How to Successfully Manage the Challenges of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (AD/HD) in Marital Relationships

The divorce rate in marriages with one spouse diagnosed with AD/HD is approximately 85%. This condition brings a special set of challenges to a marriage. Frequent complaints include: “I can’t depend on him/her for anything; she doesn’t listen; he doesn’t follow through on anything; she forgets things.” These difficulties affect life issues ranging from childcare and household chores/finances to parenting, and are incredibly stressful. The non-AD/HD spouse may come to believe if anything is going to happen without having to repeatedly ask/remind the AD/HD spouse, whether it be picking up children from school, implementing a budget, scheduling doctor’s appointments or planning family activities, they will have to do it. This can lead to resentment and sometimes anger. A sense of feeling under-appreciated and taken for granted develops, which strains the relationship – it becomes lopsided, not reciprocal. Eventually, the AD/HD person’s ‘irresponsible’ behavior and repeated attempts to help him change his behavior creates an overwhelming feeling of frustration in the other non-AD/HD spouse, who becomes disheartened. Consequently, emotional and/or physical distance develops between the couple.

There is good news! A couple can learn how to mitigate the effects of the symptoms of AD/HD on the relationship through understanding, behavioral strategies developed through individual or marital therapy, medication, and technological aids.

It is so important for the spouse of an individual with AD/HD to understand that the behavioral manifestations of the condition are not intentionally directed at them. This, of course, is easier said than done. Learning about AD/HD in general and how it affects your spouse specifically can provide insight, which will enable the non-AD/HD spouse to reframe unacceptable behavior and not take it so personally.

It is equally as important for the AD/HD spouse to understand the condition is an explanation for one’s behavior, not an excuse. If there has not been a formal diagnosis, a comprehensive psychological evaluation needs to be undertaken to inform intervention strategies because other conditions, such as Anxiety and Depression, can mimic AD/HD symptoms. After the diagnosis is made, one type of intervention is consultation with a psychiatrist, who is an expert on psychotropic medication, to determine the appropriateness of medication. Behavioral strategies can also yield positive outcomes. To be effective, they need to be specific to a targeted behavior. A simple example is a spouse misplacing her keys. The couple would decide together the most appropriate place for the person to put her keys every day when she comes home from work that fits into her daily routine, whether it be a place beside the door when she enters the house or a nightstand next to where she undresses for bed. This provides structure for the person to take responsibility for her own behavior. Developing the habit will enhance the possibility for success. A more complicated example is the division of labor for household chores. The couple, again, would agree together which chores each are responsible for doing, based on factors such as likes and dislikes, time availability, skills and necessity. Then they decide what is acceptable to both as to how and when the chores are done, and if a visual system (white board/calendar) will be used. It can also be very helpful to plan a time to come back together (a week or two) to see what tweaking needs to be done to the new schedule to enhance the opportunity for success. 

Additional interventions include technological tools. Plannerpads offer a new way to conceptualize the use of a notebook planner based on categorizing, prioritizing and scheduling. Wunderlust is a free app that organizes to-do lists. Rescuetime is a free app for time management that can block distracting websites for a designated period (to help focus on a task), provide a log to indicate the day’s accomplishments with the corresponding time required and indicate the amount of time spent in daily activities (meetings, etc.).

Although marriages involving an AD/HD spouse present a unique set of challenges, time spent learning about the condition and using available strategies to manage the symptoms will enhance the quality of the marriage. Don’t wait until the relationship is in dire circumstances to seek help – be proactive! And if your attempts at determining and implementing strategies are not effective, don’t despair; one or a few visits with a psychologist who specializes in AD/HD and relationships should be able to help so you can have a long, happy marriage.