An imbalance in power between partners is a common feature of many relationships, including ADHD-impacted relationships. Often this falls into a “parent” (i.e. ‘responsible’) partner coupled with a “child-like” partner who is often inconsistent and deemed, therefore, to be less capable or trustworthy.
Call it ‘parent/child dynamics’ or ‘overfunctioning/underfunctioning’ the result is the same—a relationship in which both partners feel resentful and unhappy and where intimacy is lost.
Changing the power dynamics of the relationship can be complicated, but one place to start is redistributing responsibility for completing tasks. When I work with couples on this task I ask them to take specific steps:
The goal of this process is to make sure that couples have an open and overt discussion about who is doing what, and even more importantly when it comes to over and under-functioning, that each one of them gets to share responsibility for setting the family priorities. Too often, couples fall into a pattern where one partner ‘dictates’ and the other one ‘does’…or doesn’t do if he or she isn’t very interested in that particular priority.
For non-ADHD partners, handing over responsibilities to an ADHD partner who has a track record of inconsistency can be very stressful. Nonetheless, it needs to be done. Being in the ‘child’ position in parent/child dynamics as many ADHD partners are is quite diminishing and reinforces a lessening of desire to be involved in the relationship with the more dominant partner. Being the ‘parent’ is equally painful. Hand over one or two things at a time. Then lovingly detach yourself from the process of getting the thing done.
There are some caveats, though.
First, never hand over the financial responsibilities to an ADHD partner who has not demonstrated that he or she has great reminder and organizational systems in place and will pay the bills accurately and on time. Here is just one comment out of many that I have gotten over the years from people who have chosen to have the finances be one of the first things to get handed over, instead of the last:
“I let my husband, who is a CPA, do taxes for many years…I knew he was in trouble, though, and made a number of suggestions to help him out of this insurmountable hoarders mess (he had created)…after ALL that time, my reward for letting him have his self-respect and not nagging him about it was to hear one night after work, “Uh, honey, we owe $80,000 in back taxes and penalties…we need to refinance our house to pay for them…”
Transition, don’t abdicate. Difficulty completing tasks on the part of an ADHD partner often signals that there is an organizational skill set that still needs to be developed in order to improve success. Non-ADHD partners often make the mistake of simply saying “here, you do it now” without paying attention to whether or not the new skill set is in place. If it’s not, then couples will get the same result they have always gotten, and both partners will end up frustrated that nothing has changed. ADHD coaches and CBT can be very helpful for developing organizational skills.
Start small. Particularly when adults are first learning how to manage their ADHD better it takes a long time to get organized and work out what the new systems will be. Getting one or two things right leads to a better outcome than handing over many things and getting none of them right. ADHD partners can really help themselves become more equal partners in their relationship by really taking full responsibility, from start to finish, of whatever projects they take on. Don’t wait for reminders…hopefully they won’t be coming!
Be willing to hire help. Household cleaning, paper filing, office organizing, yard work, driving kids around, and walking dogs are just a few of the things you can hire someone else to do to help out if you have the budget to do so.
Be willing to drop some tasks completely. The older I get the more I appreciate this particular option. We really do take on much more than we actually need to do, and simplifying one’s life by saying “no” to ourselves and others can lower stress appreciably. Note, though, don’t just drop the “fun” stuff. You want to actually drop ‘unfun’ stuff so you can have time for the things that will enrich your life. I usually suggest that couples set a goal of dropping 30% of what is on their list. One way to do this is to cut down on frequency—for example, cleaning out the garage (if you must) every other year instead of every 6 months.
Exercise regularly. This will give both partners the stamina and focus to better stay on top of tasks. In addition, it will likely help you sleep.
The bottom line is that you only have a partnership if each person in the relationship has an equal say in what gets done, and an independent responsibility for doing it. It takes time to move away from parent/child, but you must if you are going to thrive. Sharing responsibility for the tasks in your life is a good start to creating a real partnership.