?)
Every some therapists claiming ADHD expertise don’t have it. That goes triple for many claiming ADHD couple therapy expertise. I’ve heard enough horror stories for a lifetime. It’s why I agreed to produce, with psychologist Arthur L. Robin, PhD, the first ADHD couple therapy clinical guide based on what’s been proven to work for Adult ADHD and for couple therapy. Adult ADHD-Focused Couple Therapy: Clinical Interventions
Here’s the Common Pattern:
Back to the specific focus of this post: Divorcing a High-Conflict ADHD Partner. Here is the typical trajectory I’ve seen for years:
- The other spouse finally gives up on “making things work”. (The most common reason for leaving the relationship, as cited in my ADHD partner Survey? Too much fighting.)
- That spouse then asks for a divorce.
- Unfortunately, that’s when the high-conflict ADHD spouse’s oppositional behavior and “gaslighting” can skyrocket. Focus snaps to attention with the fear of “losing.”
- High-priced attorney called in but failure to follow through with providing requested material drags on for months — procrastination on steroids
Please Note: “Not All People With ADHD”
I rarely even use the term “ADHD Adult” (or partner spouse). But to be concise, I am using it here. Thank you for understanding my intent.
Please understand: Being “high conflict” is not a universal challenge with ADHD. But it is a common enough sub-type to be worth talking about. Moreover, Adult ADHD is the focus of this blog.
People with ADHD are not clones. They are individuals, with individual experiences of this highly variable syndrome. Some are more likely to be bullied than to bully. ADHD also has common co-existing conditions that can exacerbate dysregulation, empathy deficits, and Executive Function challenges.
How their partners respond to these ADHD-challenged behaviors might not make a decisively positive difference but it can worsen a bad situation.
Without Strategy, Things Can Go From Bad to Worse
Sometimes, despite our best efforts to preserve marriage and family unit, divorce is the only option. We must flee the marriage for our own survival. Desperation can be so high we feel only that we must get out—and we don’t care how. That’s understandable.
Yet, we must stop to anticipate: Things could get even worse. Including for the children. How can you prevent this—or at least better manage it? This is why I advise making informed, serious steps to help a spouse get on board with ADHD management. Standard therapy doesn’t help in this regard — and can make things worse. Even what passes for Adult ADHD therapy and couple therapy falls far short of the mark.
How exactly, though, do you “strategize” divorce and custody issues with a partner whose high-conflict behavior has made divorce the only option? Talk about double-whammies.
I asked an expert in this area, William “Bill” Eddy, MCSW, JD, to offer some advice (below). I also interviewed him for my first book, Is It You, Me, or Adult A.D.D.? One point I emphasized: Don’t count on “family court” to see things as they really are. Get one’s ducks in a row.
As Eddy points out, this problematic behavior is not just relevant to ADHD. It is common to any mental-health condition that affects behavior. The additional components of oppositional-defiant and anti-social behavior raise the odds, but ADHD can be quite enough on its own.
Eddy is an attorney, therapist, and mediator. As president of the High Conflict Institute, Eddy provides consultations and training about managing high-conflict personalities to professionals, including attorneys, judges, mediators, mental health professionals, and human resource professionals.
By Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.
President, High Conflict Institute
Some parents considering divorce have questions about dealing with the “High-Conflict” behavior of a partner whose untreated ADHD creates intractable problems. This is a familiar problem for any parent dealing with a High-Conflict co-parent who remains in denial about any mental-health condition.
While I refer to an ex-husband here, the same information applies to ex-wives in denial about their own conditions.
The first three tips are reminders to yourself; the last four tips are actions to take.
1. It’s Not About You!
While this is obvious most of the time, it’s a lot harder to remember when your spouse is yelling at you, blaming you, and challenging you. Just keep reminding yourself of this and ask your friends and supportive family members to remind you of this. It will give you needed energy
2. You’re Not Going To Change Your Spouse!
You already know this. But in the heat of battle it’s tempting to try. Just forget-about-it! Save your energy for strategic responses and setting limits, not counter-challenging.
3. Don’t Try to Make Logical Suggestions!
An angry, upset, belligerent bully is operating most likely out of his defensive-brain thinking, which focuses on survival and not logic. Since you’re not going to change your spouse, use the following methods to “manage” him.
4. Try Connecting with E.A.R. Statements.
These are statements that communicate Empathy, Attention or Respect.
- Try not to totally avoid him or seem unfriendly. If he has had a setback of some sort, briefly tell him you can “empathize with him,” “understand his frustrations,” “see how difficult it is,” etc.
- See if you can find something that you respect about him and mention it early and often in your conversations. Don’t do this if you need to just get away from him, but if you are sharing children, it will be a good thing to practice, regardless of what he says.
- Often High-Conflict people mirror the emotions of the people they are talking with, so try to maintain positive emotions while interacting
5. Use B.I.F.F. Responses to Hostile E-mails.
If you communicate mostly by email, be careful not to make things worse by slipping into criticisms and suggestions. Just be
- Brief (3-4 sentences)
- Informative (just necessary information without opinions or advice)
- Friendly (thanks for your question, etc.)
- Firm (set a deadline if you need a response or say that’s all you’ll say on this subject if the discussion needs to end).
6. Set Limits and Inform of Consequences.
This is what to do instead of making suggestions or giving advice. Just say, “When you do _____, I’m going to do _____.” “You’re doing _____ again, so I will now [be leaving][call my lawyer about going back to court][stop providing that extra flexibility I was giving you][etc.].”
Don’t make it a discussion. Don’t try to convince him. Just matter-of-factly tell him what you are going to do, rather than what he should do. “When you do this, I will do that.” And make sure you do what you say.
7. Choose Your Battles.
Unfortunately, this person will likely always be difficult. But you have already taken some big steps to live separately. This approach of “managing” your ex gets easier as you disengage from expecting things to be different. Set limits when necessary, impose consequences when necessary, and otherwise focus on living your own life to the best of your ability.
It’s hardest usually in the first year. Many people have moved on even though their “ex” remains a High-Conflict person.
For more information on managing a potentially high-conflict divorce or a difficult co-parent, visit the website for the High Conflict Institute.
Eddy has authored several books, including
- Splitting: Protecting Yourself While Divorcing Someone with Borderline or Narcissistic Personality Disorder
- It’s All Your Fault! 12 Tips for Managing People Who Blame Others for Everything (Kindle)
- Don’t Alienate the Kids! Raising Resilient Children While Avoiding High Conflict Divorce
10 thoughts on “Divorcing a High-Conflict ADHD Spouse”
What about someone suffering from adhd and being bullied by someone with out and triggering them?
Very onesided and pretty offensive positioning.
I understand your perspective.
The thing is, this is a blog post, not a book or a treatise that aims to cover all sides of a very complex issue. It’s a blog post about a quite common issue during a very vulnerable process — divorce, custody, etc.. And it has been rarely talked about.
I can’t help but wonder if you read beyond the headline because it seems you missed the context here.
Much is written about people with ADHD being bullied and abused by “non-ADHD” spouses. Much of that is also very skewed, as if this is naturally the case — that people with ADHD are bullied and never the bullies. When in fact, both and either can be true.
People are complex. These issues are complex. No one has the lock on suffering. Poorly managed ADHD can hurt everyone in its path.
I’m saddened by the repeated use of him and he when referring to the “agressive bully with ADD or ADHD” in this article.
I appreciate your concern.
Unlike many other people writing about ADHD and relationships, I have always (for 20 years) reminded that this is not a male-specific issue. By that I mean, neither is ADHD specific to males nor is high-conflict or narcissistic behavior.
Perhaps you missed the notice:
While I refer to an ex-husband here, the same information applies to ex-wives in denial about their own conditions.
I tried to use “spouse” when possible in the subheads. But if you ever tried to write something that was gender-neutral, you’ll know how difficult it is.
We did our best to communicate clearly and remind that bullying and narcissism is an equal-opportunity gender issue.
thanks for understanding,
Whew! I’m a 71-year-old “Him.” My first marriage, at 34, to a person with Borderline Personality Disorder, was tumultuous and ended legally in divorce after she became pregnant by another. My ADHD and issues steming from an early age meant growing up but not maturing because me as a 3-year-old held the cards. After a year plus refining my gaslighting techniques I married a normal woman of real capacity who was trying to deal with her own childhood issues. I seemed like a breath of fresh air to her and was for everything the 3-year-old passed upon. But from the night of our marriage decades ago until a couple of months ago she was married to an ADHD armored-up three-year-old.
To the point: Things can get worse is almost code for murder suicide for a person anything like I was in my first marriage. Her infidelities were managable as long as the children were kept more or less out of the loop. On one occasion my now ex threatened the children by telling them that letting me know R was over that aftenoon would result in them and all their belongings being chucked into the street by me. I picked the kids up after school and the tension was palpable. It wasn’t long before they spilled the beans. My ex was at work, second shift, with R working there as well. Fortunately I had a counselor who I called. His words were “Do not leave the house!” After 7 hours the adrenaline began to wear off and I got some control back. I didn’t leave the house, but am quite certain I would have made National News and left at least three orphans behind had I done so. And, knowing the three-year-old as I now do, the prospect of punishment would have made the first couple of deaths a catalyst precipitating a rampage of what-the-hell killing. Pretty ugly to even write but not unlike news of the day.
Every word and suggestion I read in the article is valuable advice. ADHD people drive normal people nuts. It takes a 2 by 4 to the head to even get his/her attention and the response will be in the language of ADHD, commonly called gaslighting. Keeping communication direct, simple, and about the normal person’s active plans provides a cool level of communication the ADHD person can handle.
My “normal” wife has endured decades of gaslighting and I’m thankful she doesn’t have to endure it now. After so long enduring it she is properly wary…but I know.
I’m medicated and as I write I can “look” at the three-year-old, outside of me now, quietly playing. because he knows I care for and love him. He doesn’t have to control anything because I’m the adult in the room.
A thought I’ve carried is this: Because the ADHD Prefrontal cortex utility is subnormal, not unlike an injured muscle being assisted by other muscles whose main function is different, the brain calls upon the seat of emotion for response to what normal folk call problems. For ADHD persons it is either no problem, denial-denial-denial-denial-denial or after others are visibly upset, a big problem and cortisol gets involved. Not a good solution. Medication can bridge the gap.
Wow. Thank you for sharing this powerful story and hard-won insight.
And yes, I would absolutely agree with your point in the last paragraph: Without a strong prefrontal cortex to intervene, the limbic system is a very poor problem-solver.
I’d hate for your essay to be lost in the comments.
Do you mind if I share in a future post?
One of the most helpful things about this community is seeing my experiences so clearly articulated, better than I am able to express myself. I feel understood and so validated knowing that what I am experiencing is not me being crazy, but very real, and related back to my soon-to-be-ex-spouse’s untreated ADHD. Trying to live the best possible life I can live for myself, in peace! Thank you Gina!
Thank you, Ellen. I’m glad my work is helpful to you. Validation sometimes can be everything.
Bill Eddy’s advice is spot-on. I have read several of his books & they are very helpful. One must approach situation from perspective of changing onself, to cope and manage.
Thanks for the validation, MMG.
Yes, when in this difficult situation, one absolutely must take charge — and that means detaching oneself emotionally and being very strategic.
Of course, this can be very difficult with a spouse who knows how to push one’s buttons and provoke arguments. Especially with shared custody on the line, the stress is enormous.
But, as you say, the advice is spot-on.