Note: These tips are relevant for all couples. Since I write a column about couples impacted by ADHD, I have specifically included that "angle" in the column.
Almost all relationships suffer from communication challenges at one point or another, and in relationships that include adult ADHD, communication problems can get out of control. You are both very different, hence you come at the same issues from different directions (even experience the same events differently!). Plus, symptoms and problems can interfere, too. For the partner with ADHD those problems include distractibility, memory lapses, difficulty organizing one's thoughts and more. For a non-ADHD partner anger, frustration, exhaustion, symptom misinterpretation, and parenting or controlling behavior can interfere with good communication, too.
Here are some simple tips that can smooth communications for all couples, and are particularly helpful when ADHD is at play.
Minimize distractions. Whether you have ADHD or are just too busy, common distractions can interfere with good communication. To minimize them: make sure you are both in the same room (don't yell across the house!); make sure your eyes meet—until then, your partner is not fully focused on you; don't talk and work on the computer at the same time; ask nicely for your partner's full attention before you begin if you think you don't have it.
When a partner gets distracted, encourage "backtracking." It's common that people with ADHD (and also of very busy people) sometimes lose track of a conversation. Unfortunately, they do it often enough that it is a source of embarrassment. Next time this happens, rather than refocus and "guess" what was missed, the ADHD partner should be overt. Say something like "I just got distracted for a moment. Can you repeat that?" The outcome will be far better than the confusion and resentment that often results when distracted partners "guess" wrong.
Don't just walk away - agree to come back. Counselors often suggest couples walk away from difficult conversations. However, in couples with one ADHD partner, this often places the burden of bringing the difficult topic up again to the non-ADHD partner, which discourages her from disengaging, even if things are difficult (she doesn't want to chase around her spouse with a difficult topic). To get around this and make it safe to disengage, write down what the problem topic is and agree, as you are pulling apart, to a specific time that you will address the question after you have each calmed down. (Leave the piece of paper in a conspicuous place that both partners will see, such as on the kitchen counter.)
Don't misinterpret terse responses. Many people equate a terse response with "not caring" about what the speaker just said or, perhaps not caring about the speaker herself and therefore react to terse responses in a negative way. Instead, ask your partner why his or her responses are so concise. It might be that the partner is preoccupied, that they are afraid to engage deeply around a difficult topic, or that they simply don't as much to say as you thought.
Breath deep before responding to surprises. If there's one thing that is certain, life with an ADHD spouse is full of surprises! It is good, therefore, to be flexible. When you are confronted with a surprising behavior, topic or response, take a few seconds before you respond. Remind yourself that you are very different and that you don't experience the world in the same way. Then approach the surprise with enthusiasm or, if that's not possible, caution rather than anger or disappointment.
Save difficult conversations for times when neither of you is exhausted. You will both be able to be more patient and more thoughtful.
Time is your friend. Though we are all busy, taking the time to converse in an engaged way, versus in a rushed way, will pay big dividends for your relationship. Here are some examples of extra conversational time well spent: taking a few extra moments to include an endearment for your partner or respond with pleasure to a comment he or she may make; setting a meeting to coordinate chores or activities and to make sure you share the same priorities rather than simply dictating what needs to get done; taking a few moments to pay attention to the tone of voice you are using; developing the habit of using "soft starts" to conversations—for example, begin speaking with an invitation to converse, a question, or an acknowledgement of your partner. Though all of these conversational tools take time, they are time well spent because they demonstrate your respect for your partner and that goes to the heart of your relationship.
"You" is the enemy. You may have heard from a therapist or friend that you should always use "I statements" to express your feelings. The reason is that when you start a potentially critical idea with "you..." it almost inevitably puts your partner on the defensive, even if the comment is meant well.
Can you act on these eight ideas? They are simple yet powerful conversational tools that can really show you care.