If only my husband and I had a clue that we needed ADHD relationship strategies. If only we knew that ADHD existed.
Flashback to the late 1990s. We were careening around what I later designated 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, you’ll find three simple strategies that I wish we’d had 10 or 15 years ago. Ones we still call upon.
In my online training (for individuals and couples), I will be guiding you through Adult ADHD A-Z, from diagnosis to healing dysfunctional relationship patterns. Estimated availability: mid-2020.
Three Dysfunctional ADHD Relationship Patterns
Meanwhile, here are three dysfunctional patterns common to ADHD Relationships—followed by targeted counter-strategies.
1. The 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, there’s difficulty expressing three sentiments that can go a long way toward nurturing love and connection: gratitude, apology, and forgiveness.
In my own marriage, 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. That means 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.
Three Dysfunctional ADHD Relationship Counter-Strategies
Will these tips solve all ADHD-related relationship problems? No. But they can help to smooth the drops and dips in your ADHD roller coaster,
1. Re-direct “Downspiral of Despair” with “Hope” Chest
When I spied this box at a local store, I knew I’d found the perfect gift for my husband Valentine’s Day. We use it as 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. A Hope Chest of Positive Memories.
Why might you want to consider such an idea? I’ll tell you.
—Helps You To Keep Your Eye On The Big Picture
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. It’s often typical “couples troubles”—on steroids.
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.
—Reminds: There’s always Not Now Sometime After Now
Even single adults with ADHD often lose sight of the Big Picture in their lives. Remember the old adage about there being two kinds of time for folks with ADHD: Now and Not Now. It’s easy to get stuck in the Now, with no conception that things might ever look different—that there will even be a Not Now.
When one slip interrupts their string of successes, they might “hyperfocus” on the slip. That sinks their mood and self-esteem—and paves the way to an attitude of “why try?” One slip gets undue weight while all they’ve achieved before that gets lost in the mists of time.
That’s where an active strategy to short-circuit this negative pattern comes in.
We can say the same for the partners of adults with ADHD. After years of frustration, they can become highly sensitized to yet 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.
—Helps To Avoid Thinking The Worst
Here’s one way to avoid falling into the Downspiral of Despair: 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
Years ago, I so much wanted to hear my husband offer a heartfelt apology.
That could 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.
Why did he stint on apologies? As it turns out, 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, our huge positive coping skill 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 post 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?
- Is it better to just hide and wait until it all blows over.
We call these “poor coping strategies.” They fill the emotional baggage that often accrues over the years when ADHD goes unrecognized. Revisiting these dysfunctional responses and creating more positive ones is a major issue in Adult ADHD-Focused Couple Therapy.
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. But you can also make your own forms. Have some fun with it.
—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 them 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
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.
—We Schedule Time For The Things We Value
I’ll answer that 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.. He 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 ADHD relationship strategies on the ADHD Roller Coaster blog.
And, I welcome your comments.