The ADHD couple

Some years ago I had an appointment with a new referral, scheduled for two o‘clock in the afternoon.  I stepped into the waiting area and there he was - a guy in his thirties, kicked back, wearing a concert t-shirt and cargo shorts. He appeared relaxed, open, and unguarded.  And sitting next to him, bolt upright, with a neat bob haircut and a stack of papers in her lap was a woman who said: “This is your two o‘clock do you want me to wait here or come into the office with you or wait here or...?”

My first thought was that perhaps this was his parole officer. But I quickly recognized that in fact this was a classic “ADHD couple.”  The ADHD couple can be an interesting and lively match, a relationship made in heaven. It can be any combination of people – a new pair of lovebirds or a retired long-married couple.  it can be a lesbian couple, or a straight couple in which she has the ADD and he‘s the non-ADD partner.

But in my example above, my new client was a landscaper who loved his work and spent a lot of time hanging out talking and with his clients. He often forgot to invoice and then collect for his work. His girlfriend, the non-ADD partner, worked in a dentist's office and earned about twice what he did. At home, it fell to her to remember that trash is to be put out on Thursday unless Monday is a federal holiday and then it goes out on Friday. And it was she who would notice that certain bills need to be paid at certain times, and she who remembered that the dogs need to go in the kennel during holidays so you don‘t get frozen dogs.

Pure romantic magic

After meeting the couple, it seemed that one of the best things he ever did was establishing a relationship with this organized and efficient person. On the other hand, one of the best things she ever did was establishing this relationship with him. Because as is often the case in this relationship, the non-ADD partner in this pair was a bit anxious, maybe a little bit driven and tense. And if she had established a relationship with someone just like herself it would have been a great limited liability corporation but not an interesting or erotic connection between two people.

Because what he brought to the relationship was this: she said that he relaxes her, that he was loose in places where she felt kind of taut. Upon meeting him she remembered her delight in his spontaneity, his energy, his ability to surprise her and to make her laugh.

And this was pure romantic magic for about six months.  Then it kicked in. She began to accuse him of being immature and childlike and he suggested she was rigid and overbearing and nervous. If the “ADHD couple” is going to stay together they may need to remember what drew them together in the first place, to acknowledge their real differences, and to make sincere effort to create a relationship which feels fair.

What I offer in this post are some tips for that non-ADD partner. Some interventions which might take a bit of the burden off your shoulders, allowing you to step back and breathe and notice what you really like about your partner with ADD/ADHD.

Tip #1: Don’t do anything for your ADD partner which could be managed by a device or an app.

I once asked a non-ADD partner this question: “Are you doing a lot of things in this relationship because you are the efficient and attentive and well-organized partner?”  He said yes. I suggested: “And you’re doing some of these things out of a full heart and some of them out of resentment, right?”  He acknowledged that in fact that was the combination of feelings. When I asked what percentage of these responsibilities he was doing out of resentment he estimated about 95%. This was a relationship in crisis! We needed to take tasks off of his plate immediately. We agreed there were some areas in which he was really effective and he probably would continue to manage those chores, but we also agreed that if he was doing anything for his non-ADD partner that could be managed by a device or an app we would remove that from his task list immediately.

Don't wake him up

For example, if you are waking up your ADD partner in the morning, that’s absolutely something to take off your plate. Because there’s a machine that will do that. It’s an alarm clock. I know what you’re thinking. “We tried the alarm clock, but he just gets up, walks across the room, and turns it off. It’s almost like he sleepwalks to turn off the alarm.” Or maybe you’ve tried that thing where you have two alarm clocks and even that doesn’t work. But I’m not going to give up. We can't agree to have the non-ADD partner spending precious time rousing another adult from sleep.

There is a smartphone app which allows the user to hit the snooze once, but on the second snooze attempt she is required to stand up and take five steps. Or, an app which requires the sleepyhead user to solve some math problems in order to turn off the alarm. And if these don’t work there is a device which is simple in its cruelty:  it’s just an alarm clock with these big rubber wheels. You can hit the snooze bar once and - well, you can probably guess what happens next. Instead of allowing you to hit the snooze bar a second time, the clock begins to roll around the bedroom, and you have to get up and chase it.

Don't tell her it's time to get out of the shower

Another time-waster for a lot of non-ADD partners is knocking on the bathroom door, telling their partner that it’s time to get out of the shower. When your ADD partner is in the shower and soaking in all this awesome sensory information - the warm water, the smell of the soap – she may lose track of something as abstract as time. One strategy for managing this problem is a device called the Shower Coach – essentially a sand timer which attaches to the shower wall, providing a visual notification that time is passing. The intent of this strategy is for the ADD partner to be independent for timing her shower. Another strategy for managing the duration of a shower is to develop a Spotify playlist on your phone. Just a couple of three songs, enough for a 5-10 minute shower, and you know that at the end of the first song you have enough time for a shampoo and at the close of the second song it’s time to be wrapping it up, and rinsing your hair.

Tip #2: Let your ADD partner tackle clearly-defined and time-limited household projects while you take on longer-term detailed-oriented tasks.

When we’re presented with a sink full of dishes it’s pretty clear what needs to be done. How do you know when the job is complete? When you can see the bottom of the sink. This is an example of a domestic task which an individual with executive dysfunction and disorganization can manage. On the other hand, he may find it more difficult to tackle tasks like managing longer-term financial investments and keeping up with the bills. It’s not exactly clear when you need to start these chores and when the task is done. So when you’re dividing tasks, let your ADD partner tackle the defined, time limited projects that happen on a daily basis. Folding laundry, walking the dogs, and loading the dish-washer, for example.  And you take on the longer term, detail oriented tasks.

Tip #3:Ask your ADHD partner for what you want.

Use behavioral terms, and be specific, asking in advance for what you want. Describe what success would look like for you. “Honey we’ve got a big anniversary coming up this weekend and here is what Id like:  I want us to be home by five-thirty. I want us to have a quick, pleasant conversation about our day with empty hands, phones in pockets. Then I want us so to be in the car in time to get to the restaurant for a seven-thirty dinner reservation.

If you ask for what you want in a relationship, does it guarantee that you’ll get it? Obviously not - the intent of this tip is to identify what success would look like for you, to plainly “put it out there”, and to give him or her a fighting chance to demonstrate that behavior.

Tip #4:  Remember what you really like about your ADD/ADHD partner

Finally I encourage the non-ADD partner to remember what drew you to your partner in the first place. In this relationship the non-ADD partner has a host of wonderful qualities. They’re organized, they’re efficient. They see the little details that are important in addition to the big picture.

And what was it about your ADD partner which attracted you? Our friends and family with ADHD have some amazing qualities. In fact, let me ask you to do a thought experiment.

Think about the person at the top of the organizational chart where you work. I’m talking about your boss’s boss, or her supervisor. I’m talking about the CEO or the person at the very top. If you’re self-employed think about the last time you worked in an organization. Who was the person in charge? Now my question is this: Is that someone you’d like to spend a weekend camping with?

In many organizations, the answer is no. The individual who makes a great executive may not be the person who’s the warmest, funniest, friendliest, or most relaxed. On the other hand, our friends and family with ADD and ADHD are curious, energetic. They notice things that we miss. And in your case, what drew you to your ADD partner? You fell in love with him or her for a very good reason. He’s funny, he’s brave, she’s spontaneous.

Take a moment from time to time in the middle of your frustration to remember what drew you to your partner.

So let me summarize. For the non-ADD partner in this relationship

  • Don’t do something for your ADD partner that a device or an application could manage.
  • Let your ADD partner tadkle the defined, time-limited projects and you can take on the longer-term detail oriented tasks.
  • Ask for what you want in advance, using behavioral language.
  • And remember what drew you to your partner in the first place.

Thanks for following me here at Psychology Today. I’d love to hear your ideas about how to make the “ADHD Couple” happier and even more efficient!

photo:  flickr

About the Author

David D. Nowell, Ph.D.

David D. Nowell, Ph.D., is a neuropsychologist interested in motivation, focus, and fully-engaged living.

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